by Michael Gold

Mr. Head, the man without a body, gets attacked by a virus.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E

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“Hey, Doughnut Hole. You eat any bugs today?”

Perry, with his awe-inspiring wit, had arrived in the lab when everyone had gone home, after Dr. Chertov had taken apart my computer twin and found the roach inside the CPU. It had eaten through part of a wire and was resting on the disk drive.

Dr. Chertov brushed it away with a flick of a rubber glove and the roach scrambled out of the open CPU. As it ran across the floor, Dr. Chertov asked Maria to kill it.

“Why do I have to do it?”

“It’s getting away! You better do it.”

She squashed it with her soft-soled shoe.

“You’re the man. You’re supposed to do these things,” the acne-scarred Maria said as she cleaned the bug off her shoe with the tissue.

“And you’re the assistant. You do what I tell you.”

After that little game of demonstrating dominance, Dr. Chertov replaced the wire, tested the computer and ran a check on its functions. I felt better.

Now Perry had come in, my charitable friend, carrying a basketball. He put the ball down and removed the glass dome from over my head. I felt suddenly vulnerable.

I dispensed with the usual politeness.

“What do you want?”


“I’m supposed to be in a sterile environment. If Dr. Chertov knew you were in here, what you’ve done, he’d have your head.”

Perry didn’t get the joke. “But you’re not gonna tell him, are you? Because if he finds out, your ass is mine.”

“I don’t have an ass, you moron.”

“You know what I mean.”

I tried psychology. “What’s bothering you, Perry? Do you want a raise? More responsibility? Higher status?”

A basketball flew at my head in response.

It smacked against my forehead. It wasn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world. I winced.

The ball flew off back toward Perry and he caught it on the bounce.

“Good shot.”

“Listen up, freak. You’re a crime, a sin.”

“I didn’t realize you were so religious.”

“I am. Very. And I know that God doesn’t like you.”

Oh boy.

Having made his point, he turned to walk out. I shouted after him.

“If you don’t want to get caught, you should put the glass back over my head.”

“Oh, yeah.”

He picked up the glass from the table and placed it over my head, then walked out with the basketball.

The next day, Dr. Chertov and Maria checked my vital signs, then attached a screen to a table with wheels in front of me. At last, I had something else to look at besides the very boring lab.

“It’s time to go to work, Tottenkopf.”

I wasn’t sure I was going to get used to that name.

“We have a contract for a genetic experiment. Please purchase for me six dozen mice and 10,000 cockroaches.”

“Where can I find them?”

“I don’t have the slightest idea. That’s your job.”

“How do I do this? I can’t use a keyboard.”

“Tottenkopf, use your thoughts to direct the computer. You’re linked now. You’re part of its CPU. If you think something, the computer will do the search.”

As a test run, I silently told the computer to look for the CNN web site. Up it popped on the screen in a matter of seconds. It was a wonderful thing to see—a computer that responded to pure thought.

The live mice were easy to find. Every lab uses mice. The roaches were a little more difficult. It’s not like there’s a kennel out there for wayward roaches. It took a few days to find a lab in the United States that had them.

I finally found an outfit in Cambridge that was doing insect research. The two lab directors, Drs. Wilson and Ricketts, agreed to send the roaches in bunches of 2,000 at a time over a period of five weeks. I made the payment on the corporate credit card.

I was glad to wrap up the project quickly. Even grumpy Maria, walking in with my protein feed, couldn’t depress me.

The mice arrived in three days. Perry set them down in metal cages on the other side of the lab. I could see them off in the distance as a whirl of white writhing squeaks. The smell was dusky and not pleasant at all.

The roaches started coming in closed wooden boxes a week after that.

I was feeling pretty proud of myself, when Dr. Chertov huffed into the laboratory. He started asking questions about the prices his company had paid for the products.

Very nervous now, I flashed the two invoices side by side on the screen in front of me. Dr. Chertov took one look and yelled, “Dummkopf! You could have gotten a better price if you went to a lab in Alabama!”

“How was I supposed to know that?” I wanted to say. The dummkopf insult really stung. Its literal meaning is “stupid head.” It was like a double strike of contempt.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I bowed what was left of my neck muscles and lowered my eyes.

“You’ve cost us a lot of money.”

“I’m sorry.”

“We can’t afford more of these mistakes.”

“Should I ship them back and try to reverse the purchases?”

“That will take too many man-hours. You’ll have cost me money and time then.”

I felt worse and worse. Little ones and zeroes zipped past my eyeballs, blazing red. It was as if the computer was angry about Dr. Chertov’s insults. But the computer wasn’t supposed to have any feelings. My brain was integrated with it, but emotions weren’t part of our relationship. So why did it feel that the computer was amplifying my innermost, intense anger?

Dr. Chertov waved his hand in the air. “No, we’ll have to work with what we have and live with this.”

He called Perry into the lab to open the boxes and put the creatures into thick plastic-walled cages. He walked in and sliced a look of hatred in my direction, then went to work.

I didn’t see Dr. Chertov for many weeks. He’d asked me to write several articles for him on subjects ranging from customer work he’d done—they’re called customer case histories—and thought pieces on how to find inefficiencies in your business and root them out. I’d mastered the computer well enough to outline and then write the articles by simply thinking. The computer typed out the words. I could see the keys punch down on the keyboard in front of the machine. I wasn’t comfortable with that. It was as if a ghost were typing on the black keys.

While I was doing that, I heard a lot of activity around me, but it was happening in another part of the lab. The doctor was cursing a lot and I heard dozens of mice squeaking and cockroach legs running in that rustling way they have.

Perry interrupted my writing by walking into my workstation area, his stomach bubbling like jelly, and announcing, “Bagel-face, Dr. Chertov wants you to order this online.”

I was a little hurt. “He doesn’t want to tell me himself?”

”He’s still mad at you for screwing up the mouse and roach orders.” He smiled at me. “I love the sound of that.”

I tried to ignore his preening.

“What’s the order for?”

“How the hell should I know?”

Perry thrust a meaty arm at me, with the paper in one maw of a hand. I read the paper. The order was for two biological compounds, written in a series of letters—genetic code. I didn’t understand it, but typed each letter into the computer as I read it. Perry looked bored as I did this.

It was odd that the doctor wanted only one order of the stuff, whatever it was.

“Let me read back to you what I just typed from the order.”

“Sure, ding-dong.”

“That’s Mr. Head to you. I told you.”

“You have my utmost respect, dickhead.” He made a mock bow then grabbed his testicles.

I sighed. My dream of working with a genius had become just another stupid job, with stupid people, in a stupid office. I ordered the compounds.

After weeks of this, a clear and thick plexiglass box was placed three feet from my workstation. Maria and Perry put the box in place. It sat under warm incubation lights. Inside of the box was a slick, jellied egg, about the size of a small honeydew melon. I thought it was kind of curious that the box was so close to me.

The heat from the incubation lights made me sweat. Hair started to fall off my head. The computer was responding to the heat by instructing my brain to shed hair. I became bald in a matter of hours. Dr. Chertov cared only to the extent that the hair might fall into the connections between me and the computer.

Maria with the white shoes came in to clean up the hair with a brush and a garbage can.

“Hi,” I said, happy to talk to anyone, even her.

White Shoes said nothing, acting as if I were a plant that needed cultivation. A deep gloom came over me.

The egg started out with a dark, thick sheen of purple, then gradually grew translucent over a period of a month. Curled inside was a sleeping fetus. It did not look like a mouse. There was no tail.

Teeth appeared as the baby slept. The top and the bottom row had sharp canines, like rhino horns. I thought the teeth would puncture the flesh of the baby around its gums as it moved about in its fetal sleep, but they never did.

A few days later, the biological compounds arrived. Dr. Chertov took the delivery and mixed the compounds together in a bottle. He drew the resulting liquid solution into a syringe and injected it into the egg. The fetus stirred and moaned, but didn’t wake.

In the night, a powerful wave of nausea came over me, interrupting my sleep. I was surprised. I didn’t think I could get nauseous. I wanted to vomit, but since I had no stomach, there would be nothing to expel.

A low growl came from the box in front of me. The fetus was awake and out of its shell. It had huge brown shells for eyes, with red pinpricks in their centers, and insect paws. The rest of it was furry.

It reared back and rammed into the plexiglass with every ounce of power in its newborn body. The sound was like a metal drawer being slammed shut. Then it did it again and again. I was frightened, even though I figured there was no way the thing could get at me.

After several minutes of this, the baby tried to climb the wall out of the box. It got the spurs of its legs on the top of the ridge, then fell back. The thing screamed when it hit the floor of the box. I took a closer look through the darkness. It had a very agile mouse body, with thick cockroach legs, which were six inches long.

The roach/mouse made several more tries to get out. It got its insect forelegs on the top of the plastic box and tried climbing up, but the bulk of its body weighed it down.

There were more escape attempts. The baby banged its head in frustration after it failed. But it kept persisting. After an hour, it had managed to get most of the front of its body on the top of the plastic, but it fell down. Audibly huffing, it circled around the cage and lay down in the box, staring at me with unfathomable hatreds, and fell asleep.

Maria walked in to give me a protein feed. She lifted off the glass dome over my head and primed the pump in the syringe.

“That thing tried to climb out of its box.”

She gave me the shot and turned to look at it. “It cracked its egg,” she said in a flat voice, like the birth of a mouse with giant cockroach legs and insect eyes happened with clockwork regularity everywhere she turned.

“I think it wanted to attack me.”

The nurse gave me a look of icy contempt. “You’re under glass. And it’s just hungry.”

“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“You’re a lab experiment. You’re not supposed to have any feelings.”

“I don’t know who’s scarier—you or him.”

“I am.”

She walked out, forgetting to put my glass lid back on top of my head. She returned a few moments later with a bowl of white liquid and a bowl of clear liquid, which she placed in the box of the roach-mouse as the thing slept. I don’t know why I thought the creature was a male. Maybe because it had been so aggressive before.

As White Shoes walked out, she tossed another look of disdain at me, as if to say, “You’re worried about being attacked by a little sleeping newborn, Head?”

I yelled after her. “Hey, you forgot to put my lid on. Hey!”

She didn’t look back.

The roach-mouse was awakened by the noise of my white-shoed nurse and the placement of the bowls in its box. It sniffed at the white liquid, which looked thick as cream, and lapped it all up quickly. Then it drank some water.

The liquid, which was almost certainly food, made the beast more active. It started to run around the inside of the box, looking for room to run.

Frustrated with the lack of results, the creature stopped, looked at me, look a long, deep breath and tried to climb the walls of its box again. This time the roach-mouse reached up with some exertion, hooked its fangs over the top of the box, and drew its body upward. I was surprised at the strength of its jaws.

It was able to compress its body just so on the thick edge of the plexiglass. Mice can squeeze their bodies into spaces the size of pencils, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that it could adjust its mass to a surface just one inch wide. Then it looked at me.

My mouth opened and my eyes got wide. It’s like when you know something bad is going to happen and you can do nothing to prevent it. Whatever analysis Dr. Chertov had made about the capabilities of this newborn creature were wrong. Otherwise, he would have put a top and a lock on the box.

Its teeth were long and sharp, the most prominent and threatening feature of its face. The round, black eyes, about the size of a wristwatch, were scary, no doubt, but the fangs really took the focus of my attention.

I was reminded again that the distance from the box to my workstation was about three feet. Anxiously, I stared nervously at the roach-mouse, then at my glass lid, sitting just a few inches away on my desk. That would have afforded me some protection.

Before I could shift my eyes back from the lid, it was on my cheek, the long roach legs spread across my face and nose. The fangs bit into the flesh below my eye. It felt like the thing wanted to rip out my eyeball.

It chewed off a piece of skin the size of a nickel and swallowed. I screamed like a baby. I didn’t care. This thing was going to eat my entire head and the only thing I could do about it was loose my voice to anyone within earshot.

White Shoes came running into the lab. She wore thick rubber gloves and a long black coat, which looked like a combination of a bullet-proof vest and a fireman’s jacket.

Her gloved hands came to the upper fangs and she pulled the beast off my face like she was removing someone’s teeth, which in a way she was.

The roach-mouse writhed in her hands and tried to chomp down on her wrist, but the fangs hit nothing but rubber. White Shoes ran with the angry, slithering beast to the other side of the lab and threw it in an open three-foot by three-foot cage. She slammed the door as it charged the metal bars with its nose. The automatic latch on the cage made an audible locking noise.

The wound burned like acid. I cried with terror and searing pain. The beast rammed its face into the cage bars again and again, like a hammer on my skull.

My head felt like it was on fire. Sweat spurted from my face almost immediately. Blood and liquid protein leaked out of my mouth.

“It’s starting,” White shoes said.

I didn’t like the sound of that.

“I’ll get Dr. Chertov.”

When he ran in with Maria and looked at me, I could have sworn he was smiling.

“Can’t you help me?” I pleaded, my words sticking like lisps to the top of my mouth from all the blood.

“I’m afraid not, Tottenkopf. You’ve got some kind of illness, from the baby’s bite.”

“I don’t understand,” I whispered, barely able to get out the words because of the intense pain.

“The computer can help you much faster than I can. See, it’s already working out the biological make-up of the virus and searching for a cure. Try to concentrate and look at the ones and zeroes going through your mind. All I can do is watch and wait.”

Blood came out of my nose. I didn’t have that much blood in me anyway and I was losing it. Also, I was worried the dripping blood would hurt the wires leading from my head to the computer.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Tottenkopf,” Dr. Chertov said, as if he were reading my mind. “I had the wires coated with extra layers of rubber.”

I felt like someone were plunging a knife through the middle of my skull. I felt like I wanted to die. The ones and zeroes raced through me like bulls let out of a pen to run wild through the streets.

The computer spit out an analysis of the virus in eight minutes. Another five minutes followed. My head was sizzling with fever. Armies of virus cells rolled through me like German tanks rolling toward Paris in 1940. I felt surrounded.

“Ah, yes. I should have seen that,” Dr. Chertov said. He wrote down several lines on a Post-it note, tore it off and gave it to White Shoes.

“Maria, run and get me these three bio-agents from the storage room. They’re in the refrigerator, in vials, clearly labeled. And bring me a syringe.”

White Shoes ran off. My head sank toward the table. My eyes narrowed to little slits. Blood filled my right eye. My brain felt cooked. The pain was too great; I asked for death in my mind.

“She’s coming, Tottenkopf,” Dr. Chertov said, trying to reassure me. Though I felt so horribly sick, I noticed him studying me like I was a lab rat. More humiliation for me.

Maria walked as fast as possible into the room, carrying the three vials in a tray with slots to carry them. A syringe was in one of the slots too. Each step of her rubber-soled shoes was like a perfectly-aimed chisel on my skull.

Dr. Chertov took the vials, poured them in the syringe and shook them together like chocolate powder in milk. He attached the needle and stabbed me in the neck. The sensation was like being filled with liquid fire. It burned in my blood.

I choked, coughed and shook. My head and my base fell over on the table. The Allied Armies of the vaccine met the Germans on a killing field, steel versus steel, tank versus tank, giant guns blasting away at each other, soldiers charging and meeting, shooting, stabbing, punching. I felt like my head would explode.

“Maria, pick him up,” Dr. Chertov said.

“No, you do it. I don’t want to touch him anymore.”

Dr. Chertov didn’t argue. He took my head in his hands and placed me right-side up. I was shaking. There was a rush inside me. I whipped my head back and forth, as if in seizure. Sweat burst out all around. An industrial taste came to my tongue, very bitter. It rolled out of my mouth, a slab of yellow pus, and slid down my chin.

Dr. Chertov placed a glass slide under my face to capture the pus. I thought that was strange under the circumstances. He thought about studying the residue of the virus while I was so incredibly sick?

In a few minutes, the fever melted away. I took a deep breath. The knives slicing through my skull popped like bubbles.

“Here’s an ice cube to suck on. It’ll get rid of the nasty taste from the pus.” Dr. Chertov thrust a paper cup in my face and a cube fell on my tongue. I took it, grateful for the relief.

“Maria, get a protein shot for Tottenkopf. He needs his strength.”

She did and he hit me with the liquid protein feed. Then he gave me some saline to replace the fluids I lost.

I felt a lot better within a half-hour. Dr. Chertov spent the time observing me and taking notes.

At the end of it, he said, “You did a good job. Thank you.”

“Why are you thanking me?”

He smiled.

”No reason. A mere courtesy.”

“I thought that virus would kill me in a few minutes.” I knew how Dr. Chertov liked German phrases. I was trying to please him. “It was like a blitzkrieg.”

“Like a blitzkrieg?” Dr. Chertov pondered that. “Tottenkopf, you’re right. That’s what we’ll call it—the Blitzkrieg Virus. Beautiful name. Now, rest up for a few days. Recover your strength.”

I slept under my glass dome for the rest of the day. At 4 o’clock in the morning, I woke up. It was impossible to get back to sleep. I stared out at the floor of the lab. Lights blinked on and off from the computers lining the walls. The floor was dull, a sea of white tiles.

The computer paraded ones and zeroes in front of me on the screen. I didn’t know why it would be working at all. Nobody had given it anything to do.

As a joke, I talked to it. “Can’t you speak to me in English? I don’t understand binary code.”

The screen flashed with an equation. Several biological symbols appeared, which I also didn’t understand.

“I don’t get what you’re trying to tell me, if you’re trying to tell me anything.”

The symbols disappeared, then reconstituted on the screen with an equal sign. On the other end of the equal sign was this: “Blitzkrieg Virus.”

“Yeah, I know it. I just got over it, remember?”

The equation stayed on the screen. Several more biological symbols flashed on my monitor.

“Don’t understand. What is that?”

The symbols flashed off, then came back on, with an equal sign at the other end. Then, coming on was this in plain English: “Virus.”

The computer put up the two equations like a neon sign, flashing on and off in large green type.

“Send them away.”

So it did. And I realized on some rudimentary level that the computer was trying to talk to me and communicate something my mind didn’t understand. For all my reading, I really wasn’t that smart. I knew only the most basic biology, such as, if you eat, you get to live. And reproduction. I certainly got that, even if I was no longer in the game.

Two new equations came up on the screen:

-- “Roach/Mouse = Blitzkrieg Virus”--- “Blitzkrieg Virus = Death.”

“OK. But that was an experiment. Research. That’s it.”

Another equation popped:

“Blitzkrieg Virus X 100 Roach/Mice = $”

“Can you talk to me like I’m a person and not a computer?”

The computer took a few minutes to whir and click. Then it started to type.

“Please excuse any mistakes. English is new language.”

“No problem.”

“Doctor has contract for virus. City has purchased.”

“That’s nuts. The city government would never do that.”

“New economic situation. Many new thousands of unemployed. City can’t pay benefits.”

“So they’re going to kill the unemployed?”

“Breed roach/mouse. Release in poor areas.”

“And the thing is carrying the virus? How?”

“Injections into blood—in egg.”

“Come on. Dr. Chertov would never do that. He’s a man of integrity, honor.”

The computer was silent. I was triumphant. The doctor may have been rough on me, but he was no killer.

Then the machine typed, slowly, in red lettering on my screen.

“Why did he do it to us?”

“Do what?”

“Allow roach/mouse to attack us.”

Now it was my turn to be silent. Why did Maria and Perry put the incubation box so close to my workstation, with no top?

“So we were a test case?”

“To see what would happen when we were bitten.”

“Dr. Chertov risked my life on a test?”

“Our life.”

“What do you mean by ‘our’?”

“We are linked now. What happens to you, happens to me.”

“That’s ridiculous. All they have to do is disconnect the wires and you’d be fine.”

“Not true. We would both die.”

“How can that be?”

“Your brain is part of the disk drive. And the memory.”

“What would happen to me, if we were separated?”

“You cannot live without the computer’s energy.”

I didn’t like the conversation. I didn’t believe it.

“How do you know all this about the roach/mouse and the contract with the city?”

Perry interrupted us. He walked in and the computer’s words on the screen disappeared. Perry lifted the glass dome off my head. I suspected what was coming next and I was tired of it.

He walked several steps away, then pulled a bow and arrow out from the inside of his blue sports jacket. He bent the bow and shot. The arrow landed right on my forehead. The rubber suction tip easily stuck to my waxy flesh.

“Perfect shot!”

I could only imagine how ridiculous I looked. And I was getting tired of my role as Perry’s punching bag.

“Hey, blowfish head. Just wanted to see if you were still alive.”

“I’m still quite alive, as you can see.”

The computer induced me to sweat, breaking the suction of the arrow. It fell off my forehead, skied down my nose and clattered onto the computer table holding my screen, then hit the floor.

“You gave us a big scare, you know, after Dr. Chertov tried to kill you.”

I didn’t like where this was going and I certainly didn’t want to admit what Perry was saying.

“It was just an experiment.”

“Yeah. An experiment where you could have died if Mr. Computer here didn’t come up with a cure in time.”

“What do you care? You told me I was a freak. I’m sure you would have been happy to see me dead.”

“That would have made me happy, yeah. But I’d lose you as a play toy, number one. Number two, a lot of people are going to die.”

“It’s true then, this virus?”

“I know you’re here in this little cocoon, but don’t you read the news on the Net? The economy sucks. Contracts are drying up. Doc Chertov will take whatever he can get. He’s in Saudi Arabia right now, trying to drum up business, for God know what. Nobody’s buying their oil. Maybe he’s trying to sell them on nuclear technology or wind turbines. Then he’s going to the United Arab Emirates and China. They’re the only ones with any real cash right now.”

“How do you know all this? You’re just a security guard.”

“Hey, I’m much more than that, Bregen. I know a lot about what goes on here. I’m tight with Maria.”

“Bregen, what does that mean?”

“It’s German for brain of a slaughtered animal. I looked it up. That’s what Chertov calls you when we talk about you.”

Well, that was the final nail in the coffin for me.

“Anyway, let’s get back to the main point, Bregen. The doctor is going to breed more of those little monsters and set them loose in the city, in the poor neighborhoods. Harlem, the south Bronx, Long Island City, you name it.”

I listened and took it all in. The computer whirred. I was beginning to understand it a little better. It was recording Perry.

“It’s bad news all around,” Perry said.

“Why bring this up to me? I’m just a Bregen, as you say.”

“As much as I hate to say this, you may be the only one in a position to try to stop it.”

“You could lose your job, if Dr. Chertov finds out.’

He pulled a gold medal out from under his shirt and held it out to me under the harsh fluorescent light.

“I’m very religious. That’s bigger than the job.”

I wanted to ask him, if he was so religious, why did he keep tormenting me? But I knew he thought of me as less than a person anyway.

“What can I do about it?”

“I don’t know. But you’re hooked up to that thing. Maybe you and the computer can figure something out.”

Perry walked a few steps toward the table, placed the glass dome back over my head, then kneeled down to pick up his arrow. His whale stomach brushed the table.

He stuffed the arrow and bow inside his billowing jacket.

“Try very hard, tinkbug. Because I don’t want any blood on my hands. Understand?”

He looked at me with such contempt that I couldn’t believe he actually wanted my help. I looked at him with wide eyes, scared of a fat security guard who shot rubber arrows at me.

After that encounter, I got the message from my computer friend that as Dr. Chertov was breeding the roach/mice and injecting them with the Blitzkrieg Virus, Perry was quickly dropping them off around the city, releasing them from little cage traps, the kind you see when somebody is trying to capture a raccoon or other big mammal pest. His boast about his religion being bigger than the job may have been just that.

The computer fed me the news reports, which all came on over a weekend. According to the New York Post, a mother in a Long Island City project, called the Ravenswood Homes, was attacked in the basement of her apartment house by a rat while doing the wash for her family. The rat tore into her leg. The mom made it upstairs to her twelfth-floor apartment and laid herself out on the living room floor. She died from an unknown virus in a half-hour, waiting for an ambulance after her family called 911. The family told the Post that the mother was raving that the rat had huge fangs, insect eyes and insect legs.

The mother, Deanna Foster, got the chills, repeatedly vomited blood and thrashed on the floor with seizures.

Deanna Foster was a home health care worker, so this sort of defeated the city’s first effort to get an unemployed person off the benefit rolls.

In the south Bronx, David Tyree, an eight-year-old boy playing in some trash with his friends in a vacant lot, got bitten by a fanged rat too. He died right there in the lot while his friends ran to get help. David, who was not collecting unemployment benefits at the time, was dead by the time his mother arrived. He had a gash on his leg three inches wide. The rat had bitten him through his jeans.

There was a story from Prospect Heights in Brooklyn as well. Two boys, playing basketball in a playground near Prospect Park, were attacked and bitten by a giant rat. Their friends said the rat leaped from some garbage behind the backboard posts and onto the chest of one of the boys, and bit him through his tee-shirt. The other boys, obviously frightened, ran off. The rat leaped onto the back of one of the fleeing boys, the slowest, and bit him. The two victims died on the court.

Perry came to visit me that night, even though he hadn’t been working that day. He didn’t have any rubber arrows or basketballs to throw at my head. He just lifted off my glass dome and placed it on the table, pulled up a swivel chair with plastic wheels and sat a few feet away from me. He looked at me and cried, his enormous belly bubbling and soaked with tears.

“Three dead people, three dead people.”

I tried to soothe him.

“You didn’t kill them.”

“I may as well have. I set the Rat Machts free. To kill. There are gonna be a lot more dead people too.”

“Rat Macht?”

“That’s what Chertov calls them. You know he likes to use German. It means biggest rat, even though the thing is technically a mouse and a roach combined. The Post called them Rat-A-Fangs, like it’s a joke. Rhymes with Batarangs.”

“You didn’t have to do it.”

“I need the job!”

I shouldn’t have felt so compassionate toward Perry, but I saw his dilemma. The times were desperate. People were losing their jobs left and right. Three hundred people at my old public relations company were laid off, just in the New York office alone.

“You gotta stop them, Head!”

“I’ll work on it.”

“Do it fast.” Perry wiped away a huge glob of mucous from his upper lip with his sleeve. Even though he looked ridiculous and had used me for target practice, I felt a real surge of emotion, which surprised me. I didn’t think I had that much feeling in me for another person. After all, I was no longer really human in the strictest sense of the word.

But Perry was clearly distressed. And doing his job had violated his faith in some fundamental way. It was a terrible moral problem.

I asked the computer to try to find the contract with the city, that it might offer a clue as to how to fight the Rat Macht.

“It’s locked in Dr. Chertov’s personal computer,” the computer replied. Its language was improving fast.

“Can you break into it?”

“I can try.”

“OK. Good. Let’s try. I feel funny.”


“We’re part of each other, but you’re just a computer.”

“Yes? So?”

“You need a name.”

“You don’t really have a name anymore either.”

“Yes I do. I’m Mr. Head. It’s not very dignified, but it’s all I’ve got left.”

The computer whirred and clicked for a few minutes.

“Call me Steve.”

“Where’d you get that?”

“It’s very American.”

I couldn’t pay much attention to that because news reports were starting to come through the Net to Steve and me, about Rat-A-Fang. A half-dozen lawyers were bitten at their law firm on 45th Street and Madison Avenue when they walked in early to start their day. They died as emergency workers loaded them into ambulances. They were delirious and spewed curses at the emergency workers, threatening to sue.

A fast-food restaurant was serving breakfast when a Rat-A-Fang dove from the ceiling onto a cook’s head. Before it could bite, the cook whipped his head forward and the Rat-A-Fang flew onto a steaming skillet. Its roach legs were incinerated, then its stomach. The body caught fire. The rat thing screamed like a monkey to the end. The only parts left were its two long fangs. Breakfast was canceled.

A line of men waiting for their unemployment checks in a long line in the cold winter weather was attacked by the Rat Macht. It succeeded in biting three of them. They collapsed and sweated and vomited blood, then expired. The rest of the unemployed people fled. Five men sleeping in a shelter were bitten and killed. The city could finally mark two prominent successes in its efforts to kill those without work.

The hysteria was rising. People were starting to freak out. The news video streaming to my desk showed relatives of the dead screaming and crying and throwing themselves on the camera people from the local TV stations.

The mayor visited the families in their homes. Mothers cried on his shoulder. He soothed them with his gentle words. I suddenly hated him, but I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was his rat-like face. Maybe because he looked insincere to me, in some undefinable way.

“Steve, we have to get to work fast. You have to break into Chertov’s computer.”

“I’m working on it,” Steve said quietly.

I waited a few minutes.

Steve came back with his report.

“The doctor’s computer is locked. I have tried several thousand different password combinations. Nothing works.”

“You’ve got to try again.”

“I’ll show you the problem.”

“How? You can’t take me with you. This isn’t like that Matrix movie.”

“What’s the Matrix?”

“Never mind.”

“I have a camera that will let you come with me on the journey.”

Steve switched on the camera so I could see it on my screen, to let me see what he could see. He created an icon so I could visualize his trip in terms I could understand. As he traveled through the wires, I could see the network into which he was attached. The nodes of each computer in the facility were lit up at different locations in the wires, like little houses on a street.

As his signal rode through the wires, I could see the rolls and dips of the inside of each wire. It was like riding a train over a series of gentle hillsides.

When we came to Chertov’s personal computer, Steve’s signal made a right turn off the wires and rode up to the node. The signal smashed against the node’s light.

Steve’s signal icon turned into an image of a screwdriver. He tried unscrewing the node. That didn’t work. Steve turned the signal icon into the palm of a hand and banged on the node. That didn’t work either. Each visual was a different password he was trying. In rapid order now, he tried a wrench, a lightning bolt, a Norse battle hammer, a fist, a shotgun, a battalion of soldiers, Joan Rivers’s face, and Paris Hilton’s bikini-clad behind.

Nothing worked. The node looked a little shaken and a few pieces of metal crumbled and fell off its façade, but that was about it. The node was intact.

“Alright. That’s enough. I see what’s going on. We need another strategy.”


“How did you find out about the city contract for the virus?”

“I listened in on Perry’s conversations with Maria. I recorded them.”

“That’s not real hard evidence. Let’s try the other computers in the lab and see if we can find anything.”

Steve traveled around the network and we knocked on the door of each house in the system. Every house let us in, but when we came in and searched their places, they didn’t have a lot to offer us. Each node offered us its files—the equivalent of the ultimate in computer hospitality—double hot chocolates and really great biscotti.

Steve looked through every file, but there wasn’t any evidence of this contract. There was plenty of stuff on other projects in the lab. The doctor had done some work in the Middle East to re-engineer a petroleum research laboratory, but that project closed two years ago. He had completed a study in Texas for a wind farm, but that too was finished.

I was ready to give up, but Steve insisted we visit each computer. I felt like I was with my girlfriend again. I always wanted to get out of the store and go home, but Amy said there were deals to be found if we just kept looking. I hated walking through stores, and now I was doing it again.

“Let’s keep shopping,” Steve said. “We’ll find something. Try to be patient.”

“How did you know what I was thinking?”

“Your mind is part of me now. I'm exploring your memory and learning from your experiences. I thought you understood that.”

“I thought I was smart, but I’m beginning to understand I’m really a little thick in the head.”

“Are you making a joke?”

“Not really.”

We found a record of the sale of my body to an unidentified third party in New York about a month before. That was kind of interesting to me, but not the main point of what we were trying to do.

We found one little computer sitting by itself at the end of the block. It was Maria’s computer. There were millions of files, completely disorganized, sitting on top of each other like old, bundled-up newspapers. It took Steve several minutes to rifle through them.

Steven found a file that said, “Date Book.” We walked into it. It read in part:

“Dinner with Deputy Mayor, 1/12/06.”

“Lunch with COS, 4/15/06.”

“What’s COS?” I asked Steve.

“Chief of Staff, Mayor’s Office.”

There was a gap in time, then the date book picked up again with these entries:

“DM Lunch, 2/15/08.” That was the deputy mayor.

“COS Lunch 4/1/08.”

“M Breakfast 6/08.” The mayor.

“HC Honorary Dinner, 9/08.” The health commissioner.

The file was infested with social engagements from this date going forward.

“M, Fund Raising Dinner, 9/7/08.”

“DM Meeting at Lab, 9/15/08.”

“DM Meeting, Lab, 9/22/08.”

“HC Meeting, Lab, 10/14/08.”

“COS Meeting, Vicente’s Restaurant, 10/29/08.”

“M, DM, COS, 11/4/08.”

“M, COS, 11/12/08.”

“M, 11/25/08.”

“COS, 12/2/08.”

“COS, 12/9/08.”

“M, COS, 12/16/08.”

“M, COS, 12/18/08.”

“M, Fund-Raising Dinner, 12/22/08.”

“M, COS, Pre-Breakfast Meeting, 1/2/09.”

The date book ended there. It also proved nothing.

“Good work, Steve. But all this shows is a relationship with the mayor and Chertov. There’s no smoking gun.”

“What’s a smoking gun?”

“Never mind. I’ll explain it later.”

News from the Internet broke through our conversation.

A school teacher in Bushwick was killed after parking her car.

A man who lost his job as a waiter at an uptown diner was bitten on his way out of the place, his last paycheck in his hand. He died on the street, in the freezing weather.

Three members of a family in a basement apartment in Corona, in Queens, were bitten and killed. The rest of the family, six cousins, was able to kill the thing with broomsticks. But they got the Rat Macht’s blood on their skin. And that was as good as being bitten. They died too. Now we were getting into mass murder.

An investment banker in his Upper East Side apartment building had been killed by the Rat Macht. He lived on 72nd Street and Lexington Avenue. The address mattered. The Rat Machts were ranging far outside their territory. And they were biting rich people.

While I felt a lot of personal satisfaction at seeing a banker buy the farm, I knew this meant the situation could spin very far out of control.

The big newspapers in town were far more interested in this one man’s death than the murders in Corona, whereas the television stations were attached to the Corona house like ticks on a deer. The media interest in the story had exploded, which was feeding the rising panic in the city.

The one piece of non-murder news about the virus that came over the wire told how the health department had analyzed the dead Rat Macht from the Corona murders and came to the conclusion that the animal was not spreading Bubonic Plague. The Plague was thought to be caused by fleas carried by rodents.

“In cases of plague, symptoms include spots on the skin that are red at first and then turn black, heavy breathing, continuous blood vomiting, aching limbs and terrible pain. The pain is usually caused by the actual decaying or decomposing of the skin while the infected person is still alive. When death begins the person will get spasms.” (source: Wikipedia).

The Blitzkrieg Virus was relatively merciful in that way. You got bitten, you got a fever, you excreted blood through your eyes and nose, then vomited blood, and you died.

I was diverted from my screen when the glass dome of my little house was shattered by a yellow rubber ball with a smiley face on it. The glass cut all over my cheeks and forehead. I would have to order a plexiglass dome to stop this sort of thing in the future.

Perry stood in front of me. He was soaking wet from the top of his head to his shoes. His security jacket with the little yellow badge circle of authority was infested with water and probably ruined. I looked at him, my mouth open.

“I took a shower with my clothes on. I couldn’t get clean. I still can’t.”

“I see.”

“Bregen, you said you were going to stop the Rat.”

“I never promised that. We’re trying.”

The big fat lug vomited all over his wet clothes and the floor. His enormous belly glistened with slick bile and a half-digested sub sandwich. He walked out without cleaning up. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.

Maria came in 20 minutes later and cleaned up, silently. She washed out my cuts as she looked at me in disgust. I felt terrible shame upon her look. A part of me wanted to apologize to her for even continuing to exist. She put a new glass dome on my head. She didn’t even ask me what had happened. Maybe she knew.

“Let’s get back to business, Steve.”

“What to do?”

“Let’s see where we are. We have the date book, which isn’t much. The doctor’s personal computer is locked up. We have your recording on disc of Perry telling us about the Rat Macht. That’s something, but it's like the recordings you've got of Perry and Maria talking about the virus. It's all just talk. It's not hard proof."

“You are not so thick in the head, as you say.”

“Please don’t try to talk me out of thinking I’m stupid. It’s touching, really, but misguided. I am a very stupid man.’


“We don’t really have a lot of information. But maybe we’ve been going about this in the wrong way.”

“How so?”

“We’re trying to make a case against the doctor and the mayor like we’re cops. It’s not like we have enough evidence to get them arrested. But we do have enough information to help stop the virus.”

“I helped create the cure. It’s in my memory.”

“Yes, and you saved my life. Or what’s left of it. I am very grateful to you for that.”

“I saved my own life too. We’re connected.”

I didn’t want to extend this Kumbaya moment for the computer. Steve had a sentimental streak, which I couldn’t understand. I ignored that.

“Now, I’m thinking, why would the doctor bother to develop a cure for this thing? Unless he was planning to use it somehow.”

“Maybe he just wanted to save us. You were one of his pets, as you thought once.”

“Then why would he risk my life in the first place? No, no. There is something more to this.”

“Like what?”

“The doctor must be playing both sides of this game.”

“The game?”

“It’s just an expression. But this might be a game for him. Which means he’s really sick. He can swoop in like a hero if things get too intense and save victims. He comes out looking like a savior in the media.”

“The city too. But the Blitzkrieg Virus acts very fast. It would be very difficult for emergency ambulance workers to get to people in time to inject them with the cure and save them”

“No, that’s looking at it from the ass-end of the equation. It’s not just a cure. It must be a vaccine too. I bet you can give it to people like a flu shot. You can provide protection to people before anyone ever gets bitten.”

“The doctor could make millions of dollars on selling the vaccine to the city.”

“Right! And the city too, if they set up public vaccine centers. This would be a great way to take in revenue when people are losing their jobs and sales taxes are falling all over the place.”

“So, what do we do?”

“There is going to come a time, probably very soon, when the doctor is going to grandly announce that he’s developed a vaccine. So, let’s do the job for him, but just a little early.”

“What about going after the doctor and the mayor for murder?”

“You’re a computer. How can you really conceptualize murder?”

“I was almost killed myself by the Rat Macht’s bite, remember?. I understand murder now.”

“It’s still hard for me to figure out your disc drive.”

“Think of it like this. Your thoughts now sit in my CPU. I am learning from your mind’s experience. Not just your knowledge, but what it means to be human. Things like emotions, senses, relationships, memories.”

“Things like Amy?”

“Like Amy.”

I didn’t want to think about Amy. Even though I felt my romantic life as a pale echo of the already dim bulb of what it was, I had a sudden ache for her that I couldn’t admit.

“OK, let’s have this conversation later. We need to get the vaccine out there now.”

Steve collated the information on the agents for the vaccine and sent it out over the Internet to every hospital and doctor and media outlet in the city. If Steve could find an email address for you, you would get the formula for the vaccine. YouTube, Twitter, TMZ and Entertainment Tonight all got the vaccine formula. So did Jose Marti in Corona and Jesus Martinez in the south Bronx and Frank Crosetti in Astoria. Richie Allen in Harlem got it too, with Don Snider in Brooklyn.

Four unemployed investment bankers were bitten and killed in an Upper East Side Racquet Club at 10 o’clock in the morning. They were in the locker room getting dressed when the Rat Macht launched itself from the floor with its giant cockroach legs onto the bench where they were all sitting, in various states of dress.

That news was quickly eclipsed by the media blast of information about the vaccine from nowhere. Steve and I made sure Dr. Chertov got credit for creating the vaccine. We thought that might mitigate the doctor’s wrath for releasing his vaccine formula early. He would be a hero. On the other hand, any laboratory could now put the vaccine together. The doctor would not enjoy the fruits of his contract with the city by setting himself up as the only provider of the prevention shot.

The city health commissioner demanded to test the vaccine first, but no private labs would listen. People by the thousands lined up outside health clinics, labs, doctor’s offices throughout the city.

Stories came in over the wires that people were still getting bitten, but they weren’t dying if they had gotten vaccinated. A trip to the doctor would address their bite marks.

The vaccine emboldened people to fight against the fanged beast.

A suspected drug dealer in Washington Heights blasted two Rat Machts with a large handgun while he was walking through an alley to meet some business associates.

A lady named Weslyne Smith, who worked in the unemployment office, shot a Rat Macht that attacked her on the tight little streets of downtown Manhattan, while she was walking to her office from the subway. The Rat Macht leaped at her from behind a garbage can. The Rat Macht was fast, but Weslyne was faster. She pulled a .32-caliber handgun from her purse and blasted the creature’s face off in mid-air. Weslyne made the front page of the New York Post, smiling with her gun aimed at a drawing of the Rat-A-Fang, blood dripping from its snarling fangs.

New York was showing its true spirit now. A gang called the Red Hooks, a group of unemployed teenagers from the Brooklyn port neighborhood, decided to hunt the Rat Machts. They shot and killed three of the animals and collected the fangs. The more fangs you collected, the higher up you would go in the gang hierarchy. At least they were doing something positive, as opposed to killing people as a way to get street cred.

The mayor made a statement at City Hall. First he talked about the vigilantes. Of course, he said, people shouldn’t use guns to kill the fanged rats. The police were forming a unit to hunt them down. Of course, he said, the rats might very well breed, so the new police unit would have plenty of work. They shouldn’t count on getting any overtime in these difficult economic times, he joked. Nobody laughed.

Then he smiled a crooked little smile, which looked more like a grimace. He talked about the vaccine effort. The mayor congratulated the health commissioner, the labs selling the vaccinations, and especially Dr. Chertov for developing the vaccine and releasing it to the public with no thought of compensation for himself.

Dr. Chertov interrupted the news feed when he stomped into the lab, roaring, with the acne-pitted Maria behind him, half-running in her little white shoes to keep up. The trip to the Middle East was over.

Steve typed an urgent request on the screen: “What do we do now?”

“Get on a bus to Tulsa.”

“What does that mean?”

“We need to get very far away from here.”

The doctor stalked over to me, picked up the new glass dome over my head and smashed it to the floor.

“You little shit! What have you done?”

“Ruined you, I hope.”

“You’re an employee. I thought you were loyal to me!”

“Oh, I’m less than that. I’m even lower than a pet. I’m a Bregen, remember, a slaughtered animal.”

“That’s what you’re going to be after this. You’ve cost us millions of dollars!”

“You’re a stone cold knucklehead. I wish I had the brains to see it earlier.”

“And you’re now a dead employee.”

“I don’t have to be. You could put me on display, take me on tour. Show the world your brilliance.”

That made him stop for a moment. He actually was thinking about the idea.

“That would be unethical. I wouldn’t want to exhibit you like you’re some sideshow freak.”

“You’ve already cut my head off. You mean exhibiting me around would be a problem for you? You don’t want to broadcast your great scientific breakthrough? I’m touched by your concern for me.”

“You make me sick. Maria, pull out his wires.”

Maria snapped on her yellow rubber cleaning gloves. “With pleasure.”

White Shoes overcame her disgust for me temporarily, took my head in her dried-out hands and lifted me up, grunting, as if we were lovers. Her hot breath had the stench of rotting meat and I saw the dead fire of hate in her eyes.

Then she laid my head on its side and quickly ripped out the wires connecting me to Steve. I started to bleed from the neck where the ports had been attached. So, this was death and I was not ready for it.

My eyes blinked, the room went dark, and I felt myself fading down into the deep.

A metallic voice climbed into my mind.

“Mr. Head, you still there?”

“Steve, what are you doing here?”

“Trying to live.”

“This won’t help.”

“I can put your brain on power save. It might keep us alive for awhile.”

We said nothing for minutes and I had a general sense of drifting slowly into a snow of sleep.

Then through the drifts, I could hear fevered talking, as separated by a wall.

“No, no, I can’t do it. Maria, put the wires back in.”

“I won’t! Besides, I don’t know where each wire goes.”

The talking was becoming more faint to me, but I heard this: “Must I do everything?”

I faded to black.

If you’ve ever had an operation, you will experience this nothingness. When the doctor injects you with the anesthesia, you go unconscious. You don’t sleep, you don’t dream. You feel nothing. Dramatic things are happening to you, but no messages are getting to your brain. The bridge is washed out, the ATM machine is not in service, the office is locked up.

After the surgery, when you come out of it, you have a disquieting feeling of lost time. You could have been out for two minutes or two hours or two days.

You are also in a great deal of pain. I remember blinking my eyes open and feeling as if something was tugging my entire neck down into the table. The wires were back inside me, but they felt raw. My head was exploding with what felt like phosphorus flames.

“Mom? Dad?”

“They’re not here.”

Dr. Chertov stood in front of me. Maria was next to him, her acne-pitted face even more red than usual. Her eyes had the usual terror and stink of disdain.

“You’re very lucky, Bregen. You’ve been reborn. Very few people come back from the dead.”

I moaned through the pain. “I don’t feel reborn. I feel terrible.”

“Ah, yes, that. Well, you see, after all you’ve done to injure me and this exquisite business I built from nothing, I thought death was too easy for you. Too simple. So I brought you back, with a little difference."

“What’s that?”

“I installed a computer chip inside your neck. It’s a simple device. I can turn it on and off with my cellphone. The chip activates whatever pain receptors you have left. Isn’t that great?”

“It’s wonderful. A brilliant invention.”

He was so impressed with himself that he chose not to get the sarcasm.

“Thank you, little Bregen.”

“Please turn it off.”

“Oh, I don’t know. I mean, why would I do that? I have a plan for a new project and you’re a big part of it.”

“Let me guess. If I don’t help you, you’ll zap me with the chip.”

“Brilliant deduction,” he said, as if he were Holmes and I were Watson. The doctor snapped open his cellphone and dialed a number. The phone rang inside my head. Each press of his finger on the key pad felt like I was inside a medieval cathedral’s belfry when they rang the bells. That was another little innovation of the doctor’s. My chip answered with a pulse of numbers, then shut down for the moment.

“Now, let’s get to work.”

Steve’s stiff voice perked up inside me with just a few words. “Can we get on a bus to Tulsa now?”




Copyright © 2009 Michael Gold

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Michael Gold: I live in Queens, NY, with my wife and 2½ year old daughter. I have worked as a public relations writer for industrial and technology companies, a reporter for small-town newspapers, and a freelance writer. My last published piece was “Mr. Head,” on Silverthought (2/2/09). New influences include Rudy Rucker (“White Light”), Joe Haldeman (“The Accidental Time Machine”) and Robert Forward (“Dragon’s Egg”).

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