Monday, April 9, 2018

Query 1.07B: The Prince and the Pauper

Cain waited patiently in the little white room with it’s one way mirror, uncomfortable metal furnishings, and surveillance camera, which had been turned off well before he’d entered. The small LED on it was still blinking, a feature Cain assumed was meant to give the impression that one’s rights were being observed. It was hot and muggy and the room smelled like a moldy cotton sock. The discomfort. The smell. The heat. Cain imagined it had to be deliberate. A kind of manufactured hopelessness.

Maybe it helps make people talk. Maybe the guard's just liked to watch them squirm.

Cain had been given the privilege of something resembling terrible black coffee in a cheap paper cup. A luxury he was certain his guest would not be extended. Probably for the best. He’d suffered enough.

After a brief, dull, uncomfortable interlude, the heavy metal door finally opened with an ear splitting grind as it rubbed against the concrete floor. Two generic, perfectly proficient, and completely unremarkable guards emerged with the package in tow.

Richard Pythagoras Black was not looking his best, but who would be. The man was in his late 20s to early 30s, his slight build made worse by the ill fitting, washed out black of his jumpsuit.

One of the guards maneuvered Py roughly into the chair opposite Cain and yanked his hands forward to attach the chain that ran from the man’s shackles into a small metal loop that was welded to the table, before taking up position by the door. Cain couldn’t tell if the guard’s animosity was reserved strictly for Py or was just a general side effect of what must be a soul crushing, undervalued position.

Should've stayed in school boys.

Py’s expression was vacant. A bored resignation having taken hold, his brown eyes fixed on his hands as the thumb of each rubbed in a circular motion against the side of the forefinger. Py’s intelligent gaze was washed thin, blanched like his rotten, recycled jumpsuit. Compounding it all was obvious sleep deprivation. Not surprising. Interrogation wasn’t designed to bring out the best in people, especially when one was labeled a terrorist. Cain could see that before him was a man who had accepted his fate. Had no regrets. A willing sacrifice. Acceptance, however, was not the same as enjoying the consequences.

The two sat in awkward silence. Cain ‘thoughtfully’ reviewing the notes shining brightly on the surface of his tablet. He’d been taught that in negotiation the first to speak was the first to lose. Cain was curious if Py had heard that too. A few seconds observation gave him his answer; Py didn’t even know he was negotiating.

Victory Cain.

“So... you never did get credit for Ronstein’s little Med-Bugs, did you?”

Py’s thumbs stopped. Though his head didn’t move his eyes locked with Cain’s and there was fight in those eyes, anger, but most importantly life. For the first time since entering the room the man looked alive and Cain couldn’t help but smile.

“Well...hello Py.”

“What would you know about that?” Despite the circumstances, Py’s voice was strong and clear. Cain being rather gifted at the nuances of conversation detected just a hint of bitterness.

“I know if the world were just and fair they would have called it Auto-immunizing Anopheles Black.” Cain gestured at Py, “but the world isn’t just or fair. Is it?”

“What makes you think I had anything to do with that?” The question would have felt coy under different circumstances, but Cain could see that Py was asking out of genuine interest. Cain took his time, letting the question dangle between them as he brought the coffee to his lips and took a small sip. He grimaced at the taste and set the vile brew aside before looking back to Py and giving his answer.

“Two very expensive lawyers and one very awkward phone call.”

“Who are you?” Py’s face had lined and pulled into what was a weary incredulity. Cain could understand his confusion. The information Cain purported to know, and Py was contractually obligated to conceal, was buried under enough paperwork to suffocate a bull elephant. Lucky for Cain, his legal council was well versed in exploiting the loopholes in such contracts, namely bribery, extortion, blackmail, and physical discomfort.

“In my capacity here, I’m a representative of the Vergeron Corporation. Whether intended or not, you saved the company a notable sum of money. Not to mention the press. Getting held hostage by a terrorist bruised us a little on wall-street, but the media would have crucified us if we had ended the world.

“So why are you here? What does Vergeron want with me?”

“You saved us money before, I’m here to see if you can do it again. Part of that is determining if you’re the chronic victim of tragic circumstance, or just a belligerent, self righteous asshole.

The response from Py was immediate. He’d been slow to gain consciousness over the course of their conversation, but it was obvious to Cain that the man was now ready to participate. He wondered how long it had been since Py heard a three syllable word, or any parlance the high school dropout behind him would understand, but Cain suspected, despite the lingering traces of anger, Py was hungry for an intellectual exchange. Cain was expecting something more erratic from the doomsday prophet that had been forcibly removed from the Vergeron International Terminal just a few days ago. Not necessarily dumb, but more of a word salad, cryptic, and self important. Like the “Book of Revelation”.

“I’m no more a victim of this circumstance than you’re a victim of that coffee. As for the other, if you’re referring to my dissertation on the “Mobilization of Communicable Disease in the Age of Suborbital Transit”, self-righteous implies a lack of evidence, in which case we would likely not be talking.”

“Anyone who publishes a manifesto is self-righteous, in my opinion.”

“I published an informed peer reviewed journal paper. The media published a manifesto.”

Cain was pleased with the exchange. The binary options of character he’d presented had both been terrible and meant as a kind of test. Most would have identified with the victim and done their best to garner sympathy. Py had stated in no uncertain terms that, despite the severity of his circumstances, he was no victim and while he might appear self righteous in the casual sense, Py’s good friend the Dictionary promised he was not. Py had successfully sniffed Cain’s bait and avoided it’s poison, navigating each trap, save ‘asshole’, which still remained to be seen.

“Too bad the media wasn’t so attentive during the Med-Bug project. I’ll admit I was always fascinated by that famous little mosquito. Genetically modified to inoculate people against malaria. Brilliant! I’m amazed no one ever made any money from it. I wonder though, why not just change the mosquito to prevent it from being a carrier?”

Py absentmindedly tugged a little on his sleeves like he was adjusting the fit of his favorite tweed jacket. His cadence changed, reminding Cain uncannily of his 3rd year economics professor.

How often have you taught this class?

“A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a minority of species that carry malaria. There are even some species with immune responses that kill the parasite after ingestion. But, unless these species entirely supercede existing populations the effect will be limited. Mosquitos get malaria from infected humans. Since inoculated humans can’t provide the parasite to mosquitoes you’ve broken a crucial part of the disease’s life cycle. The genius is the tactic remains effective even if the modified mosquitoes make up a fraction of the total population. We made sure they were hardy little bastards, just to hedge our bets, but most of us were never conceited enough to believe we would achieve total population dominance.”

“Why not just inoculate the population the old fashioned way?” Cain watched Py twitch faced with a supplementary stab at the ‘asshole’ test. He could already paraphrase the look on Py’s face: “Cause people is dumb”. He couldn’t wait to hear Py talk around that particular cultural axiom. It took a few seconds for Py to find his words, but when he did they were more restrained than Cain expected.

“Cultural bias in many cases cause people to refuse treatment. Or in some cases populations are inaccessible or undiscovered. The number of ‘anti-vaxxers’ is at a historic high, and many diseases near extinction have seen resurgence.” Py was understating the case. While vaccinations were often mandated by law in cities like Delphi the state of smaller communities was often dire. Vergeron had actually studied this in depth, but pulled away after profit predictions fell below expectation.

“So...people get the shot without even knowing?”

“I understand the moral complexities of the decision. There were a lot of sleepless debates about the ethics and legality. Ultimately, the project went forward, the skids greased by the memory of Rapture. There were plans to experiment with similar strategies for other diseases, but the project was acquired and I haven’t heard anything about it since.”

For people like Cain, urbanites, people whose blood pulsed in time with all things cosmopolitan, vaccinations were compulsory. More than a decade of government regulation and targeted marketing had plastered every major city with one resounding message; it was the duty of every man, woman, and child to prevent another Rapture. Even the most ill educated street urchin could use terminology like antibody, herd immunity, infection vector, and virus in their proper context. It was this immersion in the propaganda of a post pandemic world that was credited for the stability of large population centers in the face of the so called “aftershock” pandemics that followed. Radical solutions, such as the Med-Bug project, that seemed insane even a few years ago gained serious consideration. While most were ultimately discarded a few managed to make it out of their labs and into reality. Py would have been the Johnny Appleseed of vaccinations had his name not been stricken from the official record. Heros rarely lived up to expectations when met in person. Py did not disappoint.

“Has this killed anyone?” Cain already knew the answer. Immune systems were not created equal. To some those immunizing mosquitoes were just as deadly as their infected cousins. While Cain didn’t necessarily disagree with Py’s decision he was curious about the rationale the man used to make such a historical, and more importantly, unilateral decision.

“A few^” Two words, just two words, but Cain could feel their weight. The reverence with which Py spoke was clear and Cain let the conversation lull in a show of respect. After a few seconds Cain asked the only question he could possibly ask.

“Would you do it again?”

A small, sad smile pulled at Py’s mouth and he gave a nod, as if he’d expected Cain’s question.

“Even in hindsight, with everything I’ve seen, learned, all of the new technology that’s been developed, it’s still the only decision I could live with. If we don’t build a firebreak to stem the tide of these modern epidemics they could burn out of control. I also had my own conscience to consider. I couldn’t sleep at night if I had stood idly by while the project languished in the marketing phase.”

By holding that plane on the runway, Py had saved Vergeron millions of dollars and likely thousands of lives. By interfering with the monetization of the Med-Bug project he’d cost another company possibly billions while saving possibly millions of people. The net worth of Py to Vergeron was now back to zero and that was Cain being generous. Py constituted a negative to a more objective observer, which was too bad, because Cain was starting to like the guy.

“So what exactly was your part in all this?”

“Ahh…. I’m afraid I’ve said about as much as I’m able.” Py realizing too late that he may have already revealed too much.

“So they pack you up and send you on your way, with hardly a goodbye. No recommendation. No name on the paper? No name on the patent.”

“Something like that.”

Cain glanced down briefly at his notes, more out of habit than any need to be reminded of the particulars. “Yet you still manage to get a fairly good position at WHO?” Cain said, emphasizing the statement with a gentle tap on the tablet’s screen.

“I interview well. Plus I worked with a few people from WHO on the Med-Bug project.”

“According to them you’re out on extended medical leave. They wouldn’t give me much else…which is strange. Would you care to elaborate?”

“Absolutely not.” There was a part of Cain that wished sound could actually affect temperature because the cold finality with which Py had uttered those words by all rights should have chilled the room down to something approaching tolerable. Cain was tactful enough not to push the issue.

“Moving on then^ Let’s talk about our present circumstance. I read your official statement, but I’d like to hear it from you. How did you know that the plane was infected?“

Py slipped back into that invisible tweed jacket of his. As far as Cain knew Py had never been a teacher, but he was obviously comfortable pontificating at length about any part of his experience or expertise. Cain imagined Py conducting long meetings with thousands of slides, well colored and thoughtfully graphed, informative to a fault, lovingly cultivated, and exceedingly boring.

“There’s a highly contagious virus, WAS, the West African Scourge. It’s epidemic in the region of the Dakar International Airport. The gestation period of the disease is short enough that if it ever made it on a normal transatlantic flight it would run its course before the plane could land.”

“Run its course?”

‘Run its course’ can mean a lot of things.

“Everyone would die and the plane would plunge into the sea.”

“Ohh... continue.”

Py seemed to have a grand talent for understating the lethality of things. Cain wondered if Py viewed death like he himself viewed a hundred dollar bill. Worth noting, but not worth much, unless they came in a briefcase with thousands of their friends.

“With the new Vergeron near-suborbital jets the time for transatlantic travel has been cut in half. WHO was aware of the possible danger and began assembling quarantine recommendations, but they were unable to keep pace with the corporate agenda.”

“So you decided to take things into your own hands.”

“Not exactly. I was on leave and more than a little bored, so I decided to set up a program that would listen to chatter from air traffic control and monitor the communications for anyone describing symptoms of disease. I figured if anyone on the plane was really sick they might radio in to get medical advice from a specialist on the ground.”

“Sounds like quite an undertaking.”

“You might be surprised. I just downloaded a few canned AIs from the internet and trained them to look for keywords and phrases. I had most of it set up in just a few days. On the day in question one of my bots sounded an alarm. The symptoms being described were vague, but still enough to peak my interest. I decided to radio the plane myself, pretending to be air traffic control, and asked for some clarification. When I realized I had a possible threat I contacted WHO immediately. They started to move, but weren’t going to hit the ground in time. I still had active WHO credentials, so I attempted to contact the airline to see if they would hold the plane on the runway until WHO could arrive. They ‘politely’ declined. After that I tried everyone, the police, fire department, even the mayor's office. Nothing.”

Cain could tell it was a canned response, something Py had probably rehearsed a hundred times to make sure it was clear and that he hadn’t forgotten any details. If Py had been given a lawyer, a good one anyways, it might have read a little different. For example, it would have excluded wonderful phrases like ‘pretending to be air traffic control’.

“That’s when things got crazy?”

“That’s when things got crazy. I threw together my ‘bomb suit’ and headed straight for the runway. All I had to do was delay disembarking for a few hours. I figured I could get that time easily even with a dubious threat.”

“Dubious is the key word. I can’t believe anyone bought that. What was that exactly?” Cain remembered the video footage of a bulbous, puffed up something dragged out on a wave of blue uniforms.

“An old electric blanket, a ballpoint pen and about six sweaters.

“You looked ridiculous.”

“And yet, for a few brief hours, I was king of the airport.”

That last comment was enough to split Cain’s face in a genuine smile. It was also the tape at the finish line. Py had jumped through enough hoops, earned enough currency, run the gauntlet, been in proximity to enough bad coffee, and was just cute enough to warrant an adoption.

“How would you like to get out of here?”

“What? Like dinner? A movie? I don’t even know your name hotshot.” Py had relaxed and Cain was thankful for it. They’d gotten a feel for each other now and if not for the uncomfortable setting and the punch-drunk nature of sleep deprivation accenting Py’s more whimsical tendencies, or maybe because of it, this was the best interview Cain had ever done.

“Cain Westbrook is my name Mr. Black and I think we can skip the movie. Once the District Attorney get’s a good look at that ‘bomb’ of yours, I doubt the terrorism charge is going to stick. Plus, nobody really got hurt.”

Excluding all those people who died on the airplane... eggs... omelets.

“Still, you’re looking at a healthy amount of jail time. I can get you out of here on bail, or parole, depending. Of course you’ll answer to me for the duration.”

“The duration of what? What exactly are you offering?”

As a nod to Py’s invisible tweed jacket Cain straightened his very real silk tie before diving in.

“Py, being a multinational conglomerate we collect, protect, monitor, and analyze an immense amount of data. More than anyone in the world, I’m pleased to say. Naturally, we sift through this data, identifying trends and behaviors we can use to better serve our customers. In the process of this sifting our analysts have discovered some anomalies they’ve lovingly termed ‘dark behavior’, so named not because of anything sinister, but as a nod to the dark matter hypothesis. These forces have their own kind of gravity, Py. They pull and redirect the ebb and flow of the consumer subconscious while remaining mysterious. It’s been decided that investigation into this aberrant behavior is necessary, but given the inherent obscurity of these forces Vergeron is hesitant to green light funding without knowing how deep the rabbit hole goes. It was determined that instead of dedicating a research team and an unknown sum of money to these obscurities we hire someone with skills suited to this kind of hunt. A bloodhound, if you will, which brings me to you, Py.”

Cain leaned forward in his chair and let a practiced sincerity enter his voice.

“Not only did you observe a problem over your morning cereal no one else wanted to acknowledge, you managed to solve the problem with a basic internet connection and an old electric blanket. So here’s the hard pitch. You plead guilty to a handful of reduced charges: inciting a riot, taking a ballpoint pen through a TSA checkpoint, that kind of thing. Our lawyers estimate about 5 years jail time. The judge will suspend that sentence and release you to us for a sponsored work release program. During that time you’ll still be on parole, so any violation will send you right back to jail. Although I’m not anticipating any problems...am I. The alternative, of course, is that you take your chances with the adorable public defender in the $5 suite. I passed him in the hall, he seems very… eager.”

Py sat in thoughtful silence for a few seconds. Cain could understand the hesitation. Five years of indentured servitude was no joke, but Py’s comprehension must have landed on what Cain already fully understood; Py had no better options. “I saw him as well and he seems... ‘adorable’… Alright, I’ll bite. What’s the next move?”

Cain stood up from the table, gathering his tablet and making his way to the door.

“Our lawyers will be over shortly with a fairly large stack of things you'll need to sign. I’ve taken the liberty of upgrading your accommodations for the night. This is no place for Vergeron’s latest capital investment. I’ll expect to see you in my office early next week.”

The guard opened the door and Cain passed through, his thoughts already moving to more pressing matters, chief among them air conditioning and a decent cup of god damned coffee.

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