Pathological

Ian Cartwright’s brain had weak connections between the components responsible for emotional transmissions. This meant he never felt empathy or sympathy for anyone, no matter how badly that person suffered. He had even tortured the family cat when he was a child just to study his indifference to pain. Nor could Ian feel guilty for anything he did. Guilt and shame struck him as deviant forms of weakness. Interpersonal anxieties and embarrassments were always someone else’s problem, not his. In fact, he saw himself as the victim in nearly every unpleasant circumstance he encountered. All this, tied to Ian’s above-average intelligence, egocentricity, PhD in virology, and contempt for everyone around him, made him a dangerous man.

To see how much damage he could do to a world he considered absurd and tedious, Ian decided to create a new virus and unleash it on America. He would generate it by taking an existing virus and inserting new DNA into its viral backbone to make it more pathogenic. Ian thought of his mission in car terms. It would be like buying a Mustang frame, putting in a Viper engine, using Indy car tires, and so on—a piecemeal approach. He got the DNA sequence he wanted from the National Institutes of Health website, a public source. Many viral strain sequences were open source and could be found online since their researchers were funded by government grants, which meant the results were public property.

All Ian needed to do was swap out certain portions of the virus to enable it to infect a particular cell type. The virus would then hijack the natural machinery of the cell, and the cell would start replicating massive quantities of the virus without even knowing it was doing so, like a blind machine just reading DNA blueprint codes and cranking out the product. Ian exchanged the receptor specificity (by deleting that gene and inserting a new gene) for a lung cell and inputted the specificity for another tissue-specific receptor, which he called Death Receptor-1 (DR1). DR1 could only be expressed on fibrocytes, or skin cells. In this way, Ian successfully managed the DNA sequence for a virus with the flu DNA backbone and swapped out the receptor specificity for a new tissue target.

Once these tasks were done, Ian needed to make a large quantity of the virus. In his lab, he grew the virus in a non-human cell line called BHKs, (baby hamster kidney cells). They were a very long-lived cell line that doubled slowly, so the virus could enter the cells, and the cell would make lots of new virus before eventually dying from toxicity in the culture plate. The BHK cells made so much virus that it was now just as deadly as flu but would infect the skin cells instead of the lungs. The outcome would be a whole-body burning sensation, followed by the skin literally melting off the body due to extremely high fever brought on by the body’s natural defense against viral infection.

On a frigid Monday morning three days before Christmas, Ian donned gloves, a heavy coat, and a dust mask. Then he covered his face with a scarf, walked to the downtown business district, and dropped a newspaper infected with his newly created virus on the seat of a crowded subway. He exited at the next stop and disappeared into the crowd. Tony Lupo, who was heading home from his graveyard shift, noticed the paper, picked it up, and turned to the sports section. He scratched his neck a little and mentioned how hot it was to the elderly woman sitting next to him. She agreed and began scratching herself, too.

By the time Tony reached his house, his hands and arms were covered in a severe rash. He ripped his coat and shirt off to better diagnose the problem, but the damage had been done. As his body hemorrhaged beneath the top layer of skin, causing the dermal layers to burst, his dead skin cells floated through the air, landing on his unsuspecting wife, teenage daughter, and three-year-old son. The family jumped in their car and raced to the hospital. By the time the Lupos reached the crowded emergency room, they were burning with fever. The entire hospital was quarantined, but to no avail. As the medical staff listened to reports of a city in crisis, they realized they had been witness to the early stages of something cataclysmic that would ravage their bodies in the same way very shortly. They had never seen teeth fall out so quickly. They had certainly never seen flesh melting off of human bodies under such unusual circumstances, and Ian had left no one with a cure.