Short Fiction: A Fair Virus

A FAIR VIRUS

A short story of 2,300 words.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Sure, we thought there would be riots, but only in Afghanistan, until things blew over. Not in Washington D.C., New York City, or Raleigh-Durham, for pete’s sake. No one predicted this outcome.”

To titters from the audience in the gallery, he drew a deep breath. The world was watching.

“The solution to forty five years of war in Afghanistan was within grasp. After twelve years on the ground, here was our reality: Afghanistan was fifteenth in the world in underdevelopment, the population could barely expect to live to fifty years of age, and ten percent of them were involved in illegal drug trade. After twelve years of American involvement, something needed to be done. Afghanistan was the worst kind of pit. It sucked in soldiers, careers, and money. And what did we, the West, have to show for our commitment?”

His fingers reached inside his heavily decorated jacket by force of habit. For the millionth time, they came back empty. It was a nervous habit, reaching for his cigarettes, as he was on government property, where smoking was not allowed. His empty fingers reached forward to the microphone to bend it a hair closer. He spoke again.

“You want to know how it started? Do you remember that article published in The Atlantic magazine in 2012? The one about a cat virus that changed the behavior of mice? It was a remarkable article about a remarkable virus. Of all things, this virus, Toxoplasma gondii, makes mice want to be near cats, cats that would gladly kill them! But what if? What if it could be used as a weapon? It was then, in April 2012, that I formed a team. We discussed it for hours, arguing the pros and cons as my team combed through scientific papers. Was it possible? We thought so. The real question was, could a tweaked Toxoplasma parasite do what guns, bombs, and new infrastructure funding couldn’t?”

He stood up and lifted a black briefcase onto the table. With two clicks, the old-fashioned clasps flipped open. He raised the lid. The Lieutenant General lifted two dozen copies of the magazine article and carefully set them on the table. An aide stepped forward. He put the briefcase on the floor as the aide began to distribute the article among the Senators serving on the United States Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. He was careful to keep his eyes on the man on the left, the one who headed the Investigation.

“After twelve years on the ground in Afghanistan, there was only one way to find out. We gave the project to a university down South along with funding. Ample funding. With financial motivation, it didn’t take long until they figured out how to alter the enzyme activity. We named it Toxoplasma democracii.”

The woman on the right spoke.

The Lieutenant General nodded, ready to answer. “Testing? You want to know about testing? We tested it. And it wasn’t hard to find someone willing to help us. A corrections company that fudged prisoner rights all over the place caught the eye of the Justice Department. We went right to them, and boy, were they glad to see us. They were having unresolved problems at one particular prison. We went down there with the virus in a liquid solution and distributed it in the soap. Worked like a charm. You can check the record – they haven’t had any problems since then. It’s a model prisoner population.” He paused, then added, “The prison book club went from a dozen prisoners to everyone in the prison. The literacy rate jumped from 46% to 99%. The prisoners are not only literate, now some of them write the books they review in the book club.”

His lawyer leaned over and whispered as several Senators on the Subcommittee laughed. The Lieutenant General waved him away.

“In answer to your question, yes, we tested it. And then we deployed the solution. It was easy enough to make the live particulates, and with test results better than projected, we rubber-stamped a factory we’d put on standby to start production around the clock. Then we dusted stacks of freshly minted U.S. dollars and Afghanis in smaller denominations with the live particulates. We called them Fairbucks. We targeted the smaller denominations in hopes that the less advantaged Afghans would have just as much opportunity to come into contact with Toxoplasma democracii.”

He continued, “This is how we projected it work: Afghans would get paid with Fairbucks. They handle it, wipe their eyes or touch their mouths a few times, and before you know it, the war is over. One by one, Afghans would wake up and want more for themselves and their families. They would demand fair treatment from the Taliban. From their government. From the United States. This virus would change the behavior of millions of Afghans. Not only would they want a better way of life, they would want democracy, true democracy, not some phony government propped up with local level bribes. And each individual would do their part: treat their neighbors with respect, dig up land mines, stop sowing their fields with poppies, acknowledge women’s rights. Then they would put their guns down and come to the table to work out a solution. And the Taliban would stop stealing our cheese. The Taliban would either disband as they all went home to their families or become a humanitarian organization.”

There were murmurs throughout the gallery but the Senators’ gazes had softened. Except for that of the female Senator from Wisconsin. She was frowning. She obviously didn’t appreciate the cheese joke.

She asked, “But Lieutenant General, what did your office do when it received the first requests to immigrate to the United States two weeks after the Fairbucks went into circulation?”

“Requests to immigrate? We’ve received those since the first day of Operation Enduring Freedom. Did the amount increase once we started handing out Fairbucks? Yes. Did it mean anything other than the program was going as planned? No. It wasn’t until late 2014 that the metaphoric waves of immigrants began crashing up against the Statue of Liberty. We knew we might have a problem in early 2014 when reports of Afghans wanting to join the U.S. Military were received. We didn’t think much of it. We figured it was just a matter of education and time until they could join their own army, and serve their own country while things sorted themselves out.”

He looked from face to face. Any levity was gone from their expressions. They stared right back.

“And on what date did you know the Fairbucks program had truly gone awry?” The younger Senator from Texas smelled blood.

“September 22nd, 2014.”

“What happened on that date?”

The Lieutenant General glanced at his very expensive counsel. They nodded. The room was so quiet he could hear individuals in the gallery shifting in their seats.

“The Afghan Treaty Conference in Kabul.”

The Texas Senator leaned forward. “And what happened at the Afghan Treaty Conference?”

“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan asked to become a territory of the United States.”

There was a stifled cough from the back of the silent gallery.

“And was that the purpose of the treaty the United States proposed?”

The Lieutenant General swallowed. He knew the bead of sweat forming on his brow would appear life size on TV under the bright lights. “No, Senator.”

“What was the purpose of the Treaty?” The Senator asked.

“It was a resolution to cease hostilities between Afghanistan and the United States, proposing a plan with projected target dates for establishing a democratic Afghan government and removal of American troops from Afghanistan.”

“And when the Prime Minister of Afghanistan declined to sign the treaty and instead proposed becoming a territory, what happened?” Out of the corner of his eye the Lieutenant General saw the lady Senator pick up her copy of the article.

“The United States declined the request.”

The Senator from Rhode Island said, “Lieutenant General, how many Afghans demonstrated in front the United States Embassy in Kabul the next day?”

“We estimated two million.”

“And how many throughout the country?”

“Another fifteen million. Half the population.”

“And how did the U.S. forces respond?”

“In various ways.”

“Why is that, Lieutenant General?”

“They were confused, Senator.”

“Why were they confused?”

It was like his lawyer said. Each member of the Subcommittee had an agenda, none of which coincided with ending the war in Afghanistan.

“Well, Senator, excuse my French, but it really trashed the mission. Our forces were used to having RPGs shot at them. When Toxoplasmosis democracii spread through the country, our forces on the ground began receiving a high volume of invitations from high ranking assets crucial to winning the war of Afghan hearts and minds. Then we received invitations from resources less crucial to winning the war of Afghan hearts and minds. Wanting to make the most of every opportunity, almost every team on the ground went from house to house, village to village, drinking tea until their bladders almost exploded. After three months, there were no enemies left to target. So when the demonstrations started, our guys, well, the mission for the troops was unclear. We wanted to be their friends. They wanted to be our friends. Only they wanted something the military is not in the business of providing. Citizenship. So they surrounded our installations to demand visas.”

“And what was our response?” The lady Senator obviously knew the answer but asked it anyway.

“We got the hell out, Senator. Full scale troop evacuation.”

“And why was this chosen over other options?”

“Shooting your friends looks bad. Plus, most of the important military assets had already been moved out of the country.”

The Senator on the left chuckled. “Sounds like a rout to me!” The gallery laughed.

The Lieutenant General took a sip of water. His throat was dry and he knew they weren’t done yet. A few more Senators were handling the articles.

He felt it now, courage. It began to well up and his anxiety vanished.

“The disorderly withdrawal was necessary.”

“And why is that? Because we looked like damned fools!” The Senator from Texas had an election in two months time.

The lady Senator added, “So let me get this straight,” she paused for a moment to peer down at him. It didn’t matter. His work was done here. “- the Fairbucks program had the unintended consequence of forcing the mighty U.S. military to pull out of Afghanistan almost overnight, and you believe it was necessary?”

“My apologies Senator, but where I come from, we have a saying. If you break it, you buy it. Once we saw that the demonstrations would continue until we acceded to their demands, it was the only humane thing to do. Well, that, or accept their request.”

Now the elderly Senator from Oregon spoke up. “Accept their request?”

The Lieutenant General could hear the whirl of lens zooming in. “To grant them the right to become a territory of the United States of America.”

There were gasps throughout the gallery.

“Lieutenant General, are you proposing that the United States of America should admit Afghanistan as a territory?”

“No, Senator. But I believe that is what this Subcommittee will do in two weeks’ time.”

The lawyer closest to him gripped his elbow. The Lieutenant General moved to lay his hand on it. Spreading a little extra particulate couldn’t hurt.

The Senators were all speaking at once. The Lieutenant General decided it was time. He stood. He waited. A few minutes later, the most powerful Subcommittee of the most powerful government body quieted as they waited for him to speak.

“We broke Afghanistan. We own it. And it is not the only country we broke. We’ve meddled with almost every country on the Earth. So here’s what’s going to happen. In two weeks time, this body will propose a World Treaty of Peace and the armies and navies and air forces around the globe will disband when their nations become part of the United Nations of America.”

In the moment he dreamt of night after dark night, he gestured to his own personal copy of the article on the table in front of him.

“Those articles about Toxoplasmosis are covered in democracii as were the ones sent to the Washington D.C. office of every Senator and Representative last week. Very fitting, don’t you think? To share the virus that brings humanity closer to one another? For we are no longer the cats. We are all the mice. I understood that when the Pakistanis flooded into Afghanistan a week after we pulled out. Inadvertently, the Fairbucks spread democracy to Pakistan. Soon, Toxoplasmosis democracii will spread to every corner of the Earth. War as we know it will cease to exist. Humanity will know true peace for the first time.”

He turned directly to the cameras. “On behalf of the United States of America, I apologize to our friends in Afghanistan for not accepting your request to become a territory. To the world, I say, the greatest moment humanity has ever dreamt of will arrive soon. We welcome and value your friendship. And to the citizens of this great country, the United States of America, you can leave your xenophobic demonstrations. Return to your homes to care for your families. The people of Afghanistan will have no further need to sail to our shores, for they will soon be Americans, as will the rest of the world.”

In one final gesture, the Lieutenant General reached up to his shoulders and unbuttoned the three stars from each epaulette. To a chorus of chaos, he set the stars on the table.

***

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