Bag Men: Siege (Book 8)

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Episode 21: Noel Paradise

Undisclosed Location

8:35 a.m., April 12th, 2070

Sacramento was still reeling after the occupation by Armorer forces and the furious battle that had raged once the Dynasty, and the stalemate that had held Sac in check, was annihilated through BPH Agent Steve Bradford’s daring infiltration of Hell’s Gate. He’d singlehandedly sabotaged their nuclear warhead, allowing the Republican Army to drive out the occupiers.

Sacramento’s President Truman Elrod had not yet emerged from the undisclosed secure location where he had been sequestered, and the citizens of the Republic had no access to him. Only in cases of the direst need and urgency would anyone outside of his cabinet and security detail be brought to him.

It was in this state of lurch, following the battle against the Armorers, that Surgeon General Noel Paradise received information he believed needed to be brought before President Elrod without delay. He contacted the office of the Secretary of State; it took little more than identifying himself to be connected to the Secretary. Paradise was an old man, old enough to be the father of many of the other men and women in power throughout the government of Sacramento. His record of service in his capacity as Surgeon General was beyond reproach, but his instrumentality in the discovery of the Vox Humana Virus and the subsequent founding of the Bureau of Public Health had transformed him into much more than his official position suggested on its own. He was revered. To the ranks of the bureaucracy and beyond, he was an auspicious figure. His words were held in awe when he spoke; the keen Presbyterian saber of his intellect was the stuff of republican fables.

So the Secretary of State threw the machinations of the government into gear to grant his request for an audience with the President, and Noel Paradise was brought in secret to the fortified location. The serious security men in dark clothes who escorted Noel through the long, darkish hallway towards President Elrod’s office-in-hiding didn’t understand why he was there, and certainly didn’t understand why he had brought a quiet, brown-haired young woman with him, but questioning it would have been above their pay grade.

At the doorway to the office, they paused before one last guard, a BPH Special Agent. Dr. Paradise recognized her: Tiffany Pynn, a rising star in the Bureau whom he had met at a lavish government function a year before. Standing guard at the President’s door, she was dressed in a sharp BPH uniform rather than the glittering rose-gold gown she had worn last time he saw her; Pynn’s eyes looked tired, and, unlike the last time, she wasn’t made-up like a perfect silver engraving; her auburn hair was tightly piled on her head rather than sweeping across her brow and falling down bare shoulders.

“Dr. Paradise, sir,” she said, stepping briskly forward, looking down at the Doctor in his wheelchair with a professional, understated respect. She nodded, and didn’t ask him why he was there, as she quickly, clinically looked him over, making a final redundant visual inspection for signs of infection before he was allowed into the room with the President. She drew a small flashlight from a pocket in her tactical vest and shined it into his eyes, intently watching his pupils restrict. Without a word, she swept over to the young woman standing beside the Doctor and briefly examined her as well. Satisfied there was no discernible evidence that either of them was a vector risk, Special Agent Pynn turned to the door and swiped a magnetic keycard. A light in the lock turned from red to green.

Pynn glanced back over her shoulder, nodding that the two could approach. As Paradise and the young woman moved forward, the steel blast door slid back silently.

“It’s always a pleasure to see you, Noel,” President Elrod said, folding his hands on his desk and inclining his brow. “But the circumstances are not ideal. I’m afraid I can’t give you more than five minutes.”

“You might make this meeting a priority,” Dr. Paradise said, “when I tell you that the young woman I’ve brought here with me just discovered the cure for the Vox Humana Virus.”

The two-term President of the Republic of Sacramento was not a man who flinched. He had stared down wars and disasters, countered existential threats to the foundations of the world’s last democracy like a chess master with cold eyes fixed on the board, moving and organizing his pieces with a steady hand. He had outlasted and outsmarted many antagonists, both firebrands inside his republic who sought to undermine him, or unhinged demagogues who sought to destroy him and seize whatever power they could from the government and the Constitution he had taken an oath to uphold. But that cool-headed, fire-tested man jumped to his feet when he heard what Paradise had come to tell him. He looked back and forth between the Surgeon General and the young woman in the seat beside him with wide, shaken eyes.

A cure for the Vox Humana Virus. That was the grail scientists and virologists had been seeking desperately for a generation, and it had always eluded them. The pursuit of a cure for VHV was inexorably entwined with the survival of the Republic; Sacramento’s ultimate destiny rested squarely in the hands of the scientists who struggled to end that plague for good. The politicians like Elrod, the public servants, the military, even the BPH, only existed to buy those scientists time to work. They could not preserve humanity forever. They could not save what was left. They could only fight tooth and nail to last into the next generation. But a cure for VHV was real salvation; it was the whole reason the Republic existed and it was the endgame of everything Elrod had ever done, whether he always knew it or not.

“A cure?” President Elrod said, sitting back down behind his desk. “Tell me quickly, what are you talking about?”

Noel Paradise turned to the woman beside him. “Please, Jesse,” he said. “Bring the President up to date on your research.”

The dark haired woman cleared her throat and took a folder stuffed with papers from under her arm. Adjusting her thin glasses, she opened the folder and rifled through her file, taking a few sheets of paper and placing them in front of the President.

“My name is Jesse Stalko, Mr. President,” the woman said. “I am a graduate student at Sacramento Tech, working towards a Ph.D in Psychology. I’m in my last year, and for the past three months I have been writing my dissertation.”

The President nodded, picking up the top paper from his desk and glancing at it as Ms. Stalko spoke. It appeared to be the abstract of an academic paper. The title instantly caught Elrod’s eye: An Analysis of the Agents of the Bureau of Public Health and Their Resistance to VHV.

President Elrod quirked a brow. “Agents’ Resistance? No one is resistant to VHV.”

Jesse Stalko cleared her throat again. “Respectfully, sir, BPH Agents are,” she said. “But no one knew it. It wasn’t until I made an in-depth statistical analysis of publicly available data that it became provable.”

Elrod dropped the sheet of paper on his desk. “Walk me through it,” he said. “How is it provable, and how is it no one else found this?”

“Because everyone before me was more confident in the agents’ precautionary procedures than I was,” Stalko said, with a small smile. “Let me analogize it. Hospital staff follow rigorous sanitary procedures to prevent the spread of sickness and bacterial infections. But no one follows those sanitary procedures one hundred percent correctly, one hundred percent of the time. It would be impossible to do so. Bacterial infections do spread between individuals in hospitals, both staff and patients. It happens.”

Elrod nodded. “Yes, it happens,” he interrupted, “But what does this have to do with—”

“Listen, Truman,” Noel Paradise said, addressing the President by his first name. President Elrod sat back in his seat and made a rolling motion with his hand, hurrying Stalko on towards the point of her analogy.

“What I’m getting at,” Stalko said, “is that even in the comparatively controlled conditions of a hospital, the spread of infectious agents is not statistically negligible. Human error is a factor even when prescribed precautionary measures are theoretically sufficient. Now, BPH operatives also follow sanitary procedures that are theoretically sufficient to prevent these men and women from becoming exposed to VHV in the course of performing their duties. But human error is still a factor. Statistically, looking back at years and years of data, there should exist at least some cases of BPH agents becoming infected with VHV.”

“They do,” President Elrod interrupted. “Early BPH agents dropped like flies. The names of the Service Martyrs in the history of the agency aren’t hard to find. They’re memorialized at BPH HQ. It’s because the sanitary procedures you refer to have been constantly refined over time that the rates of accidental infection in the line of duty are dropping—”

“But they aren’t dropping, sir,” Stalko said. “I know that early BPH agents often became VHV carriers themselves. If you look closely at the data, you will see that infection rates did indeed lower slightly with time as the Bureau refined its procedures, but in 2060 there is an anomaly in the numbers. Infection rates among BPH agents dropped to zero. Something in that year began preventing every single case of agent infection. Because the rates had already been dropping, this anomaly was unrealistically assumed to be the culmination of the trend and the reality was overlooked. Simply put: agents had, for some reason, just become immune to VHV and no one knew it.”

President Elrod was incredulous. Glancing back and forth between Stalko and Paradise, he waited for the Surgeon General to offer some corroboration of the graduate student’s crackpot hypothesis. The figures and graphs, drawn from decades of BPH personnel records, were on the table in front of him, but he’d be damned if he had time to look through it all without knowing for sure it was even worth his while.

“I’ve seen the same data,” Noel Paradise said, surmising the President’s thoughts. “And she’s right. We knew already that we haven’t seen an agent die of infection in years, but we just thanked God and wrote it off as a product of both the Bureau’s procedural precautions and the exceptional skills and conditioning of its operatives. But no one undertook this kind of statistical analysis until Ms. Stalko did for her dissertation. In the year 2060, agent infection ceased completely — that is statistically impossible in the normal course of agency operations and it evinces an unknown resistance factor. The agents are immune to VHV.”

President Elrod shook his head in disbelief. “Do you know why?” he asked after a pause, struggling to process what he was hearing.

Paradise nodded. “Ms. Stalko, if you please…”

The grad student handed the President another sheaf of papers. “Once I had a specific date identified for the origination of the agents’ immunity,” she said, “It was just a matter of combing the data for commonalities between the agents that began in that year, which could account for across-the-board change in susceptibility to the virus. I ruled out personal physiological characteristics like blood type and age immediately because none of those factors could apply to all agents. After scouring the data, I identified one thing in common between them all, starting in exactly that year.”

President Elrod leaned in. “What the hell is it?” he demanded.

“Diazepam,” Stalko said flatly. “Anti-anxiety medication. In 2060 it became standard BPH procedure to medicate all agents on a low dose of Diazepam, to help them maintain calmness under the intense mental strain inherent in the exercise of their function. It was a move, in conjunction with the mandatory therapy that is still BPH standard, intended to address the alarming trend of agent suicide. But it seems to have also done something else that the administration of the BPH never anticipated.”

President Elrod again looked to the Surgeon General for corroboration. Dr. Paradise nodded, gripping the armrests of his wheelchair, barely able to contain himself.

“It’s all true,” he said. “When Ms. Stalko brought these findings to me — seeing that what she was delving into had become much more important than just the subject of her doctoral dissertation — I tested her hypothesis by directing my staff to cross-examine extensive public health records. Diazepam is not unique to the BPH — it is also prescribed by physicians to patients with a range of anxiety disorders, patients going through alcohol withdrawal or suffering from various types of muscles spasms and seizures. To confirm Ms. Stalko’s hypothesis, we needed to confirm that no patient prescribed Diazepam had ever become infected with VHV during the time they were medicated. And by God, that turned out to be true. It was something we never would have noticed in scattered cases, but looking for the pattern in the data, it became undeniable.”

Despite himself, President Elrod began to laugh. They were actually discussing a drug that could prevent VHV infection, and it became increasingly apparent that it was not a vague hope, but a proven, clinical fact.

There was nothing else in the world more important than this. It meant everything.

“This is incredible!” President Elrod said. “This is phenomenal! How long does the preventive effect last? Do you know?”

“Not long enough,” Noel Paradise said. “To maintain immunity, individuals must maintain a regular schedule of Diazepam treatment. That isn’t possible on a colossal scale. We simply don’t have the production capacity to provide all our citizens with the constant stream of pills it would take to establish herd immunity.”

“Can a vaccine be created from the drug would which provide inoculation?” Elrod asked.

“It would take extensive research,” Noel said. “Years and years of development would go into it, and there is no guarantee it would ever be tenable.”

“Then what the hell does all this mean for us?” Elrod snapped. Reality was rasping against his hopes and making it seem like the promise of all these revelations had been nothing but a pipe-dream.

“It means something more than a vaccine,” Noel Paradise said, his scratchy voice falling into a deeper, huskier register.

Stalko looked at him sharply. She knew what he was about to say to the President. She knew what drastic, almost unhinged suggestion he was about to make. They had discussed it all before. She had tried to argue that his ideas were too extreme.

“The pharmacological mechanism of action of Diazepam is well understood,” Dr. Paradise began. “It is a positive allosteric modulator of the GABA type A receptors. The GABAA receptors are ligand-gated chloride-elective ion channels that are activated by GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Binding of benzodiazepines to this receptor promotes binding of GABA, which in turn increases the total conduction of chloride ions across the neural cell membrane. This increased chloride influx hyper polarizes the neuron’s membrane potential. As a result, the difference between resting potential and firing potential is increased and firing is less likely.”

President Elrod blinked at the Surgeon General. “Pretend I have no idea what the hell you are talking about, Noel,” he said. “How does this neurochemistry relate to VHV immunity?”

“VHV infection follows a very specific course, Mr. President,” Paradise said, giving a little cough, “because the virus is evolved to attack the brain in such a focused manner. Among the first parts of the brain it attacks are the GABA type A receptors. No one knows why. And no one knew, before now, that this was such an important part of the progress of infection. But now we have found that in individuals under treatment with Diazepam, VHV is unable to bind to the GABAA receptors and attack them because they are, essentially, blocked from doing so by the benzodiazepines which are already there. The drug is like a physical shield. The virus microbes remain in circulation in the bloodstream, unable to land where they are designed to initiate the takeover of the brain and are thusly rendered harmless.”

“I see. This is why BPH agents are effectively immune while they are medicated,” President Elrod said, following along easily now.

Dr. Paradise nodded. “We didn’t know before that this was possible. We never suspected that the initial attack of the GABAA receptors was so vital to the subsequent progression of infection. But thanks to this research we now understand that it is. And knowing this, we can use it against the virus.

“How?” Elrod asked. “You’ve just said it is impossible to provide this drug to all—”

“We won’t provide the drug,” Paradise interrupted. “We will alter the GABAA receptors themselves until the virus is physically unable to bind to them.”

“Doctor,” Stalko interjected, “this is irresponsible talk. We can’t suddenly alter an integral functional part of the brain; we have no idea how it would—”

“Don’t tell me what is or is not responsible,” Doctor Paradise snapped. “I wrote the book on VHV. I named it. I have spent my whole life sparring with this scourge, and I have never — not once — been a step ahead of it. I’ve watched helplessly as it killed my countrymen in droves. And now I’m an old man, but it looks as though I might see a cure in my lifetime. No one is going to tell me this is irresponsible when the whole future of mankind depends on it.”

Can you alter these receptors?” the President asked. “Is this anything more than a philosophical debate?”

“We cannot alter ours,” Paradise said. “It is too late for you and me, and every human being currently living. But with gene editing, we can modify the next generation. We can’t cure VHV for ourselves, but we can engineer a future humanity that is wholly immune to it. We can blot the scourge out of the world of our grandchildren.”

President Elrod sat in silence, hands folded, brow drawn. He was grappling with everything he had just heard — hope, desperation, responsibility and a hot iron musket ball of other swarming emotions burned in his chest. He held them down and presented a stoic, impassive face; nothing but the lines in his skin and the shadows under his eyes betrayed his thoughts.

“Get started,” he said finally. “The whole resources of the Republic are at your disposal. If you require more personnel, draft whomever you need. If you require greater facilities than you already have, I give you permission to seize any and all government laboratories for your own use. This is now the highest scientific priority in the land.”

Noel Paradise’s eyes caught fire.

Stalko was pale — she didn’t know what would come from this, what would become of the next generation after they had been tweaked and altered by men so fixated on VHV that they were blind to the other possible consequences of this desperate bid to destroy it.

Just before nine a.m., the door to the office slid open; a man stepped over the threshold, face tight and anguished. Special Agent Tiffany Pynn swept up behind him, eyes wide.

“Mr. President,” the man stammered. “You need to be briefed. Something has happened.” Elrod looked up, unfolded his hands, and nodded for Paradise and Stalko to leave his office.

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