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Short Story: "Patient Zero"

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Philip Zack     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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"It's still spreading, Kaia," Dennis Furlin whispered breathlessly to the woman he edged past just before reaching his fourth-row seat.

Kaialia Loffia kept her eyes on the speaker, lest they disrupt the meeting, and whispered back, "Do they know why?"

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"Not a clue. Only that it might have started somewhere in Appalachia. But at this point, the call centers serving most of the country are flooded. People are canceling their health insurance in droves."

Furlin bit his lip, and looked up at Tom Roman, well-dressed leader of the PAC that had organized the conference, who was delivering the keynote address.
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""tricky emotional arguments," he was saying, "because they can get you bogged down in all sorts of side issues. The best way to approach Progressives is by using the values they consider central to their worldview: the morality of empathy and responsibility for themselves and others. You see, for them, the primary purpose of government is to protect and empower the people. They see healthcare as an obligation of government, just like police and fire protection. As far as they're concerned, our industry is an intrusion, and our role in ensuring that they do not get overpriced or unnecessary medical procedures is something to be gotten rid of. It's a challenge, I know, but the workshops we have planned for the next few days will help you to overcome this resistance, so you can increase your conversion rate and make sure the money flows in the right direction."

Kaialia glanced at Dennis. "Let's get out of here."

By the time they reached the door, Furlin had segued to the PAC's plans to mobilize attendees after the conference ended. "Inculcating agents and call centers in a common approach, with scripted tactics, is a campaign-proven strategy guaranteed to drive public sentiment along paths that benefit our industry. It's all about framing. The same psychological tricks that work for politics can be turned to our ends as well."
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Dennis paused to watch the door block his view of the stage, and then turned back towards Kaialia. "If it's not stopped, there'll be nothing left of the industry by the time this shindig ends. There's a free conference room that way. Come on."

She pulled out her cell phone as they rounded the corner, and punched a speed dial key. "It's me. Free up some staff, and wait for my call. We're going to see what we can turn up. Bye."

The small room was prepped with ice water, so he poured two glasses, downed one, and plopped into the nearest chair. "Here's what we know so far. Sometime late on Thursday, people started calling to drop their plans. Most were in corporate groups, so the call centers deflected them to the less-costly plans we have companies set up as gimmicks to drive them to the one we wanted them on, but they wouldn't accept the switch."

Kaialia took a sip. "Did they say why?"

"Yeah. They said it wouldn't be needed. That they didn't need to get sick any more."

"Didn't 'need' to?"

"Uh-huh. Whatever that means."

"What about accidents? Emergencies? Surely that's reason enough to stay insured."

"Apparently not. They stuck to their request. Anyway, after a few were dropped, the ticket monitor alerted management, and we adjusted the script. So, at this point, we're sending them back to their employers' benefits team. Let them figure it out. After all, if they can't keep their own people enrolled, they'll lose the plan entirely, which wouldn't go down too well with the execs skimming free care off the top. Problem is, that hasn't stopped the tsunami of new callers from going down that path. Someone out there is undermining the whole industry."

She gazed past the badly-erased whiteboard for a moment in thought. "Okay. So someone is getting to our subscriber base, someone with an argument powerful enough to turn them off the whole idea of insurance. You said your analysts think it started in Appalachia. Why there?"

"Good question. Those blue-collar folks are historically solid subscribers. The population skews poor to middle class, so they don't generally have much in savings. That's our best leverage on them, too. But historically, Appalachia's also been fertile ground for a good bit of radical socialist union-mongering. It was a hard-won geographic, and we can't afford to lose it."

"Speaking of geography, what's the spread pattern?"

"Until this morning, it was fairly well localized. Our analysts could explain it as face-to-face proselytizing, which makes sense in a heavily-religious area like that. So they started trying to filter out the noise, to eliminate as many of the known influencers as possible. Revivalists. Mega-church leaders. Like that."

Kiailia drummed her fingers nervously. "I hope it's a dead end. Who did they narrow it down to? Some cult that believes it's sinful to be saved by science?"

"That's what's so weird about this whole thing. Just as my crew was narrowing down the pack, the pattern of spread changed on them. It was spooky, almost like whoever it was knew that someone was on their trail, or something.

"What changed? Did they recruit another influence node?"

"That would have been easier to deal with. No, it looks more like the ringleader's strategy changed. Where before there was a clear trail of converts to chase, now it started looking like the leader replicated himself. There was still a physical trail of converted subscribers to follow, but since there were more subversives out there, they set off in different directions to cover more ground."

"But they're still following that one-on-one pattern?"

Dennis shook his head. "They were, until just before the keynote. Then all hell broke loose. I think at least one of the secondaries must have hit an airport. Calls started coming in from a number of cities all at about the same time, cities served by flights originating near the initial outbreak."

"Geez," she said, "it's spreading like an epidemic. You'd think the healthcare industry would have a better handle on this sort of thing."

"We might, if it was a disease. Tracking down Patient Zero, the one who first contracts it, is what the CDC is all about. Statistics. Patterns. Projecting backwards along the trail of spread is a piece of cake for our guys, too, but this thing jumps. It's not just person-to-person contact any more. Hell, it's not even Typhoid Mary at an airline hub. The last report I got -- the one that sent me back to get you -- was more like a computer virus than a biological one. At this point, I don't know what to think."

Kaialia leaned her seat back and closed her eyes for a few long, slow breaths. "A computer virus. It's spreading like an idea, a virulent meme -- one that can use a convert to spread it even further. And the idea it's spreading causes those 'infected' to cancel their insurance. You said someone claimed they wouldn't need to get sick anymore."

"Yeah. Did it give you an idea?"

"I'm trying to figure out what could have that specific effect, what could induce the carrier to make a statement like that."

Dennis shrugged. "New Age quacks and supplement pushers have been convincing people they were impervious to disease forever, but they didn't rush out to cancel their insurance afterwards. This has to be something else. Something more visceral."

"You think whoever's doing this has some way of making people actually feel different, of getting them to reach that conclusion on their own?"

"What else could it be? But even so, placebo effect notwithstanding, it would have to be a change dramatic enough to get some people to pick up the snake oil and start peddling it themselves."

"A multi-level health scam? Well, if that's all it is, we could turn the FTC on them."

"If," he echoed. "But even if that's true, it would take so long to get the government to act on it that the damage would have long since been done. No. If something's to be done, it'll have to be the industry, and it'll have to be quick. We can't afford to wait. There's too much money at stake."

"All the more reason to find Patient Zero. But what then? With all those converts running around, the horse has not only left the barn, it's halfway to the next county. Wouldn't we have to round them up as well?"

"Probably, and that just multiplies the problem. I mean, it's one thing to find and stop a single troublemaker. It's a different kettle of fish to corral all the followers as well. But that may just work to our advantage."


"Yeah. What if we tagged these miscreants as terrorists?"


"Sure," Dennis said matter-of-factly. "The government's already set up to deal with that kind of threat. The media will eat it up. I mean, think about it" Someone out there is doing their damnedest to undermine a whole sector of the economy. Gotta protect it. Gotta keep the nation strong. If you don't, millions of people will be out of work, and a few hundred million will be without health insurance. With terrorists attacking us, we'll get all sorts of support. People will actually feel sorry for us. I mean, think about it."

"It does have a certain perverted logic. I'll give it that. How do you suggest we start?"

He rose and started pacing. "A news conference. We'll call it a national healthcare emergency. The idea is to convince people that they've been had, that whatever feel-good crap they've been handed is just a slick con job. They may feel better right now, they might even feel like they've had some kind of miracle cure, but the cold truth of it is that they've been hypnotized by a terrorist plot to destroy our way of life. Tell them if someone they know has joined forces with the terrorist, we'll help them mount an intervention. Just call some number we set up, and we'll handle the arrangements -- reserve a hotel room, hire a deprogrammer, the whole nine yards. Then, once --."

There was a knock at the door. It opened, and Tom Roman poked his head in. "Oh. You two are in here."

Kaialia stood. "Yes. Were you looking for us?"

He signaled to someone in the hall, then stepped in. "I was. Everyone else was at the keynote. You two are the only ones who didn't hear."

"Hear?" she said. "Hear what?"

"I don't know whether to laugh or cry. It's just so absurd."

Dennis approached him. "What is?"

"He's here, in this country. People have been looking for him so hard, especially now. And he's been busy, busy talking to people, changing their lives."

"We know. That's what we've been talking about. That's why we left the keynote early. In fact we've been sketching out some plans, figuring out how we can stop that terrorist from --."

Roman's jaw dropped. "Terrorist? Why are you calling him a terrorist?"

"Because of what he's been doing. First in Appalachia, and now, with confederates in other cities --."

"Doing? What did you hear he was doing?"

Kaialia opened her palms. "Spreading lies. Telling people they didn't need health insurance any more. Undermining our bread and butter."

"They're not lies. And as to destroying this industry, that's a price I think everyone would be willing to pay. After all, he --."

Dennis cut him off. "Willing to pay? Has someone gotten to you? That madman is going to ruin the whole economy, and you're happy about it?"

He chuckled. "Not entirely. But the benefits certainly outweigh the --."

"What benefits? The call centers are just about at meltdown. If this keeps up much longer, we might as well just tell them to pack up and go home."

"Already did."

Dennis exploded. "You, too? Just who the hell does this terrorist think he is? I mean, Jesus Christ!"

Roman nodded happily. "Exactly. So what's your problem?"

"Oh, my god." Kaialia said, very slowly. "You mean?"

"I didn't believe it either, at first." He examined her closely for s few seconds. "You look pale. Is there something wrong?"

She nodded. "Do you think he's the forgiving type?"


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Ever since I learned to speak binary on a DIGIAC 3080 training computer, I've been involved with tech in one way or another, but there was always another part of me off exploring ideas and writing about them. Halfway to a BS in Space Technology at (more...)

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