Preview: Virulence

CoverMandaThe street children came from nowhere, as much a part of Davao City as the aroma of chicken frying on sidewalk grills. They appeared between me and the Public Health Laboratory, pointing to their mouths and piping “Hey Joe, hey Joe”. The security guard stepped forward to chase them off, but I threw a few coins after them.

“You shouldn’t do that, sir,” he said in his precise English. “Now they will wait for you to come back and annoy you again.”

I wondered how he kept his white uniform looking freshly laundered all day in the glaring heat of the Philippines. I could feel sweat running down my face, and my shirt felt like a dishrag where it clung to my back.

I mumbled something about supposing so and retreated into the air-conditioned cool of the lab.

“Hi Tony,” said Karla. “The director was in earlier. He’s sure we’re looking at dengue fever.”

Her voice was a monotone, and I noticed that she didn’t say what she thought herself.

I sighed. Somebody had used the word ‘dengue’ in front of a health minister who probably didn’t know a virus from a bacterium, so the recent outbreak on Mindanao was henceforth caused by dengue. Dengue was untreatable, which saved anybody in the Public Health Department from answering awkward questions about who was going to pay for treating the victims. Karla’s job was dependent on the good will of the director, whose job was dependent on the good will of the minister, so she wasn’t going to be the first to say what no one wanted to hear. I couldn’t blame her. She had two children and an unemployed husband to support.

I nodded at the paper strips wallowing in the antibody solution. “Well, we’ll find out in twenty minutes. I’ll just check my e-mail while we wait.”

She brightened when I didn’t pursue the subject.

“Is that the third or fourth time today?”

“I’m waiting for something important.”

I felt a smile warming my lips when I saw Sahar’s daily message in the inbox. As usual, the connection was agonisingly slow, so I sat back and remembered the evening before I left Glasgow for the Philippines. We’d shared a pleasant meal with pleasant conversation, but the smile was in memory of the goodbye hug that lingered on and on, and the promise in her rolling Glasgow vowels.

“Come back soon, Tone, and don’t you forget me, now.”

I won’t, Sahar, I won’t.


Hi Tone,

Guess what, you’re hearing from Dr. Sahar at last! Just finished defending my thesis and I’m shaking too much to type properly but hey, it’s over! Only funny question was about the wider significance of those rats that got parochial. Waffled my way through it, now I hear the call of the pub.

Know when you’re coming back yet or have you fallen for some nubile Filipina? Don’t you dare!




Always that hint of promise. We’d been getting closer for months, but her studies had been her priority recently. Still, now that her thesis was out of the way…

My attention drifted back to the beginning of the message. What was the wider significance of a rat turning parochial in response to a disease? As far as I could remember, her rats had become parochial, or very aggressive towards unfamiliar individuals, when they were exposed to influenza. I’d been preoccupied with grant applications at the time and we’d never discussed it in depth.

“Time to develop the test, Tony,” called Karla.


Virulence was published in ÆON #6, Mar 2006, which is no longer available. It is now available as part of the Steel in the Morning collection, and as a standalone Kindle edition.

Author notes


Cover by Manda Benson.

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