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The Greer Agency

Harris Tobias
The Dreaming Fire

Jeromy Henry
Against a Diamond

Michele Dutcher

Riding While I Wait


Henry McFarland

I am riding the train again today. I do not have to. It is not ordered. I tell myself that if I am often seen on the train, I will not be noticed on that day. But I would not be noticed anyway; I am good at that.

Today, as every day, I listened for the news on the radio. Tensions were worse. Not war yet, but it seemed very near, maybe inevitable. Tomorrow I might hear the announcement telling me, telling everyone, that they have attacked my homeland. If I do, I must carry out my orders automatically. I am not to wait for a further instruction, for there may be no one to send it.

My mission is clear. If the time comes, I will board the train with a bag that holds a spray can. I will reach into the bag and take out a book, but I will also trigger the can to emit a fine mist. The mist will be almost imperceptible, and it is unlikely that anyone will notice it. If someone does, I will reach into the bag and say "Oh no, a leak." Then I will stop the mist and thank them for pointing out the leak. No one will notice when I get off at the next station and switch to another train. When the can is empty, I will simply throw it into any trash can and disappear.

The people look so ordinary, the woman in the beige coat, the man in the tan jacket. They sit or stand, reading or looking out the window, waiting for their workday to begin. The people at the laboratory seemed ordinary too, as they told me what they had done and what I must do.

I can remember the technical briefing—how they described the creation of the weapon. They were quite proud of their accomplishment and they gave us much more detail than we really needed. They had taken genes from a rhinovirus, one that could spread easily through the air but caused only a mild cold, and from a viral hemorrhagic fever, one that spread only though bodily fluids but killed inexorably. By combining the right genes, they made a weapon as quick spreading as a cold and as deadly as the fever. Evolution would not produce such a plague—it is too deadly, it would destroy its host community and then it would die out. It can only exist because we have created it.

My country needed such a weapon. Size and geography make it hard to defend. We did not have the time and could not afford the capital needed to develop nuclear weapons. This country is larger and better able to develop those weapons.

Instead we have developed a technology that is smaller but that can grow very big. The power of this weapon is it spreads itself. It is alive, and it grows and multiplies after it is launched. No bullet, no nuclear weapon can do that. Also, it is invisible, which increases the terror it will cause.

There is another advantage. Nuclear weapons need a delivery system, one that is costly and time consuming to develop. And those delivery systems can be discovered, and perhaps attacked and destroyed. For this weapon, the delivery system is very simple—me and a very few others like me. We are already among them, and we are unseen.

The train is the perfect target. Every morning it is crowded with people who will disperse throughout the city once it reaches its destination. That dispersal is important, for it helps the weapon do more damage. That is what they told me when I got my assignment.

They told me not to think about what happens after that, but I do it anyway. The first people infected will notice a light cough in a few hours, but they will not become seriously ill for several hours after that, after they have been contagious for a time. Then the virus will begin to attack their organs. Internal bleeding will begin, followed by shock, organ failure, and death. In the meantime, others will become ill. Once the epidemic is established, my country will announce what has been done and offer a deal. Not a cure, there is none, but a vaccine in exchange for unconditional surrender. I hope that our enemy will soon capitulate, so fewer people die. Of course, they may not, they may try to control the plague though quarantine and continue fighting. It is hard to predict the responses of an enemy in war.

And as for me, I will just try not to attract attention. With only a little luck, I will make it over the border to a neutral country. I have been vaccinated, and they tell me that I will not be sickened by the weapon. Did they tell me the truth? I don’t know. But if I do escape, how will I live after I have done this?

Sometimes I see children on the train, and that troubles me. But perhaps it is better that they get the disease directly, rather than have their parents bring it home to them.

We were told that our enemies would be given the vaccine, once they surrendered. How long will that take? And of course it will be too late for those on the train. However long it takes before their country surrenders, thousands will die. Not my countrymen, but I have lived among them, watched them, for many months.

Still I will do it. Have I any choice? Others far wiser than I have considered that question and have said no. Duty must be followed.

I am after all part of a long tradition. The weapon is just a more sophisticated version of the dead animal catapulted towards the cistern or the smallpox blanket. Technology has improved other weapons, now it improves disease. And others have done hard duty in the past. I think of those who stood by nuclear weapons for years ready to fire them. And I think of those who used them. They did their duty, and I will do mine.

Yes, when the time comes, I will do my duty. But the time has not come, and still I ride the train.

Read more stories by this author

2009-06-02 09:53:30
This is a well written story, with simple details and much larger ideas. I especially like the references to the cistern contamination. It's a nice pattern recognition that disease has been used in the past, and the next time could well be an artificial dispension. The promised antidote is also interesting - would those higher up give it to their enemies, or did they just say that to allow those dispensing the disease some peace of mind. Well done.

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