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John P. Murphy is an engineer and writer living in New England. Please visit johnmurphy.wordpress.com for links to his other fiction.

Helena held Jack's hand tightly as the doctor returned to the exam room, with an unfamiliar man in a suit in tow. Helena said hello to them both. Jack said nothing, because since the morning prior, Jack couldn't say anything.
Doctor Steiner closed the door and sat at her desk, then busied herself at her laptop. The unfamiliar man in the suit glanced around at the now chairless room, frowned at the exam table, and finally stood with his back to the door and his arms crossed in front of his name badge. He looked unhappy, which made Helena unhappy. Jack said nothing, but Helena expected that he was unhappy too. According to the clock on the wall, they had been there for seven hours.
"I'd like you to meet Doug," Doctor Steiner said. "He's the chief of security at our hospital. He's the expert I asked your permission earlier to consult."
"Nice to meet you," Doug said.
"I don't understand," Helena said. "Why is he here?"
"Doug has been advising physicians on staff on certain trends in health security."
"Wait, are you accusing us of something?"
Doctor Steiner's eyes went wide. "Oh no, no no. I'm sorry. This is hard to explain."
"Maybe you should show them," Doug said.
"Show us what?" Helena held Jack's hand tightly. He squeezed back. "We've already seen all his test results. Haven't we?"
"Not quite all of them," Doctor Steiner said. "We swabbed your husb--" She cleared her throat, and turned her head. It hadn't been the first time she'd had to force herself to address her patient instead of the person who could speak. "We took a viral culture and sent it for analysis and sequencing while you were down in Imaging."
Helena recalled the lengthy series of brain images taken while asking Jack to try to speak or write, and the increasingly frustrated instructions from the white-coated techs when nothing seemed to pan out, or even appear out of the ordinary.
Jack nodded to the doctor, who swiveled her computer screen around to show them. In the middle of the screen was a block of text. Most of it was gibberish, but there was English in the middle, highlighted in blue.
"You're looking at one of the viruses' DNA," said Doug, pointing with his ballpoint pen. "This is an MIT-standard annotation scheme for converting sequences to text. Spy agencies use things like this to send messages, companies use it to tag genetically modified organisms for copyright protection--" He cut himself off when Doctor Steiner cleared her throat. "Right. You'd better just read it."
The highlighted text was short:
We hear your under the weather. So sorry! Send $500,000 to our account, and we'll make it alllll better! Hooray! Better B quick tho! After Dec 31 we might forget where we put the antidote....
There was a number after that, with spaces like a bank account routing address. It was already December 21st. Jack gave Doug and the doctor a look of alarm, and Helena followed suit.
Doug pulled at his collar. "Have you ever heard of ransomware? On computers, it's a kind of malware that gets onto your system and encrypts your files. Here..."
"You're saying my husband's brain is encrypted?"
"We don't know what the mechanism is," Doctor Steiner said. "We'll try anti-virals and a few other treatments that I think are promising. But it's like encryption: it's easy to test the solution, and hard to find it."
"But December 31st..." Helena said. Doug put up his hand.
"We know," he said. "I should say, first, that there's a significant chance that this is a hoax."
Helena sat up straight. "Excuse me?"
"There may not be a cure," said the doctor. "Or it may go away on its own. We don't know. This is new."
"But we saw it coming," Doug said. "The do-it-yourself kits have been getting cheaper and easier for amateur use. You can get one online for $532 now. So this has been on our radar, it just seems too soon for them to have managed an actual medical effect like this." He took a pair of thick stapled documents from his folder, and handed one each to Helena and Jack. It was five pages long, in small type. "Your insurance company is prepared to pay the, uh, ransom, provided you agree to a gag order--"
"That's not funny," Helena said.
Doug blinked.
"Um. Sorry. I mean, you have to agree not to talk about this. Not on Facebook, not your family. Especially not the press. We don't want people to panic, and we don't want to give the wrong people ideas. You understand. Keeping it quiet gives us the opportunity to study it. Er, I'm afraid your premiums will go up."
Helena frowned, but she'd expected that. She and Jack scanned the pages. As Jack nodded at each page, she initialed it for him and then signed and dated the ends. "Now what?" she asked.
"Now we wait," Doctor Steiner said. "He doesn't seem to be contagious, so you can go home. Just keep us apprised of any changes in your husband's condition. If anything comes in the mail, bring it here for testing." She gave them a wan smile. "He might get better on his own."
Helena helped Jack into the car, trying to keep her face neutral. Doug had seen them to the door and had urged them to be optimistic, but hadn't seemed convinced.
Pulling out of the hospital's lot, she said. "So, the insurance company's going to cover it."
Jack nodded. He coughed, and winced. "Best $532 we ever spent."
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Author Comments

Inspired by the malware, of course: a nasty bit of business, by all accounts. While you're thinking about this story, go ahead and back up your files. You might thank me later.

- John P. Murphy
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