a short story by Jerry Zinn
A white door sealed shut ended the narrow hall. No windows. No light lined the frame. Airtight. Out was kept out and in kept in. The floor to the stronghold was polished to a mirrored sheen, reflecting ceiling in high definition.
Two guards flanked the door. They did not move. They could not hear the conversation.
Inside was a long table of seamless mahogany. How the piece fit through the door was a mystery contemplated in private moments. Occupying the high back, leather chairs were the faces of power.
“So, what is the Board of Health saying?” the man at the head asked, wrinkling his silly putty forehead.
“Thank you Mr. President. The infectious disease center, called me a few hours ago. They’ve run the vaccine through about eighty patients after an extensive application to rats. Of those eighty, all eighty reported full recoveries,” said the woman in red.
“So we have it, right?” another asked. He was the tallest by a foot. The primary source of his height was in the torso. His hair was extremely short and peppered with gray, but his hamster mustache was jet black.
The woman nodded. “We have it.”
“Then why are we here? We should be rolling it out.”
A septuagenarian with half-moon glasses cleared his throat. “Not so fast. We have to consider our options.”
“The options are pretty clear. We have a vaccine that’s highly effective, and the Mercury Virus is spreading rapidly. If we don’t inoculate the population, millions of people will die. What choice is there to be made?” Margaret asked.
The glasses cleared his throat once more with a chilling chuckle. “You’re perspective is admirable.”
“Don’t patronize me!”
“From the numbers I’m looking at, rolling out this vaccine would be exorbitantly expensive, and—“
He was interrupted, “Now is not the time to squabble over pennies and dimes. Do you have any idea what our defense budget is now? And this, this medication will have a direct effect on saving lives. It’s nothing amorphous like, ‘defense against threats,’ or whatever crap you all are peddling at the military these days.”
The man at the head of the table, opened his mouth, and everyone went silent. “I admire the enthusiasm. But we need to listen. Before any decisions are made I want to know all the options. We should all know as much as we can.”
“Thank you, Mr. President. As I was saying, it’s going to be expensive, and the logistics will be a nightmare. But beyond that, we need to ask ourselves if we want to vaccinate the population. Our unemployment rate is at a record high, inflation is taking off, homelessness is rampant, and we’ve talked for years about a population that’s growing and aging more rapidly than we can keep pace.”
“What are you saying?” The woman with proud shoulders and silver hoop earrings cried out indignantly.
“Don’t be so naïve!” The man barked back.
“Oh please! We all know what you’re saying. But be a man! Don’t dance around. Say it!”
He paused. All eyes were trained on him, including the President’s, which squinted to focus. “Let me ask you all a question. Would it be the worst thing for our country? If we weren’t so… crowded.”
“Damnit, just say it! You’re suggesting we let millions of people die. We have the vaccine in our hands. She just told us how well it works and the good it can do, and you want us to lock it up and throw away the key while our citizens drop dead in the streets!”
To that, he had no reply. He crossed his arms, and sat back in the chair, which creaked mechanically.
“You can’t be serious…” the woman in red asked rhetorically.
A man who’s face was so thin his eyes almost faced outward raised his hand. “I don’t like this any more than any of you. But we can’t completely discredit what he’s saying. The cost is one consideration, but our population growth is a very real and pressing crisis. Mr. President?”
Heads turned slowly to meet his quizzical expression. “You know more about the Mercury Virus than anyone in this room. Give it to us straight. What would happen if we administered the vaccine nationally? And what would happen… if we didn’t?”
The woman in red looked at the papers before her, but she didn’t read anything. She knew what they said. It was a simple question. The decision at hand should be based on empirical evidence and moral principles.
“Conservatively, we can say the vaccine is seventy-five percent effective. So, if 4 million people catch the Mercury Virus, which is the current mid-range estimate based on spread and behavior to this point, than a thorough vaccination will likely result in 3 million people saved. That’s the death of one million.” She paused. Even those we had not spoken up listened intently. “And if we don’t release the vaccine? Of those four million? Four million will die agonizing deaths. The fatality rate is one hundred percent. That’s Queens or Brooklyn, two Manhattans, wiped off the map.”
The President turned to the man at his left. He was the youngest in the room, head shaved on the sides, a shimmering brown waft glued in a wave across the top. His lapels were thin, his tie equally deprived. But the trappings covered a strong figure. “So?”
“I’ve been talking about the population crisis for years. The way I see it, the Mercury Virus is a blessing in disguise. Call it divine intervention.” His voice was deep and sure.
Hoop earrings danced violently as the woman stood up, her chair striking the wall. “The fact that we are even having a discussion when we could be out there right now saving lives is an abomination. If the people heard what we are saying now, they would be sick. They would kill us, and they should. There is no choice here. We have an obligation to protect human life.”
Everyone hoped another would speak first. Caught in a silence both short and unending, not a word was spoken.
“Mr. President, you have to think about your campaign too. A health crisis happens, that can’t be stopped. But then you rally a broken country after it sweeps through. Unemployment disappears. Suddenly we have surpluses where there were deficits…” His left hand man spoke with sharpened directness, straightening the knot of his tie.
At the head of the table, the president drove his head into his hands, rubbing his temples radially as he tried to tune everything out.
“You have the vaccine with you now, don’t you?”
“Enough doses to vaccinate everyone in this room,” the woman in red replied.
“Would you be so kind?”
She went around the room, motioning for each cabinet member to roll up his or her shirt. After a quick alcohol swab she inserted a needle and administered the clear, life-saving liquid.
Peaking out from the president’s blazer were burnished copper cufflinks, miniature Empire State buildings. He ran his fingers over the shapes, the corners and imperfections. Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, they streaked across his memory like flying stars, each ending in an explosion. He guided his thumb around the perimeter of the building slowly, and then he went top to bottom, side to side.
“Thank you. All of you. For your counsel. The Mercury Virus is horrific, a global health tragedy. We’ve seen and heard what it can do and has done. The virus is not just a local issue for our country,” he said with speech poeticism. “We will recover, because that’s what we do as a nation. From the most difficult of times, we always emerge stronger. This virus spread so quickly.” The president took a long pause during which he rolled a short, perfectly sharpened Ticonderoga between his fingers. He didn’t look anyone in the eye. Instead he stared at the wall as he spoke, “There just wasn’t enough time…”
With that he stood up and pulled his jacket sleeves down to hide the copper reminders.