— The Kazath
WHAT A SIMPLE MATTER! The corridor remained silent, leaving the thought unanswered. Alec crept into the nursery – a sliver of shadow in a fractured night. He breathed with meticulous anxiety, his hands white with tension. An inhaler bulged in his breast pocket; he patted it with a smile.
The bassinets were laid about with predictable precision, forming a symmetrical grid. The room hummed with the incessant breath of sleeping infants, and in the upper left-hand corner a single security camera held an unblinking gaze on Alec.
Having worked and studied in the university hospital for over five years, Alec had paid careful attention to the security in the building. He knew the night camera operator, Cullen Cooper, on a first name basis and the two would often commiserate over cups of coffee whenever Alec was forced to stay late and catalogue blood samples. He had gleaned a mountain of information from his compatriot – including the cycles of the cameras and how long each appeared on the monitors in Security.
15… 14… 13… Alec peered down at his wristwatch. Though possessing the highest level of clearance allowed to any graduate student, even he could not escape seizure were the cameras to catch him here in such a compromising situation. Especially if they knew why.
Alec removed the inhaler, and darted to the far corner of the nursery. He was now directly beneath the camera, out of view of its lidless eye. 3… 2… 1… the timer on his watch aligned with the camera intervals once more. 45 seconds. Alec remained silent and motionless. The nursery now appeared on one of the screens in the Security cubicle, being monitored with passing interest by Mr. Cooper. Alec’s watch blinked as the camera’s stint in the limelight ended, and the screen that it had occupied was replaced by a view of the parking garage. Alec released a calming breath and ventured toward the bassinet closest to him. He had five minutes.
The infants slept without the weight of unknown cares. He leaned over to gaze at the first child. Antiseptic odors pervaded the stark, hospital room, but Alec paused regardless: there was still a certain warmth conveyed by the newborn that no amount of reality could shred. Alec froze, as seconds throbbed by. His mind teetered on the blade between two worlds. Emotions have no place here! he told himself. The struggle was had long ago been decided – this was an opportunity that could not be relinquished.
Holding the inhaler in one hand, Alec reached into the bassinet and deftly pushed on the sleeping child’s chin, sliding her mouth open. The little girl promptly awoke and proceeded to release a tear-ridden wail, but this was cut short by a massive palm clamped over the girl’s delicate face. The cries were reduced to muffled moans. Not much time, he thought. In a swift motion, he moved his hand aside and inserted the inhaler into the child’s mouth. With his free hand, he pinched the miniature nose of the child and watched with leering anticipation as the tiny chest rose and fell.
Pausing to steady his hands and nerves, he depressed the top valve on the device. Grim chills washed his psyche as the inhaler’s contents were released into the breathing vessel below. With robotic resolution, Alec straightened and replaced the empty inhaler in his breast pocket. Six fluids strides brought Alec through the door and into the hallway. 3… 2… 1…His watch alarm vibrated, and an image of the nursery – centered on the bassinet where Alec had been mere seconds ago – blinked onto the third monitor to the side of Mr. Cooper. The weary security guard glanced at the screen with precognitive dismissal, before returning to the steaming mug of coal black coffee in his hands. The only evidence that remained of Alec’s presence was disturbed air… and a sobbing infant.
— Evan Morgan
umes of their cigars. As the figures crowded around the flimsy card table, they shed sweat and confidence into the musty room. With their incessant quibbling they erected a barrier between them and the leering nightlife on the streets, and with their card playing they turned inward – toward the introspection of a vice. Outsiders might pierce the haze but they would never pierce the player’s musings.
Shuffle. Deal. Raise an eyebrow. Discard. Draw. Repeat. Drop the flush. Play off the three-of-diamonds. Draw. Discard.
“Rummy on the board.” Ehud’s hand darted to the center and scooped up the disheveled pile of cards. The other three players sighed.
“I’m done,” Slobodan scattered his hand across the table with an overdrawn flourish. He started to lean back in his trembling chair, but rapidly reversed his decision. Slobodan often considered their Saturday rummy game as only a prologue to close a fortifying bout with a particularly strong and nasty bottle of rum. He smiled and hiccuped.
It was now Alec’s turn. His glazed visage sharpened for a moment before melting back again. Wordlessly, he too dropped his hand onto the synthetic surface of the table, though his was not in forfeiture but in triumph: in an exquisite row were the ten, jack, queen, and king of spades. Ehud smiled at his comrade and rival… rummy possessed the complexity of chess for him – chess with deceit. And predictably, Deceit always won.
“There it is!” the fourth player ejected. That would be Aaric, a scrawny, spastic fellow that was possessed of a weighty conscience and an intellect that surpassed it. He sprang upright and bolted his feet to the floor.
“Again, again. We should play again… we are young – I mean the night it is…”
“Alright,” Alec whispered. He lit a cigar and favored it for a moment, making his contribution to the binding haze. Aaric’s nose crinkled.
“We’ll play again… I’m in the mood to talk, however. And as I’ve won I suppose I’ve earned a little interesting conversation to keep my ears in tune.” He flicked the cards from player to player with deft accuracy.
“For starters I’ve taken it upon myself to complete a little wager,” Alec mumbled to the table.
“Would anyone like to hear about it?”
Slobodan hiccuped in response.
DR. MUSSOLMONI was befuddled. He threatened to grind the stubble from his face as he rubbed it in perplexity. The six-year-old boy before him was the oddest case he had ever dealt with… until this past week. It was not the worst and definitely not the best, but this pitifully humorous child – like all odd things – was squeezed between the two. With nothing else to do, he listened to the tiny heartbeat of the body.
“And how long did you say this has been going on?”
“Two weekth,” the lisping boy nodded decidedly.
Dr. Mussolmoni stooped painfully and picked his nose out of mental exhaustion. It was a habit, and in college it had detrimentally affected the outcome of more than a few dates. He turned to the mother, staring out the window. She was anxious and her cheeks were flushed.
“Well, I’m not really sure if there’s anything I can do.” The Doctor’s words were gentle, and that much more cruel to the poor woman. He empathized with her and her progeny – the embodiment of a parent’s effort – arbitrarily dumped onto the dirt road of life. The mother burst into tears and hurried her child through the office door.
“If it’s any consolation, I’ve already seen seventeen other cases like this today.”
That was the most alarming fact… eighteen cases today, seven yesterday, and three the day before that!
Dr. Mussolmoni was stricken with the sheer absurdity of it all. He had alerted the proper authorities, but this did little to relieve his utter bewilderment. Besides, what would the authorities do? The authorities would make something out of doing nothing… Nurse Piache cracked the door and peeked her head through.
“Doctor, I have your next patient. He’s another…”
Mussolmoni cut her short.
“Send him in, please.”
The nurse shut the door with soft pity… both for the patients and for the Doctor. What were they going to do? Very soon this town will look like the aftermath of a Riverdancing giant… Bloomingtown had an epidemic on its hands and it was mushrooming with every fettered breath.
THE ROOM WAS SILENCE turned oppressive; the must was thick and vulgar. A pensive mood affected the three players, as they turned their attention to Alec. Ehud unraveled the puzzle that seemed to elude everyone else.
“Does anybody else find commercials for erectile dysfunction medicine even slightly distasteful?”
“Very much so,” Aaric replied candidly. A smirk was concealed on Ehud’s face as he listened.
“Well, stop it!” Alec lunged across the table, bringing himself within mere inches of Aaric’s nervous countenance.
“Take it like a man… not the medicine itself, of course, unless you require it… but the commercial, take it. It is bold and, as a result, self-perpetuating. Don’t decry this advertisement – this veritable gem – that promotes the same humanistic individualism that every one of us here accepts. We cannot let morals shroud a world devoid of them… even if you’re religious, because then the morals themselves are only in heaven.
Slobodan, drunkenly sobered by the oration, played his turn and discarded, missing the pile of cards by half. His camouflaged profile was suddenly made clear by a great belch and a hiccup.
“I suppose it all goes back to prudence, and from there to why we exist? The artisans of an erectile dysfunction commercial ply their craft because that is their means to exist. Morals change with purpose and circumstance, just like the Donner party did when they chowed down on their frozen kindred. Societies adjust their infrastructures according to their environment, and morals are just another element in that milieu of human behavior.
Aaric shook his head; Slobodan was strangely eloquent with his rum.
“Well said, Slobo. Needs first, ideals second.” Aaric discarded a seven-of-spades along with his thoughts. Alec leaned forward once more.
“But the real trick is to find reason for your ideals. Let’s assume for a moment that we have two devout Muslims: an innocent youth and a wise elder. On the exterior, both are as equally pious and god-fearing as the other… but one possesses the crux of experience. The innocent youth is shrouded by impressionment; he has no reason behind his faith in Allah, but the elder’s world is larger – he has a more formidable repertoire of memories… this man then deserves the greater respect.
“He could’ve persisted in his faith because of an evidenced rational, which is unlikely because theology is easily quenched by philosophy. Even more admirable still, our elder Muslim could’ve clung to his faith despite reason. Despite distress and suffering, he sees Allah as altruism personified; despite the subtle whispers of existentialism, he sees only the believer and the infidel. Finally, if such a man of wisdom can be bound to his god like iron to a hoof in such a tremblingly fragile world then he has attained all the respect he needs from himself… and we should kiss his toes in deference. Because while we dwell in a world hewn in the form of a celestial Christmas ornament, we may find that it shatters as easily as one.
Alec returned his gaze to his hand and frowned with smug satisfaction. Slobodan began again, this time in a loping mumble. The other three players turned their attention to their drunken companion.
“When conviction radiates from the interior it is noble; it is when it radiates from the posterior that the nasty stank of pretense is loosed.”
“WELL, SOME ONE SURE SHIT IN YOUR EASTER BASKET!”
The regional health director, Mr. DeFondlen, looked up from his paper-smeared desk him to peer at a gaping hole where two front teeth should have been. The sanitation official from Bloomingtown had arrived. DeFondlen removed his glasses and pinched his nose in exhaustion.
“Just because you take care of the bathrooms doesn’t mean you have to leave your language in one… did you find anything?” The wiry official released a whistling laugh through the gap in his teeth.
“We’ve taken samples from all of it, Mister DeFondlen… and we can’t find anything worth a second glance.”
“Don’t stop monitoring; just contact me if you find any of samples with abnormalities.”
“Right, abnormalities. I will make sure to watch out for those sir.” The sanitation officer chuckled again and left the office with a hiccup.
In a reluctant motion, DeFondlen placed his hand on the mustard phone perched on the corner of his desk. The situation had long ago exceeded his grasp.
THE BLOOMINGTOWN CLINIC WAS BRIMMING WITH BUSTLING personnel. Their dogmatic motions and self-importance falsified their predicament and appeared to alleviate it. Occupied individuals were faithful to routine… and thankfully so, for fear is an infectious obstacle when there is no hope. But the narrow eyes of one astute observer pierced the hazy multitude.
Agent Conner swept through the hinged hospital doors and into the quarantine cell. Cloudy, plastic fabric was stretched across the center of the room, diffusing what lay beyond into sloppy impressionism. Nurses and doctors monitored archaic equipment, and armani men silently shuffled about. Every action was efficient, wordless, and stale. In the corner of the room, the electric groan of an air pump resonated from the walls.
Having arrived from CDC headquarters in Atlanta only three hours ago, Agent Conner’s razored patience was multiplied by exhaustion. A reconnaissance agent dispatched by the Epidemic Intelligence Service, Conner was supposed to gather his data and make a succinct exit. His first priority, however, was to promise nothing.
One of the doctors looked up from one of his charts abruptly and gazed at Conner.
“You’re late… make your observations short. We have a team flying in from Cleveland within the hour, so suit up and get in there.”
The doctor handed him his gear.
“She is the first, then?” Conner inquired.
“That’s right… it’s been three weeks and five days now. Symptoms steady –
no progression or remission. She’s fairly happy now and starting to accept it, but she’s very shy, Agent Conner. Please do remember that.”
Conner nodded as he slipped into his quarantine outfit.
THEY ALL EXUDED a deepening isolation as they played their desperate game. Their minds, massaged by talk and drink, had drifted into pleasant perplexities. To Alec, it was exhilarating.
To Aaric, it was pitifully vulgar.
“So what was the wager?” Slobodan turned his attention to Alec.
“You said that you had completed a little wager, Alec. But you never told us what it was?”
Slobodan hiccuped with dizzied confusion.
“Well, I’m pleased at the inquisition,” Alec grinned.
“And I’d be more than happy to tell you about my little accomp
The others players leaned forward, and the narrow light from the hanging overhead lamp seemed to nestle between them.
“It began when I was an undergrad at Havermore; that’s when the notion was first conceived. It was a Saturday night not at all dissimilar to this one – you know, one of those double negative nights.
“A close fellow of mine – I wouldn’t venture that he was a friend because those are hard to come by when one is full of sadistic ambition. But certainly he was a fellow. In any case, we were commiserating over gin that night, and eventually our conversation turned competitive. At first it began as jokes, but for me at least, it progressed into something much more…
“We were both studying medicine, you see. And on that night we began bating each other with twisted dares… ideas that would’ve had Hippocrates in a fit. It was an adolescent ascension… we egged each other on and on, until finally we arrived at one of the most brilliantly artful thoughts that I’d yet seen.
“I subtly laughed it off and have mentioned nothing about it until now.”
“Well…” Aaric trailed off with anticipation.
“THIS IS ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS!” Conner’s gaunt figure was held in stasis by disbelief. He clicked on his microphone and looked through the clear plastic at the doctor on the other side.
“And this is the only symptom?”
The physician nodded an affirmative.
He couldn’t help it, but he actually chuckled, and of course the girl only sobbed more at this. She rested in the glass lozenge, barely visible beneath the parasitic bush of wires and sensors that covered her form from hair to heal. It was all so ruefully comical, thought Conner: the diseases itself, the attention heeded to it, the fear that emanated from the unafflicted. Why not let the prankster have his prank?
Decisively, Agent Conner unsealed the capsule and pealed the sensors from the frail girl’s skin and carefully removed the needles from her flesh. With that, he promptly scooped the child up in his arms and removed her from the clinic. If she could deal with the disease, then so could everyone else.
Glancing up at Conner with the confused visage of threatened innocence, the girl shook her head and said:
“I didn’t know that they’d never stop.”
“SO I SPENT MY FREE TIME ENGINEERING the virus in the basement of the biochemistry building. I made it airborne and very contagious… and when it was ready, I infected a female child – an infant who wouldn’t understand what it was not like to be afflicted. Because, afterall, it is worse to go blind than to be born into it.
Alec leaned back in his chair.
“Above all else, I wanted to make us more independent… to teach us that nothing is sacred or guaranteed. I wanted to people to know how to be Hume-an; I wanted to show them that just because the rock has fallen for thousands of years it may yet sprout wings and fly away. The laws of nature, my vice-ridden companions, are just as breakable as the speed limit…
The three inebriated players were thoroughly baffled. Finally, Slobodan leaned forward and hiccuped.
“Yes, but what is the disease? What does it do?”
There was no chuckle or smirk in Alec’s reply.
“I believe you’ve just answered that question for yourself.”