As a reporter for a national newspaper critical of the White House, I worried about reprisals. Still, I didn’t think they’d go this far, ripping me from my girlfriend’s arms and alleging I was an “asymptomatic spreader” committing “social distancing assault.” The night flashes back: pounding on the door, Ava jumping up and grabbing her robe, looking out the peephole. “James! It’s the VCB!”
Two creeps from the Virus Control Bureau in their virus-inspired red-and-gray paisley uniforms marched in, holding up their credentials. “James Eldon, you are hereby apprehended for public health endangerment. You are to be isolated from the general public in accordance with Executive Order 14768. You have a right to consult an attorney, but be advised that virus control trumps constitutional rights.”
It didn’t matter that Ava couldn’t catch a thing from me. She’d been triply vaxxed for the latest variant, got monthly boosters, and had no worries since her father was the lead pundit on the pro-administration TV channel.
This was the new order of things following the death of ten million in America alone, as well as countless U.S. lockdowns and multi-year depressions. A perpetual shortage of vaccine ensured we lost the virus mutation race, as more lethal variants emerged and mortality surged beyond those once considered most vulnerable. As entire towns succumbed to the virus, the economy took a nosedive from which it hasn’t recovered, human and financial mortality maddeningly intertwined.
The president, who’d been reelected by falsely declaring the virus was vanquished, announced early in his second term that no more elections would be held until further notice, ostensibly due to the health emergency. Congress went along. It was a double Faustian bargain—between the warring political parties and between the two branches of government. The calculus was simple: no one could lose an election if none were held. The Supreme Court protested mildly, but its moral suasion had long since evaporated in the flames of partisanship, its decisions reduced to pathetic wheedling.
In earlier times, the dismissal of electoral democracy would have sparked a civil war. But after years of mass illness and death, the citizens were exhausted. With clouds of viral aerosols hanging in the air, no one wanted to congregate in what most felt would be a useless protest. After elections were nullified, institutions that once had ensured liberty and safety became instruments of control and repression. It wasn’t hard, since people already were accustomed to living in different reality bubbles based on the TV news they watched. When Artificial Intelligence exploded, the bubbles hardened into armor. Anyone’s face and speech could be etched onto whatever monstrous video someone concocted. Some believed the virus was vanquished; others believed it was the end times. Truth had to be ferreted out. That was my job.
It had been almost a decade since the last mass demonstrations. In those early pandemic days, protests could be ignited by police brutality, lost elections, virus policies, and scandalous newspaper reports—including one I wrote, which started me down the path of conflict with the now-forever president.
It was my first real scoop, detailing a meeting of the then newly elected president with his closest advisors in which they agreed to de-prioritize the elderly and infirm in distributing the limited supply of vaccine. The country would be “stronger without them,” they agreed, noting the cost savings in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The president’s not-too-smart chief of staff even suggested that “Stronger Without Them” could be a second-term campaign slogan. Wiser heads prevailed, and “Stronger Than Ever” was eventually adopted, with the fallacious “The Virus is Vanquished” rallying cry. Since everyone wished that were so, they’d believe it was if the president said so. That’s how they saw it.
My front-page story, “Stronger Without Them,” triggered an uprising no one anticipated. The “Old People Matter” movement sprang up almost overnight. Calling themselves “OPM,” crowds of oldsters materialized to advocate for mandatory shutdowns until infection rates declined. “We are not expendable!” they chanted through their masks at socially distanced protests. The country had never before seen such demonstrations by elders.
Violence broke out in cities between OPM and another hastily organized group, “BRM”—Bikers’ Rides Matter. The bikers did not give a flip about the virus as long as they could ride free and hold their annual jamboree fest. “Can’t catch the virus with wind in your face” was their motto—until they began dying in droves after a biker powwow, many of them as old as OPM members. Today, people in their eighties and nineties are so rare their deaths are announced on the evening news.
While “Stronger Without Them” solidified my journalistic reputation, it put me on the president’s enemies list. I rose to the top of the list with “Political Cronyism on Steroids,” an exposé on how the president’s pals plundered the small business relief funds, a key factor in the economy’s sharp decline.
My third major effort—a two-part series about my mom, an immigration lawyer, who searched for a six-year-old migrant girl separated from her mother at the border—won a Pulitzer nomination. Mom, a breast cancer survivor, found the girl and reunited her with the mother. But both mother and child apparently had the virus and died a few weeks later—followed in six weeks by Mom. I’m still haunted by the image of her ashes going into the St. John’s Columbarium next to Dad’s, who died when I was in high school.
Administration officials dismissed my reporting as fake news, though the only fake thing about it was their denials. With each new viral variant, the lies and cover-ups became more bizarre and the production of new vaccine slower. “Operation Full Throttle” was derided as “Operation Molasses,” and determining who got the vaccine became more political.
The government eventually established a federally mandated, state-administered lottery to dispense the precious vaccines. Selection was ostensibly random, but no one believed it. Some asked their county political committees to endorse them, thinking it would help. It was common knowledge that the Feds had a stockpile to vaccinate whomever, whenever. Political appointees and their families were automatically vaccinated. The rest of the civil service, the careerists, had to pledge fealty to the president as a quid pro quo. Once this policy was implemented, long-tenured nonpartisan bureaucrats morphed into politicized marionettes, doing and saying whatever the administration asked. Any pretense of an objective, professional meritocracy vanished.
I applied to the lottery six times but never was selected for a vaccination.
Ava “won” a vaccination in the first lottery, even though she hadn’t applied for it.
“Ava,” I told her, “it’s because of your dad.” She finally believed me when their driver arrived in a government-provided stretch limo and took her entire family, including two second cousins, to an official vaccination center. The driver got vaxxed too. But her boyfriend was not allowed.
After my third loss in the vaccine lottery, Ava wanted to ask her dad to help me get one. Though I was loath to ask him for anything, I was desperate, so I said, “Sure, go ahead.”
The response was about what I’d expected. “He said you first need to find a new line of work.” She was steamed. “He could snap his fingers and get you a vaccine!”
“You don’t think he knows you’re reading his notes on his conversations with the White House?” I asked, an unsubtle reminder that she had relayed that information to me.
She paled. “I hope not.”
With vaccinations so hard to get, fakes abounded. Those with the right connections could buy them from Chinese agents, who bribed and bought or bartered things with the rest of the world. The Chinese government had created an entire city dedicated to producing what they touted as the globe’s most effective vaccines by the tens of billions of doses, effectively making China the center of the global order. Endlessly vilified by the American government, however, Beijing was stingy, and a vaccine gap developed. Critics changed the name of China’s long-standing “One Belt, One Road” policy, used to economically subjugate the developing world, to “One Belt, One Road, One Vaccine,” or OBOROV for short, which sounded rather Slavic to me.
Frustrated by endless waves of shape-shifting viral serial killers and the continued cratering of the economy, the president established the Virus Control Bureau, or VBC for short, within Homeland Defense. Its first task was to assemble a contract army of contact trackers and tracers, the CT operatives, drawing heavily on veterans and new high school graduates. The Feds required telecom companies to modify a previously anonymous and voluntary monitoring app and to covertly upload it onto everyone’s cell phone. The VCB could trace when and where you went and how close you got to whom.
At that point Artificial Intelligence, unleashed to fight the pandemic and bolstered by government investment, began spreading faster than the virus itself. UV-light disinfecting robots and thermal sensors proliferated. Using VCB lists and ubiquitous sensors and cameras, the CTs rounded up the slightly ill and the suspected infecteds, including asymptomatics, collectively labeled “spreaders.” CT field operatives were paid the standard $15 an hour but could receive bonuses for apprehending high numbers of spreaders.
The VCB’s Political Board, which some called the “Politburo,” made the final decision as to who went where—home confinement with Zoom work, virus clinics, or isolation camps. With no review, the VCB could send anyone without an Immunity Passport to an isolation camp. Like vaccinations, the passports were hard to get. To crack down on the black-market fakes, the VCB began implanting, in the right forearm of vaccine recipients, microchips that could only be read by VCB scanners and were updated with each booster. This made the Virus Tracing and Tracking System hard to scam, but easy for the government to manipulate. What started as virus control aids soon became political tools and instruments of social engineering. And now that the virus finally was being eradicated, it seemed that the institutions and principles the United States had long supported would never recover from the years during which they’d been desecrated and disestablished.
I proffered this observation in the last article I published—two weeks before I was detained. In that short piece, which ran below the fold on page five in the print version and was buried a couple of layers deep online, I reported “rumors” from a long-time source in DARPA, the super-secret government defense research agency, that the government was about to deploy “Smart Dust”—rice-sized micro-computers to monitor and measure everything and everyone. The micro monitors were developed by tech elites in California who lived in their own communities and ran K-to-post-doc schools for themselves, their families, and select others. It was understood at senior levels in the Pentagon that the tracking and monitoring system, called Argus, would kill two birds with one stone—ridding society of “spreaders” as well as “undesirables.” I suspected I fell into the latter category. My Argus story received little more than a collective shrug from a public numb to what by then were normal abnormalities.
And now I was in lockup. With the vast majority of migrants dead, deported, or dissembling, former ICE detention centers made perfect isolation camps. They came with lots of cameras and electrified security fences topped with barbed wire. Anyone trying to leave without a proper digital pass triggered a monitoring drone—which reportedly could fire at escapees—and a team of guards with tracking dogs from a nearby security station. Escape was not an option. There were few doctors physically present in the camps, so anyone who became sick went to medic-staffed centers configured as hospitals. Patients in those “hospitals” typically were put into comas until they recovered, or more likely died.
Since there were no longer migrants to do the work no one else wanted to do, the president ordered the new Labor and Agriculture Revival Department to establish a National Service draft—with no student deferments—to press the able-bodied jobless into useful employment: putting food on the table, restarting manufacturing, and rebuilding infrastructure—a measure that did reduce the dole. I had consoled a friend of mine, a recently drafted MIT doctoral student about to leave for Alabama to pick tomatoes: “Physics will come back, I promise. Be happy, the draft is a great equalizer.”
He didn’t buy it. “I need my degree to work at SpaceX. I just want to go to Mars.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that unless he knew some important people, he’d never get a PhD from MIT or a job at SpaceX, let alone go to Mars.
Given the mayhem and occasional murder in the camp, I stuck to myself as much as possible. Electronics were forbidden, so I wrote in my diary, played solitaire almost nonstop, and ate three crappy meals a day. Rumors circulated like California wildfires, with each new internee interrogated about what was happening. Had China joined the European Union? Did India nuke Pakistan? Had the president been shot?
Theoretically, I could write and receive letters, but so far I’d only received one, a weasel-worded VCB form letter explaining my status that left room for them to keep me here forever. I wrote a panicked note to Ava, but wondered if it reached her. I was sure everything coming or going was screened. I figured she’d written me by now, but they weren’t allowing her letters through. As if my thoughts conjured it, an envelope popped through the tent flaps. I tore it open. It was a typed letter with Ava’s signature.
Just a quick note to say how much I miss you. Dad sends his best. He is delighted to hear that you’ve taken his advice to find a new vocation! He’s sure it will be a healthy change for you, with less stress and more freedom. We look forward to hearing soon about your new plans. We are excited for you. I trust we’ll hear from you and see you soon! Love, Ava
What the hell? New vocation? What’s she talking about? I read it over and over. She’s never underlined words before. Then I realized it was a code. I see it now. “New vocation,” “healthy,” “freedom,” “new plans,” “soon.” I think she’s telling me if I change my vocation, that is, give up journalism, I’ll be freed. But I need to tell them, meaning her father, about my new plans soon. “Soon” is underlined twice. That means now. What does “healthy” mean? Was I healthy when they took me? Am I healthy now? Must I be healthy to be released? I don’t know. I don’t care. I have to get out of here. I instantly know what to do. I tear a sheet from my journal and write.
It’s good to hear from you. I miss you so much. I am grateful to your father for his career advice. He’s absolutely right. I’ve given it a great deal of thought and have decided to give up journalism. It’s not a great profession. I’m always inside, always on the computer. It strains my eyes and working with an editor is frustrating. I would rather be outside, doing something more beneficial for society, like working on a farm or rebuilding roads. Times have changed and it’s time for me to change. I want to sign up for National Service as soon as possible. But that requires me to be released from camp. This is a challenging place. Please tell your father of my decision on this. I am most grateful for his support and advice. Give him my best regards. Please advise soonest. I love you, my sweet— James
I put down my pen and read what I’ve written. That should do it, I think. I’m not criticizing the camp, just saying it’s tough. If they want me to stop writing, fine. I’ll do whatever it takes to get out of here. Actually, I wouldn’t mind manual labor for a while. I’d no doubt meet some interesting people. It’d make a great story too. I love writing. I will never give it up. But someone with a name other than James Eldon will have to write my stuff. That’s okay. I’m not in it for fame. Not anymore. I just want to survive.
BiosAnne Gruner is a Pushcart-nominated writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Third Flatiron, Constellations: A Journal of Poetry and Fiction; Silver Spoon Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Avalon Literary Review, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Stories from Langley, The Intelligencer, The Cipher Brief, and War on the Rocks. Her poetry has appeared in over a dozen print and on-line publications, including Amsterdam Quarterly, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Plum Tree Tavern, Honeyguide Literary Magazine, Superpresent Magazine, Written Tales, Spillwords, and Old Mountain Press. She lives in McLean, Virginia with her husband and two golden retrievers. https://www.annegruner.com/.
Kathy Haynes is a former corporate writer and editor. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren. She’s passionate about gardening, creating art, and writing.