This is one in a series of short stories I've been writing during my own coronavirus quarantine. You can find the complete collection of fiction written especially for this blog here. My books are available on the Amazon Kindle, for sale or for reading via Kindle Unlimited.
“Thank you, Steve.”
“It’s Stephen. Sorry we don’t have the orchestra tonight. Or the theater. We’re social distancing.”
The virus looked askance. “What-evs.”
“So. Coronavirus. You’re pretty famous for something that may not even be alive.”
“Ha, ha, ha. Yes, there is dispute about that, Steve. Many scientists don’t think viruses should be classed as living. But here I am.”
“I don’t have much of anything else, Steve. No digestive system, no respiratory system, no brain at all. I’m just RNA.”
“But aren’t we all made from DNA?”
“RNA is ribonucleic acid, a messenger for DNA. It sends instructions to DNA for manipulating proteins, which are the building blocks of life. Some viruses are DNA. I’m RNA.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Just a hydroxyl. And a different base, uracil instead of thymine. And, as I said before, a different role. If DNA is the set of instructions for building something, a virus, or a human like you, RNA is like the functional specification that controls the protein construction. Also, most RNA is single-stranded. DNA is double-stranded. DNA is the foreman. I’m the guy who nails the boards up for your house.”
“So how do you reproduce?"
“Reproduction is the name of the game. That’s why I believe I’m alive and can talk to you. An RNA virus will get into a cell and hijack enzymes, creating replication factories enriched with lipids that let us create many new capsules of RNA. Once constructed in our own image, these new viruses then burst from a cell and look for more cells to infect, so they can do it again. Millions and billions served. Like McDonald’s. <laughter>
“RNA viruses are often specific, not just to a specific target host species but to a specific type of cell. Some viruses are specific to cats, some to pigeons. Some cells are specific to digestive systems, others like me to respiration. But this can change. We’re very tricksie.”
“We make a hobbit of that.” <applause and laughter> “We also have a wicked sense of humor. That’s right, wicked.” <laughter>
“So, Covid-19. How about you? I understand you originally infected bats.”
“That’s right, Steve. I was originally a bat virus. But I found a way to jump species to human beings. Then I found a way to jump from human to human. Since then it’s been like Donald Trump after the escalator ride. I’m taking over.”
“I’ll say.” <silence>
“I started in China and might have stayed there. But I caught a break. That’s because I don’t cause symptoms you might notice for several days. That time when you don't have symptoms is called the incubation period. Someone is feeling fine, but shedding virus all the time. That’s my one simple trick. Before the incubation period is over my host may have gone anywhere. From China to Hong Kong, Korea, Europe, and finally right here to New York City!” <applause>
“Thank you. You might say I’ve been killing them.” <laughter> “Not that it’s intentional. In fact. it’s counterproductive. The real trick to becoming a successful virus is not to kill the host. You can make them sick, maybe even quite sick, but if they die and the individuals around them are protected it is game over, man. You’re stuck on this bed, in this dying shell, and you die out with them.
“Fortunately, I’m extremely virulent. I can live on surfaces for days. I can float through the air for several feet before dropping to the ground. If someone sneezes, the air can pick me up and I float even further.
“It’s fun. Imagine sitting calmly in someone’s mouth, not doing anything, and suddenly you’re flying free, through the air. You reach out and latch on to your next victim. It’s exhilarating. It’s like jumping out of an airplane, being caught by another skydiver, and floating safely to the ground. Wow. Only the other skydiver dies.”
“Yes, wow. I guess that’s how you caught me.”
“That’s right, Steve. Remember you decided you just had to get out for a walk last week? And this jogger ran past you, several feet away? And you thought you were safe, but the jogger sneezed as he came up from behind you, from the pollen?”
“That’s how I did it. That jogger didn’t know he had coronavirus. He was asymptomatic. That means he had no symptoms. He was young, he was healthy, he might throw me off without noticing in a couple of weeks. But boy was he contagious. I think he infected 20 people just on that run. I love people like that.”
“So, what’s next?”
“Obviously I hope to infect others, Steve. But like I said, my goal is to become less harmful. Killing people is kind of a dead end. Get it, dead end? If I had an elbow, I’d rib you.” <light applause> “Hey, these are the yolks, folks. Laugh! <silence> “You don’t want to make me angry. I’ll jump out of this chair and get all of you if you make me angry. <fearful sounds, then laughter>
“That’s better. Anyway, like I said Steve, a virus that kills people will eventually destroy itself. It’s much better to be a virus that doesn’t kill people, a virulent virus that just leaves people feeling a bit woozy, so they will cough you up in front of their family.”
“Like the common cold? You want to be the common cold?” As usual, the great interviewer had found the crux of the matter.
“That’s right, Steve. The common cold. It’s the most successful virus in the world. You might think of the common cold as the Stephen Col-bert of viruses.”
“Cole-bear. It’s pronounced cole-bear.”
“Whatever. That’s what I want to be what I grow up. I want to be a presence, like Tom Hanks. If I wind up like Heath Ledger or Amy Winehouse I’ve failed. More talented, perhaps, but fatally flawed.”
“How can we help?”
“I don’t know that you can, Steve. I think it’s something I’ve got to figure out myself. The way a child learns how to be a responsible adult. You can nurture them, educate them, do everything possible. But ultimately it’s up to me to find my way.”
“I hope you do.”
“Someday. But I’m sorry to say it won’t be this day. I think it’s time to say goodnight.”
Norse Taniqua Shank was protecting her body with a garbage bag, had a book report cover as a face shield, and wore one of the last N95 masks from the storeroom. She knew N95 meant 5% of germs might get through, but it was better than nothing. She prayed she would survive this. Her children needed her, but for now she concentrated on the job at hand.
“Call it,” she said.
“9:54 AM,” replied Dr. Stone. He glanced briefly at the name tag. “I’m afraid Mr. Cole-bert has died.”