The Pinocchio Syndromeby David Zeman
"In the not-so-distant future, an ocean liner called the Crescent Queen, carrying a group of gifted American students, is suddenly vaporized in the Mediterranean by a nuclear weapon of unknown origin. Soon after, a deadly disease appears in the United States and around the world. With no known cure or treatment, the plague-like affliction paralyzes its victims and… See more details below
"In the not-so-distant future, an ocean liner called the Crescent Queen, carrying a group of gifted American students, is suddenly vaporized in the Mediterranean by a nuclear weapon of unknown origin. Soon after, a deadly disease appears in the United States and around the world. With no known cure or treatment, the plague-like affliction paralyzes its victims and creates a terrifying physical deformity that causes it to be called "the Pinocchio Syndrome."" Already reeling from intense political pressure, the president is heatedly denounced by an ultra-right-wing self-made billionaire, Colin Goss, who is determined to force him out of office. When word spreads that the well-liked vice president is incapacitated by the Pinocchio Syndrome, the search for a replacement to quell the nation's fears leads to Senator Michael Campbell, a former Olympic gold medalist whose youthful charisma marks him out for high public office. Meanwhile, as scientists and health authorities struggle to contain the epidemic, hard-hitting journalist Karen Embry uncovers a shocking mystery behind the Pinocchio Syndrome - one that opens the door to a forgotten past and hints at a terrifying future.
- Random House, Incorporated
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.44(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.28(d)
Read an Excerpt
SIX MONTHS LATER
SNOW FELL silently, like a sleep coming over the land.
The postman came around the corner, pulling his bag behind him. The wheels of his cart left moist black trails in the fresh snow on the sidewalk. A crumpled snowman, made from yesterday's storm, regarded the passing postman pathetically, its corncob pipe falling down its face.
It was the biggest snow on record for this time of year. School had been canceled yesterday. Today was Saturday, so the town's children could enjoy what was left of the accumulation with their sleds and flying saucers.
The postman wore his Saturday look, a bit more watchful than usual, as he started to cross the street. Saturdays were more dangerous for him than weekdays, and more interesting. Children were on the loose. With children came snowballs, pranks, and sometimes an unruly dog. He had to be on his toes.
But something stopped him in the middle of the street. He stood still in his tracks, his cart beside him, his eyes fixed on something beyond the houses and the trees and the snow-covered lawns. One hand was raised toward his chin, as though to stroke it thoughtfully. The other was at his side. His eyes blinked as a wind-blown snowflake plopped on the lashes. His mouth was closed, the jaws set rigidly.
No one would find him for ten minutes. As luck would have it, the children were all inside their houses, playing in their rooms, watching Saturday-morning television, or getting ready for lunch. Those mothers who were not out at work did not expect the mail until after noon, so no one came out to check a mailbox.
During those ten minutes the postman did not move amuscle. He was as rigid as the dying snowman who sagged under the new-fallen snow.
The mother was standing in her kitchen, watching the news station on TV as she talked to her sister on the phone.
"No," she said. "Just getting ready to give the kids lunch."
She paused, listening to something her sister was saying.
"No," she said with some anger. "I'm so fed up with husbands, I'm not going to move a muscle. They can get along without me. I've had it."
She craned her neck to glance into the playroom. Her maternal radar had alerted her to the fact that the little ones were up to something.
"Just a second," she said to her sister. Then she held the phone against her breast and shouted at her older child, the boy, "Stop doing that to her!"
There was a pause. The mother went to the door of the playroom and gave both children a hard look. "Lunch in five minutes," she said. "Don't leave this room until you clean up this mess."
They were five and seven. The little girl was quiet enough when left to her own devices, but the boy, Chase, was a terror. When he wasn't torturing his sister he was putting her up to some sort of mischief. It was impossible to leave them alone in a room for half an hour without a crisis resulting.
The mother went back to the kitchen, the cordless phone in her hand. On the TV screen was the face of Colin Goss, the controversial right-wing politician whose rise in the polls had alarmed many observers.
"God," she said, "there's that maniac Goss on the news."
"Turn it off," her sister advised.
"I wish I could turn him off," the mother said.
Both sisters hated Colin Goss, a perennial independent candidate for president who had lost three times in the general election. They considered him a pure demagogue, a menace to freedom and a potential Hitler. Their husbands, however, had been swept up in the recent groundswell of support for Goss. It was difficult to get through an evening without an argument on this subject.
"Gary watches all Goss's speeches on C-SPAN," the mother said. "He actually thinks the guy makes sense."
"So does Rich. I've heard him say it a thousand times. Colin Goss is strong, Colin Goss is the only man who has the guts to do what needs to be done. To me he's a madman. Also, he's icky."
"Creepy. You're right."
A lot of men admired Goss for his success in business and his strength and toughness. They viewed him as a dynamic leader who could "save the country." But when many women looked at Goss's face they saw a lecher, a dirty old man. There was something cruelly sensual about Goss that repelled them.
Colin Goss's main campaign issue was, and always had been, antiterrorism. A Nobel Prize-winning biochemist who had built his own pharmaceutical empire from nothing, Goss had gone on to become one of the richest conglomerators in the world. His influence was said to extend to every corner of government and the private sector. Over the years Goss had had run-ins with terrorists whose activities had affected his business dealings overseas. In the 1990s he emerged as the most eloquent, and certainly the most strident, antiterrorist in American politics.
Goss's views never caught on, primarily because terrorism had not yet hit Americans close to home, and also because his speeches bristled with thinly veiled racism, particularly against Arabs and other people of color. When Goss talked of "cleaning up" the Third World and the American underclass, many political observers cringed. Rhetoric like this had not been heard since the fascist movements of the 1930s.
But the World Trade Center attack changed the political climate. And with that attack still fresh in the public mind, the Crescent Queen disaster created a new political world.
"If it weren't for the Crescent Queen," the mother said, "no one would give Goss the time of day. But people are scared out of their wits."
"Well, it's no wonder," her sister said. "All those poor children vaporized out in the ocean. It's unbelievable."
Military and scientific observers had determined that the Crescent Queen was destroyed by a tactical nuclear weapon delivered by ballistic missile. No terrorist group had taken credit for the attack. The president had promised that those responsible would be brought swiftly to justice. "The Crescent Queen disaster must not only be solved," he said. "It must be avenged."
But in the six months since the attack, the combined efforts of the federal intelligence services had failed to identify the perpetrators. A state of fear unequaled since the Cuban missile crisis had set in among Americans.
A week after the attack a terrifying piece of video was sent to the major television networks and cable stations from an unknown source. It showed the Crescent Queen floating placidly in the Mediterranean, in such close focus that the name of the ship was visible on the bow. Then the nuclear explosion vaporized the vessel, and the camera pulled back to show the mushroom cloud rising majestically over the blue sea. The video had clearly been shot from a surface vessel at a safe distance from the blast.
"It gives you the creeps," said the sister. "Just waiting to see where the next one is going to drop. I can't sleep at night."
"Gary thinks the Muslims are behind the whole thing," said the mother. "He says the nuclear technology is being provided by Iraq or Libya or somebody, and the Muslim terrorists are pushing the button."
"Maybe he's right. But it doesn't make much difference, since we don't know what to do about it. I feel like a sitting duck. I'm scared for my kids."
"Do you know what Rich says? He says kill all the Muslims and everything will fall into place."
"Gary is exactly the same. He says nuke the Arabs and divide the oil resources among the developed countries, and our troubles will be over."
Many American men had similar opinions. It was hard to avoid unreasoning anger when they saw news video of Muslims marching in the streets of Middle Eastern capitals to celebrate the Crescent Queen disaster. Shaking fists and holding up signs that read DEATH TO AMERICA, the Muslims considered the attack a victory over the United States. Islamic terrorism was on the upswing, spreading throughout developing countries like a cancer. Governments in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa, intimidated by the Muslim groundswell, did not dare to refuse safe haven to the terrorists, even though this brought economic reprisals from America.
Meanwhile the continuing oil crisis, fostered by hostile Arab states, aggravated the recession that had begun just before the president's election. Unemployment was at its highest point in a generation.
Few Americans dared to remember the time, only a few years ago, when the worst problem the nation faced was what to do with the surplus. The old world was gone. A new one had taken its place, a world in which one held one's breath and waited for disaster to strike.
"You know," said the mother, "I believe Gary honestly thinks that's what Goss will do if he gets into office."
"You mean kill all the Muslims?"
"Yes. That, or something like that--crazy as it sounds."
"I don't know . . . It does sound insane, but I'm not sure I would completely put it past Goss. There's something about those eyes of his . . . You know, Hitler never actually said he was going to kill people, either."
"I can't believe we're actually saying if he gets in," said the mother. "Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable."
"Yeah, but that was before the Crescent Queen. People want revenge. Men especially."
"The recession has a lot to do with it too. Being out of work for two years can do something to a man's mind. I know it's done something to Gary's mind. He never used to be this way."
The president's popularity was at an all-time low. There was talk in Congress to the effect that he should resign. A constitutional amendment would permit a special election in which the American people could choose a new leader. Colin Goss was a visible spearhead of this movement. In the new climate of fear and anger, Goss was viewed as a viable candidate for president. His standing in the polls had been increasing steadily as public confidence in the administration declined.
"Rich says if Goss runs for president he'll be the first one at the polls. He wants to vote for Goss that badly."
"I just pray it never happens."
The mother turned away from the TV. As she did so she saw the postman through the window, standing in the middle of the street. She frowned as she noticed his immobility. His shoulders and cap were now covered by a light layer of snow.
"Listen," she said to her sister, "I've got to go. There seems to be something wrong with Mr. Kennedy. I'll call you back, okay?"
She hung up the phone, quickly looked in on the children, and threw on her coat. She remembered at the front door to put on her boots. She made her way across the snow-covered lawn to the sidewalk, and then into the street.
An odd stillness hung over the block as she moved toward the silent mailman. There was not a car in sight, not a tire track the entire length of the street. Snowflakes swayed downward like pillows from the gray sky.
She was close enough now to see the snowflakes on the mailman's nose and eyelashes. His face was rigid. He reminded her of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, who simply froze in one position when the rain caused him to rust.
"Mr. Kennedy?" she asked. "Are you all right?"
The postman's eyes were a pale blue. They gave no sign that he had heard her. Something about them was strange, but it would not be until much later, telling her story to the health authorities, that she would put it into words by saying that his eyes were as though hypnotized from within.
She called to him several more times, and dared to touch his sleeve. But he was like a statue, completely oblivious of her.
She saw a couple of neighbor children coming toward her.
"Stay back, children," she called. "Mr. Kennedy may be sick."
The children moved reluctantly away. The mother hurried inside, told Chase and Annie to stay in the playroom, and then called 911. The operator got the street wrong, and it was not until about twenty-five minutes later that a police car rolled to a stop alongside the immobile mailman. By now some more children had emerged from the surrounding houses and were gawking from their front lawns.
One of the policemen approached the mailman. He noticed a wet area on the man's cheek. Looking down, he saw the remnants of a snowball on the ground at the mailman's feet.
"Children, I want you all to go inside your houses now," he said, motioning to his partner, who herded the children away.
The policeman tried to help the mailman into the cruiser, but the mailman seemed to resist, clinging to the spot where he stood. His jaws were clenched tightly, and he had a look of empty, meaningless stubbornness on his face.
After another few minutes of indecisive parley, an ambulance was called. When it arrived two paramedics discussed the situation with the police and finally lifted the mailman onto their gurney and slid him into the back of the ambulance.
"All right, children," said one of the mothers who had ventured onto her frozen stoop. "It's all over now. Let's all get inside before we freeze our noses off."
The children, bored now that the police car and ambulance were gone, went back into their houses.
THE EMERGENCY room physician who examined Wayne Kennedy that afternoon found all his vital signs essentially normal. Heart rate, blood pressure, even reflexes were well within normal limits. But the patient could not speak or perform simple commands. ("Wayne, can you lift your little finger for me?") His eyes were seen to notice a flashlight beam as it was moved across his field of vision, but when asked to follow the light on command, he could not or would not obey.
By evening Kennedy had been moved to a semiprivate room adjacent to the intensive care ward. The doctors did not understand his condition, so they did not know what to expect. Emergency life support might become necessary if some unknown toxic or infectious agent was behind his illness. On the other hand, the silence and the stubborn immobility suggested a mental disturbance, and Kennedy would have to be watched for this as well.
By nine o'clock that night, most of the physicians and interns on duty had had a look at the patient, and none could offer a constructive thought.
The nurses were told to keep a close watch on him, and he was put to bed for the night.
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A country at the edge of a collective hysteria caused by terrorist attacks, a weak government, a peculiar disease that paralize the body of the human beings to the death and a power behind the throne that manipulate the destiny of millions of people around the world make this novel addictive to the end of the story. Even though the trama is predictible in some segments of the novel, it becomes interesting because of the topicality of the subject, international terrorism, mortal diseases which appear and dissapear misteriously in 'conflicting' areas of the planet, the yearning of some polititians to reform the United States constitution to cut the civil rights to implant a New World Order make the reader reflect if what is reading is pure fiction or just a novel with a message, you choose.