Mnemovirus

“Rumour is, it’s not your body it goes after,” Tamaya says, inspecting her hazmat suit’s sleeves for a third time. “Word from the boys in R&D is it’s a mnemovirus.”

“A what now?” I ask.

I can’t remember sealing my gloves, and double-check them.

“First of its kind,” says Tamaya. “A pathogen that targets the brain. Specifically, the parts that remember things. It eats memories, or creates fakes, or whatever. Reality-shattering stuff. Nobody’s real clear on it — maybe by design. It’s all hush-hush, even by lab standards.”

“And they never warned us we shared a roof with this monstrosity?”

“Well, personnel’s hard to come by,” says Tamaya. “And how quickly would you have quit if you’d known about it?”

Her grin suggests I wouldn’t have stayed long, but the faraway gaze above it confesses she’d have fled even sooner.

“Anyway,” says Tamaya, “I hear it works fast. We’d best be careful in there.”

Our job’s the same as always: assess what’s been breached. Contain what we can. Burn what we can’t.

The lab airlock sighs like we’ve disappointed it. When the entry hatch opens, I expect the chaos of upturned furniture and strewn bodies — the grisly animal aftermath of humans made bestial in extremis that tends to follow accidents in our line of work. But we find only fluid-filled tubes in neat arrays, and machines disgorging inscrutable data worth more than I’ll ever make.

“Guess it’s farther in,” says Tamaya.

In a break room, we spot a squad of unmasked lab technicians flicking a paper football down a long table. Tamaya and I trade bewildered glances. Where’s their gear?

“You again?” A red-headed tech studies us, one eyebrow raised. “What’s with the get-up?”

“No need to be so uptight, dude,” says another, patting my shoulder. “It’s been safe here for months.”

Tamaya backs away.

“They’re infected,” she says. “Don’t listen to them.”

The technicians grow stony, as if she’d announced she wore a bomb.

“They’re still carriers,” one whispers.

“OK, OK,” says the redhead, fanning his palms. “Don’t panic. We have pills for that now. You’ll be alright.”

Two techs seize Tamaya, while another pair pins me against the wall. We try to break free as the redhead uncaps a bottle of cyan capsules.

“You gotta take the pills,” he says. “We can’t risk letting you spread the virus.”

“Stop!” Tamaya shrieks. “Don’t expose us!”

They wrest off my hood, peeling the room away with it.

I’m in … My apartment? It looks like my apartment. I recognize a photo of my girlfriend Lelise and me from our Copenhagen trip, but somehow I’m not in it anymore — there’s a serrated void where I should’ve been.

Lelise whips her magazine at me. It batters my face in a flutter of nervous wings.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m not …” The thought unravels. My hazmat suit’s gone, replaced by casual cotton and denim. “Where else should I be?”

“You’re still sick, aren’t you?” Lelise asks, apprehensive in a different way. “Let me call the hospital.”

But I feel fine. Only confused.

“Sit on the couch and rest,” she says. “Just … Don’t sneeze on anything.”

I drop into a divot my cushion seems on the verge of forgetting. It holds firm against my back and outstretched legs. That’s when I notice my hair’s fallen flat against my temples, like when I’m still prone at a lazy morning’s outset.

Figures in surgical masks, inexpressive faces shielded behind translucent plastic, bend over me like I’m an illegible map.

“Ah, good,” says one. “The sedative’s wearing off.”

“Sedative?” I parrot, but the word liquefies in my mouth. I move to wipe it from my lips, but my hands won’t obey, bound in leather at the wrists.

“Can you tell me where you are right now?” one with blonde eyebrows asks.

I can only hazard a guess, but the bed I’m tied to and the sterile fluorescents overhead offer clues.

“A hospital?” I manage, on the second attempt.

“Yes,” she of the blonde eyebrows says, “but which one? What’s it called?”

The answer doesn’t come. I’m not even sure where to search for it.

“How about where you’ve been the past few days?” another masked figure suggests. “Can you tell us that?”

“Work?” I venture, like I’m blundering through a multiple-choice exam. “Home?”

“The treatment’s ineffective,” says one with wrinkled skin. The others nod. “We’ll have to begin a new regimen right away. This already threatens to be a terminal case.”

A masked onlooker prepares a syringe with a needle long enough to impale me. The others catch me watching it. Before I can react, they tighten my restraints. A tourniquet laces my upper arm. I thrash as violently as my bindings allow, but they don’t budge, and the cloth on my bicep constricts …

“There,” says Tamaya, fitting my respirator harness over my shoulder. “Nice and secure. Now do me.”

She lifts her arms, waiting for me to slip her breathing apparatus onto her back. I set to work.

“They left us a real mess this time,” she says. “Apparently some top-secret virus broke loose in there. The R&D boys promise it won’t kill you. But it’ll screw with your head something fierce.”

A headache announces itself behind my eyes. I wait for it to cool a bit before donning my hood.

“We talking hallucinations?” I ask.

“Maybe. Seems it bends your sense of reality. Knocks your memories out of order, or sneaks in ones that never happened. They were pretty light on details.” Tamaya pauses. “Guess they didn’t want to scare me.”

I fix my gloves in place with a resolute curl of my fist.

“Then we’d better hurry,” I say, “before anyone catches it.”

The story behind the story

Alexander B. Joy reveals the inspiration behind Mnemovirus.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when we had no idea what the virus did or how it spread, I spent many sequestered hours preoccupied with symptoms and transmission vectors. I found myself dreaming up all kinds of bizarre pathogens, gaming out both their communication mechanisms and what it would be like to contract them. (I blame Tony Burgess for supercharging this thought process. His linguistic virus in Pontypool Changes Everything broadened my conception of what a fictional disease vector could be.) I have only thought more grimly about what horrific new organisms could bedevil our species now that conservative stupidity and selfishness have ensured the coronavirus is here to stay. The virus in this story numbers among my choicer specimens.

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