This is a submission for the Blog Prize’s May 2022 contest, The World in 2072.
Karl hurried down the hallway, the click of his shoes reverberating off of the floor and walls. He passed the empty reporting team rooms as he went, their insides completely dark save for the blinking lights of a few ancient computer terminals. He gripped his tablet tightly as he walked, checking down at the text on the screen every few seconds, making sure it was still there.
URG.: UNKNOWN PATHOGEN AT SENSOR #7182. That was the start of the message that arrived at his inbox, an automated response from one of the sensors built way back in the ’20s. The rest of the message contained detailed descriptions of the sample’s contents and the location and time that the sample was taken. He had punched in the GPS from the message and found it was in a town in southern California with just 5,000 residents. It was called Olspry, and it was one of the desalination towns on the coast. The entire place sprang up around the plant built there. Karl had checked the sensor’s history to see if it had given false positives before, and found that this sensor had been moved there from one of the towns that had to be evacuated in the 2043 floods. It had never sent out a message before.
Karl turned the corner and arrived at his boss’s office, a room entirely covered in the computerized wallpaper that had been so popular when this building was constructed. His boss sat in the middle of the room in a swivel chair. She was smiling, watching some of the newest reporting desk’s coverage on one of the walls, a first-person story going out to the VR units. The footage showed what it was like to be a child at the new childcare/teaching centers: flashes of kickball, blue skies, and grinning faces beamed from the wall’s display.
Karl knocked on the door.
“Hey, Danni, got a minute?”
She turned in her chair and paused the footage, the room turning into a panoramic mountain view.
“Sure, Karl, what’s up?” She indicated to one of the other chairs in the room.
Karl sat down and rubbed his free hand on his knee, leaving a streak of moisture from his sweat. He pulled up the tablet and showed it to Danni.
She frowned, glancing over the brief message, and passed it back to him. “So?”
Karl took a breath. “So, I think this could be it. What our desk has been wait- what we’ve been warning about.”
Danni sighed. “Look, Karl, you’ve done great work for such a young reporter. In your first year, you’ve told stories about the past, found detailed records, some of our most moving work. But people are done with these stories. Nobody alive even remembers the COVID-19 pandemic that well, and that was the last big one. Your last story, about the outbreak in ‘34? It barely got 2,000 SuperLikes. I just don’t know if there’s a market for this content.”
Karl focused on the points he had jotted down at his desk. “Sure, but this could be different. The signals here are unlike anything else these sensors have picked up. We’re not even sure what type of virus this is, if anyone is infected, anything. This message was the first thing to be released. You’ve got to at least send me down there to check it out. The government’s probably way behind, there’s not going to be a response for daus, and people have to know the truth.”
Danni took another look at the tablet. With a shrug of her shoulders, she handed it back to Karl. “Look, I’m fine with you going down there. You haven’t traveled for a story in a while. The sun and sea will do you some good. Just, don’t get your hopes up, OK? This isn’t 2020. You’re not going to be reporting from the trenches of a world-rending pandemic.”
The plane touched down, its electric turbines humming like a giant vacuum cleaner. Karl was reading and writing the entire flight, looking up the details of the start of earlier pandemics, the 2028 Pandemic Prevention Act, and the associated policies and rules therein. In theory, this anomaly should send an entire response team to Olspry, and the results should also be publicly available online. But, as far as he could tell, the sensor’s public repository hadn’t updated since a few weeks ago. He smirked as he jotted down notes. This was the story of every pandemic he had ever read about: hidden information and a delayed government response.
He didn’t have far to go to start investigating: the sensor was in the airport, as it was the densest place in this small town. He had looked its location up before hand, and was strolling to its location in the terminal when he was stopped by a security guard. The guard stood directly in front of him, right before the corner that would take him to the sensor.
“Sorry, I’m afraid this area is off limits temporarily.”
“Oh, really? Why would that be?” Karl was surprised to find someone here, but this was even more exciting: the government was here, and they were already trying to cover things up.
“This area has been locked down because of a malfunctioning-” The guard was cut off as someone came from around the corner and put a hand on his shoulder. A small woman with bright red hair, she spoke warmly. “Thanks, Don, but we’re expecting him.”
The guard eyed Karl, shrugged, and stood aside. The woman waved Karl on energetically. “Welcome, welcome! Glad you’re here. Come right this way.”
Karl stood perplexed for a moment before following around the corner, rolling his carry-on behind him.
“Sorry, who are you?” he asked, struggling to keep up with the woman’s quick steps. “I’m Jane, one of the operations coordinators for this malfunction response,” she replied. They were approaching the sensor, and Karl saw dozens of people with government badges milling about.
“Yes, this sensor had quite a strange signal recently. That triggered the standard pandemic response team to fly down here and check it out. And, of course, that’s why you’re here too. The same signal is sent to reporters from around the country.”
She gestured to a group of people with tablets, typing away as someone in a white coat talked to them. Karl looked around at the rest of the entourage in this sectioned-off room: some were setting up computers and associated equipment, others were walking around with handheld sensors, others interviewing airport employees.
“A strange signal, huh? Then why hasn’t anything been posted to this sensor’s public database?”
Jane nodded. “Good catch. We’re guessing that this particular sensor is on the fritz, and that the same problem that led to the strange signal prevented it from updating its database. We have a team of engineers on it now, and of course you and the rest of the reporters are welcome to chat with them. Their work is being livestreamed, too.”
Karl stood, flummoxed. “You’re livestreaming this? This whole thing?”
Jane smiled and pointed to a few cameras around the room. “Well, yes. The same groups that audit our sensors’ reports also like to see what we do in real time. The Act of 2028 was quite clear on that respect: any potential outbreaks must be documented as they happen. Of course, this little incident is not even an outbreak, but we still must be transparent.”
“You seem pretty confident that this isn’t the real deal.”
“Well, certainly. We haven’t seen this signal at any of our other sensors, and the at-home Universal Tests have been showing nothing out of the ordinary. But, of course, any potential deviation must be taken seriously, hence our presence here. Oh, forgive my manners, you’re probably hungry. Let me show you the catering table, and then you can join the rest of the reporters getting briefed on the details by our science chief.”
Karl followed her, dazed, to the table. He picked up a pastry and went to the circle of reporters surrounding the man in the white coat. He was going on about the specific software used in these old sensors, what they were doing to fix it, and describing the few similar incidents that had happened before. Karl listened idly for a few minutes before nudging one of the reporters next to him, an older man with greying hair.
“Hi, Karl, from the New York Times.”
The man glanced at him. “Eddy, Wall Street Journal.”
“Hey Eddy. So, this whole thing is a little strange, huh? Don’t you think something’s up? All these people here, just for a malfunction? Seems like an overreaction.”
Eddy rolled his eyes. “This must be your first one.”
Karl shifted defensively. “Well, yeah, I’ve only been reporting for a year or so…”
Eddy smiled. “Welcome to the real world, kid. Pandemic reporting ain’t what it used to be. The ‘28 PPA pretty much ended the broken systems, the lab leaks, the cover-ups. Now it’s mostly layers of verification, and you’re just another block in the chain, so to speak.” He turned back to his tablet.
Karl looked at his notes on old pandemics, moved his eyes up at the man lecturing in the white coat, then around to the reporters taking notes. He sighed and started typing.
The engineer took a bite of his apple as he watched the progress bar on the screen. “5 minutes until this patch finishes up,” he said through chunks of apple.
The other engineer nodded, refreshing the page of the sensors’ public repository. He turned to the livestreaming camera and smiled, gave a thumbs up.
The computer beeped. The first engineer threw out his apple and stretched. “Patch complete, and public verification by nonprofit groups has begun. Alright, let’s box this up and get out of here. I heard they have killer sushi in this town, what with those new cultured salmon meat labs being just down the highway.”
- Posted on:
- May 14, 2022
- 9 minute read, 1706 words
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