The Senate chambers were eerily quiet. the undirected rage which had caused all of the hysteria in the first place should have turned this impeachment hearing into the Roman Colosseum. She had expected as much, anyway. Yet the sheer weight of the event seemed to hang in place, pressing down on the very air, quieting the crowd and creating a hot, stifling atmosphere. Anne Duet was doing her best not to squirm, or fidget with her microphone, or act out any other nervous gesture. Still, though, she felt the moment. It is, after all, not everyone who is the first medical doctor to be president, the first woman to be president, and the the first president to be forced from office by direct impeachment. However this turned out, she thought, her name would be in the history books.
Despite this, she found her thoughts wandering back to two and a half years ago and the primaries. She couldn’t stop thinking about her first private conversation with Jeremiah Cain and her surprise nomination as Vice Presidential candidate on the conservative ticket. She should have been thinking about her testimony, and preparing for what was going to be a rude cross examination, but she could not help herself. She had grown close to Cain, they had worked well together and as she came to respect him, he also grew to respect her. For a moment, her bitterness at the pundits and talking heads who lionized him and called her his killer crept up, but his memory squashed it. He was a tough old man, and he didn’t give a damn about what anyone thought or said but he had a caring, jovial side that she had come to know quite well. It was now that she thought of what he had told her when he offered her the Vice Presidential nomination and she could not help but smile. It’s surprising how right some people can be, she thought.
The House special prosecutor now caught a glimpse of her smile. Though he kept his “game face” on she could read the restrained anxiety and confusion in his eyes. “What was the crazy broad up to this time?” Was most likely his thought. This thought only deepened Anne’s amusement and her smiel broadened. Somehow she had earned a slight reputation for being a “maverick.” Anne had always found that funny. She felt that she was just reasonable and rational. Then again, it is the sane man in Bedlam who appears to be the most unhinged.
At that moment the Chief Justice entered the Senate to begin the hearing. Her faint fit of nostalgia disappeared almost as quickly as her smile. This was really happening. Suddenly the enormity of the occasion welled up and hit her in the gut like a sledgehammer. The once oppressive, hot air seemed suddenly to rush out of the chambers, like the tide receding before a tsunami. All that was left was a disquieting, anxious chill.
Everyone stood and sat, charges were read, and she swore on a bible. Though she believed in none of it she found the old superstitions comforting, almost meditative. Perhaps, she thought, there was a real value to these customs beyond their superficial superfluity.
“Madam President,” The Justice began, “You have been made aware of your rights, as well as the common practices of this process.”
“Yes.” Anne replied able to control her anxiety.
“And you have waived your right to legal representation?”
“I feel I owe the American people an explanation.” She replied confidently. Here she had the advantage of believing what she said. This calmed her as she realized that from here on she would have the truth on her side.
“Very well, Madam President.” Said the Chief Justice, “You may begin your testimony.” For this she was supremely grateful. Everyone knew the story, of course, but it had never been told start to finish like this before. So much of the early days were mystery until recently. Some of it is still unknown, but the critical points were known as well as the critical consequences.
President Duet took a deep breath, then she began her testimony.
What has become known as the Phantom Flu started approximately eleven months previously. Patient Zero was a self professed, anti-government, conspiracy theorist who lived near abandoned federal land in Tennessee where components of the first atomic bomb had been manufactured. He regularly posted to an anti-government, conspiracy theory internet forum, as well as the conspiracy pages of popular social media platforms, and had begun complaining of a strange ailment. He reported symptoms including blurred vision, chronic headaches, and severe abdominal spasms. He had previously been investigated by the FBI on charges of trespass and destruction of government property as well as a few other minor misdemeanors. Patient Zero was certain that he had been poisoned by the US Government in order to silence him.
After two weeks of complaining of these ailments his friends on the message boards convinced him to see a doctor. He did. His doctor was an old general practitioner, a family doctor tolerant of the man’s strange worldview, and who shared a bit of his holistic outlook of life and health. By no means was this doctor incompetent. He was just very poorly suited to treat patient zero, especially considering what this all turned out to be. During the initial examination no abnormal vital signs were detected, save for slightly elevated blood pressure which given the patient’s age, weight, and diet was not surprising. The doctor prescribed him some mild pain killers and sent him home. Five days later Patient Zero was found dead in his kitchen by relatives. No autopsy was performed.
His mysterious death made the obit page of the local paper, but little more. However, in the weeks following his death some of the other users on the internet message boards began complaining of similar symptoms. These numbers began to rise suddenly and soon enough alternative media and conspiracy theory radio hosts across the nation were reporting a new, weaponized disease the New World Order was spreading to silence dissent. The evidence? Testimony from their listeners, many of whom claimed to contract the disease after hearing about it on their shows or the internet. This, of course, was hardly mentioned in the mainstream media. The few who did report the phenomenon did so in a jocular, almost teasing way. “See, this is what crazy uncle Bob is into this month!”
The laughing stopped with Paula Statts. She was a fifty seven year-old, part time nurse in San Francisco. Three months after Patient Zero first complained of illness, Paula suddenly fell very, very ill. She was hospitalized, quarantined, and despite the best efforts of the doctors she died of an inexplicable brain hemorrhage three days later. Although no trace of any virus could be found, it was dubbed the “Phantom Flu” and now the national media picked up the story. As news of her death spread the number of reported cases began to rise. When other tenants of her apartment complex began to complain of similar symptoms the building was immediately quarantined along with her co-workers who had been around her in the weeks leading up to her death. Research began in earnest.
Despite this, families and friends of the the quarantined patients everywhere from New York, to LA, to Chicago, Tampa, Florida, and even Branson, Missouri, also began to claim illness. Whatever it was, it was out and it was spreading.
This is where Anne first became a part of the furor. She was the vice president in the first term administration of President Jeremiah Cain. Anne had gotten into politics after spending ten years as a general practicioner and her home state of New York had passed state laws that severly impacted her practice. As a medical doctor she lent an air of authority to the President’s response. Also she had proven herself to be a valuable and trustworthy member of the president’s staff. This made Anne the perfect person to lead the charge against the Phantom Flu. Her message was fairly mundane, but effective. She called for calm, assured the people that the Surgeon General had organized research panels, and strongly advised good hygiene practices. Most importantly: She urged that judgements be reserved until conclusive tests could be conducted. This was not exactly what the people wanted to hear, but it seemed to do the trick. The number of reported cases began to drop, those who were sick began to recover, surprisingly quickly at that, and a sense of normalcy began to return. Then it all went to Hell.
At exactly the wrong time the leading national broadcast news program ran a lengthy interview with a doctor claiming to be a “viral geneticist”. He claimed that he had discovered the cause of the phantom flu and that it was a new, dangerously mutated form of smallpox that had gone airborne. The country exploded.
Reported cases skyrocketed, emergency services were overwhelmed, and the death rate which stood previously at less than one tenth of one percent, rose to two percent. Though this death rate spike was terrible, it did not preclude the end of the world. The national media, predictably, failed to report it that way. Anne did her best, but in the middle of the hysteria President Cain had to step in and take a more active role in the crisis. His message was the same as hers, but with the mania ratcheted up, it was quite a task to project a sense of calm.
Fortunately Jeremiah Cain was the man for the job. He was an old school conservative from Texas who had survived, even thrived in, the most cutthroat political climate. Outwardly he was calm, comforting, and affable. He didn’t just make people believe in him, he made them believe in themselves. He was the perfect face for a crisis. Behind closed doors is where his true abilities came to the fore. He was reserved, patient, calculating, and utterly ruthless. Despite his popular rhetoric he cared most about what all politicians cared about: self preservation. For twenty years and across three major offices he put all his skills to practice to just that end. All the while making the populous happy.
He was the man for the job, but he was also sixty-seven years old. He put on a brave face and assured the American people daily, but as the pressure from the crisis mounted the strain began to tell. The worst, most unnerving difficulty of the entire ordeal was the unknown. No one had conclusively proven what this Phantom Flu really was. Despite the smallpox doctor’s assessment, and that same doctor selling vaccines, there really was nothing to go on. The next great complication was when the smallpox doctor was exposed as a fraud. He had some genetic research experience but his medical license had been revoked due to negligent practices. When he turned out to be a classmate of the Surgeon General the media really turned on the administration and the pressure was raised just that much more.
It was, as it turned out, enough. Just when the country began to turn on the President the stress finally got to him and he collapsed after having a massive aneurysm and he fell into a coma. The weight of the world now fell on Anne”s shoulders. Between the president’s collapse, the bogus doctor, and everyone screaming bloody murder, Anne thought she was going to collapse as well. After one especially appalling day, she found herself in the Oval Office, sitting at Jeremiah’s desk, looking over new research papers wondering what she had gotten herself into. That’s when she had her breakthrough. She noticed that in some of the failed drug trials just as many placebo patients recovered from their symptoms as those on the actual anti-virals. She suddenly remembered an obscure research paper she had read in medical school and immediately contacted the CDC and the emergency health board to organize a new trial. As the study progressed, the results more and more began to confirm her hypothesis. Just before she was ready to make her big announcement President Cain died. The official determined cause was aneurysm, but to everyone, he became the most famous victim of the Phantom Flu.
It was the best thing for him, really. Before he fell ill, his poll numbers had dropped significantly for the first time in twenty years and three offices. After his death Jeremiah Cain became a martyr, a new American folk hero. Anne was the poor soul charged not only with following a beloved martyr while filling the void he left behind, but now delivering the most unwanted news America could possibly receive.
Her finding was this: the Phantom Flu was something called a “Nocebo”. In a nutshell a Nocebo is when the belief in harm is enough to cause real, physical symptoms without any real physical cause. A massive outbreak like the current crisis was called Mass Psychogenic Illness, the largest example in history. The Phantom Flu was the 1918 Spanish Flu of psychosomatic disorders. It would be an oversimplification to say America “psyched” itself into a massive illness, but that was close enough to the truth for that to become the overarching narrative.
Predictably, America was not happy. The National media, unwilling to admit its role in the disaster, turned its ire on President Duet. Even as people began to recover and Anne’s new recommendations proved to be useful solutions, people were still angry. Mostly at themselves for being so gullible, but also at having lost President Cain. He made them like themselves, he gave people a sense of self and dignity. Now all they had was that crazy broad. With her vice presidential nominee still tied up in the Senate approval process, the Speaker of the House, who stood to gain a great deal from her dismissal, seized the opportunity.
The first rumblings of impeachment were meant as a threat, a way of shaming or bullying Anne into resigning. But she was nothing if not obstinate, and when she called the Speaker’s bluff, he rolled the dice and called for a vote of impeachment. It was contentious, she still had friends in congress, and some representatives resented the opportunism with which the speaker approached the whole process, but there was just enough anger to vote for impeachment. The leader of the Senate was a weak willed, callow, political survivalist who got by by going with the latest passing fancy. Faced with the the rolling thunder of public anger and media frenzy he bent to their will like a sapling in a hurricane. Again the vote was close, but enough people wanted someone held accountable, and the vote to proceed with an impeachment hearing passed.
Now Anne found herself in the fight of her life. The buildup to the hearing had been a whirlwind and she hardly had a moment to catch her breathe. Through it all, she didn’t even get the opportunity to mourn Jeremiah who had become more than a political ally, but a mentor and friend. Through it all, she found it difficult to mask her utter fury for the hypocrites in the media, as well as other politicians, who hardly knew Jeremiah, yet lionized him while blaming her for his death.
All these thoughts floated around her head as she delivered her testimony clearly, concisely, and with direct meaning. She had decided not to play any political games or lean on any sneaky lawyering. At a time like this her instincts were to present the truth and trust in its power. She was, after all, a scientist.
When she had finished her testimony, the Chief Justice thanked her and then asked the House Special Prosecutor to proceed. The Special Prosecutor for impeachment hearings, was a member of the House selected by the speaker. This particular prosecutor was a young, but ambitious and vicious man. He belonged to a group of young wunderkinds from the opposition party who styled themselves “the New Turks”. He almost licked his chops when he was given permission to proceed.
“Madam President,” He began accusatively, “It is true that you knew the cause of the illness two whole weeks before the president’s collapse, Yes?”
“No I did not.” She said confidently.
“May I direct your attention to a memorandum sent from your office to the CDC and the Emergency Health Task Force acknowledging receipt of the studies from which you ultimately derived your hypothesis. Do you recognize this document?”
“Yes.” She replied, “It is fairly standard protocol. And though it originated in my office, you will notice I did not sign it.”
“But you were aware of the critical studies two weeks before the President died, yet you did nothing until he was incapacitated?” This was the crux of their argument: That she had not done enough, that it was her negligence that killed President Cain. Ludicrous? Absolutely. Probable? Not in the slightest. Emotionally comforting to a dazed and angry populous? Oh, yes.
“Just because I had them in my office does not mean I had time to properly review them. I did not even read the anti-viral trials survey until after President Cain had his aneurysm.”
“But you ordered the trials that ultimately proved your hypothesis only three days after President Cain fell ill.”
“As I said, after his aneurysm.”
“Madam President, do you really expect us to believe that?” He said getting more and more theatrical. She knew all they had was a show, but given the mood of the country, that might just be enough to get her impeached. “Do you really think the American people will accept that you, who had more to gain than anyone else with the President’s death, magically came to your grand realization after you were acting president? How can we believe that?”
Anne suddenly burst into laughter. She covered her mouth with her hand to try to hide her uncontrollable smile, but the the damage had been done. At the most critical moment of her life she was giggling like a fool in front of the whole country, nay the world.
“Madam President,” Began the prosecutor with baleful disdain, “Do you think this is funny? Our President is dead.”
“No!” She chortled trying to compose herself, “I’m sorry. I’m very sorry, it’s just–well your question reminded me of something Jeremiah–excuse me–President Cain had once said to me.”
“Oh, and what was that?” The prosecutor began, thinking he had her cornered.
“Well,” She began, “This was just before the convention. Jeremiah, I mean Presidential Nominee Cain, had floated my named as a possible VP and I was in the process of being vetted. Eventually I had a private interview with him, a sort of final assessment. We hit it off quite well. He was an extraordinary man, you know. It was the first time we ever really talked, but we seemed to trust each other immediately, there was a sympatico. By the end of the conversation he had made me a firm offer, to hell with everyone else, he wanted me. I accepted and thanked him, but I had to ask: Would people buy it? We weren’t even close on many issues and we’d had a few tough exchanges during the primaries. What I really asked, was why on Earth would the voters accept an old school, tough guy, hang ‘em high, conservative running with a RINO nutjob from New York? Would they believe it?
“Do you know what he said?” She asked.
“Please,” Replied the prosecutor, “Enlighten us.”
Anne smiled once more. Only this time her eyes glinted with a predatory joy. He had taken the bait and now she would have the last laugh. “Jeremiah said: ‘Shit, Honey. People will believe anything!’ “