art by Jeffrey Redmond
by Bruce Holland Rogers
Public service ads produced by the Big Three had been running in all the major media: television, radio, magazines, and web sites. Each of the Big Three took a slightly different approach, targeting different consumers, but the basic message was the same. The Brent virus was dangerous. It didn't kill, but it caused permanent changes to brain chemistry. Initial symptoms resembled the onset of the common cold. There was no vaccine. No cure. The best defense was prevention. The ads emphasized frequent hand washing and basic hygiene. Anyone feeling the first signs of a head cold should stay home and submit to a quarantine order.
But the ads were not why representatives of the Big Three were meeting in Washington with the directors of the National Security Agency and military intelligence. The ads were the public face. This meeting was to discuss the campaign's other face.
"We have a brand affiliate program," said the CEO of the first company. "People get free product samples in exchange for trying the product and telling other consumers about it. Word of mouth is great for shaping opinion. Our brand affiliates have lots of social contacts. They like to talk. They would be perfect for spreading rumors."
"They must not know that these are manufactured facts," said the NSA man.
"Of course not. We wouldn't contact them. You would. We would give you the list of brand affiliates. You would plant the rumors. An agent posing as a UPS driver could deliver a package and say he'd heard the virus had been engineered by North Korean doctors."
"Iran," said the NSA man. "We decided on Iran."
"Nice symmetry," added the general. "The mullahs are saying that the virus was engineered in America."
A CEO said, "I imagine that their way of life is every bit as threatened as ours."
"For our part," said the second CEO, "we have a division for feeding tips and comments to bloggers. We can seed rumors, provide links to conspiracy sites...."
The NSA man frowned. "Too transparent. If one of your operatives leaked, we'd have problems."
"Not really. Everyone we employ for this work has a history of serious mental illness. We specifically filled our payroll with people we can easily discredit."
Everyone at the table laughed.
The third CEO had a plan to pay television scriptwriters to refer to the supposed secondary effects of the Brent virus: impotence, birth defects, memory loss, and cancer. "Since we're not placing a product," he said, "we don't think we'll have any trouble adding a joke here, a story line there, and getting it through to production. We can add jokes to the late night shows immediately. Prime time will take longer. However, I'm confident that we can establish things about the Brent virus that---" He made quote signs in the air with his fingers. "---everybody knows."
"This is a start," said the NSA man. "But I want you to put your heads together. Don't think of one another as rivals. If we don't stop this virus, we're all sunk."
"Are we?" said the general.