by Bruce McAllister
read by John Chu
Links for this episode:
- This story originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2006
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- For a list of all Escape Pod stories, authors and narrators, visit our sortable Wikipedia page
About the Author…
His literary and genre fiction has appeared in national magazines, literary quarterlies, college textbooks and ‘year’s best’ anthologies. His second novel, Dream Baby, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship winner, was called a “stunning tour de force” by Publishers Weekly. His fiction has been translated widely and received national awards and notable mentions in the New York Times, other U.S. newspapers, U.S. and foreign magazines and journals, and reference works. His poetry and experimental work have appeared in literary quarterlies and anthologies; he has co-edited magazines and anthologies; and his articles on popular science, writing craft and sports have appeared in publications like Life, International Wildlife, The Writer and newspapers across the country. – See more at: http://www.mcallistercoaching.com/#sthash.iZUdcA2z.dpuf.
About the Narrator…
John designs microprocessors by day and writes fiction by night. His work has been published at Boston Review, Asimov’s and Tor.com. His website is http://johnchu.net
The Boy in Zaquitos
by Bruce McAllister
The Retired Operative Speaks to a Class
You do what you can for your country. I’m sixty-eight years old, and even in high school—it’s 2015 now, so that was fifty years ago—I wanted to be an intelligence analyst . . . an analyst for an intelligence agency, or if I couldn’t do that, at least be a writer for the United States Information Agency, writing books for people of limited English vocabularies so they’d know about us, our freedoms, the way we live. But what I wanted most was to be an analyst—not a covert-action operative, just an analyst. For the CIA or NSA, one of the big civilian agencies. That’s what I wanted to do for my country.
I knew they looked at your high school record, not just college—and not just grades, but also the clubs you were in and any sports. And your family background, that was important, too. My father was an Annapolis graduate, a Pearl Harbor survivor, and a gentle Cold War warrior who’d worked for NATO in northern Italy, when we’d lived there. I knew that would look good to the Agency, and I knew that my dad had friends who’d put in a good word for me, too, friends in the Office of Naval Intelligence.
But I also knew I had to do something for my high school record; and I wasn’t an athlete, so I joined the Anti-Communist Club. I thought it was going to be a group of kids who’d discuss Marxist economics and our free-market system, maybe the misconceptions Marx had about human nature, and maybe even mistakes we were making in developing countries, both propaganda-wise and in the kind of help we were giving them. I didn’t know it was just a front for Barry Goldwater and that all we were going to do was make election signs, but at least I had it on my record.
Because a lot of Agency recruiting happens at private colleges, I went to one in Southern California—not far from where my parents lived. My high school grades were good enough for a state scholarship, and my dad covered the rest. It was the ’60s, but the administration was conservative; and I was expecting the typical Cold War Agency recruitment to happen to me the way it had happened to people I’d heard about—the sons of some of my dad’s friends. But it didn’t. I went through five majors without doing well in any of them; and it wasn’t until my senior year, when I was taking an IR course with a popular prof named Booth—a guy who’d been a POW in WWII—that I mentioned what I wanted to do. He worked, everyone said, in germ warfare policy—classified stuff—at Stanford; and I figured that if I was about to graduate I’d better tell someone, anyone, what I really wanted to do in life: not sell insurance or be a middle manager or a government bureaucrat, but work for a civilian intelligence agency—get a graduate degree on their tab maybe—and be an analyst.
I could tell he wanted to laugh, but he didn’t. He was a good guy. The administration didn’t like him because he never went to faculty meetings; and he didn’t act like a scholar, even though he had his doctorate, and he wasn’t on campus much. But when they tried to fire him, the students protested—carried signs, wrote letters, and caused enough of a scene that they kept him. This was back in the ’60s when you did this kind of thing.
He was smiling at me and I could see those teeth—the ones he hadn’t taken good enough care of in the POW camp, the ones that had rotted and were gone now, replaced years ago with dentures.
He looked at me for a long time, very serious, and said, “I could put in a good word for you at the USIA. You’re a good writer, Matt.”
“I’d rather be an analyst.”
“Have you thought about the FBI?”
I had to laugh at that.
“Okay,” he said, laughing, too.
“I shouldn’t be doing this. Your grades are terrible and I can’t say much about you except that you’re a good writer. In fact, I’m not sure why I’m even considering this. You’re a pretty tame guy. You’re even tamer than I was at your age and I was pretty tame. I stole hubcaps at least.”
We both laughed.
He got serious. “You want to do something for your country, right?”
“But you don’t want to join the military like your father did. You love and admire him, but you don’t want to join the military.”
“No one’s enlisting these days anyway,” he said. “Can’t blame them. JFK and his brightest aren’t fighting this war very well. Look at the Chinese—how those crossborder ops brought them in. Jack’s green-beanie darlings.”
“And the Army won’t take you anyway, right?”
“Yes. I’ve got some scoliosis, and you can see how thick my glasses are, sir.”
“That’s what I thought. What you need to do is send for the Agency application. Make two Xeroxes of it, send one to me, fill out one for yourself rough draft, send a copy of that to me, and I’ll help you with it. You’ll have to have a physical, just like the Army, and a polygraph, and you’ll have to have your doctor send your records. How does your dad feel about this?”
“My dad’s always been for it,” I answered.
“He not very political, is he.”
That was true.
“No,” he said quickly, grinning, “I haven’t been talking to your dad, but people say he’s a good man.”
“You’re right,” I said. “He’s not political, and neither am I, I guess.”
“Maybe that’s why I’m doing this.”
“You can’t analyze a situation if you’re blinded by your own politics, Matt.”
“You’ve taught us that, sir.”
He laughed again.
“And you don’t have to kiss ass, Matt. Remember that in the interview. Either they want you or they don’t and either way you’ll never figure out exactly why.”
Some people—maybe one in one hundred thousand—can get infected by an epidemic disease and not get sick and die. They don’t even get the symptoms, but they can carry it and they can give it to others. They’re called “chronic asymptomatic carriers,” or CACs. You’ve heard of Typhoid Mary maybe, in health class or history. She was one. Not to the degree that the history books say she was, but she was. She didn’t even know she was one until they told her how many people she’d probably killed; but she was one and it drove her crazy to find out. It drove her crazy and the government dropped their case against her. That was about 1910, I think, and it was here in America, during an epidemic.
That’s how hard it can be on a person when they find out they’re a carrier. That’s what I’m saying, I guess.
I don’t know whose pull did it. I know it wasn’t my record. The Anti-Communist Club certainly wouldn’t have been enough and my grades in college weren’t very good, though Booth was right. I was a good writer. Both of my parents were good writers. My mom had a master’s degree and my dad did a lot of writing for the admirals he served. Maybe it was the writing, but I also knew they could get all the 1600 SAT and 4.0 GPA graduates they wanted—who were better writers than I was—so it had to be something else. It had to be Booth or one of my father’s friends or even the fact that my dad was about to retire as a rear admiral.
However it happened, I got called into an interview in Los Angeles in the middle of summer after graduation. The man wore a short-sleeve shirt with a loud red tie and didn’t seem very interested. I panicked, thinking, “Shit, he’s just interviewing me so the Agency can tell Booth or my dad’s friends they did, but they’re not really interested.” That’s how it felt. At one point the man did look up at me with interest, like he was waking up, when I said stupidly, “I feel like I really don’t have a country.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Uh oh, I thought, and tried to backpedal. “I don’t mean that in patriotic terms. I don’t mean—”
“I know you don’t mean it in patriotic terms,” he said impatiently. “You’re the Cold War son of a Cold War father, Mr. Hudson. Even if you had long hair and were running around with posters saying KILL THE FASCIST PIGS!, you’d still be your father’s son and I wouldn’t doubt your patriotism.” He stopped himself and I didn’t know whether to believe him. “So how do you mean it?” he said.
I took a deep breath. “My dad’s a career Navy man, and my mother’s a teacher. We moved around a lot and my father is a kind man and my mother loves people of all races, all cultures, so it’s a little hard to talk about hometowns and wave the American flag the way some people wave it. . . .”
He didn’t say anything for a moment.
“You’re a perceptive young man, Mr. Hudson. That’s what we’re looking for, but I don’t think you’ve finished your answer, do you?”
“How do you wave the American flag?”
“I guess I don’t, sir. It’s not my style. I don’t burn the flag—that would be wrong—but I don’t wave it. I don’t need to. I see the United States as a good country, one that should be defended at all costs because history doesn’t see enough good countries.”
“You learn that in college?”
“I was thinking it before—when my dad was stationed with NATO in Italy, when I was younger—but, yes, I learned that from a college professor of mine, too.”
He was nodding.
“I think I know which prof you’re talking about, and he’s right. It’s an experiment, our society—the most successful experiment in the history of humankind—and certainly worth protecting.”
“Thank you for coming in today, Mr. Hudson. We’ll let you know if we decide another interview would be helpful.”
What they were looking for was not just somebody who could carry the plague without getting sick—your normal CAC—but someone whose body could get rid of the disease fast with the right antibiotics—what you’d call “designer antibiotics” these days. Experimental. Even classified. And definitely not yet FDA-approved. And it couldn’t be a genetically engineered plague. That would be discovered pretty quickly and you wouldn’t be able to deny it. Everyone would know it was GW—germ warfare—so they had to use good old-fashioned plague. Bubonic, the Black Death of the Middle Ages, the Great Dying. History’s had a lot of names for it. It had to be “natural.”
And it wasn’t any good if it took the carrier days or a week or more to get clean. If it still showed in his blood, he’d never be able to get out of the quarantine areas; he’d never be able to get out of the field and sit the crisis out—back in the States or somewhere—until he was needed again.
They’d already found one carrier—a guy they could use—but he went crazy in the field halfway through his first mission and they had to pull him.
I didn’t hear about him until much later. I wish I’d heard earlier.
I waited two months working in the sports section of a K-Mart. I’d given up, in fact, ever hearing from them when a different guy called to set up another interview, this time in Riverside. There would be a physical just after the interview, he said, and I needed to be able to give urine and blood samples.
I don’t remember exactly what I said in the interview or even what the guy said. He was interested at first, asking me about my relationship with my father—which I told him was great—and about any research papers I’d found most rewarding in my college courses. One on “economic sanctions and North-South relations,” I said, and another on the impact of military invasion on the cultural history of Vietnam. He perked up hearing that, but after that lost interest again. I don’t know whether it was the questions he had to ask—they bored him—or my answers to them—which were boring, too—but all I remember is saying “Yes” and “No” a lot and not much else.
So I wasn’t surprised two weeks later to get a letter turning me down. I knew I’d get something in writing so they could tell Booth and my dad’s friends and anyone else that they’d considered me “very carefully” and sent me a nice letter.
I was getting ready to apply—my father had offered to help and I had some savings—to graduate school, for an MBA at a state college, when someone called from the L.A. office again. The voice sounded not just interested, but even a little urgent. They wanted me to come in for another interview and more blood tests.
I couldn’t imagine what had changed their minds.
I should explain what a “vector” is? A vector is how a disease—an epidemic—is spread. In the case of Yersinia pestis—the classic plague—it’s carried not by a rat, but by a flea on the rat. It’s very interesting actually. There are three main forms of plague: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic. Bubonic is the most famous. It’s the form you see in etchings from the Middle Ages—what was called the Black Death. Incubation—which is how long it takes you to come down with it—is two to five days, and your lymphatic system tries to deal with it, but can’t. Your lymph nodes swell up and they’re so full of the bacteria, the bacteria’s toxins, that they’re like knobs on your skins. These are called “buboes”—and why it’s called bubonic—and eventually they burst and run. You also get a red rash. This is the “ring around the rosies” that the old nursery rhyme is referring to. It’s a terrible way to die. Your temperature gets up to 103-106. Your blood pressure’s so low you can’t stand up, and you’ve got to watch these things, these big bumps, growing on you. You’re becoming something else—your body is changing completely—and even if you’re delirious, you hate what you’re becoming. You’re rotting, actually rotting, and you can smell it.
I’ve never had the symptoms, but I know what that feels like—to hate what you’re becoming.
The second form is called “pneumonic”—like the word pneumonia. It fills your lungs. You get it from what’s called “aerial droplet transmission”—which means from the air. It goes straight to your lungs and you come down with a pneumonia that’s actually plague. You can even get it from your cat or your dog. From their saliva or their sneezing. This kind takes half as long to come down with. You get a splitting headache, chills, fever, and before you know it you’re coughing up blood. It looks like strawberry jelly—even the doctors describe it that way. Your lungs are dying and you get to watch. With this kind if you don’t get treatment, you always die.
The worst form—septicemic—isn’t very common, fortunately, but I should mention it anyway, so you’ll know. In this kind the flea is so full of the germ that when it bites you—just one bite—when it tries to suck blood from you—the germs backwash into your bloodstream, and you get infected instantly. You die in twenty-four hours. Your blood is crawling with the bacteria—it just can’t handle it—and that’s how you die, poisoned by living things crawling through your bloodstream.
Actually there’s a fourth type, a meningitis plague—a brain membrane kind. I’d forgotten that, but it’s even less common. Its code in epidemiological circles is A20.3. You don’t hear about it.
The kind they wanted me to spread—the only kind I could spread—was pneumonic. I’d cough, and the coughing would spread it, but once the pneumonic gets started you see the first type, too, the bubonic. That’s what they wanted. Something fast to get it started, but then both kinds appearing so that it couldn’t be traced.
It’s important to know the history of things. That’s what Booth always said and that’s what they said at Langley, and it’s true. In the old days—when they first had a drug for the plague, in the early 1900s—they used sulfonamides. That’s the fancy name for sulfur drugs. Back in the Middle Ages the guy with all the prophecies—Nostradamus—was so smart he invented an herbal treatment that was actually pretty good. It had rose petals, evergreen needles, and a special root in it, but you couldn’t save the entire population of Europe with that. You couldn’t even save twenty percent. Even if everyone had believed it would work, there wouldn’t have been enough roses.
So the sulfur drugs in the early 1900s weren’t very good, but they were better than nothing and they could have cut the Black Death mortality rate by fifty percent. Later, what’s called the tetracycline drugs came in and these cured people quickly. That’s why you only get a couple of plague cases every year in the U.S., and they’re out on Indian reservations or in the woods in a national park somewhere, someone getting bitten by a squirrel maybe.
But if you’ve got a Third World country, what we used to call an “LDC”—a “Lesser Developing Country”—you couldn’t necessarily get the drugs, either quickly or at all, and maybe thousands would get infected and thousands would die. Especially if you didn’t want them to get the drugs. If, say, the president of a little country was a leftist and you didn’t want that kind of leadership in that country—where American businesses had factories and relied on certain kinds of privileges, and because you saw communism as a threat to our way of life—you could keep the drugs from getting to it. If the country couldn’t get the drugs fast enough and enough people died, the country would become “destabilized.” And if there was a group like the military or a landowner with the army’s backing ready to overthrow the president, that was the time to do it. You know what I’m saying. I’m not talking politics here. I’m just saying how it was back then.
I’m sure you’ve heard about some of these things before. In World War II the Japanese tried the plague on China and killed a couple of hundred Chinese, but also one of their own companies of soldiers. They were also, later in the war, planning to try it on San Diego, California, but then Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened and they signed the surrender. And all the old Agency stories—the news media coverage, the “black ops,” the assassinations of heads of state, the secret support of coups d’état—all those covert actions that got the intelligence community in trouble in the 1970s. You’ve heard about those things, I’m sure.
They didn’t want me as an intelligence analyst. They wanted me to do this other work for them—in countries where they needed it done. I needed training for that—any twenty-two-year-old would have—and it was the kind any overseas operative would get. In my case it was training for South America. It lasted sixteen weeks—they taught me Spanish and E&E, escape and evasion—and gave me some medic training, some reporter-skills training (I’ll talk about that in a minute), and some firearms training—which was pretty funny with my bad eyesight. Right before I left for all that training I went to visit my parents. I couldn’t tell them anything, but I wanted them to be proud of me. All I could say was, “I’m about to work for the intelligence community, Dad. But not as an analyst. I’m heading out in two days for sixteen weeks of training.”
“I thought that might be what was happening, Matt,” he told me with a smile, but I could tell he was worried. Analysts live safe lives. Field operatives don’t always. “You haven’t been saying much recently.”
“You’re right,” I said. “That was why.”
I couldn’t tell them what I’d be doing. I couldn’t tell anyone. Even if I’d been allowed to, how could I?
“I know I can’t ask you anything about it, Matt, and that’s okay,” my dad said. “During the war in the Pacific we couldn’t tell our families. No places, people, events. Just what we were feeling. Whenever you want to tell us how you’re feeling, we’d like to hear. We’re very happy for you.”
I didn’t become what I would become until maybe the second mission. I didn’t develop the habits, I mean—the crazy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that you develop when you know that if you touch someone you love, you may be giving them a disease that will kill them—until later. Those things didn’t really start until after the first mission, though during that mission I’d meet people I liked and they’d be in the city where I needed to start the thing, and I had no choice—it was important that I start it there, in that city, if what we needed to have happen was to happen.
I remember a young woman in—a midsized city—let’s call it Santa Livia. That’s not its real name, but I still can’t use the real names. She was an ex-Peace Corps worker and back in the States I’d have asked her out; but when I met her she was in—in Santa Livia working for a civilian aid organization. And that was the city where they wanted me to crack the hollow thing in my tooth to start it. All I needed to do after I cracked it was take the train from Santa Livia to the next two cities on the train route and cough a lot. It was in my bloodstream and that’s all it would take. I’d cough, put my hand over my mouth, cough some more, touch the railings and doors of the train as I left and entered each car along the way. It was easy. You weren’t sick yourself—you didn’t have the symptoms—and the first time you did it you couldn’t believe you were starting an epidemic. How could you be starting an epidemic just by doing that? You didn’t believe it. You were just doing what they wanted you to do.
When I’d reach the third city, I’d crack the other three fillings on the other side of my mouth and the antibiotic would kill the Yersinia in my bloodstream; and I’d continue on the train to—let’s call them Santo Tomas and Santa Carolina . . . and Morela. If anyone tried to track the spread of it, the “vector trail,” as they called it, would end in Morela; but only the World Health Organization would know how to track it and by the time they did, my train trip would be lost in the epidemic. Everyone—the cities, the government, the aid organizations—would be overwhelmed in days by the infected and no one could charge the U.S. with anything even if we got what we wanted. The disease would move from city to city within a day, and there’d be geometric spread—the kind you get in urban areas with rats, fleas, and aerial transmission—out from those cities. I’d be evacuated along with other non-quarantined Americans before the disease could hit the capital, where I was staying.
Spreading it that way made it look natural. That was, as I think I said, the main reason to have someone—a human carrier—do it—do it “by hand,” as we liked to say—in a couple of cities and then let it spread. Looking natural was important. The word you hear all the time in CIA movies—“deniability”—is true. It’s not just a Hollywood idea. That was the guiding principle. You don’t have to have it deniable in economic warfare, the way we do things now; but you do in covert-action matters. Economic warfare—public sector and private sector both—works better anyway.
She had blue eyes and she liked me, I think. I didn’t know if she got out. I didn’t want to know. She was in the first city and maybe that gave her a chance, unless she chose to stay—to help. With pneumonic, if it’s an untreated population, you can have ninety to one hundred percent mortality. With bubonic it tends just to be fifty to sixty percent, so I didn’t know.
After doing those three cities, I took the train back to the capital and found myself not looking at women or children. If I looked at them, I felt like they were going to die, that I was going to kill them—which could have been true, but not in the way it felt at the moment. I felt that my eyes—just my eyes—could do it. If I looked at them, they’d die. And with the women, if I thought they were beautiful, they’d also die because I thought it—because I thought they were beautiful.
Later, it would get a lot worse—the superstitions and habits—but that’s how it started, on the first mission. Not looking at women and children.
Or anyone who looked at all like my parents.
It started with toothbrushes, I guess. That’s when I first really noticed it. Not just averting my eyes on a train, but actual things I could touch—that I took home with me, and couldn’t get away from. I wasn’t supposed to do anything to draw attention to myself when I was in the field; but after the first mission, it was like I couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth, so I started buying toothbrushes, one for every day; and I’d wrap up each one in a plastic bag at the end of the day. I started doing this when I was still in the field the second time. It was in the capital city, when all of the uninfected Americans and Europeans and Chinese and Japanese were being rushed out by jet. I used up ten toothbrushes in six days—that’s more than one a day—right before I was evacked.
Back in the States, they had me live in Minneapolis. Why, I don’t know. They didn’t check me in at Langley—Agency headquarters—when I got back. Not at first. They put me in Walter Reed, the big military hospital in DC. I was there for three days to make sure I wasn’t still carrying, and then I did go to Langley for debriefing, a week of it, if I remember correctly. And then finally to Minneapolis, where they wanted me low profile until they needed me again, which wouldn’t be for another six months. I kept buying the toothbrushes—a different one, sometimes two, for each day, and eventually rubber gloves to hold them with and plastic bags to put them in. I’d put them in the blue dumpsters behind my apartment. I wanted to burn them in a furnace, but the building didn’t have one.
I noticed, too, that I didn’t touch things out in public, or where other people could touch what I’d touched. I could have hired a maid—the Agency would have paid for it—but I wouldn’t hire a maid. I didn’t want her touching what I’d touched in the apartment. Out in public if I touched things it would be with my left hand, the hand I never let come near my mouth.
I was back in my own country again—with people I’d grown up with and cared about—and if I wasn’t careful (a voice was telling me), I could start it here. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s how it felt. I was clean, completely clean, but that’s how it felt.
I had no social life, even though my case agent—let’s call him Rod—kept telling me I needed one. “It’s easier in DC,” I’d tell him. “There’s no social life in Minneapolis.”
“That’s not the reason, Matt,” he’d say, “and you know it.”
“What are you talking about?” I’d say, pretending I didn’t know.
“You’re agoraphobic and you need to work your way out of it. It happens. It’s going to happen in work like this. Do you want to see an Agency shrink?”
“No.” I wanted to work it out myself. I didn’t want to be in a shrink’s office where I could touch things and the shrink might die.
Sometimes Rod would visit me—maybe four times while I was there, during those six months—and his visits helped. Someone who knew me and thought I was okay—despite what kind of work I did—who wasn’t afraid to sit near me or touch me. He was a short, squat man, and pretty gruff—a little like Joe Friday, real old school, OSS originally—but he reminded me of Professor Booth, because he also seemed to care. I’m not sure he did—that either of them really cared—but that’s how it felt, and it helped.
I certainly didn’t date. I didn’t have to work. I had all this free time, but I didn’t socialize unless I had to. I told people in the building that I was a writer and I know they thought I was some rich kid who didn’t have to work, who could just write a book while everyone else worked. They didn’t like that, which meant no one wanted to be around me—which was great. I had a different name, different social security number, the usual witness-protection kind of cover; and everyone assumed I was a trust-fund kid, I’m sure. I had all the time in the world, so I read a lot. When you read a lot you don’t meet a lot of people. You don’t meet a lot of girls.
But there was one—her name was Trisha—she lived down the hallway—but when I thought of dating her, I saw myself sitting in my car and watching it happen. They’d given me a car, a ’68 Mustang fastback—the kind of car a trust-fund kid would have—and I saw myself sitting in it with her and, though she wanted me to kiss her, I couldn’t. Why? Because if I did she’d jerk back like she’d been shot and I’d have to watch her get sick and die.
It would be like time-lapse photography, like a flower in a Disney nature movie blooming real fast, the buboes blooming like flowers, and then she’d be dead.
That’s what I’d see if I thought of asking her out, but I finally did—maybe because I thought I should. I knew I was going crazy and maybe it would help. She wouldn’t die—I knew that—and seeing that she didn’t die might just help. But when I did ask her, when I got off the phone after asking her out, I threw up. I threw up on the bed where I’d made the call. I couldn’t stop shaking and I didn’t pick her up that Saturday. I never called her again, I avoided her in the hallway, and I didn’t return her call the one time she called me two weeks later.
I also had a chance to see my parents during those six months and didn’t. I couldn’t.
I’d phone and tell my dad that they had me real busy, that even when I was out of the field they were keeping me busy, and he’d say, “That’s fine, Matt. I know how it goes. My good friend Gavin from the Academy was ONI and he was the busiest man I ever knew. Just hearing your voice is wonderful. Call us when you can.”
Or he’d tease me and say, “You’re not trying to avoid us, are you?” and I’d lie and say, “You know me better than that.” I’d say it to my mom, too. “You know I love you both. If I’m not going to get to see you, I want at least to call. I want you to at least hear my voice.”
“You know we’re proud of you,” they’d both say, and they’d mean it. I didn’t let myself wonder what they’d think if they knew what I was doing. Maybe they wouldn’t want to know.
My dad died of a heart attack right after my third mission and I wanted to make it to the funeral, but I just couldn’t do that either. I talked to my mom for a long time on the phone, trying to explain why I couldn’t, inventing all sorts of things; and though I know she believed me—I know it made her proud—I know she was disappointed. But she’d been married to a Navy man, so she knew what sacrificing for your country was.
I was sitting watching television in my apartment in Phoenix—this time they had me in Arizona—when my dad’s funeral started four hundred miles away. I remember looking at my watch every five minutes for an hour. I don’t remember what was on television. I remember hearing in my head what I would have said about him if I’d been there. I remember imagining his body in a casket, starting to smell, the rash and bumps, and stopping myself—and then just seeing my mother’s face and hugging her and telling her I loved her and what a wonderful man he’d been, which was true.
At first they lied to me and said the ex-Peace Corps woman—the woman in Santa Livia, the one I’d liked—had made it out okay; but two years later—after two more missions—they admitted she hadn’t, that she’d been one of five Americans who’d died in the city because the WHO’s medical shipment to the center of the epidemic took ten days, not three; and the five were sick and so they couldn’t be evacuated. We’d delayed the WHO’s shipment, of course. It was easy to do. I’d killed her. That was the truth of it. I hadn’t delayed the shipment, but I’d killed her.
It was knowing that she’d died that made me do what I did in the city of—the city of Zaquitos. I’m sure it was. It wasn’t a young woman, though. It was a boy, one who looked like a kid I’d played with—a friend—in the fourth grade in Florida, when my dad was stationed there. In the next country I was sent to I saw a lot of young women who were beautiful. Maybe their arms had little nicks and scars from a hard life. Maybe they were dirty from the dust and heat, but they were beautiful. People are beautiful wherever they are, whether it’s war or peace or famine or floods they’re living in. But it wasn’t a woman I decided to save, it was a boy. I remember thinking: This is someone’s kid. You’re going to have kids some day, Matt—if you’re lucky, if you make it through this—and this is someone’s kid.
He was a mescla—a mixed-blood kid at the bottom of the social ladder. His hair was kind of a bronze color, the way hair sometimes is from Brazil and the Azores. My friend in the third grade was from the Azores. This boy in Zaquitos had light brown eyes just like my friend. His skin was dark, but he had that bronze hair and, believe it or not, a couple of freckles on his nose, too. There’d been a lot of Irish and Germans in that country in the beginning and they’d mixed and maybe it was Irish blood coming through in this kid.
He lived on a famous dump in Zaquitos—the dump I’d gone to, to write a story about. I was there to write a story about how terrible conditions were for the people in that country’s north. They’d left the drought-stricken countryside and ended up in the favelas, the slums, and that wasn’t any better. It was worse, in fact, and that’s what I was writing about. I was a reporter for a liberal English-language paper out of the capital city; that’s what I was supposedly doing there. The agency had figured out how to use my writing skills and that was my—as they say—cover. I’d been interviewed by the newspaper the way any applicant would and I’d been hired the way anyone would be. At least that’s how it looked. A paper trail in case one was needed. I wasn’t comfortable with the job. I didn’t talk leftist jargon well enough to feel comfortable when I met other leftist journalists, but my case agent said, “Don’t worry. They can’t fire you.” The newspaper, it turned out, was funded by the Agency. Some of the editors worked for the Agency and could pipeline agents like me, and the other editors just didn’t know. That’s how it was in those days. It’s an old story now and pretty boring; but for two missions that was my cover, and it was a good one because I got to be alone a lot of the time.
I had to make myself step up close to the boy—the one I’m talking about in the dump. Stepping up to him was hard to do because I wasn’t supposed to do that with anyone I cared about. But I did it and I asked him in Spanish if I could take his picture. Some of you know Spanish, I’m sure. I said, “Puedo fotografiarte?” and he cocked his head, and for a moment I was back in the third grade and my friend Keith was looking at me. I jumped back and nearly tripped on the garbage. I wanted to run. But in that moment I was also myself twenty years in the future looking down at my own son and feeling a love I’d never felt before. No one, especially guys, ever feels a love like that—for children, I mean—when they’re twenty-two. It’s just not what life is like when you’re twenty-two—unless you’re a father already. But that’s what I felt and that’s what kept me from running away.
There were dirty streaks on the boy’s neck from all that sweat and dirt. His ears were dirty and all he wanted to do when he saw me was beg. He kept shaking his head and putting out his hand and saying in English, “Very poor! Very poor!” He’d try to touch me—my camera, my sleeve—and I’d step back, shaking my head, too, because I was terrified. But I made myself do it. I gave him what I had—some coins and some bills. I was shaking like crazy because I was touching the money—touching it and then giving it to him—and as I did it I could see him dying right before me. But he didn’t die, so I asked him again: “Can I photograph you?”
“Yes!” he said, happy now, the coins and bills in his hands. “Foto! Foto!” He’d gotten what he wanted and now I could snap his picture, just like any tourist would.
I took his picture and went back to my hotel downtown. Even though I didn’t have the roll of film I’d taken at the dump processed, I didn’t need to. I could see his face as I fell asleep. I dreamed about him; and I could see his face as I woke up and got ready to go back to the dump, where I was supposed to start the “distraction”—that’s what we called it—that morning. The favelas were a logical place for it—with all the urban rats and the incredible transiency. Everyone in that country and in bordering countries and at WHO and the UN were waiting for some epidemic to start in that country. It was a time bomb. Cholera, typhoid, something. But if we—if the Agency—could get a big enough one going, there was a ninety percent chance that the government of—the government of that country—would topple. The military was ready for a coup. It had already tried once.
So I stood on the dump—in all that stink and garbage—and I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it with the boy there somewhere—a boy who looked like my friend and a boy who was someone’s kid—so I went looking for him, and it took an hour, but I found him. He was with his father and brothers, and I said, “Debe llevarse a su familia ad otra ciudad—ahora! Cosas malas llegan!” That meant: You’ve got to move your family to another city—right now! Bad things are coming! They looked at me like I was crazy, so I said it again and I got out the five hundred American dollars I’d had my department wire me. Living expenses, I’d explained, and that was fine with them. I said in Spanish, “I want you to be safe. You need to leave this place immediately. Do the boys have a mother?” No, she’d died, the father said. “I will give you five hundred American dollars if you will leave today—if you will leave now!”
The father looked at me and I knew damn well what he was thinking: Crazy American. The kind that tries to “save you.” That sends money to your country because of a television show and if it gets to you it’s a penny rather than a dollar.
He was willing to take the money, but you could tell he wasn’t going to pack up and move—not today, maybe not ever. They had friends here, other families. You don’t give that up even for five years of income, do you?
I looked at them and waited and finally I said, “If you don’t go today, I’ll take my money back. I’ll call the police and tell them you robbed me, and I’ll take my money back.”
When he got the point, when he saw I was dead serious, he led me to the shack they lived in—the cardboard and corrugated metal shack that had no running water or sewage—and helped his boys get things together. I just stood there. I couldn’t touch anything—anything they were going to bring. I wanted to put on rubber gloves so I could help them, but I couldn’t do that either. They’d be insulted, and I didn’t want to insult them. The boys gathered up six toy soldiers—two apiece—hammered from tin cans, a broken plastic gun, and two big balls of twine, and the father gathered up four dirty blankets, a can opener that looked bent, two pairs of pants for each of them, and a bag filled with socks, shoes, plastic plates, and cups. That’s what they had. They’d slept on the dirt floor on those blankets. I’d never really thought of how people like this lived, and here it was. How do you live like that and not stop caring? I don’t know.
I waited for them, and when they were ready we trudged back across the refuse and smells of the dump to the first paved road, where I took the bus with them to Parelo, where they said they had family in the favela there. They did. I paid for a taxi for us, sat in the front seat by myself, and dropped them off with the father’s sister, who didn’t look happy until she saw how much money it was. The favela wasn’t much better than the dump, but it was two hundred miles away from where the epidemic would start, and it was a lot of money.
It was a dangerous thing for me to do—being that visible—but I didn’t have any choice. I knew that if I didn’t do it I’d see the boy’s face forever, like a photograph in my head. I wasn’t acting very normally then—I couldn’t touch people—I started shaking even when I thought of touching anyone—but I knew I had to try to save this one kid. If anyone was following me, they’d wonder what the hell I was doing. That much money. A dump family. Getting them out of town and spending eleven hours on the bus with them. They might put two and two together later—someone might—but in a country this poor who’d be watching me? I was a leftist journalist and the regime was leftist. Who’d be watching a leftist reporter? And once the epidemic started, who’d be free to watch me?
I was much more worried about what my case agent and his boss and the DDP would say. “You did what?” they’d say. How do you tell someone?
I returned to Zaquitos—which took me a day.
The next morning I went back to the dump and started it. I bit down, heard the little crack, coughed into my hand, and began touching things when I got to the cemetery and crematorium, and the cars and little stores after that.
I tried not to look at anyone as I did it, especially anyone old or a woman or kids. Those were the ones who bothered me most. It was hard not to look, because you wanted to know, but I’d had a lot of practice not looking by then. Just don’t look, a voice would say to me and I wouldn’t.
The next day I took the train to the next two decent-sized cities; when I was through with both of them, I stopped, cracked the other fillings, went to the capital, and flew back to the States before the quarantines could even get started.
I kept seeing the boy’s face, sure, but it made me happy.
You’re wondering why they let me talk about all of this—“top-secret your-eyes-only” kinds of things. The kinds of things that in the movies, if someone tells you, it gets you killed, right? They let me talk not only because they’re not worried—how much damage can one guy who’s not very credible, who’s had mental problems, do?—but also, and this is the other half of it, because it’s old news. It’s actually there in the Pentagon Papers—that old book—if you look closely enough, and it’s even mentioned—indirectly, of course—in Richard Nixon’s autobiography, along with the planned use of a single-k nuclear device to end the war in Vietnam. It’s old news and I get to talk about it now because it doesn’t matter anymore. I guess that’s what I’m saying. No one really cares. Vietnam doesn’t care whether we were planning to detonate a nuclear device to flood Hanoi—they just want favored trade status now—and those countries in South America have each had half a dozen governments since then, and they want to forget, too. Ancient history. Besides, the Agency has better things to do. They’ve got covert economic programs you wouldn’t believe and designer diseases they haven’t even used yet. This is the new war. The Army’s got mines that can weigh you—tell you how much you weigh—and whether you’re an adult or a child and whether you’re carrying a gun. Other mines that land and become dozens of little mobile mines that go out looking for you instead of waiting for you to come to them. They’ve got suits that, if you’re a soldier and wounded, will give you an antibiotic, or if you’re poisoned, give you the antidote, or if you’re out of water it will recycle your urine for you. You don’t have to think. The suit thinks for you. They’ve got these things and they’re using them. This is what warfare is now, so how important is a guy who can break a filling in his tooth and start some plague from the Middle Ages—something that crude and messy?
That’s how they’re thinking, believe me.
I did catch hell from my boss and his boss and the DDP when they found out what I’d done with the boy. I said, “That should tell you something. It should tell you that you don’t really want me to do this for you anymore.”
They actually let me quit. That surprised me. I didn’t think you could quit. I’d seen too many movies, I guess, where no one could quit the Agency, like no one could quit the Mafia. They said they didn’t really want me if my heart wasn’t in it. But I don’t think that was the real reason. I think it was that they just didn’t need the program anymore. They were getting better programs.
They made me sign papers promising for twenty-five years not to write about what I’d done—what they’d had me do for my country—or talk about it publicly or to anyone who’d make it public—and then they let me leave. I had all these interpersonal problems, as I’ve been saying, but I did go back to school and, I’m proud to say, got my MBA. I wanted to get a degree I could use anywhere. I started out as a manager of a drug store, but that was because of the interpersonal problems; when I could finally go to company meetings and not act strange, I started moving up the ladder. In three years I was in management at corporate headquarters, and that’s where I met my wife. It took a few more years of therapy—of Agency shrinks at the VA hospital actually—to get over it enough to really function. The toothbrushes, the not touching people you loved, the nightmares and the flashbacks—all those things I needed to work through. My wife hung in there with me throughout it all—that I’ll be forever grateful for—and we’ve got two kids almost grown now, both of them boys.
I don’t know where that boy from Zaquitos is now, or if he’s still alive. You don’t live long in those countries. The Luz de Muerte paramilitary units—the ones that could make you “disappear”—started up under the military regime after I did what I was sent there to do. The new government was tied to a group called The Society for Church, Family, and Tradition, and those units were operating there for ten years at least. If the boy had any leftist leanings, he might not have made it through that. Or he could have been killed for no reason. Or, if he didn’t get out of the favelas, he might have died of typhus or cholera or dengue fever. You lose a lot of Third World people to those diseases even now, and they’re natural ones.
I think about that boy a lot. What if someone started a plague in the U.S., maybe at the White House in a tour group, or maybe in a big airport like LAX—to turn the tables, to “destabilize” us? I think about that. I think of my own boys dying, no one around to save them the way I saved that boy and his brothers and father. One family’s not very much, but it’s something. That’s what I tell myself anyway.
I guess that’s it. I’ve gone way over my time, I know. Thanks for inviting me to speak today. It’s good to have an audience. It’s good to know that people, especially young people, are still interested in things like this. After all, I did what I could for you.
# # #
“Dream Baby”—the short story and novel both—may have taken fifteen years of physical hard work—library research, correspondence or interviews with two hundred veterans of three American wars, and the sheer number of drafts (7 x 600 pages)—but this story took thirty years in the mind’s interior and not-always-conscious regions. In the mid-’70s I tried the idea as a thriller, got seventy pages of it done with a very long outline, and received an outrageously enthusiastic response from the West Coast editor of a major New York publishing house (lots of “What are you going to do when we publish it and it becomes a bestseller, Bruce?” letters and phone calls). Then, when the project was met with the most deafening silence imaginable from that editor’s NYC bosses, I had it explained to me by a third party that this particular West Coast editor had been assigned to the West Coast because he wasn’t “NYC material.” If he wanted, poor man, to chat up authors and get them all excited, that was fine, but his recommendations carried no weight whatsoever in the Big Apple. The man who explained this to me was Oakley Hall, director of the UC Irvine MFA program from which I’d just graduated—and an accomplished novelist himself whose book, The Art & Craft Novel Writing, is a modern classic—and whose kindness was legend. Always generous with his students both current and former, he also offered to read the “portion and outline” for my novel; and when he’d done so, had the caring courage to express the truth: the novel was terrible. (Why thrillers by science fiction writers are often so awful is a fascinating topic, but one for another venue.) The fact was, as with the Terrible Ludlumesque Novel, I had tried to be someone I wasn’t, and had failed the way writers fail when they try to be a writer they’re not. The premise of the story, however—what happens to a man whose job it is to kill by being intimate—continued to haunt, and, as happens often with an idea that won’t go away, finally appeared three decades later in a new form and with, I’d hope, a little more sophistication in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and, later, in The Best American Short Stories 2007 (under Stephen King’s guest-editorship) as “The Boy in Zaquitos.” Some readers have found this story not to be science fiction. Perhaps that’s because in a universe somewhere it did indeed happen and for reasons that seemed right and noble, I have no doubt, to those writing the operational plans.