Thoughtless

[This one is from last year, and was just an idea I had on the way to work.  Fortunately, it seems to be totally wrong.  So far.  –M]

Before you read this: don’t think of an elephant. Do not proceed until there are no elephants in your mind.

At first, no one was particularly worried. Stay away from infected areas, they said. Take basic precautions when going out; wear jackets and long pants. Avoid anyone acting oddly. Call the police immediately if you see a victim on the move. Do not engage, do not antagonize. The news broadcasts were full of these warnings and more. They blasted us with infographics: Containing the Zombie Plague. Avoiding the Undead. Don’t Be a Victim.

This was all excellent advice, and it all worked. When a zombie popped up, whether it was found chasing shoppers in a mall or strapped into its seat on an intercontinental flight, it was quickly put down with minimal loss of life. And the plague didn’t seem to be as bad as all of the fiction had predicted. The graveyards remained quiet. It didn’t spread to animals. And not even all of those who were bitten turned, although quite a few were killed by their neighbors or even families out of an abundance of caution, so possibly some of those would have become zombies in their turn.

And yet somehow, it kept happening. Case after case occurred in wildly disparate locales. Usually, it was in a large city, but not the same large city; people all over the world just kept contracting the zombie virus, people with no clear link to each other. Males were more likely to succumb than females, but not by an overwhelmingly large margin. Young people caught it more often than old, and the affluent more than the poor. There was no difference by race or nationality, religion or region. Day after day, the number of cases kept growing, and although each zombie was stopped almost as soon as it rose, with rarely time enough to claim more than one or two victims, the news broadcasts began to take on a tone of hysteria. The Undead Menace. Baffling Virus Claims Another. Can Anything Stop the Spread?

The answer to that last, it seemed, was no. Instead, the rate of infection began to increase. People began to contract the virus with frightening regularity. With the vector still unknown, and the symptoms prior to death uncertain, every cough and sneeze became a thing of terror. Facemasks and disposable gloves became commonplace, while handshakes and fist bumps died away. Hugging someone demonstrated absolute trust. Kissing an acquaintance, even on the cheek, became totally unthinkable. And still the virus spread, its pace accelerating even in the face of these safety measures. The news was full of pictures of zombies still in their protective gear, and the headlines grew even more shrill. Tainted Facemasks! Contaminated Water Supplies! Scientists Clueless, Governments Helpless!

People fled to the countryside to escape the population density of the cities, and the virus followed them. Women began to fall ill at a greater rate than men, now, and the elderly caught up to the youth in infection rate as well. Nearly every bite victim not killed on the spot succumbed now, and yet this was still not the primary source of the disease. Countless zombies were still found barricaded inside fortified houses, trapped in cars in traffic jams, holed up in remote areas with no sign of bite, cut or injury — and yet it spread.

In the labs, scientists worked feverishly to discover the cause, in hopes that from there a cure might be created. All attempts to pass the disease on to animals failed, though. Injection, topical application, consumption; even allowing a zombie to directly bite the animal had no success. It steadfastly refused to cross any species barrier whatsoever.

Finally, one young doctor was able to infect a rhesus monkey. He did it not with cell cultures or internal infection, but with a constant stream of zombie footage, taken directly from the news networks. He exposed the monkey to countless images of zombies chasing the living and hours of video of attacks. He immersed the monkey in the horror of it all for weeks on end, and did his best to make sure that his subject understood what he was seeing as well as he could. And with this relentless barrage, the scientist finally succeeded: he came to work one morning to find the monkey dead and animate, tearing at its cage with a terrible hunger.

The vector was at last understood. The virus’s information was not genetic, but memetic. It propagated through the minds of its victims, bypassing all standard forms of transmission and piggybacking on pure information. The more you thought about zombies, the more fully the virus took control, until you were another zombie yourself.

All of our attempts to quell the virus had only hastened its spread. Every PSA, every well-meaning shot at educating the public had only started more minds thinking, giving it new, fertile ground in which to grow. And of course, the worse the problem grew, the more people worried about it.

One last blast of information went out. If you see a zombie, tell no one. Call this number, then leave the area. Read a book. Watch a show. Whatever you do, do not think about it.

Of course, this announcement brought with it another wave of zombies. In order to tell people not to think of something, you must tell them what it is that they cannot think about, and many were unable to compartmentalize this information, even at the cost of their lives. But those who could filled their thoughts with other things, meaningful events and useless trivia, and starved the memetic virus out. The news broadcasts came back, resolutely ignoring the epidemic and its attendant effects, and talked instead of politics, celebrities and the weather. And slowly, we forgot, and we rebuilt.

But we cannot afford to forget entirely. We must have the information saved, in case it occurs again. A billion lives could be saved by correct action the next time around, and so this story must be passed on to those who can learn it, and not think about it.

Don’t think about the elephant.

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