12. Dr. Biederman, I Presume?

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Professor Malcolm Biederman had been monitoring the news all week. First the reporters talked about the avian flu: how San Lazaro had been unusually badly affected; how various vaccines were failing to contain the spread. Then it was all about how the airports were shutting down and the military was taking control of the city.

Biederman wasn’t entirely surprised when he was contacted by a producer at KASL. The news channel was looking for a five-minute interview on their nightly news show with anchor Michelle Monroe. Apparently, they wanted to discuss the appearance of some unusual behaviors among the city’s population.

Miss Monroe introduced herself before the show started and Biederman waited for several reports until his turn came. He was wearing his best suit and felt rather hot under the studio lights.

‘We’re now joined by eminent professor of clinical psychology, Malcolm Biederman. Professor, we heard earlier about numerous sightings of individuals behaving in an erratic manner. Some were described as in a trance-like state while others became suddenly violent. Considering the recent outbreak of avian flu, surely this cannot be a coincidence?’

Biederman adjusted his glasses and considered his answer carefully. ‘Without a proper scientific analysis, we cannot be certain of anything; and there is no evidence that one causes the other. My own research focuses on individuals who display some of the behaviors you describe. I’m afraid practitioners like myself see them every day.’

‘But in such large numbers? Surely that is unusual?’

‘These reports are anecdotal. We cannot be sure of the numbers.’

‘You say you see such behavior often. What are the causes?’

‘That depends. Your viewers will be aware of gaming addiction. I see many patients – usually young males – who, speaking frankly, are ruining their own lives. Countless hours spent in virtual reality leaves them physically depleted and mentally incapable.’

‘But the reports of sudden violence?’

‘Miss Monroe, the connection has long been established. Many of these games revolve around gruesome acts of violence, committed without any reference to ethical norms or consequences. Can we really be surprised that some of them become inured to such sights; to such suffering?’

When the interviewer didn’t interject, Biederman continued: ‘These people lose moral direction; it all becomes about the next fix of mayhem. There are several documented cases of such individuals seeking to replicate game-based violence in real life. In fact, they often imitate specific techniques and methods of killing. Some of my fellow researchers have coined a phrase for these individuals – ‘Cyber Memetic Sociopaths’. The term is sometimes shortened to “CyMS”.’

“CyMS?’ said the host, leaning forward.

‘Indeed. Scientists first began to identify this issue in the 1980s but in the ensuing decades, very little has been done. We used to believe that Asia was the centre of gaming addiction. I must tell you, the authorities in that part of the world understood the scale of the problem thirty years ago. We are some way behind.’

‘Professor, we’re receiving reports from our viewers while we’re on the air. The majority seem convinced that there is a connection to the outbreak.’

‘It is possible that the effects of the crisis – the death of loved ones, fear of infection, for example – are exacerbating pre-existing conditions.’

‘But we know that the vaccines are deployed to date are proving ineffective. This is something new.’

‘Miss Monroe, you do yourself and your network no favors by indulging in scaremongering. I have confidence that our medical professionals will ultimately control the outbreak. It would be better for all concerned if we trust in the authorities to do their work without giving the people of San Lazaro something else to worry about.’

The presenter continued her questioning but Biederman remained steadfast and consistent in his answers. Once the interview finished, he had a brief discussion with the producer and left.

As he approached his car in the parking lot, a familiar figure stepped out of a black SUV. Biederman knew that Nathan Wright was a colonel in the U.S. Army but the officer now wore an anonymous grey suit.

‘Congratulations on your performance, professor. I’m sure my superiors will be as impressed as I was. We appreciate your assistance in ensuring that the appropriate message is communicated by authoritative sources.’

‘Even if that message is a lie?’

Biederman was already beginning to regret agreeing to play down the threat. For all he knew, there was a link between the virus and the violence. But Colonel Wright had arrived at his apartment only an hour after the call from KASL; and he’d been very persuasive. In return for his cooperation, Biederman had been offered a prestigious position in Washington once the crisis passed.

‘Lie is a strong word,’ replied the colonel. ‘Well done for getting the acronym in. We’d prefer that the true meaning not become widely known.’

‘What is the true meaning?’

‘Cybernetic Mutation Syndrome.’

As the colonel headed back to the SUV, Professor Biederman felt a chill run down his spine.