I do this with an idea. I write enough of an intro to lock down the idea for later. Some of them I’ll likely never have time to get back to. The core idea in this one is what if something happened to prevent people from lying? Would it be a minor inconvenience or collapse society as we know it? I lost an afternoon to this idea after Rebecca brought it up. I wanted to at least outline how such a thing might come to pass.
A Terrible Talent
Core idea shamelessly stolen from:
Han Xianchu might have been mistaken for one of those unhappy people who hate their native culture. He fit very well into the composite California culture and was exceptional enough to transcend any problems with discrimination. His high school had cliques like any other and bullies, but they also had a big enough Chinese population that the lesser factions held to the wisdom that if you contended with what they called the ‘Chinese Mafia’ they would ‘mess you up’.
He legally changed his name to Robert Wilson while in college and made no effort to affect any strongly Asian appearance or dietary preferences. He would have been happy to never wear anything but old jeans and graphic t-shirts, of which he had so many he’d lost count. He wasn’t shy to inform people he preferred cheeseburgers over rice, and although he spoke Chinese just fine he made no special point of using the ability.
What Bob actually detested was his grandfather. Among his earliest memories was the old man berating him even before he knew what the words with which he was being scolded meant. His face was enough to understand he had no use for Bob. His mother told Bob he loved his grandfather so many times she might have even believed it, but the repetitions had no effect on Bob. By the time he was in college and changed his name there wasn’t any trace left of the familial guilt she’d tried to instill.
Fortunately, his father while not lavishing praise on his single male child presented a sort of reasonable neutrality. He never disagreed with his own father in specific detail, but the rare occasions when his grandfather was particularly unfair he’d just make some comment that Bob carefully remembered. Once, when as a teenager he professed an attraction to a Caucasian classmate his grandfather expressed his disapproval for an entire evening. When the old man finally wore himself out and went to bed his father said, “Why do you think we never have milk in the house? If the old man looks at it first it is soured beyond use.” Which said nothing directly about dating, but Bob cherished that brief message and what it intimated over his grandfather’s many words.
As a researcher, Bob was similarly able to turn a keen perception for the less obvious phenomena to his advantage. What others might have regarded as a failure in an experiment he stopped and regarded with curiosity. Why didn’t it go as expected, and something even harder for most minds to consider, was his entire base understanding in error?
His early training at signal filtering shaped his views on his obligations. Just as he felt no obligation to agree with his grandfather’s disapproval he had hard boundaries in his mind about what he owed an employer as a researcher. Someone from a different culture, or more to the point from a different household, might have thought him dishonest. He was working for a pharmaceutical house on a drug for the treatment of dementia. Bob was very aware of the limits of his contract and would have dutifully reported any off label possibility for the current drug he was evaluating. His idea of his obligations and a lawyer’s departed significantly when he observed something completely unrelated to the drug, and at least to his mind, unrelated serendipity.
The drug he was working on was at best a dud. Worse he was coming to find it had significant nasty side effects that would have outweighed all but the strongest of benefits. It wasn’t going to be long at all before this project was wrapped up and his team moved on.
The last three populations of geriatric rats being examined were an untouched control group, a group being treated with the experimental drug, and a third group being treated with an older anti-dementia drug that had a similar metabolic pathway and this new drug. The hope was that it would at least boost the effect of the older drug and permit a commercially viable combination that could reset the clock on a new patent. Alas, it didn’t.
Bob’s monitoring of variables was exemplary. Just about any physiological variance that could be monitored on a rat was watched and recorded. That’s why when his untreated control group started showing higher body temperatures and distressed breathing and loss of appetite it was obvious they had a viral infection. His facilities were sufficiently stringent in their isolation that the other two groups didn’t catch it.
If the treated populations had shown any promise at all it would have been a responsible procedure to run the entire test with new uninfected controls. But since they were a bust it wasn’t going to be necessary. He had ten days to go and he’d just let the control group die or recover from this infection and be euthanized with the rest at the end of the test.
What Bob didn’t expect was that the cognitive testing running on all three populations showed an improvement in the natural control group. It wasn’t an improvement in just a few of the rats showing signs of age-related decline. It was an across the board improvement of the entire population. It was even more observable in three days as the rat’s temperatures returned to normal. They overcame the lethargy of the illness and went back on their feed.
Bob saw potential in this unrelated to his original purpose and detached from what his employers were asking him to examine. His initial thought was to take tissue samples but by the time the rats were sacrificed, they might not be infectious. The potential legal difficulties and the physical barriers to taking an entire animal home from work seemed insurmountable, stealing one even crossed the line for what Bob considered ethical. When the trial was completed, however, there was little difficulty in acquiring both feces and contaminated cage bedding. It was just trash after all. Not weighed or accounted for in any way before it was fed to the incinerator. Fortunately for him this proved to be an effective vector to propagate the disease.
The next couple of years were an exercise in patience. Never having many expensive hobbies or vices outside his professional existence, Bob had accumulated a decent investment account in his ten years with the company. Due to his early family life he had never had sufficient trust to have a relationship progress to marriage. His father said little but his mother appeared to be near losing hope for that to happen.
The idea of a viral infection conferring increased intelligence was worth making sure nobody would contest his ownership. Not only would it be worth wealth and fame to rival other major discoveries of mankind, but Bob wanted it for himself. It was nearly as valuable as something extending lifetime, and who knew, being smart enough might make that a goal within his reach too.
Bob was aware he was smart. He was just smart enough to realize how limited standard intelligence tests are. He was smart by that metric. Smart in the 145 to 150 range where IQ tests still meant something. He was aware however that there were different sorts of intelligence and that one’s development could nurture or destroy the potential of most.
There had been times he’d had instructors who in explaining something would get tired of plodding along step by step and at some point draw an arrow on the board and say: therefore – and conclude the matter. What was exasperatingly obvious to them became apparent with a great deal of effort by working out the details of their ‘therefore’. Some students never had that ability and might not have grasped the concepts even if the impatient instructor had spent another hour filling in those details. Bob was just jealous.
One of his fellow students of similar intelligence had advanced the theory that being that smart might be a constant trial. That as wearisome as dealing with the average person was for him and Bob, how much more so must it be to see Bob and himself as rather plodding and dull? Bob accepted that might be so but was willing to risk it if he could find out.
In the end, his ethnicity turned out to have some value. It was easier for him to find investors and start a company to research this discovery in his own community. His grandfather being dead several years he was able to speak freely to his father about the potential. There was a core group of relatives eager to take on a high-risk investment and experts of other needed specialties available to cover areas Bob had no knowledge.
An unfortunate result of outside expertise was that the two lawyers associated with the founding group strongly advocated moving the startup to Canada for long-range protection from claims by his previous employers. As one of them said, “If they can convince a jury you ever thought about intelligence in the abstract while on the clock they have a crack into a claim on your intellectual property.”
Bob was smart enough to depend on expert advice. He had no irrational attachment to San Jose or his apartment. Vancouver had cheeseburgers and t-shirts. Sometimes it was more American than even the natives wished their identity to project. Although others would rate Vancouver as having a very mild climate, the only thing that Bob didn’t like and would put up with as a temporary indignity was snow in any quantity at all.
* * *
Bob established that the infection that popped up in his rats wasn’t easily transmitted to humans and in particular, wasn’t virulent and deadly by exposing himself to his samples. It was not in line with his intelligence level to play Russian roulette in this manner, but it had a long history of being a decision many researchers made. It got around a bottleneck that would have added considerable delay and expense and posed ethical dilemmas.
It wasn’t until much later in the program that a colleague pointed out the error in his assumptions.
“Did you ever have an illness you attributed to having a cold or the flu during the decade you spent in research before acquiring this strain?” she asked.
“Of course, I had two or three minor illnesses over those years,” Bob admitted.
“Then without an antibody study how could you know you weren’t the vector of the infection from a source outside your lab? You couldn’t have suffered a minor infection, never attributed it correctly and had immunity to an attempted reinjection.”
Bob had to admit that was true, but it at least the limit in place that he hadn’t suffered any severe illness and ignored it. Bob wanted to think an exceptionally grave illness would have caused him to examine such a possibility. It was too late to test by then.
* * *
The program to find other hosts and a form of the virus that could be transmitted to humans went well but presented hazards. It could be transmitted to pigs. That was very encouraging given it was a past path of so many viral adaptations. They did show a boost in cognitive abilities, which was both encouraging and a problem. Pigs were easier to work with for their purposes than expensive apes or exotic wombats as a host animal, but their very ubiquitous nature and economic importance presented a problem. If the virus got loose in the porcine population it could create problems for pig farmers, the animal rights people would have a fit no matter what the absolute level of increase in their intelligence, and one of his researchers pointed out another problem.
“I grew up where there was a population of wild boar,” the fellow said, radiating concern. “They are pests, damaging crops, changing the environment by edging out other species, and dangerous to hunt as they are now. If they are much smarter I’m not going to go in the brush to hunt one. I may have to just cede the territory to them and only hunt them by helicopter. If this gets in the domestic population it’s just a matter of time before it gets to the feral and then native wild pig population.”
What sidestepped that roadblock and moved the program ahead dramatically was other research from outside their group that established methods for modifying the outer shell of viruses so they could utilize or reject various receptor sites. This was critical since their subject organism was DNA based not RNA and not easily modified. In just another two years they were able to make sure in vitro that the virus could infect humans and make sure it didn’t infect any domestic animal of economic importance or with strong support groups such as canines, felines, and bovines.
There was no question of conducting human trials with paid subjects or volunteers. Of the small group who understood the nature of what they had first isolated and then modified almost all of them wanted to try it themselves. The few who intended to take a pass on it cautioned that any unexpected adverse result could destroy the firm. A public revelation could easily prevent any recovery of the original goals by removing all the talent with the knowledge needed to engineer such a recovery. Only single people were picked to test it due to the difficulty of separation from family.
Still, Bob was one of the six chosen to test the infection because others now had as great or a superior technical understanding of the discovery. Also, most felt he would find some way to bypass their decision if they attempted to exclude him. A poll of his workmates would have found that although no few would acknowledge his intelligence a larger majority would list his being sneaky as a more prominent quality.
All six agreed to make their previous testing open to the group and undergo now tests for purposes of comparison. The company had a facility long-held and prepared in a remote area. The cabin was fairly luxurious, almost a mini-resort, at the end of a long dirt road that was barely more than two wheel ruts for much of its length. The access to that was fenced and gated in such a way it appeared to just provide privacy to a small chalet that was actually a guardhouse for their security.
There was some variation among the six infected. Bob merely suffered a mild sore throat and a raw nose. Other than clearing his throat and making a lot of hot tea he didn’t feel that bad. At the other end of the spectrum, one man had chills and went to bed missing supper the second night in the cabin. Nobody reported any emotional disturbance or striking mental changes, not even bad dreams.
Their experience with pigs gave them an idea of the infectious period. They doubled that for safety and had a moon-suited crew strip all the bedding and linens from the cabin, dispose of them in a portable incinerator and fog the building thoroughly with an extremely dangerous and persistent gas. To be on the safe side they agreed to forgo public activities for the next month and restrict themselves to work and home. To that end they had food and meals delivered and their trash was sealed and delivered to the same incinerator used at the cabin. Those around them were monitored for possible infections and there was only one false alarm from a woman who got a common cold.
One of the testers reported they were reading a book they’d set aside some years before and the material now made sense that hadn’t before. They were all hopeful that was valid and looking forward to more definitive tests.
The economic model for the treatment was something they had given a lot of thought. A geographically remote resort seemed impossible to control on a larger scale with patients who did not have a vested interest in cooperating with their own isolation. The model decided upon was a cruise ship that would stay away from national waters for a full month.
Initial testing showed as much variation in benefits as the infection showed in symptoms. Bob tested fifteen or twenty percent higher on standardized tests. He didn’t feel differently internally, but it was enough to drive him to the edge of where the tests had any repeatability or meaning. One of the altered said that the tests were obviously created by people in the core standard range and needed to be reformulated and structured by people smarter than they intended to measure. Everybody agreed with his analysis but didn’t see any way around that meaning that there couldn’t be any metric for evaluating the very intelligent but the opinion of their peers.
The test group was expanded and married researchers brought their spouses in. A couple even arranged to have their children cared for to have time for the isolation it still required. One mathematician was their greatest success yet, suddenly gaining insight on so many aspects of his professional life that he burst forth with a flood of new papers. He confounded those who thought him stodgy and unremarkable in middle age and destined never to be more than a competent teacher. His wife and friends had to intervene to make him sleep, eat, and see to his personal grooming reasonably in the face of this new obsession. In time he did get it under control and didn’t need continued oversight.
The first sign of trouble was in the company cafeteria. Bob was at a table with Fred who was a Cryo-Electron-Microscopy guy and Alice who was a Forensic Veterinary.
“I’m concerned I do see DNA loops in the cells of post-infection organisms,” Fred said. “I have concerns those will get spread to other hosts that might reincorporate them. Possibly reincorporate them with unknown effects, even if a loop can’t recreate the entire organism.”
“By entire organism, I assume you mean the virus,” Alice said. “I’d avoid using that term to describe a virus because many will argue it is not an organism. The discussion will then devolve into debating nomenclature and miss entirely the point being made.”
“Fine, but I find that all as silly as the seventh round of declaring Pluto a planet or something less,” Fred said.
“And yet words have meanings and so much trouble can be avoiding by taking the narrower meaning if one is aware it exists,” Alice said.
“I’m a rather practical fellow,” Fred said. “I can only tolerate the nitpicking so far before it gets to me. Most of these people couldn’t use a screwdriver without a user manual and personal instruction.”
“I agree in principle,” Alice said. “But if the poor soul in question is that limited you will probably have to devise separate tutorials for bladed and Phillips screwdrivers, so I see being as precise as possible a great benefit not an error.”
“You agree with me, but I have always thought you regard me as simply a technician and not worthy as a person since I don’t have a doctorate or two,” Fred said.
Alice looked shocked at that. She might have replied, but Bob interrupted.
“Please stop. This conversation is shocking and out of character for both of you. I must invoke our agreement to note any changes in personality. I demand you both have careful evaluations to see if something has changed. I can’t imagine either of you having these responses a month ago. For that matter I’m going to have a full psych workup myself now, and I’ll encourage all the other test subjects to do so, strongly.
“How do we seem different to you?” Alice asked.
“More aggressive,” Bob said, and made a face unsatisfied. “Perhaps that’s not the right word. Neither of you seemed angry. You didn’t raise your voices. You were definitely less tactful than I’d normally expect. Do you feel differently?”
No, I didn’t feel emotional,” Alice said. “It just seemed like the truth, and I was perhaps more vigorous in saying what I thought than usual. If I seem to be a bit of a snob over having a doctorate I apologize, Fred. I do value it and all the hard work it took to attain it, but it is my judgment of my own self worth and it is against my core principles to extend that to denigrate others who have other skills and took other paths.”
“My pardon for attributing my suspicions to you,” Fred said. “I know I am no mind reader and yet I’ve harbored such feeling for a long time. If I feel there is some truth in them it’s still wrong to apply them to you because I feel that way about a group. That’s the core of discrimination applying group metrics to the individual.”
Bob looked at them and didn’t say anything for a moment. The common thread in what he heard had one unifying word, truth.
“Do you still want us evaluated, Bob?” Fred asked.
“Oh yes, very much so. But I wonder if I might conduct my own small test with you right now?”
“Sure, go ahead,” Fred said.
Alice just nodded yes.
“I want you to each tell me something you consider a basic truth of your life, something basic that you couldn’t imagine changing. You first, Fred.”
“I love working with hardware because it isn’t a matter of opinion. It either works or it doesn’t You don’t have that in things like anthropology where everything is only opinion and you could upset the whole apple cart and have to start from scratch at any time.”
“Now tell me verbally that all the soft sciences are full of facts, we just can’t measure them and they are just as valid as hard numbers.”
“Say that?” Fred asked.
“Please. I’m not asking you to believe it, just quote me,” Bob invited.
“Soft sciences…” Fred stopped and put his head in his hands. I know I’d just be quoting you but it’s wrong. I can’t say that. It makes my head hurt so bad I can’t think.”
“Well stop trying, please. I don’t want to hurt you,” Bob said.
“How about you, Alice?” Bob invited.
“I’d say my core belief is we are all animals. I don’t believe people have a separate supernatural component that your dog lacks.”
“Then please tell me we will all meet in heaven and I’ll be reunited with every dog and cat I ever owned.”
“Oh sure. We’ll all cross that rainbow…” She stopped and gasped. “Bridge,” she managed to choke out through clutched teeth, and then she threw up trying to force the rest.”
“What happened to us?” Fred asked.
“I’m not sure, but it’s scaring the hell out of me,” Bob admitted.