The year is 202X. A prion disease with an incubation period of decades is only now manifesting in the brains of millions, destroying their ability to feel empathy and eventually killing them.
Only now do I realize what it means to be truly alone, isolated in an empty and indifferent reality. Nobody and nothing out there cares about our world and its collapse. We think of planets ending in fiery impacts: collisions or eruptions or invasions from other parsecs. We love watching movie simulations of The End, paying actors millions to find their cinematic true loves and mend fences with their families as they watch the sky catch fire. But who could have foreseen that the end would come for us in the form of a twisted protein chain, a miniscule, insensate fragment of matter that triggered an epidemic now known by its acronym of APS?
We Get Ours
Like compliant worker bees, Brian and I reported for our blood tests even before they became mandatory. His employer had sent out a message offering two-for-one discounts at local restaurants for showing a test receipt. The message reminded us that getting tested was our patriotic duty and a big step toward bringing the epidemic to an end—the standard drivel.
We met after work at the Mountain View Post Office. The white testing vans “always open for your convenience” were already a familiar sight, with their American flags flying above each headlight and Red Cross logos on the hood. They were parked at Walmarts and drugstores, post offices, shopping malls and supermarkets. Painted on the sides was a diverse crowd of joyous people sporting red buttons or bill hats that said in white “I Got Mine.” Kids waved red and white lollipops.
A quick stick in the ring finger, and it was over, covered with a tiny round red Band-Aid sporting the ubiquitous tagline. I was giggly and inexplicably tearful, so Brian, sensing hysteria, quickly hustled me out, mugging apologies to the nurses. We went straight to a Mexican restaurant and ate ourselves silly.
That was our last happy memory.
Two days later, I received a text that I was negative for disease. Brian hadn’t gotten his results yet, but we weren’t concerned; in fact, we had almost forgotten about the whole thing. And weren’t delays to be expected anyway, with so many notifications to send out?
The next day, when I returned from work, I found Brian sitting on the floor in our entryway, still in his “office casual” sport coat, his tie loosened and his shirt out. He was holding a bottle of rye whiskey by the neck and leaning back against the wall, legs spraddled out before him nearly blocking the door
“Baby, what’s wrong? What happened?” But of course I knew.
He wouldn’t look at me, only tipped the bottle to his mouth and drank. “I’ve been trying to knock myself out, but even this nasty stuff isn’t working.” The liquor trickled down his chin onto the front of his pale blue shirt, swelling dark through the cotton weave like a thundercloud. I dropped the mail I held and sat down beside him on the chilly beige tile. Gently, I took the bottle away, making the requisite skeptical face, even as panic, grief and nausea flooded through me.
“This is ridiculous.” I set my jaw, righteously indignant: I was going to handle it. “There’s been a mistake. Show me the text.”
“No, they were here.” Brian’s reddened gaze finally sought mine, as if begging me to undo this; make it go away.
“The doctor comes in person?”
He gave a short, bitter laugh. “It wasn’t a doctor. It was a couple of cops and some jerk in a blue lab coat. He got out his chip gun and nailed me while I was standing here, in the doorway. The fuck?”
“This is the part they don’t tell you. They shoot a chip into you. So they can swipe over you anytime and know you’re positive. The machine lets out this…scream or something. Like a rabbit when a hawk grabs it.” I frowned, trying to imagine that, and Brian even smiled a little. “Never mind. Not the outdoorsiest type.” It was a standing joke of ours, his teasing me over my citified background.
“Never mind is right. Let’s get that thing out of you. Where did they shoot it?”
Brian shook his head. “Forget it, Zoe. They thought of everything. It’s a nanochip or something, smaller than a pinhead, and they shoot it deep into your gut. You couldn’t find it even under major surgery. That’s what the jerk told me. He says…” Brian pursed his lips to mimic a prissy, soulless drone: ‘We try to nest it differently with each application.’ That’s what they call it. ‘Nesting.’”
“There’s got to be a…”
“Zoe, don’t you get it? The chip’s nothing. I’ve got the disease. I’m gonna lose my mind. I’m gonna die.” He yanked up his shirt and jabbed a shaky finger at an area just under his rib cage. “Here. You want to stare death in the eye?” I ran for a magnifying glass, and there it was, the tiny, livid pinprick that marked him as a bearer of incipient disease and yes, death.
I gave a little involuntary gasp, and as if that had opened a spigot, Brian finally cried, deep sobs wrenched from a throat unaccustomed to them. I put my arms around him, my head spinning, and added my soprano wails. Our relationship was still so new then—and so happy—that I had never seen him cry. Even I had cried only twice since we met: once when talking about my father, and once, briefly, when I had PMS and imagined that he was tiring of me.
Later, I reached into my purse for the black kohl pencil I carry everywhere and re-drew the dark, defiant line around my eyes that the tears had washed away. This border has become a part of me; it strengthens and comforts me somehow, just knowing it’s there, linking me to countless others across miles and millennia, all those women—and men too—lining their eyes with their own pencil or candle wick or bit of charcoal. To me, whether in love or battle, that simple black line focuses the eye’s power and magic. We badly needed that magic now.
For the next hour, we passed the rye back and forth, speaking in murmurs, keeping our darkest thoughts and fears to ourselves. I finally ran Brian a hot bath and got into it with him. I wanted to make him forget his pain, forget everything but pleasure—and for a short while, I’m sure he did. I told him I didn’t care what he had or what they did to him, I would never leave him. We fell into bed then and made love intensely, studying our eyes and mouths and bodies, holding back nothing, and we slept at last in each other’s arms, exhausted and comforted.
But deep in the night, my eyes blinked wide open, and I lay quietly, sensing within his evenly breathing body the odious alien implant, pumped into him as casually as if tagging an animal. I pictured a tiny disc buried amid tissues and cells, seething with rivers of data, radiating its death-message: name, history, DNA fingerprint and disease status. When I tried to dismiss it from my mind, the disc began to thrum and pulsate and grow, blotting out all but itself.
How, I silently shrieked, can a prion—a misfolded bit of protein, not even alive, an enemy without enmity, bring a whole nation to this state of panic and dread? How could we abandon our hard-won rights and protections, warp and deform our values, splinter our ethics and customs, so that we turn on one another like enemies, hysterical, terrified and enraged, all against all?
After an hour of this, I had to dash to the bathroom and vomit. Brian padded after me sleepily and held back my long, dark hair, sponged my face, and kissed my reeking mouth.
I’d never known a prematurely doomed person, let alone lived with one—and one I loved deeply. I would soon be taking that dreaded journey beside him, exploring those depths of dashed hope, pain, fright and despair. It was my turn now to feel the fangs of dread; to wonder what malign force gifts us with consciousness; with awareness of mortality only so that we can suffer the more intensely. So we can comprehend losing ourselves, breaking down into anonymous bits of matter, riding the empty planet until the universe reaches the end of its story; attenuating into a few isolated particles, drifting aimlessly toward nothing.
APS stands for Acquired Psychopathy Syndrome. Like “Mad Cow,” it’s a prion disease—a TSE, or “transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.” Everyone knows that prion diseases attack the brain, but APS is a specialist, a connoisseur. It seeks out our frontal lobes to infest, slowly destroying what makes us human: our conscience, empathy, and compassion. Our capacity for love.
The disease has some insanely long incubation period—decades—and at no time do you suspect that anything is wrong. Physically, you feel fine: motor neurons, reflexes and memory all continue to function normally, year after year. And so you carry on playing your role in life, hoping, loving, choosing, becoming…and all the while, this prion is biding its time. Until it finally reaches some tipping point, or something triggers it to begin chewing holes in your brain, turning the fragile tissue into a spongelike mass—hence spongiform—and leaving in its wake the trademark sticky plaques, altering your thoughts and behavior to what we call psychopathic.
The disease first appeared in the form of a slight but persistent rise in the crime rate, no real cause for alarm. Everyone duly face-palmed about crowded jails and recidivism and the scandalous prison system. Talking heads lectured about video games, and a few of the more violent ones were taken off the market. Political pundits, depending on their party, narrowed on parental neglect, or its reversed-out twin, overparenting, helicoptering. The problem was underfunded schools—yes! But no, it was a lack of therapeutic resources. The collapse of family values. Materialism. Cults. The attack on faith…etcetera.
So people voted new funding to staff up police forces and cobble together programs to prevent or rehabilitate. And we all waited for the crimes to stop; for the graphed arrows to point downward, for normalcy to reappear.
But of course normalcy was something we would never know again. As time passed, concern gave way to fear, with panic not far behind. This was no mere statistical blip; something else was going on; something we couldn’t quantify or comprehend.
It’s a myth, by the way, that all psychopaths are brutal killers (though brutal killers are nearly always psychopaths). The truth is that most psychopaths actually live out their lives undiagnosed and within the law.
They are different, though, and they sense it early on. They may learn to mimic compassion for the sake of fitting in, but emotionally, psychopaths are null. They lack internal restraints, so being ruthless, deceptive and cruel is no big deal: people are obstacles, trophies, stage props, or tools; they care no more than a tiger cares for the deer in its teeth. Of course, normal people can be cruel and ruthless too, but they can feel remorse; they can change and make amends. Not so a psychopath.
Psychopaths make great movie fodder: Jesse James, the Sundance Kid, Gordon Gecko, Catherine Tramell. We envy, sexualize, and romanticize them, but if we encounter one in the real world, we are usually left shattered or worse. And if one happens to take power in a country, the dying starts.
We soon noticed that this crime wave didn’t follow any usual patterns or demographics: if anything, it tracked wealth, which made no sense. Everyone knew that the rich could be unprincipled, but now their behavior became truly inexplicable: strong-arm robberies and burglaries, stranger rapes and thrill killings à la Leopold and Loeb. That’s because psychopaths aren’t just missing a conscience; they have what’s called a “high resting arousal” meaning they’re easily bored and need intense stimuli to turn them on, so they crave risk, novelty and variety.
The courts began to fill with well-heeled defendants and their pricey attorneys. The news followed “family tragedies” of prosperous, formerly well-adjusted people who committed brutal crimes with little provocation or motive. Why would a generally law-abiding segment of society turn violent? Of course, white collar crime was rising as well, but that wasn’t strikingly unusual for this demographic.
Being psychopathic can offer a short-term advantage if you’re planning a career as a military sniper, for example. But ironically, it was the military that first suspected something disastrous. As APS appeared within its ranks, doctors and psychologists noticed a small but growing number of soldiers who seemed unable to bond; to form deep, loyal friendships or protect their buddies. They lied, stole, and committed violent crimes. Worst, they could not be trusted in battle, since they focused exclusively on their own safety and survival. Awareness grew that we were facing a mysterious trend that kept scaling. The Centers for Disease Control tried to tamp down the rising hysteria, dismissing rumors as bushwah and panic-mongering, but anecdotes and fear traveled at Internet speed.
To me, psychopathy held a particular terror, because the victims of serial killers were often my kind of people, set adrift by broken lives and families, trying to make it from one day—or night—to the next, hiding their shames, secrets, scars, addictions. People like us got into cars with strangers, slept in exposed places, lived for the moment, believed hard-luck stories. We pushed the envelope too far, once too often. And when our little measure of luck ran out, our bodies would be found moldering in leaky oil drums or in the trunks of abandoned cars or rotting in some empty lot amid used condoms and fast food wrappers. Or in motel rooms, posed in some ghastly display.
I’m Zoe Ohrbach, twenty-six years old, five feet ten inches tall and slim, thanks to my mother’s pitiless oversight. As I grew, she would size me up with eyes narrowed and nose wrinkled, as if studying some invisible set of chromosomes. You’re big enough already, she would say, shaking her head, so don’t ever let yourself get heavy. The word thundered in my ears like a brontosaurus stride.
My height was the obsessive mystery of her life, since the women in her family were all petite—I still wince at that needle prick of a word: puh-teeet. My older sister Amelia took after her, fair-haired and “girl-sized,” as mom put it, with a winsome giggle. Although it was I who had inherited her hazel green eyes, and her full mouth that curled and contorted with rage when she got drunk, pouring out the hot, vicious, luscious words unrestrained by love’s boundaries.
As I entered my teens, I worried that my destination was some biology textbook or perhaps even the Guinness Book of World Records. I seemed to live in a time-lapse film, growing taller by the second. Of course, I had the pick-on-me pheromone; any bully within a ten-mile radius was sure to find me and reach new heights of cruel metaphor.
I became disgusted with my bulk, by the extra space my body appropriated. It shamed me—not only with its size, but with its rude sounds and smells; its protrusions and excretions; the pain it inflicted on me, and the coarse cravings. Everything it wanted was harmful and wrong: food, sex, pills, liquor. I tried to starve and purge it into submission, but it fought back undeterred. I redoubled my efforts to wear it down, deprive it, drug it or even poison it, but it always rebounded, infuriatingly alert, irrepressible, and always demanding more. I felt drained to the point of paralysis by the effort to control it.
Alone, I gorged on novels, my lonely sanctuary, the only overindulgence that did not shame or deform me. I nursed the foolish, secret notion that someday, love would cure me; unify my bitterly adversarial mind and body and bring me peace: whether momentary love, sequential love, sick love, forbidden love—it didn’t matter. But love of any kind only retreated further out of reach.
My father, my ally and defender, lost his contracting business when I was twelve and bought his exit pass from the chaos with a convenient heart attack when I was fourteen. Our home in Santa Monica was eventually foreclosed, leaving me, my sister and mother to a memory-raddled existence in a grimy white stucco apartment building, the embodiment of the last century’s casual building codes. The place even had a name, “The Spafford,” written with a flourish across the front in once silver glitter gone gray and dour, like an aged starlet. Beneath the bathroom windows, trails of rust descended into the weeds. Within, we three simmered away the years in an alcohol-laced stew of carefully nursed grudges and well-documented gotchas. The men came and went, leaving pain and blame in their wake. The neighbors complained about our fighting and language. Somehow though, despite all of this, I kept my grades up, with the desperation of a hostage. As high school mercifully ended, an obscure scholarship set me free at last.
At Berkeley, I discovered that I had packed all the scars of my upbringing along with my clothes and stuffed toys. Self-destructive, vulnerable to drugs and flattery, I was an indifferent student and lost my scholarship to late nights and parties.
After barely graduating, I began to wander and drift with whatever current caught me. I’d run aground on this or that muddy shore or razor-edged shoal, or nearly capsize in whirlpools or waves; but somehow I’d right myself; find my way back to my digs in the damp, gray dawn; shower and dress and show up for some meaningless job, eyes stinging, mind and body sore with bruised memories.
Brian changed all that: he sought me out where I huddled behind the cynicism, exhibitionism, and phony bravado. He made me laugh, and he gave me time and hope, so that I began, gingerly, to become someone I cared about.
I don’t recognize love easily; even now, it feels like a package delivered to the wrong address. When I met Brian, I hid my feelings until they grew too strong, intruding unwanted on my consciousness and conversation. Until I gave up and went all in, and that crazy risk finally unified me, perhaps even healed me.
Happiness, as I have read and believe, isn’t some “natural state” that we deserve and have fallen away from. Happiness is sporadic and conditional, fragile and cruelly brief in duration. With Brian, I was happy; it was that simple, and I knew to cleave to that with all I had, as long as I could. That’s why I have never questioned my decision to stay with him, no matter what. I will take this path, wherever it leads, because I know no bearable alternative.
And I knew that Brian, in return, would love me as best he could. Would he be faithful for a lifetime? Protect me and remain at my side as the decades passed? Who thought about such things? Not I, and certainly not now.
A couple of weeks ago, I mustered my courage and called the last number I had for my mother and sister. Nobody answered, and there was no voice mail. The phone just rang into the void until it hiccupped and disconnected itself.
Brian too reached out to his family after he was diagnosed, imagining, I guess, that they would draw him in and comfort him as families are supposed to do. They had money, he told me, although he had never taken a dime from them.
But his father and mother only passed the phone back and forth awkwardly, with lame excuses like food on the stove. They offered him the type of regrets you hear after breaking a tooth crown—before mentioning that his brother was going through a hard time of his own with his new business. It’s just that I’m not liquid right now, his father preemptively claimed, although Brian had asked for nothing.
His mother assured him that they would “pray for him,” but until “this APS business” was “all sorted out” and things “got back to normal,” it was best that he do whatever he could for himself. And stay in touch. For sure, Brian responded in his best corporate sales voice. I thought that nobody had a worse family than I did, but his really raised that bar.
They’re afraid of me, Brian said, looking confused and ashen. Narrowing my eyes, I replied it’s really me they should fear. He said wow, I’ll bet you mean that and wiggled his brows, trying for a laugh. But I wouldn’t laugh.
Within a couple of weeks, the sharp stab of Brian’s test results became blunted and settled into a dull ache. He seemed to be past the worst of the initial trauma, and so life went on. At first, though, he had talked about suicide a lot, and so I kept a surreptitious, watchful eye on him.
“What?” He had caught me studying him one evening.
“Look, you don’t have to play psych tech. I love you. I’m not gonna jump under a train, okay? At least not tonight.”
“That reassures me immensely.”
“Said with no irony whatsoever.” Brian grinned.
I took his hand. “I would not, will not ever abandon you to make your way through this hell alone.”
“And I will never abandon you,” he replied. “Even when you beg me to.” Clumsy laughter and a clumsy hug. “Maybe we’ll even be okay,” Brian said, and as I attempted to smile, “Just kidding. We’re fucked.”
If you had seen Brian and me before all this happened, you would have instantly pegged us as a typical young high-tech couple, with our jobs in software and our iPhones and our jargon: “Do you have the bandwidth for lunch today?”
As a defense against that image, Brian and I would tell each other that we were rebels and bohemians incognito: we merely appeared to be conventional Silicon Valley cubicle drones. It’s funny, that life we had held so cheap, that we had called soulless and regimented, seems idyllic now, a golden age.
We’d met at a tedious, gaudy high-tech trade show in Las Vegas, a year before the epidemic surfaced. Though my official job title was marketing associate, my employer had asked me to walk the floor of the show dressed up like a bimbo to raise awareness of the company’s latest product launch. I was to accost attendees with a short survey and then lure them to our booth to enter a drawing for a new phone.
“I know it’s uh…asking a lot,” my boss had said rolling his eyes heavenward like a mischievous boy as I stood in his office, wordless and confused. “But you should feel, well, flattered, you know, to be so admired. I mean, wow.” He gave a little shrug. “Me, I’d be stoked, frankly. I mean, if I were a woman.”
“I don’t think you would,” I said, keeping my eyes cold and voice flat. “Unless of course you enjoy having a lot of horny men undressing you with their eyes.”
“Now now,” said my boss, as if to a kicking mare. I felt trapped and outraged. The pressure was disgusting, disrespectful, exploitative, and possibly illegal. But the company had a penny-pinching CEO, and professional models were expensive.
A child loved only conditionally carries around an unslakeable thirst for approval and acceptance, no matter how spurious. But to be honest, my vanity was a little piqued. And I secretly yearned for that heady, silly dance à la Bocaccio with men—the feints and treachery and secrecy and faux shame and tease. I still craved to be lusted after, to be seduced, to yield and take back, to game and be gamed. To appear to cede control. It all intrigued me, despite the pain and shame it inevitably dragged in its wake, the emotional hangover.
So I caved. I told myself I couldn’t quit until I had another job anyway; my savings were nonexistent, and I had no family to turn to. After sending out resumes and insisting on a cash bonus in advance, I agreed to wear a red, gray and aquamarine costume—the company’s colors—designed for the event and even tailored to my size. The getup was cut high on the sides to show plenty of leg and ass; and the cleavage was low, the waist so tight that it hurt to breathe.
Tricked out in this silly bunting, I submitted to being photographed with company executives grinning like morons, and then set out to trudge the floor in painful high heels that hoisted me to well over six feet. I kept my eyes locked on the survey sheets that I carried, my face aflame. Hanging from my waist by a thin chain was a dainty little silver pencil that bounced against my mons veneris with every step. The stares were a million pinpricks on my skin, and it was of course the eyes of other women that pierced the deepest. I was a sellout and a shill.
After hours of this purgatory, I had “interviewed” about thirty men of assorted ages and levels of nerve. Some faked admiration for the company’s technology, their eyes scanning me so intensely that I could almost feel the wind of their passing. Some openly hustled me, keeping an eye out for female bosses or cock blockers. One or two had a sincere interest in the product and its “disruptive nature.” Dutifully, I fended off dirty jokes and double entendres with the blank stare I had practiced.
By the time Brian walked up, I was hungry and footsore. He introduced himself and asked a challenging question about the product, full of complex jargon. I closed my eyes, desperately searching for something pertinent to say. Meanwhile, as he later confessed, he was straining his will power and facial muscles to maintain appropriate eye contact and suppress the tempting, reflexive top-to-bottom sweep. We both wore masks of faux professionalism. What he had really wanted, he confessed hours later, was just to reach out and take me in his arms. And what else? I asked him teasingly. There must have been something else you wanted to do.
But now I dutifully dredged up and recited my memorized “elevator pitch,” inwardly squirming with embarrassment. And then, just as I had reached the halfway point in my spiel, the whole experience rapidly growing unbearable, something in his amused, grey-eyed gaze alerted me that he was, as the British say, “having me on.” I instantly forgot my lines and stammered to a stop.
Excuse me, I said, let me start over, and he said, how about you and I get out of here for a while, and I knew right away that I would go.
I have a degree, you know, I said stupidly, and he replied I won’t hold that against you. We had a laugh, the first of many, and then we drove straight to a motel and got a room. I let him take the costume off, piece by piece, and breathed normally for the first time in hours. Neither of us went back to the trade show that day, or the next.
In the following weeks, we rented a clonish, overpriced town house midway between our respective employers in a Silicon Valley neighborhood of hacienda-style strip malls and barbered office parks. Down the road from us were the requisite Starbucks and Jamba Juice franchises; farther on, the bicycle store and the sushi smorgi, the pizza chain, Korean barbecue, bagel shop, stationery and greeting card store, and an athletic shoe store called Run a Mile. Those businesses are all gone now, of course; the office parks lie empty and overgrown, their dry fountains clogged with dead leaves. Our neighbors have either fled or been hauled away.
We had a lot of fun in those early, heady times—Brian was a gust of fresh air, I told myself, an antidote to love’s syrupy romanticism and sticky sentimentality. To his credit, he didn’t try to manipulate or overpromise or mislead me, and for that I was grateful (or was I rationalizing?).
We got along from the start, with our many needs and few illusions. Were we more guarded and cynical than other young people in love? Did I fear that if I ever plumbed his emotional depths, I might quickly hit a hard and rather shallow bottom? No matter, I was happy with what I had. And if I sometimes bought my own lingerie and flowers, so what?
During those first weeks following his diagnosis, I saw that Brian was making an effort to buffer me from his fear, to reassure and protect me. Doubtless he wanted to keep my panic at bay, as it would have pulled him down even further. But there was more to it—and to him—than that: a stoicism and protectiveness that I had not suspected were there; nor, probably, had he. He didn’t want me to suffer. Would this side of him change as the disease manifested?
Brian began to second-guess himself, sometimes checking with me by a questioning glance—to make sure he was being “appropriate.” He even used the word “share” which we used to mock freely. If it all weren’t so dire, I would have teased him about it. But it hurt to see the irreverent skeptic losing his breezy humor and confidence, becoming hesitant about revealing himself. My comforting would wear off like an ointment, exposing again the raw fear beneath. He also became preoccupied, quieter: I imagined him slipping away. Was I losing him then, not to a sexy woman or a sexy job, but to a twisted bunch of warped molecules?
How different it is, living through an epidemic, from what’s portrayed in the movies. Onscreen, you have the God’s eye view: who is getting sick, where and how they caught the disease. As it spreads, you learn what the movie-star public health officials are doing (and even who they are screwing). You can peek over the shoulders of researchers, or see through their very eyes, right into their microscopes to watch the guilty microbe writhing and menacing in technicolor; reaching out for fresh cells to invade and devour. You can sit in on the highest-level meetings to learn the doctors’ secret fears.
By contrast, in a real epidemic, you can’t tell truth from rumor. You haven’t a notion of how others are coping, or what they say to each another. You don’t know who is infected, or how their symptoms are manifesting. Is “medicine” making progress, or are scientists kissing their own asses goodbye? You live in terror that your loved ones will die before your eyes.
Your life shrinks into a claustrophobic little holding cell, marooned in a vast and spreading wasteland. Your thoughts are reduced to a binomial: is it yes or no? Sick or well? Life or death? Nothing else matters anymore. Ignorant and vulnerable, you don’t know what your own government is up to—perhaps it will burst through your door one day as a heavily armed squad and haul you away. Or maybe government is long gone, and society is reverting everywhere to anarchy or tribalism. You find out everything the hard way and too late. Panic is never far; everyone is suspect: even your closest friends might infect, desert, rob or murder you.
Finally, you come to realize that your hopes, both short and long-term, were mere self-deception. You are helpless in a sense that only the doomed can understand—perhaps Scott in Antarctica when he recognized the futility of all further effort; perhaps the crew of the Challenger, trapped in that scalding, plummeting capsule, realizing that death was suddenly imminent.
We read how the Bubonic Plague stalked the ancient world from its vast reservoir in the dank marmot tunnels of Asia Minor, where it persists to this day. At intervals, some environmental upheaval like a flood or a drought would destroy the population’s equilibrium. Controls would shatter and the sickness swell and burst forth to infect the nimble fleas on black rats aboard cargo ships; arriving in Europe weeks later, their amphorae storing not just olive oil or wine, but death.
I imagine European tribes during the Justinian Plague of 535 A.D.; you’re living in your rustic huts, weaving your scratchy cloth and crafting your chunky jewelry, braiding your hair and probably lining your eyes with kohl, just as I do.
And suddenly everyone is sick and dying: families, neighbors, best friends, clandestine lovers, pranksters, dreamers, sexpots and geniuses and weirdos and assholes. The secrets you kept and fantasies you nurtured; the venal sins; the selfless acts, all heaved now into mass graves to decay into putrid brine and sink into the earth.
Time began then to flow over you—hours, days, months, and then a hundred years, and a thousand, and here came another thousand. Now your village, your world is nothing but a little grassy mound in a cow pasture, and we dismiss your era as the Dark Ages. What, then, will they call ours? Oh, all of you who went before, what happened to you? What did you do? Where are you now?
Eventually, they traced the culprit prion to a prizewinning bull named Zauber, imported from Switzerland sometime in 1988. Zauber, which means “magic” in German, was an aristocrat of the finest ancient lineage. His job was to propel the flavor and quality of American prime beef to new heights (copywriting “adsplaining”).
Zauber was introduced to the young debutante cows of a “noted breeding herd”: all he had to do now was eat and fuck—or rather ejaculate, since they wouldn’t entrust his platinum sperm to clumsy, wasteful nature.
But Zauber carried a prion mutation, a new form of twisted, misshapen protein, and that’s what triggered this catastrophe: no grand terroristic plot, no mad scientist or supernatural sorcery or retribution from above, no alien invasion. Just a bovine with a vanshingly unlikely scripting error in his genes.
Zauber’s offspring were auctioned for prices that made Sotheby’s blush, and only the finest restaurants served the meat. I’m sure it was delicious. That explains why APS first arose among the wealthy. The millions slamming their fast food burgers were safe for a few more years.
Of course, we know already from Britain’s “Mad Cow” epidemic that the by-products of one diseased animal can make their way into the population not only through beef, but through pill casings, toothpaste, aphrodisiacs, gelatin, makeup and baby food, to name a few. Even the strictest vegans can be infected; even their fetuses can test positive.
Now we’re being told that APS might even be sexually transmitted, because why should our luck not be as bad as it can possibly be? So even though I tested clean that one time, I may have contracted it in the interval. I don’t care anymore. I’ll die before I take another of their goddamn tests.
Just prior to the outbreak, there had been a lull in terrorist attacks and even in natural cataclysms—hurricanes and cyclones had held off for a few seasons; no volcanoes of note erupted. Although we in California constantly watch for The Big One, the ground held reassuringly still.
Right around the time I met Brian, the world had exploded with a new hedonism: fads and gimmicks hit the markets; fresh celebrities emerged, and music evolved, with rebellious rhythms and dances, one more outrageous than the next.
Social commentators were comparing our era to the Psychedelic Sixties and the Roaring Twenties. My friends and I accepted this eagerly. We were making history—how exciting was that? But all of this activity was somehow a gold-bordered invitation to the Black Swan: the catastrophe that was theoretically possible but so unlikely that it wasn’t even worth worrying about.
It didn’t take long for news to leak out: a new disease was loose in the population, and it had weird mental effects, in fact, the worst possible. Although the Centers for Disease Control tried to tamp down the rising hysteria, panic traveled at electronic speed. People began to fear themselves and each other—neighbors, family, lovers. Before long, fear led to paranoia, and the social contract started falling apart.
To nobody’s surprise, the country soon elected a right-wing president who had promised to keep us all safe from a “Psychopath Apocalypse.” If anybody wasn’t scared enough yet, his speeches and tweets and minions finished the job.
We still didn’t know who was infected, or how we had become infected—or when. Speculations about the long incubation period and ongoing brain damage were so horrifying that the First Amendment was “temporarily” pushed aside, and stirring up fear became illegal. I decided to stop my marching and posting; to bury myself instead in novels, music and games, in shallow entertainment and pleasure-seeking until nature righted itself.
Once the epidemic took off, the president unleashed a fascist regime with promises that he would take care of us, and after all, the new laws were only temporary. People, frightened out of their wits, accepted his assurances as he demanded “voluntary” pledges to himself from the military—just as Hitler had—and established a new national police force also answerable to him alone. He declared martial law and postponed our next election due to the “global emergency.” Opposition or disobedience was considered treason, because we were fighting for our very survival. Somehow his old school friends managed to come forward and confess that the president had been a secret admirer of Hitler since schoolboy days. Now they tell us.
With the confirmation of APS, a black pall fell upon researchers: we may have already lost this war long before realizing that we were even in it.
Nobody understood much about prions, but we did know that our immune system doesn’t recognize them because they’re not alive, as are bacteria and viruses, so it doesn’t muster a defense. Livestock could be infected for a very long time—their entire lives, in fact, without appearing ill. That’s because the incubation period for the disease can, insanely, exceed a cow’s lifespan.
So while farmers were always on the lookout for “downed” cattle, staggering around with Mad Cow, they had no way of knowing that a new prion was already well established in the herds—and in the American food chain. That’s how the prion stole a huge, fateful march on us. “There’s something almost self-aware about this prion, as if it’s consciously and cunningly evil,” one scientist lamented.
Also, only humans show the mental symptoms of APS—cattle, having no abstract intelligence, just behave like normal bovines, chewing their cud, lowing, and giving us the deadly gift of their bodies.
Once we knew the disease was among us, we didn’t know any of its vital details: how many exposed people actually became infected; how long it incubated before becoming active; and how long it took for a person to become fully psychopathic once they had turned.
Like AIDS, some people became infected from a single exposure; others—like me perhaps—seemed to have been repeatedly exposed and yet hadn’t caught it. I knew though, that eventually my luck would run out.
However far our minds soar, to the beginning and end of the universe, we are only meat after all, optimally packaged and conveniently delivered to our true, miniscule rulers and heirs, bacteria, viruses and, yes, now prions too. We are their bearers, their slaves, their medium. And when they are done using us to reproduce, they abandon our remains and leave us to feed the hungry necrophages and so on down the food chain.
It is triumphant now, this thing, this res, as my Latin teacher would have called it. Oh, we can put up our flimsy barriers, our quarantines; we can pray to our respective deities. We can focus our instruments on the res, look deep into its structure, parse it and trace it and dissect it and solve what propels it. But the res is still death, inevitable death, always death: death superior, death triumphant. Until the realization overwhelms us and we abandon first our hubris and then our defiance, and finally, all hope. Until we drop to our knees in utter defeat and beg of our master only to be quick, be merciful.
The Internet was fertile soil for rumors and conspiracy theories: psychopaths were supposedly uniting in secret cabals and arming themselves, creating militias and making plans to seize power and use us for whatever sick purposes and entertainments they could think up. Hysteria broke out across the U.S. and other countries too. Nations closed their borders and now require proof of negative APS status before allowing entry.
Before science developed a test, the only way to confirm APS infection in humans was through postmortem brain examination or living “behavioral analysis,” as they called it. So for a while, psychiatrists were the most feared members of society. They could administer a few written personality tests, give a Rorschach, have a talk with somebody, and then write a report stating, in effect, “Yes, that’s one of them, all right.” But after some poor soul had committed suicide, they’d biopsy the brain, and what do you know? Disease-free all along! A terrible shame, but anybody can make a mistake.
So it was absolutely vital to develop a clinical test for APS, and to identify the infect, whether symptomatic or not. Perhaps some treatment could prevent or delay the course of the disease—anyway, that’s what they said. What they actually meant, though, was that once they knew who was infected, they would try to control them, whatever it took, to keep them from committing crimes, and from infecting others. Protecting the uninfected was the highest priority, they told us, and we naively agreed.
The search for a vaccine was, of course, launched immediately. Everyone prayed for a Jonas Salk to emerge, or a Louis Pasteur. But there’s never been a vaccine for a prion disease, and there won’t be one anytime soon. For those whose brains were already damaged, there could be no hope. You can’t grow back a conscience that has no place in the brain to live anymore.
At last came the breakthrough the world had been waiting for: a definitive test for APS infection. Now we could get a handle on it, the first step toward conquering it. Women in particular cheered, because it had been a brilliant young scientist named Madeleine Yung, working in a small private lab in Fresno, California, who identified the active prion in a living human for the first time.
Yung’s brother, who had been diagnosed with APS after a shoplifting spree and was living at home with their parents, donated his own brain cells, and so Yung was able to retrieve the diseased plaques directly from his frontal lobes to develop the test. She described the moment she visualized the twisted bit of protein as “staring into the face of Satan.”
Yung made herself another test subject. She had suspected that her eagerness to subject her brother to a painful, invasive procedure could be an indication that she herself was infected. Sure enough, the test confirmed that she too had APS, contracted years earlier. The disease’s long incubation period had given her this last chance to perform research for humanity. Once the APS test was confirmed effective, Yung took her brother’s life and then her own.
It’s difficult to calculate how many people are now infected or on the run. A gargantuan agency has quickly grown up, called the United States Health Services, or USHS—people call it “Ushes.” It’s actually a whole new branch of government with jurisdiction and power over every other agency, since APS is now the nation’s number one concern. Ushes encompasses a military and a civilian arm. They’re always looking for people to join up—APS-negative, of course—and they supposedly treat themselves well, with the highest salaries, the best food, creature comforts, right of first refusal on possessions of the dead or missing.
Anyway, the first thing Ushes did was make testing mandatory, not voluntary. Back when Brian and I were first tested, the CDC had mounted a massive advertising campaign complete with music, animation, and celebrities joining hands and singing an inspiring pop ballad written for the occasion: “Knowing Sets Me Free.” But most people didn’t buy this crapola for a minute and ran in the opposite direction.
Some members of Congress, and even our prick of a president, stepped forward boldly to be tested, braying that we had nothing to fear but fear itself etc. Of course bloggers pointed out that the public had no way to verify our leaders’ supposedly negative results. And they reminded us that plenty of people were born psychopaths—like the president—and had no need for a prion to make them what they already were. The president tweeted back some nasty response while the nation had a laugh.