A secret underground bio lab. Four men sit around a table in shadows.

BOSS: Listen up, dumbfucks. No matter what the egghead epidemiologists say about cases and variants exploding, the mouth-breathers out there are acting like we don’t exist. If we don’t pivot, our ass is gonna be handed to us by those monkeypox fuckers. You pathetic imbeciles better come up with a game-changing pandemic, pronto, or you’ll be packing your bags for a tenure-track job in academia.

VIROLOGIST #1: How about a virus that replicates on doorknobs?

BOSS: Oh, wow, I see—everyone will be stuck in whatever room they’re in. Absolutely brilliant, Williams. But would you, pretty please, humor me by answering just one teeny-tiny question? Have you ever heard of automatic doors? Or, I don’t know, fucking gloves?

VIROLOGIST #1: I’m sorry, sir, I was just thinking—

BOSS: (throws glass figurine of a spike protein at him) No, you weren’t thinking! What are the G20 governments paying you for, you useless nitwit? Next!

VIROLOGIST #2: (clears throat) Um, my team has been developing a prototype: airborne transmission, effective reproduction number of 4.3, case fatality rate of 1.2 percent, high reinfection—

BOSS: That’s COVID. Jesus Christ, Smith, you’re describing COVID.

VIROLOGIST #2: It’s not exactly COVID, but a—

BOSS: A fucking variant of COVID—pardon my egregious error. Have you had a single original thought since fall 2019, you incompetent dunce? We can’t keep repeating ourselves with slightly tweaked pathogens and hope those Pfizer pricks don’t notice it’s the same shit, different seasonal wave.

VIROLOGIST #3: Sir, if I may? (writes on whiteboard) Airborne, contact, food and water, blood and tissue… (crosses them all out) that’s your grandfather’s virus. I present a bold new contagion: the speech pandemic.

BOSS: Speech pandemic? You got mad cow disease, Johnson? What the hell are you talking about?

VIROLOGIST #3: Exactly—what am I talking about? The world runs on talk. So what if we made speech itself a virus?

BOSS: (folds arms) You got two minutes. I’m listening.

VIROLOGIST #3: That’s right! You’re listening—and, after two minutes of verbal exposure, you’d have a 94 percent chance of infection too!

VIROLOGIST #2: This is another reboot. Speech is just airborne transmission.

VIROLOGIST #3: Except with my design, physical proximity is irrelevant. You can just as easily infect someone over the phone.

BOSS: What about Zoom? That fucked us last time.

VIROLOGIST #3: It has increased virulence over Zoom due to elderly parents cranking the volume up on their desktop speakers from 2003.

BOSS: All of Zoom? Webinars, breakout rooms, poetry book launches?

VIROLOGIST #3: Check, check, and, according to our analytics, most people just email after that they had a mini-crisis and they’re so sorry they missed the reading, but sure.

BOSS: Novel transmission… high R number… every “in-conversation event” between two fey intellectuals in front of their carefully curated bookshelves is now a roll of the dice… I’m liking this. Symptoms?

VIROLOGIST #3: Acute logorrhea.

BOSS: Logorrhea? You mean—

VIROLOGIST #3: Once you get it, you can’t stop talking, which translates to—

BOSS: Exponential fucking growth… my god, Johnson. What populations are the biggest vectors?

VIROLOGIST #3: Our models predict massive caseloads among geriatric millennials engaging in that day’s Twitter discourse offline, girlfriends of twenty-something bespectacled males who pronounce Pynchon “Pinch-ahn,” and adult sisters who consider themselves besties.

BOSS: Any demographics predisposed to natural immunity?

VIROLOGIST #3: Unfortunately, yes. The median number of conversational partners for heterosexually married middle-aged men is one.

BOSS: Right, I remember those years. Lonely time. Lost touch with the guys from college. Had a “work husband,” but it just wasn’t the same.

VIROLOGIST #3: Our workaround is to circulate it among influential podcast hosts who provide irreverent, contrarian analyses of contemporary society.

BOSS: You’re talking about the asshole podcasts.

VIROLOGIST #3: The self-satisfied asshole podcasts, to use the precise nomenclature.

BOSS: You thinking the classic loser in his finished basement?

VIROLOGIST #3: We’d be thrilled with solo hosts, but if we can get placement with two bantering assholes, cackling at each other’s pop-culture references, acting like they’re both the most original thinkers in the world—

BOSS: Then you’ve doubled the viral fucking load! Genius. See, this is the kind of idea the rest of you worthless numbskulls should be bringing me. Williams, put your team into RNA production, stat—those lazy sons-of-bitches are gonna be TCB and working over-fucking-time. Smith, get on the horn and tell those bastards at the WHO and CDC the speech pandemic is a-comin’ and they better not be ready.

VIROLOGIST #3: Sir? What about me?

BOSS: Johnson, you’ve got vision, but more importantly, you’ve got a set of cast-iron cojones. I want you running the whole goddamn show. First order of business is paying off Rand Paul to filibuster all sensible measures and, in doing so, infect the entire Senate.

VIROLOGIST #1: But, sir, Johnson’s the least experienced member of—

BOSS: Shut up, Williams, and get cracking. Actually (smiles slyly)… keep talking. Just keep right on talking, you magnificent ignoramus. Christmas bonuses and infection rates are coming early this year, boys. We’re back—start superspreading the word!

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The Great Man Theory, the new novel by Teddy Wayne, is out now.