“Well, I appreciate your kindest regards, gentlemen—but I must get back to work,” he said graciously, standing up to leave the café, affixing his silk top hat and holding his calfskin gloves.
“Oh, don’t leave yet, COVID,” Flu said. “You’ve been so busy this past year, and we haven’t heard all of your plans for the coming one. How many more political careers will you topple? How many more economies will you destabilize?” Flu laughed, pausing only to sip his sherry. “You’ve made quite a name for yourself, my boy.”
“I agree with Flu, COVID,” proclaimed the Manchurian Plague. “I’ve been so impressed with your slow and steady progress. For the first substantial plague of the 21st century, you are one for the history books, sir,” he paused. “Although your mortality rate is quite low for one of us, I do admire your long-term side effects. Quite satisfying, I would think.”
COVID suppressed a smile at the compliment. “At first I thought the lingering pains, breathing problems, and brain fog were bugs, but now I look at my side effects as features.”
They all laughed. Microbes of their caliber understood each other well.
“As I am the first—and the deadliest—plague of the 20th century, let me say we are proud of you, COVID. You with your respiratory problems . . .”
“I learned how to be a rare pneumonic disease by studying you, Manchurian Plague,” COVID said graciously. “I just wish I had your mortality rate.”
“One hundred percent!” the Manchurian Plague grandly announced, grinning from ear to ear. “There was nothing like it at the time. Well, maybe the London Plague. But northeastern China will never be the same. My legacy is firm,” he said solemnly, and a little misty-eyed.
“Well, I must be going—” COVID waved for a second time.
“COVID! COVID! COVID!” yelled a few of the lower class microbes from the bar, toasting him with their beer mugs.
COVID sighed. It was simply awful to be famous sometimes.
“Sit down, COVID,” Flu said, patting the seat next to him. “And ignore that trash. You should know Meningitis flew in from Nigeria to see you. He should be here shortly.”
COVID reluctantly sat back down.
“Why is Meningitis late?” asked the Manchurian Plague. “That’s not like him.”
“Headache,” Flu replied.
“It’s been a rough few decades for him. He’s been ruthlessly pursued in his work,” COVID said.
“WHO’s been after him?” Flu asked.
“WHO, indeed, and the Federal Ministry of Health, UNICEF, Médecins Sans Frontières, UNDP, the International Red Cross . . . it’s overkill, if you ask me,” COVID replied. “But what’s a U-shaped mortality curve going to do? It’s not like you, Flu. You once took out the strongest and heartiest. The rest of us normally just pick off the very old and the very young.”
“COVID! COVID! COVID!” the lesser microbes tried to get COVID’s attention again.
“Don’t encourage them,” Flu whispered conspiratorially. “Polio and Smallpox just aren’t what they used to be. Their glory days are far, far behind them.”
“Flu,” COVID suggested, “you should be a little more charitable to Smallpox. I remember when you and Measles and he took out about 90% of the Native American population. That was some spectacular work. You were the trifecta of terror.”
“We were just old European diseases,” Flu said, trying to feign humility, but secretly proud of his long history of conquest. “No more, no less. I come around every year or so, and depending on how I feel, some years have had much better harvests than others.”
“Don’t try to play coy,” the Manchurian Plague chimed in. “The Russian Flu of 1889? The Asian Flu of 1957? The H1N1 Pandemic of 2009? All magnificent works of art.”
“And, of course, my favorite—” Flu said, egging them on.
“The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919!” they all said together, clinking their drinks.
The Manchurian Plague signaled for another round.
“You infected a third of the world right after a world war,” COVID said, in awe. “And you had Spain blamed for a disease that started in Kansas. Genius!”
“Well, if I do say so myself, I particularly liked my massive hemorrhaging and edema in the lungs. However, getting the body’s immune system to attack itself was inspired.”
“Like I said, you took out the strongest and heartiest—and all those soldiers returning home from the ‘war to end all wars’ did your transmission for you. Glorious!” COVID smiled wistfully, wondering if he’d ever get as much press as Flu did. It wasn’t a competition, not really. Still.
“Shall we talk about new strains for next year?” The Manchurian Plague asked.
“I must go, my friends—it’s been quite a night already. There is so much to do! I have to say goodnight,” COVID stood to leave a third time.
“You are not going to want to leave just now,” Flu said, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“Do tell,” COVID sat back down.
“We invited a special guest,” Flu looked at the Manchurian Plague.
“Don’t tell me—”
“Yes, we invited him. He will be here very shortly. He only stays a short time due to his aggressive nature.”
“I have to meet him,” COVID said. “If only we could combine our resources and work together . . .”
“Come now, COVID. You know that Ebola works alone.”
“Oh, you two. You tempt me,” COVID stood again. “I must go forth. There is still so many I can take. And you know how people are with us . . .”
“Of course, COVID. It’s been the same since the Plague of Justinian,” the Manchurian Plague replied. “When we come, there is always the initial governmental denial and cover up. Then there’s the predictable tedium of finding a scapegoat or some other group to blame. Then the economy comes to a standstill. Then the government finally steps in. Blah blah blah,” he waved his hand in a futile gesture. “What’s the alternative? Riots, looting, maybe a revolution. It just depends on how successful we are.”
Flu nodded. “The rich escape to the country. The poor end up in harm’s way. The fraudsters and scam artists abound, selling whatever snake oil the gullible and desperate will buy.”
“But now they are getting better with those vaccines,” the Manchurian Plague grumbled.
“Oh, we can just mutate next year,” COVID said. “I’m not too worried about it. You know, it’s the asymptomatic ones who do most of our work for us. I could never have spread this far and fast otherwise.” He paused and finished the drink he didn’t want, just to be sociable. “And every hundred years or so, humans have to relearn what mankind has known for millennia about face masks and quarantining. They are so toxic to each other!”
Flu rolled his eyes. “Humans really are quite stupid.”
“But very social creatures,” the Manchurian Plague slowly nodded. “And they rush back into public which helps us bring wave after wave of infection and death. I’m almost tired of the regularity of it all.”
COVID looked at his pocket watch and gasped. For the fifth time, COVID stood up. “My dear friends, it’s very late and I really must be going. Please give Meningitis and Ebola my best.”
Flu’s eyes opened wide, seeing the figure entering the café. “Manchurian! Is that . . .”
“It is HIM.” The Manchurian Plague answered Flu, awestruck. “I’ve never seen him in person. He’s been a personal hero to me.”
“I’m going to get his autograph!” Flu arose, fluttering and blushing in excitement. “I’ll bring him over to the table! I’m sure he’s going to want to meet you, COVID—” His words trailed away as Flu made his way to the towering dark figure.
“Manchurian, who is that?” COVID asked, curiosity absolutely piqued.
“Mr. Yersinia Pestis,” the Manchurian Plague beamed. “He’s the Black Death and took out about half of Europe in the 14th century.”
“Oh, rats,” COVID sighed. “I’d love to meet him, but it’s time I really get going.”
“Be safe,” the Manchurian Plague said. “Don’t wear a mask. Don’t socially distance.”
“Of course,” COVID turned and gave a final wave.
NOTE: The recording of this story was for Episode 12 of our podcast Read Lots Write Lots.