A work of fiction. Standard disclaimers.
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When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.
– “Sherlock Holmes”, The Adventure of the Speckled Band
Sherbin Billiams, Executive Vice President for Research and Development of Orcin Extermination LLC, was in a stage 4 ugly mood. He stormed into the main laboratory of the Orcin Development Center and shoved his sallow-faced sneer straight up the nose of his lead scientist, Casper W. Chinn, Ph.D. The two were alone; Chinn had had enough warning of Billiams’s arrival to assign his staff to duties in distant parts of the R&D building.
“This had better be good, Chinn, damn your ass”, Billiams snarled. “You and your rats still have no idea how close you are to having your operation shut down, and you losers tossed out on the street. You don’t know or care how hard I work to keep you peeps in test tubes and silly little ant mazes, and making me have to excuse myself from a golf outing with the Boss Orc does not help your case!”
“I-I think I can make this worth your while.” Chinn trembled slightly under his white lab coat. He moved quickly away from Billiams, hoping, without much conviction, that he did so before his Executive VP noticed, and could pounce on, the weakness. “Let me show you a couple of our silly little ant mazes.”
He moved to a table in one corner of the laboratory, Billiams close on his heels. Together, they looked down on two identical trays. In one, ants busily scurried from one side to the other, some at the feeding station, others at the nursery where white larvae and pupae were being tended, still others mostly occupied in getting out of the way of the ones intent on a mission. In the other, nothing moved. In place of live ants, there were shriveled corpses, most in piles, but a few scattered – the ones who had survived long enough to create the piles before they themselves succumbed.
“Both of these colonies were treated a week ago, one with the active ingredient, one with placebo. As …”
“Pla – cee – what?” Billiams demanded, interrupting.
“Placebo.” Chinn imagined squeezing the word through clenched teeth; through long practice, he didn’t let his imagination become audible or visible, or so he fervently hoped. “A treatment that is the same as the one you’re testing, but that lacks the active ingredient. Imagine spraying one colony with water, another in exactly the same way but with DDT.”
“Right. So what the hell kind of spray takes a week to work? And how the hell can that be of interest to Orcin?” Billiams snapped derisively.
Chinn retained his composure – outwardly. He opened a drawer, pulled out a bottle and an empty tray, shook some of the contents of the bottle into the tray.
“It’s not a spray, sir”, he replied. “It’s a biological agent, targeted against social pests like ants and termites. Because it’s a biological agent, it propagates once delivered into the colony, and once it has propagated, the colony is doomed. Small ones can be wiped out in a week. The larger supercolonies will take longer; we, ah, will require some additional resources to figure out how long.”
“Of course you will!” Billiams’s sneer was particularly hard and menacing. “And just how is this Wunderwaffe delivered, if it’s not a spray?”
In response, Chinn reached back into the drawer from which he got the bottle, pulled out a forceps. He picked up an ant from the tray, showed it to Billiams. It was covered with tiny, multicolored paint dots, making it look a little like a dancing ant in clown makeup.
“This ant was fed yesterday with a diet containing the agent. It is already moving erratically, a sign that the agent is working. Left by itself, this ant would die within a day. Let us introduce it into the living colony.” He did so. The ant, ill from the disease agent and injured from the forceps, struggled to get to its feet. A resident ant found it. Within seconds, the behavior of the entire colony changed, as if the colony possessed a “Panic!” button and someone had pressed it. Most of the worker ants close to the intruder descended on it, and within five minutes, the intruder was dead and totally dismembered.
“The agent has now been distributed to each of the ants that participated in the attack. They soon will show signs of illness, and be, in their turn, attacked and destroyed by their nestmates. In a week, a colony of this size will be eliminated. Any ill or maimed ant, or any ant of a different species to the ones in the colony to be targeted, will be attacked in this manner, and thereby, the distribution of the agent is assured. All the exterminator has to do is inject ants bearing the agent into target colonies. A far cheaper and longer-lasting solution than any of our current control chemicals or strategies.”
For some time, Billiams stood motionless, staring at the tray, silent except for a faint, intermittent, growling murmur. “You have a point”, he said at last, quietly, musingly. And then, with abrupt savagery, “It gives me something to take to the Boss and save your asses from getting fired!” He whirled and screamed up Chinn’s nose, “Again!!” He whirled back, facing the ant trays once more. “A week”, he muttered. “I don’t have to take no damned week!”
With sudden fury, Billiams smashed the flat of his right hand down on the tray. Ants and ant fragments scattered in all directions. He continued smashing his hand down, on tray and table, until no ant was visibly left alive. Carcasses were strewn across his hand; he rubbed both hands together until no trace of ant body parts remained. “That, Chinn, is Orcin Extermination as I understand it!” The Executive VP turned on his heels, and left the Orcin Development Center’s main laboratory as violently as he had entered it.
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ATLANTA (API*): Efforts continue at this hour to quell the outbreak of the unknown, devastating disease that has, for all practical purposes, depopulated the capital city of Georgia, and now threatens several additional cities and regions through the USA and the world.
Atlanta remains under quarantine, with no entry or exit permitted. Troops and CDC personnel, all in HAZMAT gear, are stationed around the perimeter of the quarantine zone, with authorization to use deadly force against any persons who attempt to cross the perimeter by any means. To date, 112 aircraft, and 245 watercraft, have been destroyed, with all their occupants killed or captured and, if leaving the city, returned to it. Similar operations are in place surrounding outbreaks across the country. All airlines remain grounded, and checkpoints blocking long-distance travel are in place on all highways and waterways.
In response to reports from the CDC (which, with the evacuation of its Atlanta complex, is now coordinating its activities out of its North Carolina and Washington DC offices) that the contagion is spread by all forms of personal contact, the Governor of Georgia has ordered the use of the Bellamy Salute for personal and group salutation, banning hugs and all forms of handshaking and fist-bumping. In a tweet, the President of the United States reacted, “The Governor’s choice is wise, symbolizing both the hygiene and the discipline needed to beat this germ. I am preparing the order to enact this nationwide.” In certified ‘safe’ zones, mass rallies demonstrating enthusiastic adoption of the Bellamy salute have taken place.
Reports persist that the outbreak began at the Atlanta headquarters of Orcin Extermination LLC. It is certain that all of the executive officers of the company who were either in Atlanta or had been in the city within a week of the outbreak’s inception are among the earliest casualties. Surviving corporate officials are currently managing the global operations of the company from a facility in Shiloh, Arkansas. The acting CEO, and lead R&D scientist, of Orcin Extermination, Dr. Casper W. Chinn, released this statement on the Orcin website:
We at Orcin continue to mourn the loss of so many of the members of our corporate family, and we offer our deepest condolences to the families of those whose lives have also been lost in this catastrophe. We have pledged our fullest cooperation with those whose task it is to understand this plague, trace its origins, and engineer its eventual defeat, and we will honor that pledge for as long as this task takes. Meanwhile, those of us who remain are committed to honoring our pledges to customers and stakeholders, providing our essential services efficiently and economically, and building on the great success of our TrojAnt™ and TrojMite™ products, the safety and utility of which have been amply demonstrated by multiple independent laboratories around the world.
(* API = Amoeba Press International. All the News That’s Fit to Make Up®.)