Arbitrium

Vashti is a pathogenic diplomat—an ambassador to the world of viruses, whom she communicates with through a machine that can translate their chemical signals into images, tastes, smells, sounds, and memories. She begins a negotiation between the US Government and a diplomatic contingent from Arenavirus, a virus which has just begun spreading a deadly mutation in Florida. If Vashti is successful, she and Arena will reach a diplomatic agreement; if not, the Arenavirus infection will continue to spread, and humans will have to race to try to find a vaccine or treatment. As she navigates the diplomatic discussions, Vashti is also trying to connect with her daughter Alma, who lives on the other side of the country in a technology-averse commune. By the time the negotiation ends, Vashti discovers that Arenavirus have learned some impressive and deadly tricks from their interactions with humans.

 

 

 

 

In the conference room, Vashti can feel the incremental temperature increases sinking into her skin. Twenty-two degrees centigrade. Twenty-three. Twenty-seven. At twenty-eight she shrugs out of her suit jacket, slips in her ear plugs, strips down to her modesty garments, and lowers herself into the bed of conduction medium. The warm gel oozes up around her arms, legs, and belly, and she attaches the sensors at her temples. Twenty-nine. In the next room, behind a sealed door splashed with a biohazard symbol, a common gray rat lies in a smaller tub of the same gel, sedated and motionless but for its easy breathing. Vashti closes her eyes and nestles her head in until the gel has covered all but her nose and mouth, breathes slowly and deeply. Thirty degrees. Briefly, she hears the melodic hum of the Xu-Bose machine beginning its translations, before the transdermals take effect and she is no longer aware of the room around her.

For Vashti, the first impressions are always of color, though she knows other ambassadors whose exchanges begin with sounds, or smells, or particular physical sensations. It is an idiosyncratic experience. Today, the opening salvo is a cloud of iridescent gray, pearled like a thousand raindrops congregating around her, warm and gentle. Soon, the cloud is scented with the toasted cardamom of her grandmother’s best cake, and then it begins to coalesce into shapes: a cashmere sweater; a sun-flecked plate of buttered toast; Killian, the wire-haired mutt she owned as a child. Comfort, the Arenavirus ambassadors are obviously saying, in their own, strange ways, nestled within the host body of the rat. Reassurance. Calm. And the Xu-Bose Translator is turning their chemical signals into this, into her particular brain’s own unique signifiers for warmth and safety.

Vashti sighs and focuses. It is a standard greeting. She concentrates on returning feelings of polite thanks, of resoluteness and strength. Who knows what this looks like to the Arena representatives? What is strength, to a virus? Rapid multiplication? Ideal temperature and salinity? A firmly structured protein spike? Whatever it is, she is eager to move past the preliminaries and begin the real work of the negotiation, the feeling out of her adversary, the apportioning of life and death for both sides.

 

Three hours later, the day’s conversation has concluded, and she is again aware of the conduction medium surrounding her, thick and cloying on her skin. The session has been a waste, the messages from the Arenaviridae contingent vague and indecisive. In her younger days, she’d have been tempted to blame the translator, but in the course of twelve years Vashti has learned to trust the Xu-Bose. It does what it is meant to do, transmuting the otherwise-inscrutable lexemes of viral language into something a trained human can understand. An impeccably trained human, she reminds herself, and a damned good negotiator. Better than the day has borne out. The Arena ambassadors are toying with her. Today, she has been polite, but tomorrow will require a more hardline approach.

Vashti sits up briskly, waits for her balance to stabilize, shakes gouts of gel from her fingers. Her assistant enters the room, offering her a towel and a glass of water, while next door an attaché in full PPE gently extracts the rat from the conduction medium, wipes it clean, and transfers it to a tank with food and water and bedding. There, it will slowly wake and go about its rodent business until tomorrow, when Vashti is ready to continue negotiating with the viruses it harbors. Vashti drinks her water, wipes the majority of the gel from her skin, and walks carefully but steadily to the shower room, where she begins to wash herself, already mentally composing her brief for the president.

 

 

At home, Vashti eats the meal the cook has prepared for her, though he has already gone home for the day, along with the rest of the staff, per her request. She dislikes socializing on negotiation days, prefers to be alone with her thoughts. The business of keeping her body and mind in peak condition requires constant vigilance: Plenty of water. Balanced meals. No caffeine, alcohol, or sugar. As much as possible, she tries to maintain the state of calm detachment best suited to negotiating with viral contingents. A United Nations representative can don a poker face while entertaining vile thoughts about other humans, but there is no fooling the Xu-Bose algorithms that translate Vashti’s thoughts into viral chemcodes, one of the few drawbacks of the system. If she doesn’t want the Arena ambassadors to hear something, she has to not think about it. So, on most negotiation evenings she consults with the Secretary of State and the relevant CDC experts, strategizes, reads a little, and goes to bed on time.

Today, though, is the third Tuesday of the month, which means Alma will call in about an hour, assuming she has managed to make it to a phone. Vashti will have to rush things a little to make time, but she will do it. Of course she will.

When the phone chimes, Vashti answers swiftly, and hears Alma’s hesitant voice on the other end of the line saying, “Mom?”

“Hi, baby. How are you?”

“Okay.”

A long pause follows. Their conversations are never easy, each of them painfully aware of her disdain for the other’s way of living, trying to carefully step around it and find topics that are neutral. Not politics, obviously. Nothing to do with movies or shows or music, as Alma’s commune does not allow computers or phones, no digital interface of any kind. Vashti has taken to keeping a list on her tablet— “Things to Tell Alma”—and she retrieves it now. Some updates about Alma’s second cousins and childhood friends, a recipe, a new study Vashti read about using cyanobacteria to treat cancer. As expected, Alma is intrigued by this last item, as she is by anything she considers “natural medicine.” It is one of the few places where their interests overlap, and when Vashti hears the warmth in her daughter’s voice, the excitement, she realizes once again how much she craves moments like this. They have not seen each other in two years; Alma will not consent to meet Vashti if she “wastes the fuel” on air travel or a private car, and the bus ride to San Diego takes three cramped days each way, plus another two hours of jolting down pitted back roads in the commune’s solar car once Alma comes to collect her. Sometimes, Vashti thinks that if she could just touch Alma, wrap her in an inescapable hug the way she did when her daughter was a melancholy child, she could dissolve some of the barrier between them.

It doesn’t help that Vashti’s work requires emotional distance. She sometimes thinks she is forgetting how to be human. Over the years, her circle of friends has grown progressively smaller. Hers is a profession with many colleagues and few confidants. The frequent parsing of emotions into their sensory signifiers, of desires into objectives and concessions, has unsuited her for casual discourse. With Alma, and only Alma, the problem is different, every conversation threatening to give way to an overflow of emotion that leaves them both gasping for air.

Alma interrupts her mother’s pensive musing, says, “I might be able to call again in a couple days. I’m in charge of the annual shopping trip this time, so I’ll be going to San Diego on Thursday.”

Vashti takes this for what it is: a gift, the assurance that both of them still want to love each other, in spite of the costs.

 

 

Before she climbs in bed for the night, Vashti composes her final plan for the next day and sends the information to Secretary Sanogo. The negotiation has been complicated by the lack of diplomatic history between the two parties. There hasn’t been a notable Arena case in humans since the Lujo hemorrhagic fever outbreak in South Africa near the turn of the millennium, decades before the advent of pathogenic diplomacy. In the interim, Arenavirus has lived in rodents, its most frequent host species, with occasional small forays into human populations handled quickly by lesser diplomats. But a week ago, a new mutation made the jump to humans, one that has the potential to be much, much worse than the Lujo strand was. The exemplar cases, in a small town on the Florida coast, quickly overwhelmed the local hospital, as patient after patient succumbed to fever, seizures, and ocular hemorrhaging. The new disease has a particularly visual horror to it, and within hours of the first hospital admissions the media had published dozens of images of sweating patients in hospital beds, their muscles in torsion while the whites of their pleading eyes turned red. Arenaviridae, flexing their power.

Vashti began preparing for negotiations from the moment her aides showed her the initial doctors’ reports. The National Guard were called in to forcibly quarantine the hospital while the diplomatic arrangements were made, and the entire state of Florida has been closed at the border for the past eight days as an additional precaution. But these safety measures are largely for show. They soothe the populace, but there’s a reason those poor bastards of the first wave are called exemplars. If Vashti’s negotiations are unsuccessful, Arena will replicate the deadly mutation in other colonies, and there will be many more deaths to follow. Though the CDC has already jump-started vaccine research in case she fails, there is no guarantee that a treatment will be found anytime soon, and no quarantine can hold forever. Many lives will slip through the gap. She has to get this right.

The viruses are willing to negotiate. They always are. When people die, everyone loses. This is what David, Vashti’s mentor and her predecessor as Viral Ambassador, taught her, and it still holds true, the cornerstone of their profession. Even viruses only want people to die in specific ways and measured numbers. They will infect a host animal’s cells and replicate inside until those cells bursts apart, releasing copies by the thousands, but a virus that kills its entire host organism without creating an escape route has sealed its own doom. In the age before pathogenic diplomacy, most of human history, viruses were always looking for that bridge to the next organism—trying to cause the sneeze that projected infected droplets of sputum across a room, the hemorrhaging that left the victim’s body coated in tainted blood. If they ran out of bridges, they died on the island of the last poor soul they had infected. How much better for everyone, human and virus alike, if they multiplied in a milder form, without causing all that death and alarm. If no one was very upset by their spread, or even took much notice.

So, they have desires, and in this way, the negotiation is like any other. Figure out what they want, figure out what you’re willing to give, try to get as much as you can while conceding as little as possible. Vashti remembers her high school drama class, lying in darkness on the dusty planks of the stage while Ms. Saetang stepped carefully around her and her classmates, whispering, “What does a rock feel? What does it think? What does it want? Be the rock.” It had been as good a preparation as any for her job.

 

 

The next day Vashti wakes early, spends half an hour meditating, drinks a protein smoothie and three glasses of water, and begins reviewing the reports that have come in overnight. She puts the news on in the next room with the sound turned down. Updates from Florida will have taken place at the top of the hour; now they’re on to smaller stories, and a parade of images fills the projection stage in quick succession. The finalists of the Mudd Genomics Bee standing sweaty-palmed before an audience in LA, their overeager parents straining forward in the front row. Wildfires in Colorado. A pickup truck rolling down a beach strewn with the limp bodies of octopuses, while sanitation workers walk behind, flinging the corpses into the truck bed. Vashti shakes her head. Can’t win for losing, these poor creatures. It’s almost certainly the result of the oil spill in the Gulf last month, though it could also be some side effect of the warming oceans, or of microplastics. Plenty of ways to die when you’re an animal. But the bad news is doing her a favor. It may distract people for a day or two, and by then she will hopefully have reached an agreement with Arenaviridae, and Florida will be open again. She turns her attention back to her messages, Secretary Sanogo’s reply to her plan for the day, including approval for her various bargaining chips.

When the negotiations begin, the Arenaviridae contingent opens with a blast of searing red, followed by images of power and dominion, which the Xu-Bose translates as human bodies warped with pain, and the ghostly reincarnations of some of Vashti’s own past illnesses. She quickly tamps down her annoyance at the saber rattling and moves straight to the offer stage, determined not to get derailed. With careful precision, she delineates what she is willing to provide. First, a robust and carefully isolated population of rats, Arenavirus’s traditional host animal, which the virus can infect with impunity. She imagines this is one of the cases where the image she conveys passes more or less unchanged: a horde of sleek, healthy rats with full bellies and glossy eyes, ripe for infection. They will be fed and cared for at the US government’s expense indefinitely, ensuring the virus a safe reservoir population in which to live. It’s the conservative bid—no glory or dominion for Arena, but security for the foreseeable future. Vashti is not surprised when the Xu-Bose translates their reply: the disapproving frown of her third-grade math teacher; the smell of soured milk; eight-year-old Alma wrinkling her nose at a plate of chicken and rice. Disdain. Disgust, even. Arena have rats already; they didn’t kill sixty innocent Floridians to walk away with such a paltry prize. Vashti is not surprised they’ve rejected the lowball offer, but she had to try it.

She moves on to the next option, proffering human assistance in helping Arena expand into a species they haven’t been able to infect on their own—coyotes, perhaps, or white-tailed deer. In her discussions with the EPA, they agreed there were enough of either that some could be sacrificed. Also, these species are large enough to easily track and kill, if needed, to contain any future spread, but Vashti does not let herself think about these aspects now. She trains her mind within the bare confines of the offer, will not let slip any information that may benefit Arena. She waits for their response, a moment of pure black drifting.

But when the reply comes, it makes no sense. The sound of an ambulance siren, transposed to the tinkling notes of a music box. A brief image of Alma, standing backlit in a doorway, quickly replaced by the taste of saltwater taffy. The press of icy tile on the soles of Vashti’s feet; the smell of gasoline, then of hyacinth, then of burning hair. Moreover, there is an undertone to the message, a whiff of arrogance that Vashti has trouble pinning down to a specific sound or image. As if they don’t take her seriously. But perhaps she is only projecting, letting her own frustration ascribe motives that do not exist. And then, she sees baby Alma laughing and laughing, dressed in the duck-patterned footie pajamas that Vashti still has in a box in the bedroom closet. Alma laughing until her eyes almost disappear into the creases of her plump cheeks, until Vashti is laughing along with her, helplessly. And then nothingness again. Vashti twitches in the gel medium, trying hard to pull her heart back from this moment of counterfeit joy. What are they playing at? It’s the equivalent of shouting gibberish. Or perhaps the Xu-Bose really is malfunctioning this time. She will ask that the technicians triple-check the machine before tomorrow’s negotiations, make sure that everything is working properly.

A moment later she sees a wash of pale green, hears the sound of her own childish voice apologizing to her mother for some long-forgotten crime, feels a flush of warmth in her palms and cheeks. Contrition. The Arena contingent wishes to apologize for its behavior. And Vashti is so baffled that she signals acceptance, and suggests they adjourn for the day.

 

 

On the rare occasions Vashti takes the time to reflect on how much the approach to diseases has changed within her lifetime, it is amazing even to her, someone who has built her career on that change. Like any pathogenic diplomat, she is well-versed in the history of human-viral interaction. Reading about the epidemiology of previous generations is like reading about any early warfare: the tactics seem barbaric, even childish. For hundreds of years, each outbreak of infection and the subsequent treatments were just two species seeking total domination over each other, inflicting heavy casualties without the least compunction. Actions that would be considered atrocities in inter-human conflicts.

Of course, there was no means of diplomacy for so long, not until Vashti was a teenager and virologists began to cobble together all the pieces they’d been collecting over the past several decades, began to really understand how viruses communicated. On one of Vashti’s bookshelves sits a chemical model the size of her hand, long spirals of multicolored aluminum fused together: Arbitrium. A collection of six amino acids, the first message humans ever identified in the viral language, released by some viruses when they infect host cells. When the concentration of arbitrium gets too high, it signals to incoming viruses that the available real estate is growing scarce. Instead of replicating and destroying cells as they infect, as they normally would, they quietly encode themselves into the host’s genes and wait for the host to replenish itself. There is no true mercy in it; it is only a way to keep the bridges open, to ensure that the cycle of infection can continue. But it demonstrates a level of organization and coordination beyond what scientists had thought viruses capable of, before that point. Though humans have learned so much more since then, and viruses have evolved new capabilities along the way, that was the first domino in the long string of discoveries that had led to a viral lexicon, and then to Xu and Bose, to the algorithms and technology that could translate those chemical signals into ideas humans could understand. A chain of events that put millions of lives in Vashti’s hands.

 

 

As she gets ready for bed, Vashti finds herself doodling on the list of Things to Tell Alma, her finger lazily looping across the glossy surface of the screen. Once, when Alma was in high school, she’d gotten a strain of Parechovirus that was making the rounds among teens. Harmless in the long run, hell in the short term, accompanied by a raging fever, sweats, delirium. Vashti had gone to collect Alma from school, brought her back to the embassy and slipped her into her own cool bed, fed her water by the spoonful whenever she was awake. Vashti’s doctor confirmed what the school nurse had said: Just keep her hydrated and she’ll be fine. Call if the fever gets higher. Vashti’s worry tethered her to the bedside even while Alma slept; Vashti read quietly or ran her fingertips along the smooth planes of Alma’s forehead, feeling the radiating heat of a body bent on destroying its invaders. That kind of closeness was already too rare between them; if Alma had been awake and lucid, she’d have frowned and brushed her mother’s hand aside. Vashti was alarmed by how much her daughter’s sickness upset her; she thought she’d left that all behind with Alma’s childhood illnesses, the days of anxiously checking vital signs from her phone every time she went to the kitchen to make herself a salad, silently cursing Alma’s long-departed father as she sponged vomit from a plastic-coated mattress. Perhaps it was because she knew, more than most people, how bad things could get.

After five days of nursing Alma, Vashti had climbed the stairs from her own apartment to the ambassador’s quarters, too late for politeness, and asked David whether he didn’t think they ought to be attempting a negotiation on this one. He’d smiled indulgently and told her that one might as well negotiate with a group of children wielding BB guns.

“You’re allowed to be worried, but there’s nothing to worry about. She’ll turn the corner tomorrow, just watch.”

“They just like seeing us suffer,” Vashti said bitterly.

“You know better.”

David had taught her, early on, not to ascribe human thought patterns to the viruses. It was tempting, because the Xu-Bose rendered their communication into such personal, human terms, but he stressed this constantly: They are not human. They think in ways we can never think—if you can even call it thinking. The key was to remember what made all lifeforms tick in unison. A drive to replicate was the force that connected all species, from fungi to elephants. It was perhaps the only shared goal of humans and viruses. If you wanted to know why a virus did what it did, the answer, somewhere down the line, was always the same: they did whatever would allow them to multiply and spread. And that, they did beautifully. Better than anyone. Viruses have children by the millions, while Vashti, with her one child, was almost evolutionarily null. Her one child who lay in bed, sweating through fever dreams.

“Tell me you know better,” David said, “because when you have my job, you’ll have to.”

“Yes,” she said, and went downstairs to lay a tea towel full of ice cubes across Alma’s forehead.

 

 

On day 3, Arenavirus opens with an audacious proposal. They ask for the huge tract of land between the Savannah and Chattahoochee rivers, most of Florida and Georgia. Atlanta, Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami. The eight hundred smaller towns between. Disney World. All turned into a viral playground where Arena can spread uninhibited, testing their powers among the inhabitants without any interference from quarantines, vaccines, treatment strategies. The symptoms, they promise, will be tempered. They don’t wish to kill everyone, after all. It will be, essentially, an Arenavirus stronghold at the edge of America, a new form of colonialism.

Now we’re down to brass tacks, thinks Vashti, though their plan is, of course, ridiculous. From saying nothing they have swung to asking for the moon. She communicates back a message she has had cause to use in many negotiations, one she used to practice with David to get the nuances right. It is the story of smallpox, a once-vast empire that killed humans by the hundreds of millions and held sway over the known world. Viruses’ own version of Ancient Rome in all its glory. And then, like Rome, it died an inglorious death. The difference is that Rome was its own undoing, while Variola was hunted to extinction by the humans of the twentieth century. It is a story the Arena contingent already knows well. Imagine, thinks Vashti, how we’d feel if aliens had destroyed the Roman Empire. It isn’t the kind of thing you’d soon forget. The message, she is sure, is clear: Don’t push us too far. We are not helpless. Diplomacy is your best option.

In response, Arena sends a message that she struggles to decode. Cool bathwater turning blistering hot against her skin. An acrid, chemical scent that swells her lungs. The sensation carries an undefined feeling of dread. The color is a livid yellow, like the sky before a tornado.

And then, an image. Alma in that doorway again, backlit, the car’s windshield glaring sun behind her. It’s the summer after Alma returns from college, and she’s been home for three months, the two of them clattering around each other in the Ambassador’s Suite like pinballs. Alma rests her hand on the doorjamb. The light behind her is so bright that her face is almost obscured, but Vashti can still see her causal smile as she says she is going to the grocery store.

“Need anything?” she asks. “Cherries? Salad?”

Milk, Vashti thinks, but she knows Alma won’t buy milk, so she says, “No, thanks.”

Later, Vashti will begin to wonder how long it can possibly take to get groceries. Later still she will go to Alma’s room, find the half-empty drawers and closet, the cell phone resting on the night stand, the unmade bed with one green sock tangled amid the sheets. Hours after that, late at night, Alma will call from a motel in Nebraska, will say that she’s moving to the commune she’s been talking about all summer, the place that, in her own mind, Vashti always calls The Cult. By then, of course, it will be far too late to take any action. To borrow a car and set out after Alma, to follow on her heels as she leaves the house and say, “I’ll come to the store, too.” By then Vashti will realize that the lie about the grocery store was only a distraction, a way to buy time while Alma made good her escape. That with every minute that has passed since, her daughter has moved farther away.

But in the moment Vashti only looks at Alma, who is draped in the same shapeless hemp shift she has insisted on wearing all summer. In her mind, with the benefit of hindsight, Vashti thinks, It’s a lie. You’re lying to me, but in the real past she only says, “No, thanks.”

Alma takes a quick step into the living room, gives Vashti a kiss on the cheek. She leaves, swinging the door shut behind her, cutting all that yellow-hot light away, while Vashti’s brain repeats, It’s a lie, a lie, a lie.

 

 

A moment later, Vashti finds herself blinking into muted ceiling lights as she is yanked from the conduction gel by attendants in biohazard suits. Secretary Sanogo herself is standing over her, her face creased with anger and concern through the sealed plastic visor of her filtration hood. Vashti draws a sharp breath, trying to re-center herself in her body, in the room, to make sense of the panicked energy all around her. The attendants are pulling her upright, guiding her feet into a filtration suit. Vashti’s hands shake as she zips herself in and moves from the conference room toward the transport that waits to take her to the White House. Her knees are weak with dehydration, her hair and skin still sticky with gel. A few steps ahead of her, Secretary Sanogo is speaking tersely to her aides, and as they all climb into the transport one of them turns on a television. The small projection space in the middle of the cab shows a hospital room in Seattle, patients with twisted bodies, red eyes. Arenavirus run amok.

“Did someone break the quarantine? Did someone leave Florida?” Vashti says, but then the image switches to New Orleans, to Charleston, to New York City. Nearly identical patients in nearly identical beds, thousands of miles apart. One person did not go to all these places simultaneously, giving rise to an onslaught of synchronous infections. This is not the work of some rogue traveler. If there is any human error here, it is hers. What she is seeing is a planned attack, one that was started before she ever stepped into the negotiation room.

An aide clears his throat, refuses to meet her eyes. “They think it’s the octopuses. The mass die-offs. It appears to have been part of some kind of side negotiation between Arenavirus and a cephalopod contingent. The octopuses’ bodies were infected. As soon as we’ve verified, we’ll announce. Probably within the hour.”

Viruses are always learning, generation by generation, through the cycle of mutation, birth, and replication. Arena produces a new generation twice a day. A thousand generations in a year and a half. In that many cycles, humans have moved from the rough stone huts of the first permanent dwellings to the present. From prehistory to Vashti’s pathogenic diplomacy. And how many viral generations have passed in the decades since those first tenuous conversations between viruses and humans, the rudimentary Xu-Bose precursors in the lab? Vashti knows she is seeing a leap, one of those seemingly sudden shifts in evolution that changes the way the world works. Arenaviridae, Picornaviridae, Rhabdoviridae, Filoviridae, all the rest: they are moving at such speeds, compared to her and the rest of humanity.

The last few days have not been a negotiation at all. Just a stalling tactic, a misdirection. The whole time, Arenavirus has been spreading quietly, waiting for the right moment to manifest. She’d thought that if they were negotiating, they weren’t attacking, but of course they can do both simultaneously. It is only some ages-old code of ethics that says otherwise, a very human code. All Arena needed to do to pull it off was to learn to lie, a skill she’d thought beyond them. A skill they must have learned from her, and the other humans they’d communicated with before her: the dividing of the mind into two parts. They are always adapting, always meeting obstacles with innovation.

The broadcast in front of her changes to San Diego, and as soon as Vashti glimpses Market Street she thinks, Alma. Alma, who should be safe in her fool’s paradise, miles from the nearest other group of humans, in an outpost too small for Arena to bother to attack. What do they care about a few dozen people living in adobe huts? They traffic in numbers, in volume. In spread. But Alma is in charge of the shopping trip. She is in the solar car, moving farther by the minute from the safety of the commune, toward the city. Alma, who does not own a phone, or a computer, who can’t be reached. If Arena finds its way into her body, it won’t be because she was targeted. It will be nothing personal. Vashti’s one, her only, is just one body among ten billion; she does not matter to them at all.

 

“Arbitrium” copyright © 2022 by Anjali Sachdeva
Art copyright © 2022 by Sara Wong

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