Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

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Seven: A View To A Kill

7. A View To A Kill, Duran Duran. You see “Duran Duran” on the list of Bond song artists and you think, wow, WTF? You’d expect them to be down at the bottom of this list with a-ha and Madonna, but damn if they didn’t nail this one. The lyrics are typical Duran Duran, very sensory and pseudo-poetic with lots of fire references, but as a Bond theme and as a standalone song, it works (note that the difference between this and “Thunderball” is that in a Tom Jones song, the lyrics carry more weight; in a Duran Duran song, they’re mostly there to sound good with the music, like R.E.M. only less so). The story, according to bassist John Taylor of Duran Duran, is that he met the Bond producer (Albert Broccoli) at a party, and Albert was complaining that the recent movies had had sub-par music (perhaps he just disliked the “women sing about how awesome Bond is” genre), so Taylor offered to help out. And he penned the only Bond theme to hit #1 in America.

Fiction: A View to a Kill

At first, they thought it was pneumonia, some complication from the intense rains that had been drenching the world’s cities. Older people and infants had trouble breathing, and the hospitals prescribed antibiotics, but none of them got better. Then they started quarantining people, remembering the drug-resistant TB strains, but all the bacterial tests turned up negative. Still, all the patients were dying; an infectious agent was running wild through their immune systems, filling their lungs with scar tissue and fluid.

Dr. Jennifer Markley thought that the epidemiology was the most interesting part of the worldwide crisis. With TB or any other airborne pathogen, there was usually a trackable spread. In this case, the infections seemed to have bloomed in fifty places around the world simultaneously. People in Shanghai, Kolkata, Moscow, Karachi, Sao Paulo, London, New York, Tokyo, Dhaka, Seoul, and dozens of other places were falling dead at a rate that had alerted the CDC a week before the news outlets started to take notice. Now Dr. Markley saw CNN devoting 24-hour coverage to the “Killer Cough,” but she’d been sealed in her lab for ten days already, tracking deaths and working with samples, part of a hundred-person team in Atlanta that was coordinating with hundreds of others worldwide.

She had had the very strong feeling that this was a terrorist act, that somehow an organization had created a completely untraceable pathogen, deployed fifty agents to the centers of the world’s populations, and released it. There was no world power unaffected, no religious group targeted, and nobody had yet claimed responsibility; Dr. Markley had only shared her feelings with one colleague, Dr. Maria Lubova in Moscow, who agreed both with her feeling and with the certainty that it made no logical sense. And yet, the current favored explanation, that this mystery disease had been spread by a world traveler and only just been released from its incubation by the steady rains, was logically even less probable. The FBI had turned up three people who had visited forty of the fifty cities in the past two years, but nobody had been to more than that, and the three people did not even know each other. Moreover, none of them had gotten sick.

No, it had to be some strain of TB, introduced deliberately. Dr. Markley usually spent hours each day looking at blood and tissue samples that had come in from New York and L.A., but today she had to greet twenty new transfers from hospitals around the country, recruited to her division to help with the crisis. She didn’t think more eyes would help, but it would free her to do more thinking and less staring at the same patterns in blood and tissue, day after day after increasingly frustrating and stressful day.

So she helped situate everyone at their stations, the lab fully staffed for the first time since the SARS scare, and ran through the distribution of samples, and by the time she got back to her desk, she had only three samples left to look at from the day before, when her eyes had gone bleary and she had retired to the cot in her office for four hours of sleep.

The samples had come from an eighty-three year old man, a fifty year old woman, and a two-year old boy. The man’s blood and tissue showed the same thing everyone else’s had: elevated white blood cells, some pieces of scar tissue, no pathogens. The tissue, likewise.

In the woman’s blood sample, Dr. Markley saw elevated white blood cells, some pieces of scar tissue, and no pathogens. She was about to put the sample away when a glint caught her eye, something that looked like an imperfection in the glass cover.

She zeroed in on it. It wasn’t part of the glass; when she focused on it, its outlines sharpened just as did those of the blood cells around it. Those lines were regular, defined.

There was a higher-magnification microscope in the downstairs lab. She took the slide and hurried down, heart pounding. If she’d thought her terrorist theory was crazy, then this was beyond crazy. This was insanity, this was science fiction, this was blockbuster movie territory.

It took the microscope a moment to power up. Her palms sweated as she flicked on the light, and she bent to the eyepieces without sitting down.

There were the regular lines, a small shape made of something transparent like glass, an eight-legged star whose circular central body was intricately decorated.

Was this her pathogen? The image blurred; she lifted her head and wiped her eye, then lowered it again. She snapped a picture with the scope and then frowned. The little star wasn’t where it had been. She watched each of the eight needle-sharp legs, and then sucked in a breath as they quivered.

The thing was moving. It was alive, somehow, it was moving through the blood sample. Or it had been made of glass, designed to infiltrate the human body, a kind of artificial Mycobacterium tuberculosis that ravaged the lungs and immune system until the patient died.

It continued to struggle through the medium. Dr. Markley wanted to reach in and smash it, to rip its arms off and kill it, to ruin that deadly crystalline perfection. But that wouldn’t do any good. Nothing would do any good. These things were in people already by the hundreds, the millions perhaps. Watching it struggle through the blood, she thought, the rain. We thought the rain was unusual, but it was an attack, fifty cities seeded with glassine death and water droplets gathering around them. They filled the air and people breathed them in, and in the less healthy individuals, their attacks bore immediate results. But the world’s population centers were full of people already infected with minute, efficient machines that either killed in low numbers or were near-impossible to see. Otherwise, how could they have gone undetected for so long?

She pulled back from the microscope and sat down heavily on a lab stool. The war had been fought and was already over. All that remained was to count the fatalities. She felt a rush of relief that Atlanta had not suffered the mysterious rain, that her family might survive this first wave, but that relief crumbled when she wondered what sort of world they would survive into.