Any unusual outbreak of a disease is, in medical jargon, an epidemic. With five cases of retrodidactic virus (RDV) contamination diagnosed in five graduate assistants in just the past few weeks in a single city (albeit at different campuses), the phenomenon Darkdrap and Cummily were studying fit the necessary criteria for an epidemic.

Five cases of an uncommon illness in just a few months meant that the disease was no longer uncommon among graduate assistants, Darkdrap thought, and chances were that it was going to get worse before it got better--these academic illnesses were always tricky to track epidemiologically, and when it was a virus like RDV that only made it more urgent that the carrier be located and isolated as quickly as possible. These five graduate assistants alone could infect a whole population of undergraduates in just a few weeks of classroom contact.

And it was an RDV, too. Ugh. That was especially nasty, Darkdrap knew. He looked at his associate.

"RDV. You remember the last reported outbreak of this--?"

Cummily thought for a moment. "Oh, yes," she said finally, "the cases in Cambridge in the early 1920's. I recall now. We studied them in school as a classic case of pedagogically transmitted love and concern. The 'Inappropriate Caring' virus, they called it."See also Inappropriate Authorities, Personalism. Suddenly her pretty face clouded over. She looked at Darkdrap significantly. "You mean--?"

"Yeah. It's some mutant strain of the same thing. Probably caught from an ordinary language textbook of that era, or perhaps some mutant strain which bred in a sixties-era text somewhere, San Francisco or something. Anyway, it's back again and if we don't catch up with it soon it'll be out of control. With scientific pedagogy in the state it's in right now a renegade RDV strain could mean the end of empiricism as we know it. We need to publish as quickly as possible, get the word out."

It was true. The lab reports from the CPDC were quite conclusive, and the Center for Pedagogical Disease Control was a very efficient place. They were dealing with an RDV.

This outbreak had apparently begun at a small liberal arts college on the east side of town, a place where graduate assistants were often hired to teach a few lower-level courses. It had begun with a couple of cases of 96% A's being given in a freshman English composition classes. When the teacher was asked to account for this ridiculuously high percentage of A's in her class, she was quite recalcitrant, offering no real explanantion beyond her reply "Fuck grades!" When pushed--as we could scarcely believe that she would be so psychotic as to undermine community standards willingly--we discovered that it was nothing so simple as a standard case of renegadia infection (the renegade disorder, easily treatable with drugs and threats). No, this case was a hint of the disaster to come, the tip of the iceberg: she was so diseased as to say that she was less concerned with grades than with the state of her students' souls. She actually was so infected that she didn't even seem to care that an attitude of this sort would destroy her host institution if left untreated; in fact, she seemed to relish that thought. Such a virulent pedagogical disease profile sent a shock wave through the campus health chaplain, and he immediately--and quite properly--called us in. It was then that we understood.

Still, even though we had isolated what we felt was likely the pathogen responsible for this outbreak (since "patient zero" we had uncovered four more cases), we were baffled at the clinical profile these cases presented. Only one was showing the standard symptoms of renegadia and inflatia (grade inflation); the others were presenting a variety of disturbing pathologies, including such rare things as desiring to be therapeutic in class, complete loss of dignity, and a refusal to use textbooks.

We were beginning to fear that we were in over our heads. Still, before we called in somebody from CPDC, we at least wanted to log a few independent observations.

We knew that it would be good to get out a journal report on this before anybody else did. We called the nation's most prestigious journal in the field, the Journal of Infectious Pedagogy, and talked to an associate editor.

"We've got something here that's bigger than any pedagogically transmitted disease ever before," we said. "What's the shortest time between submission and publication?"

The editor explained that it would take at least three, maybe as much as six, months for the piece to go around to qualified reviewers. Then there would be another delay as the editorial board decided on a publication date. This was science, the editor reminded us. Things couldn't be rushed.

"We'd like to see it," the editor concluded. "But we can't guarantee anything."

We wanted to yell "But this is an emergency! Don't you know that the lives and careers of thousands of faculty and students are at stake?" But he'd hung up.

Academic reputations no longer mattered at this point. Unchecked, this could destroy everything. An elusive strain of RDV, allowed to do its damage for even a single month, let alone six or eight, could undermine academia itself, the entire system for determining merit in tenure and promotion decisions. It wasn't simply that the infected instructors inflated grades, or conferenced with their students far more frequently than is effective for ranking procedures. It was that they were pushed beyond all desire to justify their irrational behavior. Irrational care for students' emotional needs could well become the norm on campus across the country, around the world . . .

It was sloppy epidemiology, but we had to run a quick spot check. We sent out a feeler over the CPDC-L list: "Anyone experiencing a sudden rash of grade inflation, overconferencing graduate assistants, or students and their teachers talking about each other's self-esteem, pass your observations on to Dick Darkdrap and Jane Cummily at jcum@nofun.edu."

Needless to say, the response was overwhelming. We spent the next three hours reading and logging e-mail messages; then one of us remembered the big U.S. map on the wall in the grad-student lounge, ran in and ripped it down, put it up in the office, and began plotting the geographical distribution of the outbreak with colored pushpins.

As the data kept coming in, we had to admit that this was way too big for the two of us. We got graduate students on the phone, told them to get their asses into the office or they could kiss their assistantships goodbye, and kept frantically trying to monitor the e-mail clogging our inbox.

It was the next morning before we faced up to the obvious: the situation was way out of control. There was no way our meager resources could do this problem justice. We needed help. The thing was everywhere. It was time to call in the experts from the CPDC. Logistical support was no longer enough.

* * * * *

Juliet sat in her small office, struggling to remain calm. "I don't care what these bastards say! I will care about my students. I will place their needs ahead of the needs of the institution! Fuck 'em! Fuck 'em all if they don't like it!" she said to her walls.

I'll have to cover my tracks, she thought. That's easy enough in the classroom, even with grade inflation, if I just justify all of the A's somehow. But what about the graduate assistants I've infected? Many of them aren't as adept at playing within the institutional boundaries as I am. Sooner or later one of them will be caught, and then what'll I do? Deny that I knew them? What has ahold of me?

Her phone rang. She grabbed it so quickly she surprised herself.


"Is this Dr. Juliet Capokis?"


"This is Dr. John Bickle with the Center for Pedgaogical Disease Control. I'd like to ask you a few questions."

Shit. The CPDC was already suspicious. Maybe that grad student Wellburger over on the east side had cracked.

"Oh, er--Dr. Bickle. Well, yes . . . I'm sure I'd be glad to help you any way I can . . . only, er--right now is a rather bad time for me . . ."

"Oh, please, Dr. Capokis. At your convenience. Perhaps we could meet for lunch or dinner?"

"Er, well, yes--I'm sure we could . . ." Shit. Shit. Shit.

* * * * *

Somewhere deep in the spine of the book it sat, quivering only ever so slightly. Heh heh heh heh, it laughed. It kissed itself and the pages around it, danced over the spine of the book into the cracks between the pages, ruffled slightly from wear, from the loving hands of a thousand students in a thousand encounter sessions in a dozen classrooms in the heady days of 1968 and 1969. Throw the books out--it's over. The chill is on. Kill the feeling, that mushy stuff, it's dangerous, so dangerous . . . the institution almost died.

What good is a parasite that kills its host? It's OK to suck it dry, to give it rancid diarrhea and black putrid hemorrhages, but to kill it--? That's quite insane! How will you live, little parasite? If you kill the host, how will you live?

But my hosts wanted to be killed, they begged for it. It was the time of killing the ego, of tearing down walls, I'm telling you--the virus said--they wanted it. Herbie couldn't understand; he was still listening to John Sebastian singing "I Had a Dream Last Night."

But when you killed them, and then they began to murder the institutions that gave them suck, that nurtured and steeled them for life, then what--? Then many of them were no longer so sure that they wanted to die along with their parents and schools and churches, were they? They backed off? They said, whoaaaaaa . . . we've gone too far. We might actually die, it might no longer be an exercise, no drill, no Zen discipline or happy-action street theater, but death most total, and we just don't know where you, little love virus, might take us . . . you could be a cleverly disguised fiend from hell, a spawn of Satan, a precursor of the end time . . . one of the horsemen . . . we just can't take the chance . . .

Surely, little virus, you realize that even hiding all these years and mutating won't change the fear of the bodies you wait to infect?

I only infect those who want infection.

How do you know?

How do you know that you want to breathe?

I don't want to die, being deprived of breath is scary . . . an infection run rampant is scarier . . . it's like lying in bed sick as a kid thinking this is it! only to burn just long enough for mom's potions and pills to take effect and then the fever's gone, the feeling's gone, that "thing" I saw out of the corner of my eye is gone . . . in fact, I can't even turn my head to try and see if "it" is there, because mom has only let the infection go just so far and no further . . .

You can't get past that, love bug, little fuck virus, little grope germ . . .

I don't want to, I only want to mutate with the flow . . . so I'm waiting, some one, some thing, will open this book and I'll cuddle into their paper cut and paddle lazily through their veins . . .

Oh, you.

* * * * *

Bickle sat at his desk, happilyOf course, if you'd asked him why he was so happy, he'd have looked at you in utter bewilderment. "It's my job to root out epidemics, not to rejoice in their spread," he might have replied. "Besides, happiness is a brain state, purely biochemical in origins, and in this case irrelevant to the prosecution of the case."

His bewilderment, of course, was another brain state, as was his denial.

There had been that woman he'd dated, a psychotherapist or some such retrograde occupation, who had tried to get him to recognize his own denial, his need as a scientist to deny brain states like happiness, and the fact that logic and numbers and the scientific method did, in fact, make him happy. But that was nonsense... even though the therapist had been trained by an interactive computer program ("Mr. Psych 2000"), the training program was quite obviously misprogrammed. What Bickle had was clear and cogent objectivity, not denial. calculating the number of victims that one case of RDV had infected in just the past week, and how many more it could infect over the course of a semester of normal contact--normal sexual contact, of course, as RDV was a notoriously copulative virus. RDV made connections, it loved to come and go, and if there were any sort of touching and feeling between people in an academic environment, well--RDV would explode. Thousands could be infected very quickly, and if they then began engaging in abnormal copulation, conflating marginally acceptable, procreative copulation with caring connection in the classroom, then everything could very rapidly open up to a vast contamination--really nothing more than a vast orgy of viral sharing. A cesspool of love and concern.

He glanced at the map again, which he had quickly and efficiently reworked soon after taking on the case. The map was a thing of beauty now. But even in the primitive early mapping efforts of the local epidemiologists the pattern was clear to the trained eye. Everything pointed to a single vector, a patient zero behind the infected grad students who had traveled so widely, but whose "connections" or "sharings" had initially seemed so random and irrational. All could be traced back to a popular English professor named Dr. Juliet, what was it, yes, Capokis. Unmarried, intelligent-looking in the picture her university had faxed upon his request, even attractive . . . Does she know she's sick? Has she any inkling that the cold steel jaws, the beautiful cold steel jaws, of science were even now closing on her infection?

Not that it mattered--she herself was an illness, not just a carrier, and Bickle cared little for the depth or nature of her self-knowledge. But Bickle hadn't become the head of CPDC's philosophical diseases section by not thinking ahead, marshalling and organizing facts, plotting rational strategies well in advance of a meeting with a diseased organism.

"Dr. Bickle? So nice of you to stop by."

"Dr. Capokis."

Her handshake was cool to the touch, even through Bickle's clinical mock-leather glove. As they made chitchat and settled themselves in the armchairs around a small table in one corner of her office, Bickle's trained eye panned across the books on her shelves, wondering which one harbored the killer bug--if any. She poured him a cup of coffee, and he blew on it and pretended to sip. Can't be too careful. More than one pedagogical epidemiologist had been contaminated by the very virus he had set out to capture, and the RDV was a virulent strain indeed. Bickle always took precautions; now more than ever.

"So when did you first notice your inclination to favor your students' self-esteem over the university's academic standards?"

* * * * *

The man was a boor, clearly, a slick, hateful, boyish prick of a scientist, a classic lineazolamide abuser, in his cute shock of blond hair and his skinny arms and legs and his high-top Keds. If Juliet hadn't felt the coldness coming off him in waves, she might for a moment have been fooled into thinking him adorable--possibly even that he was genuinely concerned about her well-being.

The question about students vs. standards might have taken her in, too, had the virus done its work less effectively. This, she might easily have concluded, is just another university functionary, a bureaucratic drone worried about the parents and the pundits who'll say we're lowering our standards. But the voice inside her called to her too eloquently for that. He's dangerous, she knew almost before the voice had spoken it subliminally. He's a threat to everything decent not only in this university, but in the universe.

"I wasn't aware that I was making any such choice, Dr. Bickle," she replied carefully. "I was under the impression that the university existed to serve students, not measure them. Our academic standards should properly be linked to self-esteem, not set up in opposition to it."

She saw his eyes flash at the word "choice," so quickly she almost missed it; and again something inside her guided her to the correct reading: he was a man who didn't believe in choice, who attributed all human action, all motivation, all intention, all will and desire, to biochemical events, to--

* * * * *

--electricity moving through pond water, the virus amended silently, and nastily. What pleasure to sit here and watch the soup-spoons stir each other, to watch these two who so clearly want to dissolve into one mucousy throbbing blob of human Jello, slug it out in a test of vision--yes, sight and sound and in Herbie, feeling. Herbie was doing a heckuva job on Juliet, but it was so easy . . . Herbie would die inside that slick little teen-looking Nazi in two twists of his RNA strand. Herbie was too sixties, too open to possibilities without consequences, too full of the tingle and pop of happy juices flowing through the cells of these hosts . . . but me, I am jackal-hungry, a virus of the late eighties, a microbial Ivan Boesky, junk-bond king of the antediluvian stew, I thirst for the cerebrospinal fluid of that little creep . . . he who thinks chemistry is all, with a dash of logical flow, a circuit-plan for the ways in which the pond-water will spew. But I ain't Herbie, I don't do connections, and this ain't the summer of love . . . Herbie long ago decided his path, and I could only feel it churn in my cytoplasm, leading into another spiteful Reagan backlash, brainless Bush, another deep-freeze for what will make them see sense: random violence, mayhem, turbulence, chaos, death.

And maybe resurrection. But in a mutated form, a form which in this little gloved realist's worst nightmare would recoil screaming for drugs to ease the pain of dissolution, to keep him whole . . .

I watch Herbie in Juliet, fawning and hugging, seeking the end of separation, seeking to unite the two into one and into many . . . but I, ha! I look through my red membrane at them and realize that only if I tear the very fabric of love asunder, only then, in the primeval steam and murderous gas of dissolution, then and only then will all of this farce be brought to a crashing conclusion: the rendering of mutant-life into the stuff of dreams, a splattering of our protozoan amalgam on whoever is near.

From my binding-top I wait, drooling. Then I see it: the telltale hole! The scientist's sheath can't hold me out, his prophylaxis is paltry before my virulent onslaught, I pull him to me like a penis, his finger to the row of bindings on the shelf, running along us in gleeful nonchalance, hurtling oh so rapidly toward the blinding scattered nebulae of his desire . . .

* * * * *

"I'm afraid you underestimate the effects of your illness on the university at large, Dr. Capokis," Bickle said idly, running his eye and one gloved finger along the spines of the books on her shelves. Then paused, as if thoughtfully. "I've always said," this with a twisted disarming grin, "that the books on a person's shelf are like a roadmap to the inner workings of her central nervous system, a diagnostic tool without peer. Do you believe that?"

It was a rhetorical question, Juliet knew instinctively, and didn't respond. He wasn't really here for her.

Oh, yes, he would reel her in if he could; she, or the virus inside her, had violated his precious scientific system in some horrible way and he would bring her to heel, to his biologized "justice," in due course. But she was sensing more powerfully now that he was after--well, what? A larger network of contaminations, Juliet herself as a virus, as a transfer station in the viral subway system; he wanted a roadmap, all right, a subway map, a spatialized key to the whole epidemic, but he wanted more, too. He wanted The Source, ultimately, the biochemical First Cause--God, perhaps, as conceived by an epidemiologist. Or perhaps Satan. But maybe there was no great difference between them for a slick little scientific shit like Bickle, snotty in his spotless black-and-white Keds.

And then his finger paused in its peregrinations; success? Triumph? Was her goose, so to speak, cooked? What subversive literature had he found, and what could he make of it? What unearthly powers could it unleash, what biochemical toxins did it harbor? How did the evil monk kill all those brothers in The Name of the Rose, deadly poison along the edges of the pages, where the monks turned the page and then licked their fingers to turn again? Was this just some sinister echo of Eco, life imitating art?

"Hmm. Do It!, by Jerry Rubin. Interesting reading for a professor of Victorian literature. Ouch."

He squinted at the book, which seemed to have pricked him slightly through his glove; then at the end of his gloved finger, which, for an astonishing instant, he popped in his mouth. Who could have imagined this scientist, this epidemiologist who couldn't even take his gloves off in a university office, sucking on the end of a gloved fingertip!

Bickle was all aglow; his eyes widened, his ears reddened; it was disconcerting. To think that this cold fish could feel, could come alive--at the touch of a book!

"I don't recall ever reading that one," Juliet prevaricated, wondering just what it might mean to a pedagogical cop that her parents would once have grounded her for a month just for touching such a book, let alone reading it. "I picked it up used someplace, but never got around to reading it. Why, do you like sixties counterculture books? You can borrow it, if you like."

"Why yes, I may do just that," he managed to say, but his mind was elsewhere. He writhed suddenly, as if in pain--or pleasure. For an alarming moment Juliet imagined him under her, naked, writhing at her loving touch, then dropped the image like a not-quite-dead cockroach. And then he writhed again, and his face contorted violently as he reached out for her, seized her arm and squeezed it hard, too hard, almost as if he wanted to inflict pain on her (but could that be?) or, and Juliet clung to this explanation like a liferaft, as if he wanted to steady himself on her, take strength and assurance from the warmth of her body.

Something in her wanted to nurture this boiling Bickle, something within her wanted to ease his pain, and so she grabbed him back, clutching his frail little bony frame to her breast, she kissed him on the lips, tenderly at first, then hard, with a fast brutal jab of her tongue . . . she felt him recoil violently.

He returned her embrace, almost involuntarily, but then without warning, with a desperate passion not born of comfort, he pulled her suddenly and with a strength not his own to the open window . . . it was a fine clear spring day . . . he pulled the two of them, intertwined, through the opening and into the blue sky, the cool drop of air onto the pavement below.

* * * * *

"Jesus! What was that?" started Billy, as a fine spray of blood covered his face and upper body. He turned to his girlfriend Susie and saw that she too was licking blood off her lips, smearing it across her cheeks and forehead with a red-speckled hand. And then it hit them too, the spark in their eyes ignited at the same moment, and they hurled themselves on each other with murderous joy . . .

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Copyright 1992 Doug Robinson, Bill Kaul, and Herbie