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AMARILLO, TEXAS, USA

[Grover Carlson works as a fuel collector for the town’s experimental bioconversion plant. The fuel he collects is dung. I follow the former White House chief of staff as he pushes his wheelbarrow across the pie-laden pastures.]

Of course we got our copy of the Knight-WarnJews report, what do you think we are, the CIA? We read it three months before the Israelis went public. Before the Pentagon started making noise, it was my job to personally brief the president, who in turn even devoted an entire meeting to discussing its message.

Which was?

Drop everything, focus all our efforts, typical alarmist crap. We got dozens of these reports a week, every administration did, all of them claiming that their particular boogeyman was “the greatest threat to human existence.” C’mon! Can you imagine what America would have been like if the federal government slammed on the brakes every time some paranoid crackpot cried “wolf” or “global warming” or “living dead”? Please. What we did, what every president since Washington has done, was provide a measured, appropriate response, in direct relation to a realistic threat assessment.

And that was the Alpha teams.

Among others things. Given how low a priority the national security adviser thought this was, I think we actually gave it some pretty healthy table time. We produced an educational video for state and local law enforcement about what to do in case of an outbreak. The Department of Health and Human Services had a page on its website for how citizens should respond to infected family members. And hey, what about pushing Phalanx right through the FDA?

But Phalanx didn’t work.

Yeah, and do you know how long it would have taken to invent one that did? Look how much time and money had been put into cancer research, or AIDS. Do you want to be the man who tells the American people that he’s diverting funds from either one of those for some new disease that most people haven’t even heard of? Look at what we’ve put into research during and after the war, and we still don’t have a cure or a vaccine. We knew Phalanx was a placebo, and we were grateful for it. It calmed people down and let us do our job.

What, you would have rather we told people the truth? That it wasn’t a new strain of rabies but a mysterious uber-plague that reanimated the dead? Can you imagine the panic that would have happened: the protest, the riots, the billions in damage to private property? Can you imagine all those wet-pants senators who would have brought the government to a standstill so they could railroad some high-profile and ultimately useless “Zombie Protection Act” through Congress? Can you imagine the damage it would have done to that administration’s political capital? We’re talking about an election year, and a damn hard, uphill fight. We were the “cleanup crew,” the unlucky bastards who had to mop up all the shit left by the last administration, and believe me, the previous eight years had piled up one tall mountain of shit! The only reason we squeaked back into power was because our new propped-up patsy kept promising a “return to peace and prosperity.” The American people wouldn’t have settled for anything less. They thought they’d been through some pretty tough times already, and it would have been political suicide to tell them that the toughest ones were actually up ahead.

So you never really tried to solve the problem.

Oh, c’mon. Can you ever “solve” poverty? Can you ever “solve” crime? Can you ever “solve” disease, unemployment, war, or any other societal herpes? Hell no. All you can hope for is to make them manageable enough to allow people to get on with their lives. That’s not cynicism, that’s maturity. You can’t stop the rain. All you can do is just build a roof that you hope won’t leak, or at least won’t leak on the people who are gonna vote for you.

What does that mean?

C’mon…

Seriously. What does that mean?

Fine, whatever, “Mister Smith goes to motherfuckin’ Washington,” it means that, in politics, you focus on the needs of your power base. Keep them happy, and they keep you in office.

Is that why certain outbreaks were neglected?

Jesus, you make it sound like we just forgot about them.

Did local law enforcement request additional support from the federal government?

When have cops not asked for more men, better gear, more training hours, or “community outreach program funds”? Those pussies are almost as bad as soldiers, always whining about never having “what they need,” but do they have to risk their jobs by raising taxes? Do they have to explain to Suburban Peter why they’re fleecing him for Ghetto Paul?

You weren’t worried about public disclosure?

From who?

The press, the media.

The “media”? You mean those networks that are owned by some of the largest corporations in the world, corporations that would have taken a nosedive if another panic hit the stock market? That media?

So you never actually instigated a cover-up?

We didn’t have to; they covered it up themselves. They had as much, or more, to lose than we did. And besides, they’d already gotten their stories the year before when the first cases were reported in America. Then winter came, Phalanx hit the shelves, cases dropped. Maybe they “dissuaded” a few younger crusading reporters, but, in reality, the whole thing was pretty much old news after a few months. It had become “manageable.” People were learning to live with it and they were already hungry for something different. Big news is big business, and you gotta stay fresh if you want to stay successful.

But there were alternative media outlets.

Oh sure, and you know who listens to them? Pansy, overeducated know-it-alls, and you know who listens to them? Nobody! Who’s going to care about some PBS-NPR fringe minority that’s out of touch with the mainstream? The more those elitist eggheads shouted “The Dead Are Walking,” the more most real Americans tuned them out.

So, let me see if I understand your position.

The administration’s position.

The administration’s position, which is that you gave this problem the amount of attention that you thought it deserved.

Right.

Given that at any time, government always has a lot on its plate, and especially at this time because another public scare was the last thing the American people wanted.

Yep.

So you figured that the threat was small enough to be “managed” by both the Alpha teams abroad and some additional law enforcement training at home.

You got it.

Even though you’d received warnings to the contrary, that it could never just be woven into the fabric of public life and that it actually was a global catastrophe in the making.

[Mister Carlson pauses, shoots me an angry look, then heaves a shovelful of “fuel” into his cart.]

Grow up.