NOTE: All dates given in the following are “stardates” calculated from January 1, 1970, the current basedate for most Unix servers.
On 42912.3287, The Center for Obnoxious Diseases released the following Public Information Bulletin: “An artificial virus, developed by a New Zealand research laboratory, was found outside its sealed laboratory yesterday.
“The virus, created by Shelbourne Laboratories of New Zealand, was made for experimental purposes only. It has an extremely short lifespan, 40 – 48 hours, and, though it may cause flu-like symptoms if inhaled or swallowed, it is not life-threatening.”
The bulletin was accurate in several respects. The virus was indeed man-made. It had been created by Shelbourne Laboratories of Muttonbroth, New Zealand, and it had irrefutably been found outside its confines. The bulletin was inaccurate, if not downright misleading, in most other respects. For example, it was no experiment. Developed ten years before under contract to the “Tehen Secret Service”, it had fallen into “public domain” soon thereafter due to the disintegration of the nation of Tehenovia. This version was commissioned by Neihold Spaar, Chairman of Fiduciary Associates of Basel, Switzerland, who had planned to give blister packs of a dozen capsules to several top executives as a holiday present. Each capsule was meant to cause symptoms of severe upper respiratory infection that would last four to six hours, so the subjects could justify ducking out of onerous family functions. The capsules were, in his words, “small thanks for many past successful years.”
First tests of this current batch had gone almost as expected. All three hundred fourteen convicts in South Island Penitentiary who had been ‘volunteered’ for the tests experienced the expected symptoms. These slowly wore off, and in four or at most five hours, the subject was symptom-free and able to go about his usual business.
However, in five instances there were side effects – very troubling side effects. In one case, symptoms of spinal meningitis were observed. In another, the patient vomited a thick black substance, and buboes formed in his armpits and groin. In three other cases, blindness, syphilis, and advanced MS seemed to overtake the test subjects. In all cases, these also cleared completely, but only after several days, limiting the intended functionality of the virus. Clearly, further testing was indicated.
Three months later, three hundred fourteen convicts were again caused to take capsules. Half were repeat customers, half were new. This time, only one-fifth of the subjects developed the flu symptoms. Of these, none were repeaters. Even though their blood was completely free of any trace of the virus, including antibodies, tt seemed they were now immune. This was not what was desired. Users should have been able to use the pills repeatedly. Moreover, all subjects developed side effects. Although far less dramatic than their predecessors, they were still unwanted.
High on the left cheek of all subjects, a spiral welt formed. About two inches in diameter, it resembled a coiled spring, or the tail of the Great Serpent Mound in southern Ohio. Also, the subject developed a voracious appetite for Varivo od mahuna, the legendary Croatian green bean stew1.
In the weeks that followed, the subjects became increasingly defensive, especially as concerned diet and facial deformations. Eventually, everyone insisted there were no marks on their faces. And, three weeks later, the prisoners staged a demonstration in the mess hall, demanding more green beans in their diet. This demand was acceded to that very day.
Despite their often loud protestations, all the convicts still had spirals on their cheeks. And blood tests now showed the virus was in their systems, alive and thriving.
The day after the mess hall event, the virus was discovered outside its lab2.
The small puddle of viral liquid, less than 2cc, was thoroughly tested. Confusingly, it was found to be completely inert, filled with microscopic virus corpses. The liquid was soaked up into a sheet of Bounty paper towel, which was then dissolved in sulphuric acid. The surface on which it was found, a Bakelite lab tabletop, was sterilized with everything they could think of, including fire.
Ten days later, water quality tests of swimming pools in Baja California showed signs of the virus. It was alive.
Immediate inquiries from COD brought no replies from Wellington. Some sort of minor national holiday was underway, they said.. No one was in. Try Tuesday, after the long weekend.
Tense phone calls were made to Shelbourne Labs. They met with surprisingly adamant resistance. Data was unavailable concerning the spill. Research on the virus itself was still incomplete. A statement would be issued “shortly”. Personal contacts were plumbed, and exhausted, without any further information becoming available. Be patient, COD was told. Everything was completely under control.
A formal request was made through diplomatic channels, accompanied by a hand-written note from The Queen, imploring cooperation and at the same time commanding the manufacturing protocols for the virus be produced. National Defense was referred to. The response was resentful and balky. Any documentation will take at least a month to compile, and then it will all have to be scrutinized to secure patent rights – as well as “national security”. When the printouts finally arrived at COD headquarters, phrases and paragraphs had been redacted with thick black lines obscuring many words. Subsequent requests for the unedited text went unacknowledged.
COD released another Public Information Bulletin, naming the virus. “The Shelbourne Disfigurement Virus has migrated as far as North America. It has been determined that, while the life expectancy of the virus is indeed 40-48 hours in a sterile environment, its longevity suspended in nutriments cannot be determined at this time.”
This was followed by instructions on how to prepare virus-free food.
“After cooking, boil all foods, from meat to vegetables, in a 10% solution of vinegar and water or a 50% solution of brandy, for ten minutes in a covered pot. Allow to stand until you can hold the pot. DO NOT REMOVE THE COVER FROM THE POT. Immediately freeze the food IN THE POT. The next day, defrost the pot, heat the food to taste and eat IMMEDIATELY.”
The bulletin concluded with the disclaimer that, while this would not actually kill the virus, it would limit the nourishment the virus could receive from the food, and would severely reduce the virus’ opportunities to reproduce.
The first known cases of the Shelbourne Disfigurement outside South Island Penitentiary were the two Mexican playboys, Zoltan Montanez and Ivan Gutierrez, who owned the villas in Baja California. Both had extensive circles of friends (read “hangers-on”) that included actors, entertainers and various wannabes and babes. All of them were infected within a week.
It was through this motley array of spectacularly beautiful and astoundingly talentless people that the virus became known to the general public..At first, as they relentlessly pursued their endless rounds of talk shows, game shows and ‘reality’ shows, they drew attention to the welts on their faces. They welcomed questions, and talked about them almost as though they were adornments, or jewelry. They speculated about them. Could you have more than one? Was there such a thing as having ‘too many ‘welts? Were they Messages from The Beyond? Did they contain Meaning? But after a few weeks, inquiries met requests that the welts be ignored, as if too much had been made of them and now they were boring.
National talk shows began obscuring the left cheeks of all guests by electronically superimposing circular ‘masks’ over them. If the welt was visible, it was covered.
The markings began appearing throughout the population. Soon, practically everyone had one.
At the same time, mirrors began disappearing. At first, public restrooms, like those in McDonalds and Burger Kings and rest stops on major toll roads, were vandalized, the floors littered with broken glass. No one connected this with the Disfiguring Virus. It was put down to a new destructive fad among teenagers until middle=aged bald men, immaculately groomed, were observed wrapping their fists in their own shirts and smashing the fixtures.
All reflective surfaces – Storefronts, bank teller’s bulletproof Plexiglas, even chrome trim on cars – were soon given matte finishes. House windows and car mirrors were replaced with lipstick cameras and LED screens and technology, masking spiral welts. Even still pools had oscillators installed in them to ripple the surfaces.
A revolution occurred in fashion. The ‘Unmade Bed’ look was featured in WWD, Vogue and Woman’s Day. While the Paris runways showed lines that strongly suggested pajamas and other, more salacious night wear, the lines that made it to TJ Maxx were more “eccentric”, and had slightly jarring elements, like jackets with one epaulette. They gave the impression that the wearer had been fighting a murderous headwind every step, walking from the car.
Within the year, $170 billion was added to the Department of Wellness’ budget by Congress. Eighty percent of this was earmarked for Disfigurement research. That figure would swell to over $11 trillion by decade’s end.
Cardnall Bursst was Chief Coordinator of Integrated Actuation for the 347th District, Department of Wellness, a post he’d held for three years. His staff, consisting of four Coordinators and three floating Assistant Coordinators, one of whom was attached permanently to him, coordinated the plans of the entire District in case something happened. Their function was vital, explained the District Supervisor to Bursst, or would be, if anything happened. It would allow the District Commanders to know what all the other District Commanders were doing. And so, said the District Supervisor, what otherwise would be utter chaos would resolve into an efficient, well-oiled machine.
All officials in the Department of Wellness were mandated to be accessible by the general public, according to the Supreme Court’s definition of “accessibility”. One of Bursst’s six hundred phone lines was therefore publicly listed. He was required to answer that phone at least once each year. Usually, Bursst made that the first call he received each January. He allowed all subsequent calls to go to voicemail. His assistants were then required, on a rotating basis, to listen to each call and transcribe it. The transcripts were filed by date and cross-referenced by topic and caller and made text searchable. So if any actual issue was mentioned in any phone call, the transcript could be accessed and a voice recording of the actual message retrieved. It was all maddeningly comprehensive.
After a brief flurry of excited comments, rumors and assorted accusations, Bursst’s phone grew silent on the matter. Public reaction to the Disfigurement soon settled into fiercely defiant ignorance and denial.
Usually, Bursst alternated dinner cooking chores with his wife. So when he came home one Tuesday with salmon steaks and a new marinade recipe, and found Sara had already made chicken Florentine and set the table with candles, he was surprised, delighted, curious and wary, in that order. When he realized, somehow he was only seeing her from her right side, his heart sank. He grabbed her shoulders, gently. She turned her head to her left.
“Aw, Baby,” he said.
“I knew you’d say that,” she said, trying to smile. “Don’t look at it. Please.”
“It’s hideous. Hideous!” She started crying. “I thought we were so careful.” He reached for her, but she backed away. “Don’t touch me! I’m so … unclean.”
They had done away with their bathroom mirror weeks before, because they entertained a lot, and didn’t want their guests to be uncomfortable. Like most men in this mirrorless time, Bursst had grown a beard. So it was while washing his face, several days later, that his fingers first felt the raised, curved ridges on his own cheek.
Other than shock, he didn’t know what to feel. Unclean didn’t cover it, though. Possibly, he thought, he had begun the transformation into a monster, the human monster that would soon succeed Homo sapiens as the dominant life form on the planet. The answer to the long-pondered question, ‘What is Our Purpose in Life?’ Like all great Questions, this answer was simple: to screw around with elemental forces and the elements themselves until, accidentally, something was done that couldn’t be undone, and which changes everything. Thus, the Future.
Outside, on the streets, in his office, life seemed to go on as usual. Though there certainly were changes – change, after all, was the only real constant in life – they appeared entirely normal. Like Sara’s chopping her long hair short, above her shoulders, they seemed to signify only the common procession of time.
Certain talk shows continued to make headlines out of the disease. “The View” devoted whole shows to the subject. Guests had to agree to being shown with no masking whatever. Oprah held periodic “mini-thons”, raising money for research and development of a cure. But for the most part, no one talked about it.
“Bad Boy” radio talk host Lester Gordon for months on end featured as guests only strippers and pole-dancers talking about their Disfigurements and what they did with them. His ratings plummeted, to his surprise if no one else’s. Suddenly, he was “on vacation” and his show was in reruns. When he came back, his only guests were strippers who had been nuns, and nuns who had been strippers. The Disfigurement “incident” was never mentioned.
A local television station was taken into Superior Court by its news staff. Citing HIPAA laws concerning medical privacy, they compelled the station to use the same technology the network talk shows used and mask their left cheeks, whether they had the Disfigurement or not.
The Self-Help industry experienced the shortest boom in its history. Within three months, almost a thousand titles appeared. “A Welt Is Growing”, “My Changing Face”, “How Deep is a Welt?”, “When Baby Asks”; for teenagers, “Basketball Outcast”, “JoAnn’s New Boy”; for pre-teens, “Nothing to Say”. The first printing sold out. The second printing had to be burnt.
Extension schools added courses on ‘Disfigurement and Self-Image’, ‘Disfigurement and the Workplace’, ‘Disfigurement for Supermodels’. The American Board of Psychology added “Disfigurement Adjustment” as a specialty. A huge controversy arose in Women’s’ Studies, and Comparative Religion. Within Islam, a brouhaha erupted. “Until I saw it myself,” said Ali Sheiq Ramid, a contributor to Aljazeera, “I would not believe any reports of Western women in purdah until I was sent to Atlanta to cover a track meet and saw them with my own eyes. I would have expected angels with flaming swords, and crevasses descending to the center of the earth, first.”
Articles on how to handle Shelbourne Depression were featured monthly on magazine covers. The primary concern was silence: how to endure the endless complaining of dear friends, relatives, even children; how to change the subject when it appears the complaining will never end.
In the end, resolution came from the phone.
“I am Willow McKonkey. I live at 142 McKonkey Drive, Musk Grove, Georgia, up at the top of McKonkey Mountain. I think my little sister Emily may have discovered something about the Disfigurement thing. She lives here, too. Our phone number is ” etc.
Marvin Mayhouse, the intern who transcribed her phone call from Cardnall Bursst’s voicemail, later said there was “something in her voice” that he could never forget. But it was the alarm, a brief phrase of classical music, which actually got Bursst’s attention.
A bored but curious IT administrator had combined a voice-stress analyzer with something he swiped from a bulletin board and attached it to a dozen COD voice mailboxes rigged as an alarm. They included Bursst’s. When he heard it, the IT guy emailed Bursst, who asked Mayhouse for the transcript.
A team of COD field analysts arrived at the McKonkey residence the following afternoon.
Emily, seven, living with her family in farthest rural Georgia, the mountains near Tennessee, was the first member of the household to catch The Disfigurement. Playing alone one day in the attic, she came across a forgotten hand mirror in an old trunk. Having never seen such an object, she stared at it. She didn’t recognize the face she saw as her own, but eventually realized the mirror was showing her whatever was before it.
She stared at the face, her face, which she had never seen before in such clarity and immediacy and in ‘mirror image’, flipped left-for-right. She had of course seen herself in videos and still pictures taken by relatives at parties and such. But this image was completely different, spectacularly alive. She was fascinated by it. It talked to her, not just saying the words she said but speaking their inner meanings, which videos can never display.
And she stared at the mark on her face. The spiral seemed so tiny! She wasn’t even sure it was the Disfigurement she had seen on others at the store.
She knew she shouldn’t stare at it. She didn’t need to be told. Ignore it, the voice in her head said, sounding like her mother when she was angry. Pay it no mind. Look at other stuff – your smile. Look at your smile. Don’t it look pretty? But she wasn’t smiling.
And the mirror was saying, Look at that mark. See how it curls. What do those bumps and turns tell you that you need to know?
For every seven year old knows that she needs to know more than she does. She is forever looking for that knowledge, busily putting one and one together, two and two, fours and sixteens and sixtyfours wherever she can recognize them. She looked at the welt, and she learned … something. She couldn’t put her finger on it, not directly. But she knew it to the bottom of her soul, and that made a whole lot of other things clearer.
The attic was hot. She felt very sleepy. Emily put the mirror back in the trunk and closed it and pushed the trunk in under a rack of clothes before she left the attic. She closed the door at the bottom of the stairs, went into her much cooler room and lay on her bed, and fell fast asleep.
She ws awakened by her mother’s voice, calling her to dinner. She took off the homemade knit blanket (where’d that come from?), went to the bathroom, washed her hands and face, and went down to the kitchen.
“Emily, did you wash your hands?” said her mother without looking up from mashing the potatoes.
“And your face? You got it smudged, whatever you were doing.”
“Yes’m I washed that, too,” she said. “How’d you know I’d smudged it?”
“I saw when I put that blanket on you,” her Mother said. She looked up then, smiling, and saw…
Her jaw dropped. She let go of the potato masher and ran three steps to her daughter, and stroked her cheek where the disfiguring welt no longer could be seen or felt.
“What should we do, Momma?” said Willow, 16, who was setting the tables.
“We gotta wait and see what your Father has to say,” said Momma.
Willow McKonkey had made the call then, because her Mother had promptly fainted.
The Field Team took Emily’s vitals and a half-pint of her blood and a tube’s worth of everybody else’s, and examined the house, basement to attic, from which they took the trunk containing the mirror. They also took Emily, and her Momma.
That night, Emily was admitted to the Medical College of Georgia, where another blood sample was taken, CAT scans and an MRI were performed, and neurological tests were run.
They them transported Emily and her mother to Georgetown University Hospital. The same blood tests, CAT scans and MRIs were repeated, this time on her mother, too. Emily and her mother were each interviewed for an hour-and-a-half, and Emily was made to wear a monitor in a halter all day. They were watched by cameras mounted near the ceilings of the rooms they were in. Twice, Emily had to pee into a cup.
The conclusions were as follows:
– Emily was completely free of the virus: no traces remained
– Her family remained fully infected with live virus
– There was nothing extraordinary about the house, the attic, the trunk or the mirror
– If Emily’s cure was related to the mirror, the relationship was unknown
An internal COD email blast requested volunteers for a medical test. Since the history of such tests involved communicable diseases, response was always restrained. Also, the Disfigurement’s heightened defensiveness regarding the welts made it even more unlikely that many would volunteer. Personnel was overwhelmed, then, when thiryfive hundred immediately replied they were interested. Word had, evidently, gotten out.
Four were chosen at random. Two were then exchanged for parents with children also willing to go through the tests. So, in the end, six subjects occupied rooms on floor 4-J of the Georgetown hospital, one spring week in 72454.5, two standard years ago, the first rooms in the hospital to have mirrors re-installed. Four days later, they returned to their dogs, cats and human families, completely virus-free.
It took six more weeks until everybody finally signed off on the results. COD then issued its third and final Public Information Bulletin on the Shelbourne Disfigurement:
“Recent research findings have conclusively demonstrated the Shelbourne Disfigurement Virus can be controlled. All cases in which the subject gazed at his or her own welt in a mirror for five hours or more, and then slept, resulted in complete reversal of the virus, including the elimination of the welt and all bodily traces of the virus. Instructions on proper gazing are to be found below.”
Knowing they would face the chemically-induced resistance to facing the Disfigurement, COD published inserts in all news services. Titled in direct language, “Recognizing Defensiveness in You and Your Family”, “Overcoming Gaze Reluctance”, “Welt Addiction Withdrawal” were among the over two dozen titles released. Under banners reading “Breaking Down Defensiveness”, COD-sponsored group sessions were held in school gyms, nightclubs, dojos and public parks.
The period following the Disfigurement ramains the first in all history in which psychosomatic disorders outnumbered actual physical illnesses, and the first in which human bodies were observed to generate endocrine support for, and antibody defense against, such conditions. COD compiled a list of over eighty such disorders.
Overlooked by history, in creating a virus, humanity has taken an enormous step toward the actual creation of life. Many precedents have been set and directions determined. Many irrelevant questions have been eliminated. It could be said that, while the manufacturing of sentient beings is still so far in the future as to be nothing but pure fantasy, human development of creatures with internal skeletons that walk and respond to instinct could be anticipated in the next five hundred years.
My conclusion is that a program of standardized observation should be initiated immediately, and the Council should prepare to introduce itself to humanity, sooner than later.
1 – Professor B. Scheiman, of Westminster College of Donnerville, NV, has theorized that this related to the concentration of silicon in the spiral skin extrusion and the relatively high concentration of absorbable silicon in the green beans. This connection has yet to be demonstrated.
2 – No one has yet been connected with the virus’ “escape”.