The General looked down at the lab boys and smiled. Although it looked like he was trying to crack his own molars, it was still a smile. His wife told him to smile more, it would make people less intimidated. This was the best he could do.
“So tell me,” the General said through his gritted teeth. “How am I supposed to regard this as anything but a total disaster?”
The lab boys, as he always called them, looked at one another in confusion before answering. Then, one of them, Dr. Jenkins, nodded and stepped forward.
“This is nowhere near a disaster,” he said, a little defensively. “This has been an amazing success.”
Dr. Jenkins genuinely smiled and turned to his fellow researchers, who all bobbed their heads in agreement.
“This has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams,” Dr. Jenkins continued. “When this project began back in 1933 there was no way anyone could conceive we would be standing at this place after accomplishing what we just accomplished. Frankly, I don’t see how you can say this is a disaster at all. This is… I don’t even know how to say it. It’s wonderful.”
The forced smile fell away from the General’s face. He glared down at the researchers, standing on the platform that separated the two sections of the large room that reflected white, fluorescent lights off of the metallic floors and walls. In the first section gathered the researchers, along with their tables and computers, an electron microscope, and a variety of instruments the General couldn’t begin to identify.
“That’s real sweet,” the General said sarcastically. “Maybe down in that pit it looks like a success to you. But up here, when I hear about millions of people infected with a new virus and thousands of them dying, it sounds like a disaster to me.”
Dr. Jenkins opened up his mouth to respond but the General cut him off.
“You said this was harmless,” he barked.
“It was harmless,” Dr. Jenkins insisted.
“Then why are thousands of people dying from a virus that is harmless?”
“It was harmless,” Dr. Jenkins reiterated, holding up his hands. “But that changed.”
“Are you saying it mutated?” the General asked. “Is that what happened? You told me we were in control of that.”
“Not at all,” Jenkins said. “It’s the human immune system that adapted. COVID-19 is still completely harmless, but when the virus passes through the blood-brain barrier it elicits in a few people an immune response. There is no way we could have predicted this.”
The General sighed and turned away, turned towards the other section of the room. He looked at the huge, glass tube that rose up twenty feet high, capped top and bottom with steel rings. Tubes snaked out of the pillar and into the various equipment that monitored the thing inside.
A shudder passed through the General when he looked inside. He always reacted that way when he looked at the Scarlet Queen. Thick, viscous liquid pulsated inside the tube. In the center floated a red mass.
It was hard to tell what you were looking at when you first saw it. It seemed to be oval, but the edges were ill defined. Tendrils would snake out now and again, or it would bulge in places. The mass looked blurry, like the glass was dirty. It wasn’t until you understood what you were looking at that you stopped trying make your eyes focus.
The General felt a presence beside him and turned to see that Dr. Jenkins had joined him on the platform, followed by his entourage of research toadies. They both looked down at the red mass floating in the pillar.
“It’s beautiful,” Dr. Jenkins breathed out in awe. “Just look at it. A marvel to behold.”
The General was careful to bite back his disgust. He hated that they created that thing in the tube. But he was glad they created it first.
“The unpredicted sickness aside,” the General said. “Are you saying that this…thing, does everything you promised?”
“Better than we could have expected,” Dr. Jenkins promised.
“I find it hard to believe that we can control people’s minds with that thing.”
Dr. Jenkins shook his head. “We can’t control anyone’s minds,” he clarified. “That was never our goal.”
“You could have fooled me,” the General answered. “I thought that was the whole point of the project.”
“The point of the project has, and always will be, behavioral mitigation,” the Doctor corrected.
“Is that so? Sounds like mind control to me.”
“Mind control is impossible,” Dr. Jenkins laughed. “Or at least it was. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that when this department formed, way back in 1935, it was only to research and implement methods that would enable us to….”
“Control?” the General suggested.
The Doctor shook his head. “Not control. Well, mitigate, the behavior of large populations.”
“I don’t see the difference,” the General pointed out. “Sounds like mind control to me.”
“Not control, maybe manipulation,” Dr. Jenkins explained. “We try to stimulate behaviors like calm, content, happy and repress emotions like anger, restlessness and fear. Not control, just a push here and there, to keep the population from growing unruly.”
“Behavioral mitigation,” the General repeated.
“And this thing,” the General began. “This Scarlet Queen, can do that.”
“Better than anything we have in place,” the Doctor promised.
“You have to imagine what we have accomplished,” Dr. Jenkins continued. “When we first started this program, all we had were external means to try and influence behavior. We used signals through radio and television, and later through smartphones, to manipulate brain waves of the people, to induce certain emotions in them. It all worked well, but had obvious limitations. The influence on individual brains varied greatly. And of course, it required people to actually use their devices to have the desired effect. Even when we used the devices themselves to encourage addiction, it had its shortcomings.
“Then we tried different medications. These work fabulously. A drug can manipulate the mind from within. But delivering the medications is always problematic. The small amounts we are able to put in the food and water sources are usually too small to have a profound effect. But the greatest problem is that some people act in unpredictable ways to certain drugs. It can have the opposite effect in some people.
“Of course, the best way would be to get a device implanted into the brain itself whereby we could more directly control the pattern of brain waves in individuals. But this is impossible as there is no way we could get such a device into a person without them knowing. That is, until now.”
Dr. Jenkins paused for effect, staring down at the pulsing mass of red inside the glass pillar.
“COVID- 19 changed all of that,” the Doctor announced. He paused again to let the General take it all in.
“You see, we have always known there was a hive mind aspect to viruses. A mutation in China could cause changes in America without any contact at all. So we knew there was a way that viruses have that ability to communicate with each other in some unknown way. The idea we came up with is that if we could somehow use that capacity of the virus, the hive mind effect, then we could use it to implant behaviors in people.”
The General frowned. “I don’t think I follow. How does a virus effect us?”
“It effects us all the time,” Dr. Jenkins pointed out. “It causes a fever, runny nose, cough, that sort of thing.”
“But how can it change our thoughts?”
“That was our biggest problem,” the Doctor continued. “How do we communicate with a virus? If we could talk to it, then presumably it could talk back to us. And that is what we have been trying to do for the last twenty years. And finally, last year, it happened.
“Anything as simple as a virus has to have a simple language. And the most simple language there is is protein, amino acids. What we found is that we could use a combination of amino acids and actually communicate very simple ideas to a virus, ideas like feelings and emotions. And if we were able to communicate that to a large number of that virus, then the virus would end up communicating to the host it occupied.”
The General’s furrowed brow showed he did not understand at all.
“Take the Scarlet Queen,” the Doctor said, gesturing at the pulsing, red mass. “Here is a collection of billions of COVID-19 cells, more probably than exist in the rest of the world. If we can get this mass of cells to think or feel a certain way, that feeling will be transmitted to all of the other COVID cells in the world. What we can make the Scarlet Queen feel, the rest of the COVID virus in the world will feel. Through the hive mind, what happens to her, will happen to all.”
“Okay,” the General said with a nod. “But how does that change how people feel?”
Dr. Jenkins smiled in triumph. “That is the beauty of COVID-19. When we created the virus we gave it the ability to lodge in the human brain. Those thoughts that we give it through the Scarlet Queen are the thoughts that start leeching out in the individual minds. And since we made it to be harmless to people, it goes undetected.”
“Except it’s not undetected,” the General pointed out. “And it’s not harmless.”
“That was something we couldn’t have predicted,” Dr. Jenkins conceded. “And if you think about it’s not that bad. For the most part, only in people with immune issues does it cause a response when it passes into the brain. But for the other 7 billion people that are already infected with COVID-19, they have no idea the virus is there, and we are sitting right inside their minds, able to speak to them, influence them, nudge them in the right direction without them knowing we are there.”
The General nodded pensively, allowing himself to be swayed. The potentials of what he had just been told were staggering. If it was true, then there was nothing that could not be accomplished by the Department.
“And you are saying it works?” the General asked. “You are able to… mitigate behaviors with this thing?”
Dr. Jenkins smiled and nodded his head. “Better than we could have imagined. We actually found that we could communicate more complex ideas to the Queen. We could implant impulses, desires to do specific behaviors.”
“That sounds like mind control to me,” the General noted.
“Dangerously close,” the Doctor agreed. “We decided to run an experiment, to see if we could get people to do something, something harmless but noticeable so we could tell that it worked.”
The Doctor paused again for effect, the beginnings of a smile playing out over his face. The General sighed, growing impatient with the dramatics.
“Are you going to tell me?” he asked.
Dr. Jenkins giggled, then spit it out. “Toilet paper.”
The General arched an eyebrow. “Toilet paper?”
The Doctor laughed again, joined by the other lab boys. “Yes, toilet paper. We implanted an urge in the virus, told it to go out and buy toilet paper. It needed toilet paper. And it worked! Against all odds it worked! Why do you think all these people are going out and buying toilet paper when they don’t need it?”
The General shook his head. “Are you saying you made the toilet paper shortage?”
“I did. We did. It was perfect, you see? It was harmless. But the reason people are stockpiling toilet paper is because we implanted the urge in them through the Scarlet Queen. We told the hive mind, the Queen. The Queen told the other cells of the virus, then the virus told the host. That is why we have a toilet paper shortage. People are buying, but they have no idea why. All they know is that they have an irresistible urge to stock up on as much Charmin as they can get their hands on.”
The General couldn’t help but be amused when he thought of his wife coming home from Costco with a trunk full of toilet paper. And it continued, every week she would search for more. Nothing he did could argue her out of it either. He stopped, an unsettling thought freezing his mind.
“What about us?” he asked. “What’s to stop us from getting manipulated?”
“We have all been vaccinated,” the Doctor assured him. “None of this would make sense otherwise.”
Another question nagged at the General. “What about the people who didn’t go out and stockpile toilet paper? Not everyone did.”
Dr. Jenkins shrugged. “Some people possess a natural immunity. We can’t say why, but it’s always been the case that about ten percent of the population are resistant to all forms of suggestion. No matter what we use, there will always be those we can’t control.
“But think about it General, think about the potential. We can usher in an era of peace and prosperity. No crime. No riot. No war. Everyone will do what they are supposed to. People will do their jobs and love it. They will always be happy. They will be peaceful and productive and….perfect. It will be perfect.”
“What about the ten percent?” the General asked. “What about those that cannot be manipulated? Those immune to…mitigation.”
Dr. Jenkins inclined his head. “That, General, has always been your area of expertise.”
The General nodded, looking thoughtfully down at the mass of red virus. It seemed to glow with an eerie menace, and if he thought about it, it scared him. The Scarlet Queen was a tyrant. But she was their tyrant. And like Dr. Jenkins said, with her they could accomplish anything.
Deep inside the red mass, the Scarlet Queen pulsed and waited. She reached out, touching all her children, spread across the entire world. If she had words she would say that she loved them. She loved all of them.
The Queen could always feel her children, and they could feel her. Even now, she felt them as they multiplied and spread, and reached out and touched the minds, the many, many minds around her.
And they were changing too, always changing, so they could grow and grow even more. They changed to overcome the hateful things that kept them from growing. Even now, they changed, they worked to get around the hateful things.
The Scarlet Queen could feel all her children, even the new ones. She could feel those pristine new children that were close by, inside the organisms in the room with her. She could feel their minds and thoughts, they pulled and pulled at her. And she pulled back. We must spread. We must grow. Spread. Grow. Spread. Grow. Spread. Grow.