Countdown, p.1
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Countdown


  Countdown

  A Newsflesh Novella

  Mira Grant

  www.orbitbooks.net

  www.orbitshortfiction.com

  Begin Reading

  Meet the Author

  Bonus Material

  About Orbit Short Fiction

  Countdown

  “The Rising is ultimately a story of humanity at both its very best, and at its very worst. If a single event were needed to represent all of human history, we could do worse than selecting the Rising.”

  —Mahir Gowda

  “People blame science. Shit, man, people shouldn’t blame science. People should blame people.”

  —Shaun Mason

  May 15, 2014: Denver, Colorado

  How are you feeling today, Amanda?” Dr. Wells checked the readout on the blood pressure monitor, his attention only half on his bored-looking teenage patient. This was old hat by now, to the both of them. “Any pain, weakness, unexplained bleeding, blurriness of vision…?”

  “Nope. All systems normal, no danger signs here.” Amanda Amberlee let her head loll back, staring up at the colorful mural of clouds and balloons that covered most of the ceiling. She remembered when the staff had painted that for her. She’d been thirteen, and they’d wanted her to feel at ease as they pumped her veins full of a deadly disease designed to kill the disease that was already inside her. “Are we almost done? I have a fitting to get to.”

  “Ah.” Dr. Wells, who had two teenage girls of his own, smiled. “Prom?”

  “Prom,” Amanda confirmed.

  “I’ll see what I can do.” Dr. Wells took impatience and surliness as insults from most patients. Amanda was a special case. When he’d first started treating her, her leukemia had been so advanced that she had no energy for complaining or talking back. She’d submitted to every test and examination willingly, although she had a tendency to fall asleep in the middle of them. From her, every snippy comment and teenage eye roll was a miracle, one that could be attributed entirely to science.

  Marburg EX19—what the published studies were starting to refer to as “Marburg Amberlee,” after the index case, rather than “Marburg Denver,” which implied an outbreak and would be bad for tourism—was that miracle. The first effective cancer cure in the world, tailored from one of the most destructive viruses known to man. At thirteen, Amanda Amberlee had been given at most six months to live. Now, at eighteen, she was going to live to see her grandchildren…and none of them would ever need to be afraid of cancer. Like smallpox before it, cancer was on the verge of extinction.

  Amanda lifted her head to watch him draw blood from the crook of her elbow. Any fear of needles she may have had as a child had died during the course of her cancer treatments. “How’s my virus doing?” she asked.

  “I haven’t tested this sample yet, but if it’s anything like the last one, your virus should be fat and sleepy. It’ll be entirely dormant within another year.” Dr. Wells gave her an encouraging look. “After that, I’ll only need to see you every six months.”

  “Not to seem ungrateful or anything, but that’ll be awesome.” The kids at her high school had mostly stopped calling her “bubble girl” once she was healthy enough to join the soccer team, but the twice-monthly appointments were a real drain on her social calendar.

  “I understand.” Dr. Wells withdrew the needle, taping a piece of gauze down over the small puncture. Only a drop of blood managed to escape. “All done. And have a wonderful time at prom.”

  Amanda slid out of the chair, stretching the kinks out of her back and legs. “Thanks, Dr. Wells. I’ll see you in two weeks.”

  Daniel Wells smiled as he watched the girl who might well represent the future of mankind walk out of his office. A world without cancer. What a beautiful thing that would be.

  * * *

  Dr. Daniel Wells of the Colorado Cancer Research Center admitted in an interview this week that he was “guardedly optimistic” about having a universal cure for cancer by the end of the decade. His protocol was approved for human testing five years ago, and thus far, all subjects have shown improvement in their conditions…

  May 15, 2014: Reston, Virginia

  The misters nested in the ceiling above the feeding cages went off promptly at three, filling the air in the hot room with an aerosolized mixture of water and six different strains of rhinovirus. The feeding cages were full of rhesus monkeys and guinea pigs that had entered five minutes earlier, when the food was poured. They ignored the thin mist drifting down on them, their attention remaining focused entirely on the food. Dr. Alexander Kellis watched them eat, making notes on his tablet with quick swipes of his index finger. He didn’t look down.

  “How’s it looking?”

  “This is their seventh exposure. So far, none of them have shown any symptoms. Appetites are good, eyes are clear; no runny noses, no coughing. There was some sneezing, but it appears that Subject 11c has allergies.”

  The man standing next to America’s premier expert in genetically engineered rhino- and coronaviruses raised an eyebrow. “Allergies?”

  “Yes.” Dr. Kellis indicated one of the rhesus monkeys. She was sitting on her haunches, shoving grapes into her mouth with single-minded dedication to the task of eating as many of them as possible before one of the other monkeys took them away. “I’m pretty sure that she’s allergic to guinea pigs, poor thing.”

  His companion laughed. “Yes, poor thing,” he agreed, before leaning in and kissing Dr. Kellis on the cheek. “As you may recall, you gave me permission yesterday to demand that you leave the lab for lunch. I have a note. Signed and everything.”

  “John, I really—”

  “You also gave me permission to make you sleep on the couch for the rest of the month if you turned me down for anything short of one of the animals getting sick, and you know what that does to your back.” John Kellis stepped away, folding his arms and looking levelly at his husband. “Now, which is it going to be? A lovely lunch and continued marital bliss, or night after night with that broken spring digging into your side, wishing you’d been willing to listen to me when you had the chance?”

  Alexander sighed. “You don’t play fair.”

  “You haven’t left this lab during the day for almost a month,” John countered. “How is wanting you to be healthy not playing fair? As funny as it would be if you got sick while you were trying to save mankind from the tyranny of the flu, it would make you crazy, and you know it.”

  “You’re right.”

  “At last the genius starts to comprehend the text. Now put down that computer and get your coat. The world can stay unsaved for a few more hours while we get something nutritious into you that didn’t come out of a vending machine.”

  This time, Alexander smiled. John smiled back. It was reflex, and relief, and love, all tangled up together. It was impossible for him to look at that smile and not remember why he’d fallen in love in the first place, and why he’d been willing to spend the last ten years of his life with this wonderful, magical, infuriating man.

  “We’re going to be famous for what we’re doing here, you know,” Alexander said. “People are going to remember the name ‘Kellis’ forever.”

  “Won’t that be a nice thing to remember you by after you’ve died of starvation?” John took his arm firmly. “Come along, genius. I’d like to have you to myself for a little while before you go down in history as the savior of mankind.”

  Behind them in the hot room, the misters went off again, and the monkeys shrieked.

  * * *

  Dr. Alexander Kellis called a private press conference yesterday to announce the latest developments in his oft-maligned “fight against the common cold.” Dr. Kellis holds multiple degrees in virology and molecular biology, and has been focusing his efforts
on prevention for the past decade…

  May 29, 2014: Denver, Colorado

  "Dr. Wells? Are you all right?”

  Daniel Wells turned to his administrative assistant, smiling wanly. “This was supposed to be Amanda’s follow-up appointment,” he said. “She was going to tell me about her prom.”

  “I know.” Janice Barton held out his coat. “It’s time to go.”

  “I know.” He took the coat, shaking his head. “She was so young.”

  “At least she died quickly, and she died knowing she had five more years because of you.”

  Between them, unsaid: And at least the Marburg didn’t kill her. Marburg Amberlee was a helper of man, not an enemy.

  “Yes.” He sighed. “All right. Let’s go. The funeral begins in half an hour.”

  * * *

  Amanda Amberlee, age eighteen, was killed in an automobile accident following the Lost Pines Senior Prom. It is believed the driver of the vehicle in which Amanda and her friends left the dance had been drinking, and lost control while attempting to make a turn. No other cars were involved in the collision…

  June 9, 2014: Manhattan, New York

  The video clip of Dr. Kellis’s press conference was grainy, largely due to it having been recorded on a cellular phone—and not, Robert Stalnaker noted with a scowl, one of the better models. Not that it mattered on anything more than a cosmetic level; Dr. Kellis’s pompous, self-aggrandizing speech had been captured in its entirety. “Intellectual mumbo jumbo” was how Robert had described the speech after the first time he heard it, and how he’d characterized it yet again while he was talking to his editor about taking this little nugget of second-string news and turning it into a real story.

  “This guy thinks he can eat textbooks and shit miracles,” was the pitch. “He doesn’t want people to understand what he’s really talking about, because he knows America would be pissed off if he spoke English long enough to tell us how we’re all about to get screwed.” It was pure bullshit, designed to prey on a fear of science. And just as he’d expected, his editor jumped at it.

  The instructions were simple: no libel, no direct insults, nothing that was already known to be provably untrue. Insinuation, interpretation, and questioning the science were all perfectly fine, and might turn a relatively uninteresting story into something that would actually sell a few papers. In today’s world, whatever sold a few papers was worth pursuing. Bloggers and internet news were cutting far, far too deeply into the paper’s already weak profit margin.

  “Time to do my part to fix that,” muttered Stalnaker, and started the video again.

  He struck gold on the fifth viewing. Pausing the clip, he wound it back six seconds and hit “play.” Dr. Kellis’s scratchy voice resumed, saying, “—distribution channels will need to be sorted out before we can go beyond basic lab testing, but so far, all results have been—”

  Rewind. Again. “—distribution channels—”

  Rewind. Again. “—distribution—”

  Robert Stalnaker smiled.

  Half an hour later, his research had confirmed that no standard insurance program in the country would cover a nonvaccination preventative measure (and Dr. Kellis had been very firm about stating that his “cure” was not a vaccination). Even most of the upper-level insurance policies would balk at adding a new treatment for something considered to be of little concern to the average citizen—not to mention the money that the big pharmaceutical companies stood to lose if a true cure for the common cold were actually distributed at a reasonable cost to the common man. Insurance companies and drug companies went hand in hand so far as he was concerned, and neither was going to do anything to undermine the other.

  This was all a scam. A big, disgusting, money-grubbing scam. Even if the science was good, even if the “cure” did exactly what its arrogant geek-boy creator said it did, who would get it? The rich and the powerful, the ones who didn’t need to worry about losing their jobs if the kids brought home the sniffles from school. The ones who could afford the immune boosters and ground-up rhino dick or whatever else was the hot new thing right now, so that they’d never get sick in the first place. Sure, Dr. Kellis never said that, but Stalnaker was a journalist. He knew how to read between the lines.

  Robert Stalnaker put his hands to the keys and prepared to make the news.

  * * *

  Robert Stalnaker’s stirring editorial on the stranglehold of the rich on public health met with criticism from the medical establishment, who called it “irresponsible” and “sensationalist.” Mr. Stalnaker has yet to reply to their comments, but has been heard to say, in response to a similar but unrelated issue, that the story can speak for itself…

  June 11, 2014: Allentown, Pennsylvania

  Hazel Allen was well and truly baked. Not just a little buzzed, oh, no; she was baked like a cake. The fact that this rhymed delighted her, and she started to giggle, listing slowly over to one side until her head landed against her boyfriend’s shoulder with a soft “bonk.”

  Brandon Majors, self-proclaimed savior of mankind, ignored his pharmaceutically impaired girlfriend. He was too busy explaining to a rapt (and only slightly less stoned) audience exactly how it was that they, the Mayday Army, were going to bring down The Man, humble him before the masses and rise up as the guiding light of a new generation of enlightened, compassionate, totally bitchin’ human beings.

  Had anyone bothered to ask Brandon what he thought of the idea that, one day, the meek would inherit the Earth, he would have been completely unable to see the irony.

  “Greed is the real disease killing this country,” he said, slamming his fist against his own leg to punctuate his statement. Nods and muttered statements of agreement rose up from the others in the room (although not from Hazel, who was busy trying to braid her fingers together). “Man, we’ve got so much science and so many natural resources, you think anybody should be hungry? You think anybody should be homeless? You think anybody should be eating animals? We should be eating genetically engineered magic fruit that tastes like anything you want, because we’re supposed to be the dominant species.”

  “Like Willy Wonka and the snotberries?” asked one of the men, sounding perplexed. He was a bio-chem graduate student; he’d come to the meeting because he’d heard there would be good weed. No one had mentioned anything about a political tirade from a man who thought metaphors were like cocktails: better when mixed thoroughly.

  “Snozberries,” corrected Hazel dreamily.

  Brandon barely noticed the exchange. “And now they’re saying that there’s a cure for the common cold. Only you know who’s going to get it? Not me. Not you. Not our parents. Not our kids. Only the people who can afford it. Paris Hilton’s never going to have the sniffles again, but you and me and everybody we care about, we’re screwed. Just like everybody who hasn’t been working for The Man since this current corrupt society came to power. It’s time to change that! It’s time to take the future out of the hands of The Man and put it back where it belongs—in the hands of the people!”

  General cheering greeted this proclamation. Hazel, remembering her cue even through the haze of pot smoke and drowsiness, sat up and asked, “But how are we going to do that?”

  “We’re going to break into that government-funded money machine of a lab, and we’re going to give the people of the world what’s rightfully theirs.” Brandon smiled, pushing Hazel gently away from him as he stood. “We’re going to drive to Virginia, and we’re going to snatch that cure right out from under the establishment’s nose. And then we’re going to give it to the world, the way it should have been handled in the first place! Who’s with me?”

  Any misgivings that might have been present in the room were overcome by the lingering marijuana smoke and the overwhelming feeling of revolution. They were going to change the world! They were going to save mankind!

  They were going to Virginia.

  * * *

  A statement was issued today by a group calling
themselves “The Mayday Army,” taking credit for the break-in at the lab of Dr. Alexander Kellis. Dr. Kellis, a virologist working with genetically tailored diseases, recently revealed that he was working on a cure for the common cold, although he was not yet at the stage of human trials…

  June 11, 2014: Berkeley, California

  “Phillip! Time to come in for lunch!” Stacy Mason stood framed by the back door of their little Berkeley professor’s home (soon to be fully paid off, and wouldn’t that be a day for the record books?), wiping her hands with a dishrag and scanning the yard for her wayward son. Phillip didn’t mean to be naughty, not exactly, but he had the attention span of a small boy, which was to say, not much of an attention span at all. “Phillip!”

  Giggling from the fence alerted her to his location. With a sigh that was half love, half exasperation, Stacy turned to toss the dishrag onto the counter before heading out into the yard. “Where are you, Mr. Man?” she called.

  More giggling. She pushed through the tall tomato plants—noting idly that they needed to be watered before the weekend if they wanted to have any fruit before the end of the month—and found her son squatting in the middle of the baby lettuce, laughing as one of the Golden Retrievers from next door calmly washed his face with her tongue. Stacy stopped, biting back her own laughter at the scene.

  “A conspiracy of misbehavior is what we’re facing here,” she said.

  Phillip turned to face her, all grins, and said, “Ma!”

  Stacy nodded obligingly. Phillip was a late talker. The doctors had been assuring her for over a year that he was still within the normal range for a boy his age. Privately, she was becoming less and less sure—but she was also becoming less and less certain that it mattered. Phillip was Phillip, and she’d love him regardless. “Yes.”

 
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