Anatomy of an Outbreak

It is 3:05 in the afternoon, somewhere in the indeterminate future. There is a Sitatunga antelope staggering down grasslands in what was formerly part of Cameroon but now comprises part of a private super-ranch owned by five US holderates. The antelope staggers because one week ago it caught a virus, possibly from infected waters, possibly from a mosquito bite. Fever has burned out most of its brain, it is barely mobile. There is a herd of Cape Buffalo/cattle hybrids in the field as well, they give the antelope a wide berth. The Sitatunga staggers forward, compelled by some unquantifiable memory, or perhaps just driven by inertia. The virus has made it hydrophilic, its body swollen so much its joints can no longer bend.

On the other end of the field, machinery starts up. The Cape Cattle recognize the noise and run. The antelope does not.

The massive harvester spans the breadth of the field, running on elevated tracks so as not to despoil the vegetation. The sensors go by mass and weight. The antelope, having swelled up three times its normal size, is picked up and stored by the machine. Soon, the cape cattle join it.

Our patient zero rises at eight am sharp the next day. He is Phillip Morisot, and he has two weeks of life left. He is a music producer and lives in a resort village on the super-ranch along with his girlfriend Bismuth. Bismuth sells native art from the dwindling Fulani population squatting on the edges of the super-ranch. Phillip signs minor artists and is the primary breadwinner for the household, once he dies Bismuth will have only their small savings to live off of. This will not be a problem as she will not live long enough to see it run out.

This morning he showers in a cubicle that gathers his soapy runoff for recycle, shaves with a dry powder, and puts on a linen suit. Bismuth remains in bed, purple hair peeking out from beneath the comforter.

Phillip rides in a jeep to work, because he likes having the ability to cut across small swaths of grasslands and spying flashes of the ever-thinning wildlife. He has never seen a Sitatunga antelope precisely because this area was not their usual habitat. The sick antelope had traveled a long way indeed, addled by fever.

Phillip’s mind was not on the coming weeks, or even the next day. A particular teen idol, a pop singer toying with her own clothing line, was teetering on the line between them and a rival recording studio in Rome. The other studio had wined and dined her, taking her to the coliseum museum where she could see actual chunks of the ruin, and gave her a pizza with Ostrich meat and cashews on it. Phillip’s department is under pressure to top that, pressure Phillip doesn’t think he can live up to when even toilet paper had to be flown in to the village.

“—maybe they can get away with that kind of opulence up at pizzaville,” he says to his immediate superior over the phone, “but we’re a more modest outfit over here. That’s what people like about us. What about whathisname, the actor? He liked that we made the jacket covers out of hemp fiber.”

“All ancient history, Phil. Princess Whitebread doesn’t go for that hippie shit. She’s the kind of person who likes more frosting than cupcake.”

Phillip hangs up the phone with little hope.

That afternoon, the antelope is taken from the pen where it had been crammed along with the Cape Cattle. The entire slaughter process is automated, hence there are no witnesses to the sick antelope being decapitated, and certainly no one to stop its blood being collected for use in animal feed. The body is skinned by suction and sectioned into various cuts. The machines here have no sensors, so the unusual amounts of fluids and other oddities go undetected.

That afternoon Phillip takes the teen idol’s manager to Safariville, a popular restaurant made in the style of a chieftain’s hut, but much more spacious. It had been Phillip’s luck that the manager was already on-continent, doing a little publicity down in the Congo preserve. Phillip pretended to be impressed at snapshots of the man posing with heavily sedated elephants and hippos.

“It’s like this, Sammy,” Phillip says, “Princess might like luxury. Heck, we all like being spoiled. But this isn’t just about what she wants. It’s image, it’s about globalization. How’s it going to look if she busts out a magazine cover riding on the hood of a solid-gold Mercedes?”

“Well, we all know how that went down with the last guy,” the manager replies, and they shared a laugh.

The load of meat had been delivered to the restaurant still steaming. Now the chunks are sectioned into smaller slices by the kitchen staff. The chef who got the antelope meat is a local hire. They all are. Like the rest of the kitchen and wait staff, he cannot read English and as such does not follow the safety charts posted by law in every kitchen in the village. While the meat’s external temperature reaches 100 degrees Celsius, enough to carmelize the surface, the internal temperature never rises enough to kill off regular bacteria, much less a virus. With a pair of tongs, the chef flips the meat onto a waiting platter of pasta and salad. He dings the bell and goes back to cooking another steak without washing his hands.

At promptly 1:15pm, Phillip Morisot takes a bite of his steak. Years of smoking have dulled his senses of taste and smell, so he only registers the fact that the meat is oddly chewy. The manager gets a soy assortment, and now spends the remainder of the lunch chewing through what looks like a series of building blocks.

Phillip’s stomach’s protests are dismissed as foreboding. The conversation does not go badly, but no satisfactory conclusion is reached. The manager does not outright agree to anything, but Phillip knows that willful spending could be the death-knell to anyone’s public image. He spends the rest of the afternoon chewing digestive tablets and swearing off cheese.

While Phillip’s stomach digests the meat, the virus makes acquaintance with his stomach cells. The viral symptoms that might have been recognized in the animal are not present in Phillip. He has no sudden thirst for water, he will not wander in circles as the antelope had for days before meeting with the harvester. However, Phillip’s mucous membranes begin secreting an abnormal amount, which Phillip attributes to the poor air quality predicted for the day. Tissues pile up in his garbage as he waits.

Finally, at sunset, his computer chimes a video call. He puts it on the projector, so the manager is confronted with the hopeful faces of Phillip’s assistants, secretaries, and general dogsbodies.

“Hey there, Phil.” The manager is clearly taken aback by the spectacle, a thing Phillip had counted on. “Been mulling over your words. It is a bear economy right now. Just the other day they attacked that senator for wearing Gucci pumps.”

Andie, his head secretary, laughed disbelievingly, Ferragamo wedges on her feet hidden beneath a desk.

“I know it, Sammy, I know. And we’re all big fans of what you did with those singing boys, you know? Those clean-cut kids from the Bronx?”

The office loyally burst into praise for the singing group that had disbanded five years previous. The manager still considered it a success, judging by the flush of his cheeks. He waved the praise away.

“I can’t keep lobbing no-hitters,” he said, suddenly grim, “I know I’ll have to step wrong sometime, and if I can find a way to minimize my losses, I will.”

Phillip, equally grim, grips the back of his chair and orates over it.

“Sammy I’ve seen the numbers,” he says, “this chickie is really popular with middle America. Can you say that about anyone else in your stable? What about that rocker, the guy with the hair?”

“He’s platinum in Europe.”

“Yeah, but what about the US? I’m not saying it’s all about staying power,” Phillip wheedles, “it’s about globalization. Everybody knows Italy, they know pizzas and Gucci and all that art crap. But look at us down here! We’re a grassroots organization, we’re small, we’re local, we have to send away for our garbage collection! You’ll be doing us all a favor, and Sammy, you know how Yanks like to help the underdog.”

There was a long pause, during which Phillip’s stomach wouldn’t stop gurgling.

“You’re right,” the manager said, and the office let out a resounding cheer.

That night Phillip recounts the coup to his girlfriend while she makes their dinner of sprouted quinoa and lentil-based loafs. They eat on their deck made from centuries-old teak and drink a cheap table wine. That night he and Bismuth make love. Like all other occasions they made love, the only birth control they utilize is Bismuth’s uterine implant.

In the weeks to come Bismuth will nurse Phillip as he grows progressively worse, becoming delirious and weak, thinking it merely a bout of McKillup’s Influenza, which they had both contracted earlier in their lives. Indeed, for the first few months the virus would be mistaken for Mickey’s Flu, meaning that thousands are inoculated with vaccines that provide no protection from the virus. Phillip will die from what he initially thought to be a minor upset, as would Bismuth and most of the white population of the super-ranch. Those that have the money to circumvent quarantine bring the virus with them back to America, to Europe, and summer homes in Caribbean islands. The Fulani, by some genetic lottery, would prove resistant to the virus, as would small enclaves in the Congo, Liberia, and various other marshy environments in Africa.

That night Phillip goes to sleep happy, dreaming of the days to come.


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