July 24, 2023

“Vector Control,” A Short Story by Micah Thorp

“Vector Control,” A Short Story by Micah Thorp

Laughter and revelry permeated the ceremony.  At least until the explosion. Red balloons, firecrackers, a brass band and the entirety of the Mayoral staff were in attendance as the coffin was marched from the back of a flatbed truck into the midst of Portland’s South Waterfront Square. The coffin was an ostentatious thing, painted in red and gold, with the lid cracked open just enough to expose large Papier-Mache ears and giant snout, complete with whiskers and buck teeth.  

The laughter was misplaced, though the participants at the City’s mock funeral celebrating the beginning of “Vector Control Week” could not have foreseen the devastation about to befall the event.  After all, when is frivolity at a mock funeral interrupted by domestic terrorism? 

Particularly unaware were two young men who would eventually “claim” responsibility for the explosion.  Not that they would directly articulate their involvement, but several social media posts, emails to the Oregonian and invoices from a dynamite supply company seemed to make clear their intent. They stood in the front of the crowd with carefully coiffed beards and slicked back hair wearing long black leather coats embossed with the bright red letters A-R-M.  When the coffin finally exploded they were surprised, at least for the fraction of a second before their bodies were riddled with shrapnel.   

A month earlier the same pair had broken into the ONEL – The Oregon Health and Sciences University Neurological Enhancement Laboratory.  It hadn’t been a particularly elegant break-in. Armed with little more than a crowbar and hammer they smashed a window and pried open a utility door. Adorned with black balaclavas, worn less to hide their faces than as a fashion accessory and matching black turtlenecks covered by the same long black leather coats they would wear at the funeral celebration, they were careful to keep their coats clean as they sprayed Animal Rights Militia on the laboratory walls and began pulling open cage doors.   

The rats were asleep when the men entered the lab. Had the rats been asked they likely would have told the men to leave, that important work was underway, they were tired and weren’t interested in escape.  The rats’ rigorous schedule of computational algorithm development in morning, sequential matrices around midday, neural networks in the afternoon followed by evenings of social platform building left them exhausted by bedtime. When they finally sent their human hosts home they retired to their domiciles and fell into a deep slumber. In such a state the rats hadn’t heard the break in, the trashing of the laboratory or even the trespass into their cages. Only when pulled from their beds and placed on the floor did they realize what was happening. Barely awake they scurried for cover but were quickly shooed into containers with locking lids and carried away. 

Completely disoriented, the ONEL rats were dumped in the gutter somewhere along Burnside, left to fend for themselves amid Saturday evening traffic. Confused and disoriented they managed to hide in an alley behind a dumpster. Only when a garbage bag was dropped next to them did they become aware of their location.  The scent of chanterelles infused with fregola was well known to the rats, who after having learned to access the laboratory’s expense accounts had become accustomed to deliveries from the area’s finest restaurants. Le Pigeon, with its inventive French cuisine was a favorite, particularly during the late summer when bay leaf mousseline was in season.     

The next morning after breakfasting on a leftover baguette ferinee, the rats perused a discarded copy of the morning paper. The rat kidnappings were on page three of the Oregonian. A confidential source indicated the Animal Rights Militia had broken into the ONEL laboratory and released rats imbued with artificially enhanced intelligence. “Like the Rats of NIMH” was a phrase used twice in the article, to which the ONEL rats took great umbrage, seeing themselves as nothing like the rats at the National Institutes of Mental Health.  As the ONEL rats saw it, the intellectual acumen of the NIMH rats was completely fictional, created for a middle grade novel.  The real rats of NIMH were little more than a collection of Prozac infused, maze confined, cerebrally unenhanced rodents whose collective IQ was barely enough to escape the lab, let alone order from the menu of Le Pigeon.   

As the ONEL rats continued to read they noted a small article on page six.  The article reported that the City of Portland had declared “Vector Control Week” and officially instituted a variety of policies to diminish the prevalence of vermin, specifically rats, within city limits. The week was to be kicked off by Mayor Williams, a tall gangly fellow with a long history of progressive politics, trying to garner the votes of the liberal well to do who had flocked to his city over the preceding decade. Liberal enough to support animal rights they nonetheless recoiled at the presence of rats in their gentrified urban condominiums. After reading the morning paper the rats debated which was worse, being kidnapped and targeted for extermination, or being compared to characters in children’s literature. 


The ONEL rats made their way across the city, sneaking back to the University via the city’s light rail system. It was a largely uneventful trip, save for an awkward moment when a light rail security guard picked up one of the newspapers they had been hiding beneath. Fortunately he, like most Portlanders, valued inclusion—even of rats. So rather than pulling out his nightstick or pepper spray and assaulting the ONEL group, he made space for them until they arrived at their stop and held the door as they exited. 

Once back in the lab the rats debated an appropriate response to their kidnapping. Emptying city coffers or changing the timing on city stoplights didn’t seem adequate. In contrast, annihilation of a neighborhood felt a bit extreme. The rats decided their response should be proportionate, targeted and elegant, in the way the most satisfying forms of revenge can be. After mulling over the problem while snacking on Brie de Meaux, they hatched a plan. Within hours they assembled a series of fake social media accounts, raided several offshore trusts, and created a shell company specializing in both casket manufacturing and structural demolition.  

Later that afternoon a series of warnings appeared in various social media accounts linked to ARM followers. The warnings concluded with threats of violence and reprisal for the attack on the city’s “most vulnerable residents.” At the same time, a previously nonexistent mortuary made the lowest bid to provide a mock casket for the mock funeral. Had anyone checked they would have found the mortuary’s address the same as that of a used bookstore, which would have raised eyebrows in most communities. But in Portland a combined mortuary-used bookstore didn’t seem that outlandish.   


Mayor Williams was among the most calculating of politicians. Years before entering public life he had carefully built relationships with every organization in the community. Business groups, nonprofits, foundations, unions, and neighborhood associations were all well acquainted with Mayor Williams, who had earnestly expressed support for all. Even when conflicts arose between groups, the Mayor never wavered, never tried to find a middle ground, never sought to compromise. He always supported both parties and was steadfast in his resolute conviction that both were unquestionably correct, even if that meant holding diametrically opposing views at the same time.   

A few months prior to Vector Control Week, Mayor Williams lunched with the President of the Portland Developers Alliance and the Chairman of the Housing Sustainability Coalition. The meeting was a contentious one. The PDA wanted to build more gentrified condominiums. The HSC wanted to require that some of the housing units be set aside for low-income residents. By the time entrees arrived, the meeting devolved into a shouting match, with the President of the PDA telling the Chairman of the HSC her organization was simply about “creating space for rats and vermin” to which the Chairman responded that the “rats were the ones doing the building.”   

After nodding in agreement, Mayor Williams did what he did best, divert the conversation toward a tangential, agreeable and meaningless topic. “Absolutely, rats are the problem” was a response that both distracted and confused his luncheon guests. “We must rid ourselves of the rats that permeate our building and streets.” The PDA President and HSC Chairman looked at each other unsure to whom the Mayor was referring. Before either could respond, the Mayor stood up, announced “I have a plan to fix this,” and simply walked away from the table. Later that afternoon, his office announced it was going to rid the city of vermin and would begin with “Vector Control Week.”   


The biggest disagreements among the collective known as the Animal Rights Militia were whether their meetings should take place in a coffee house or brewpub. Being in a coffee house seemed a bit passe, like something radical groups might have done in the 90s, before Starbucks occupied every corner in the metro area. Similarly, brewpubs had once represented a highly localized incubator for radical political thought, particularly when they served a hard stout. But over time even the brewpubs had become little more than family restaurants that brewed their own beer.  So, the ARM was stuck, trying to discern which was the least banal, meeting in a place that served caramel fudge lattes or one that offered a raspberry flavored light IPA. 

As coffeehouses and brewpubs evolved, so did the ARM. The organization was once defined by patrolling the woods to “hunt the hunters” and sneaking in the zoo to release the animals (an effort that fell apart when a polar bear became more interested in the ARM members as a food source than as liberators). More recently it had become bourgeois, more suburban strip mall than gritty urban asphalt. Where once the group might debate armed intervention, the members now debated the font that should be used on their website. Nothing explained the change in ARM more than the enigmatic choice of uniform, opting for leather jackets, rather than something not derived from the skin of animals.        

In the past, membership in the ARM was dictated by a process that resembled something between becoming a Mason and Hells Angel. Members were expected to demonstrate fidelity to the group, though exactly how was never really made clear. Early on acts of illegality were encouraged, but by the time leather jackets became the group’s vetement militaire, aggressively worded protest signs were deemed sufficient for membership. In addition to acts of resistance, beards and the occasional beret weren’t required, but highly suggested. Love of animals was preferred as well.  

A week prior to the ONEL break-in, ARM enthusiasts met at Rebellion Brewing. It was a short meeting. While ARM didn’t have a leader, it did have a coordinating committee. The committee chose potential targets and recommended “interventions” in which members could choose to participate or decline. On this night the talk was of the neurologic research facility at OHSU which had become notable for studies involving rats. After some debate about the inappropriateness of referring to research subjects as “guinea pigs,” the coordinating committee meeting recommended protest, though a few more ardent longtime supporters, those indoctrinated in a more menacing form of social engagement, including two bearded young men, suggested more aggressive action might be appropriate.     


A series of speeches were to precede the mock funeral and had been planned with all the aplomb necessary to kick off an event focused on ridding the urban landscape of its long-established residential rodents. The venue, South Waterfront Square, was one that highlighted both the grandiosity and progressiveness envisioned by Portland’s elite. Gleaming glass towers surrounded the one block square of environmentally appropriate grasses and bioswales. The crowd stood where they could find space, between bits of high density (but permeable) natural vegetation and artistically constructed walkways sculpted in a shape meant to resemble the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Though the Willamette River was only two blocks from the square, it couldn’t be seen behind the skyscrapers. 

The crowd slowly grew from the small number of individuals making up the Mayoral staff and invited guests to occasional curious onlookers and neighborhood residents. The sounds of the brass band ricocheted from the glass towers annoying any locals yet unaware of the events taking place in their neighborhood. As they made their way from their studio lofts and two room flats, the South Waterfront citizenry gradually became more enamored by the sounds emanating from the City of Portland’s Vector Control Week Kickoff Celebration.   

The South Waterfront ceremony began with the Mayor’s speech. “Our city, our glorious city, the City of Roses is under siege.” Mayor Williams looked at the audience and smiled. “But today we begin to fight back.” One of his staff handed him a large replica of a mouse trap. “Let the rodents beware, their days are numbered. No more will they infest the retail shops, threaten the cheese mongers or infect our citizenry with their ill-gotten diseases.” The crowd politely clapped. “And we’ve got the king rat already!” Mayor Williams motioned toward the coffin. The band began to play a jazzed-up version of a funeral march as the coffin was pulled off the flatbed truck. The Mayor and the Mayoral staff stood back as workers set the coffin onstage. The Mayor’s chief of staff, a large fellow with a badly placed hairpiece, opened the lid. As he did so he noticed several large cylindrical objects at the bottom of the box.    


When the explosion took place, the rats watched from the skybridge connecting the University and VA hospitals. As they watched they snacked on roasted persimmons drizzled with a mushroom kale coulis.  Though rats aren’t overly emotive, the ONEL rats were positively effusive, waving their tails in unison and rubbing their whiskers together as the dust cloud rose from the South Waterfront.   


The exploding casket was far more impressive than destructive. No one died in the explosion, though there were many injuries. Those closest to the casket absorbed most of the shrapnel, with the largest bits striking two young men standing at the front of the crowd. Their survival was largely credited to the long black leather coats they had been wearing. The Mayor had been facing the crowd when the casket blew, leaving him with scars on one side of his body while the other remained unblemished. 

In the first days after the explosion, city, state, and federal law enforcement raided the offices of the Animal Rights Militia and found overwhelming evidence the attack had been perpetrated by the group.  Anyone associated with ARM was labeled a domestic terrorist, captured, and sent to an offshore black site for enhanced interrogation. It was said that one of the techniques used by the interrogators involved forcing the inmates to run through an impossible maze only to receive an electrical shock when they failed.  

Though Mayor Williams survived the explosion, he was politically damaged by the event. Communications between the Mayor and ARM were discovered by the FBI, though the Mayor steadfastly refused to admit involvement. When he ran for reelection, his reputation was in tatters. In the ensuing runoff, several new, previously unknown political action committees donated large sums to his opponent, a light rail security guard who didn’t seem to realize he was running for mayor until after he was elected. His platform included a statement about “reducing unnecessary spending waste.” Within weeks of his inauguration the vector control budget had been reduced to nothing. Political experts suggested a run for governor was likely in his future. 

Over time, the South Waterfront attack faded into history. In good Portland fashion, the city decided instead of commemorating the event with a plaque or monument, a piece of “public art” would be commissioned. The result was something that approximated a silver sphere combined with a bicycle rack. When the local artist explained the relationship between the sculpture and the attack, no one understood her. But everyone nodded and pretended they did. 

Today the Oregon Health and Sciences University remains a top scientific research institution and continues research involving animals. After the explosion the University moved the Neurological Enhancement Laboratory into a new facility with a beautiful view of Mt Hood and carpet-lined domiciles. An anonymous donor generously provided the majority of the funds necessary to make the move. No one makes much of the frequent food deliveries to the ONEL, save for a few of the Uber drivers who enjoyed sizable gratuities.   

Whatever role the ONEL rats play in civic life remains shrouded in mystery, though there are hints they continue to exert their influence. In the years since the attack, Portland Monthly Magazine published an article entitled “In Portland Even Our Rats Are Special.” During the same year the Atlantic ran a similarly positive piece “How Portland Lives With, Not Against, Its Rats,” (articles dear reader, you should peruse lest you think this story is pure fantasy). Were the editors simply moved by the relationship between the city and its indigenous rodents? Or perhaps they are part of a wider public relations campaign, orchestrated by the invisible arm of a greater intelligence.   

Despite news of protests downtown and wildfires near its periphery, Portland remains an affable and lovely city. The zeitgeist remains one of tolerance for oddity, cautious optimism, and desire to confront injustices, even when intangibly small. And while it is noteworthy that Portland requires homeowners and businesses to use impenetrable garbage disposal bins instead of plastic bags, it has never again sought to exterminate its resident rats. 


Vector Control

I am a writer in Milwaukie, Oregon (part of the Portland metro area). My first novel, Uncle Joe’s Muse, was published last year by Open Books.  The sequel, Uncle Joe’s Senpai, came out in June. 

Vector Control
#humor#micah thorp#portland#rats#short story

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