Twisted Fate

Following the defeat of Covid-19, a deadly new mutation of “Mad Cow” brain disease turns victims slowly psychopathic as it spreads through the population.


Twisted Fate: Synopsis

Set in the near future, Twisted Fate follows the struggles of a young Silicon Valley couple, ZOE OHRBACH and BRIAN SNYDER. Following the defeat of Covid-19, the human race comes under attack from a new disease caused by prions—twisted, warped proteins that spread, infect, and distort brain functions. The disease is called APS, Acquired Psychopathy Syndrome, because it attacks the area of the brain that contains our conscience, empathy, and compassion. APS gradually turns victims into sociopaths and is ultimately fatal.

The disease resulted from a mutation in a prize bull imported from Switzerland in 2007, evading agricultural safeguards. it incubates as long as 20 years. Once acute symptoms emerge, death follows within a year. As with all prion diseases, there is no treatment, no prevention, and no cure.


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From this one herd, APS has been spreading unsuspected through the American population. Now, a substantial minority of people carry the prion, and some are evolving into full-blown psychopaths—though many are not yet symptomatic.

Once a test is devised, panic erupts as people learn they are positive for disease. Nobody knows how long they have before they convert into “psychs.”

When the story opens, Zoe and Brian, young healthy Silicon Valley techies, take the test, and to their horror, Brian is positive for the prion. He is immediately “microchipped” to indicate his infected status. Although Zoe tested negative, the potential for human-to-human spread is still unknown. Facing madness and death, the couple commit to one another no matter how grim the future.

As the massive scope of the disease emerges, the president declares martial law. The military tests and purges the infected. Social and economic collapse follow. Fearing that Brian will soon be arrested and quarantined in a work camp, the couple hide out in their now-deserted condominium, paralyzed with indecision.

Zoe had heard of a sanctuary for “psychs,” in the Mojave Desert. The couple flee south through an unrecognizable landscape of homelessness, squatting and crime. People, both infected and uninfected, have lost their jobs and taken to the roads; families live in their cars or camp along the highways.

The divide between rich and poor widens, with the wealthy walling themselves off in heavily guarded luxury enclaves. The government sets up quarantined labor farms where the infected tend crops for crude housing and sustenance.

Now, Zoe is challenged to protect Brian and help him stay out of the hands of the gestapo-like Infection Control Squads. Meanwhile, she watches with fear that his personality is beginning to be affected by the disease. He had rescued her from a lonely life and helped her heal her emotional scars. Her loyalty to him now is unquestionable.

When a military squad arrives at 3:00 a.m. one morning to sweep their complex for carriers, Zoe and Brian watch in horror as neighbors are pulled out and loaded into trucks. The couple had stockpiled food, gasoline, a gun, and other supplies in case they had to go on the run. As the squad fires the complex, Zoe and Brian barely evade capture and take off driving south.

Their goal is one of the sanctuaries that political rebels have been setting up in remote areas. Brian and Zoe have vague directions to a nearly uninhabited region of the Mojave Desert.

Driving without rest, they manage to reach the Mojave before their car gives out on a long-abandoned road. Trying to evade vigilantes, bandits, and military patrols, the couple cache their belongings and set out to walk the remaining miles to the sanctuary—if it even exists.

When a car with two young men in it, SETH and CHUCK, offers a lift, they are at first grateful, but are later brutally attacked and beaten. Brian manages to shoot Chuck and wound Seth severely.

Zoe and Brian now face the moral quandary of what to do with Seth, who claims to be an evolutionary biologist, unaware of his lab tech Chuck’s violent intentions. Zoe convinces Brian not to leave Seth to die in the desert. They put him in the back seat of the car and take off.

When they arrive at “Destination Hope,” they realize that it is not a sanctuary at all but a cultish research lab. The government is funding off-the-grid facilities in the hope that they will find a cure if they are not held back by ethics on human experimentation.

Brian and Zoe find themselves prisoners—not only of their creepy hosts, but of the unsurvivable Mojave. They watch for the opportunity to steal a car and escape as researchers plan a risky treatment on Brian.

Zoe pretends to accept the researchers’ goals. She integrates herself into the life of the facility and even begins a romantic relationship with Seth, who is powerfully attracted to her. Brian has no future, Seth tells Zoe; he may soon threaten her life.

Falling under Seth’s lovemaking and scientific brilliance, Zoe is conflicted and guilty. After a trip with Seth to the desert, she shares a mysterious drug with him and wanders through a ghostly landscape, convinced that she does not inhabit her body.

Meanwhile, Brian has stolen a vial of Rohypnol and injected his technician. With the help of a security guard he has bribed, he steals a van and escapes. When Brian appears and confronts Seth, Zoe is forced to make a quick choice. She decides to escape with him, and they drive off into the deadly desert.

But Zoe soon realizes that Brian is no longer the man she knew. He admits that he wants to kill her for her infidelity. Instead, he stops and orders her out of the car. Zoe realizes that Seth was right. She sets out to walk the fifteen miles back to Destination Hope as Brian drives away into his uncertain future.



Zoe Ohrbach is twenty-eight years old, five feet ten inches tall, and slim, thanks to her mother’s unrelenting oversight. Don’t ever get heavy, she would warn, the word thundering like a brontosaurus stride.


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“I had a tough childhood; I radiated the pick-on-me pheromone; any bully within ten miles was sure to find me. Everything I wanted was harmful and wrong: food, sex, pills, liquor. I gorged on novels, my lonely sanctuary. And I nursed the foolish notion that someday, love would cure me: momentary love, sequential love, sick love, forbidden love—it didn’t matter. But love of any kind only retreated farther from my grasp.

When I left home, I packed along my emotional scars. I was a sucker for dares, drugs and flattery. After graduating college, I began to wander and drift with whatever current caught me. Somehow, I’d find my way home and show up for some meaningless job, throbbing with bruised recollections.

Brian changed all that. He found me where I huddled, so that I began to become someone I cared about. When I met him, I hid my feelings until they grew too strong, and I went all in. And that risk unified and healed me. Even now, though, love feels like a package delivered to the wrong address.

Happiness isn’t some “natural state.” Happiness is sporadic and conditional, fragile and cruelly brief. With Brian, I’ve been happy, and so I will follow this path, wherever it leads. I know that Brian loves me as best he can. And if I buy my own candy and flowers, so what? Faithful for a lifetime? Who thinks about such things anymore?



Brian: “I used to be a man, but now I’m just a fucking downed cow. A piece of tainted livestock. They oughta just shoot me and then spray me with disinfectant and burn me.”


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If you had seen Brian a couple of years ago, you would have instantly placed him as a frat boy perfectly suited to high-tech sales. Zoe and Brian were “that techie couple”, with their jobs in software and iPhones and jargon.

During those first weeks following his diagnosis, Zoe sees that Brian is trying to buffer her from his fear, to reassure and protect her. He shows a stoicism and protectiveness that she had not suspected were there. He didn’t want her to suffer. But would this side of him change as the disease manifested?

Brian begins to second-guess himself to make sure he was being “appropriate.” It hurts Zoe to see the irreverent skeptic losing his breezy humor and confidence. Her comforting would wear off like an ointment, exposing again the raw fear beneath. Brian becomes preoccupied, quieter: “I imagined him slipping away. Was I losing him then, not to a sexy woman or a sexy job, but to a twisted bunch of warped molecules?”

With his job gone, Brian spends a lot of time “training for the apocalypse.” That means practicing martial arts and learning how to shoot a.38 that his sister had given him years before. The couple try to buy another gun, but they were sold out everywhere.

Brian and Zoe take to breaking into boarded up stores, abandoned condominiums, and closed businesses at night, looking for food, weapons and supplies they can barter in the growing black market. They stockpile weed, drugs, water and food as they prepare to take off.


Seth is a handsome young man in his late twenties. Deep in the Mojave, Seth and his lab tech, Chuck, stop for Zoe and Brian, offering the couple a ride. But well-armed, Chuck knocks Zoe unconscious and ties her up despite Seth’s protests. They plan to bring her along and leave Brian dead in the desert.


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But Brian is able to shoot Chuck and then turns on Seth, who pleads his innocence and flees. Brian shoots Seth several times, wounding him severely. When Zoe awakens, she realizes that Seth is still alive and prevails on Brian to bring him in Chuck’s car to Destination Hope to save his life. Brian prefers to leave Seth to the coyotes and snakes.

Seth explains he is an environmental scientist working at Destination Hope to find a cure for the prion pandemic. Now Zoe and Brian are confronted with a dilemma: Do they bring him along to Destination Hope or leave him in the desert to die?

Seth’s eyes are bloodshot and sunken with suffering. His face is pale. He does not have long to live. Brian kicks dust onto the bleeding man. But Zoe offers him water and insists that they bring him. Brian unwillingly agrees.

Zoe uses her first aid skills to prevent Seth from going into shock. “The moment the car started moving, confusion overwhelmed me, Zoe reflects. “I now found myself in the odd position of protecting my attacker against my defender. I fully believed that, if given the chance, Brian would finish Seth off.”


Tom is Medical Director of Destination Hope. He is tall and narrow-shouldered, with irregular features; his weakish chin sports a small tuft of beard at the tip. He wears thick glasses, and his graying, pale brown hair has thinned into a small, disconnected patch in front; the hair around the bald spot nearly touches his shoulders. He is responsible for running the entire organization under the guidance of the Founder, Stathis Vallandros, a noted medical researcher and leader of the effort to cure APS. Tom is short tempered, abrupt, and enigmatic. He tries to hide his attraction to Zoe, especially from his officious wife, ANNE.


Destination Hope is a well-funded lab and hospital with a chosen staff of researchers. Although Tom Keys insists that their experimental subjects are volunteers, Zoe and Brian realize that they are prisoners, trapped without transportation out of the Mojave and at the mercy of the well-provisioned facility and its Founder, Stathis Vallandros. When they are not working, the staff holds parties and treats themselves to luxurious foods and liquor, courtesy of Vallandros’s connections with the government.



Brian and Zoe rented an overpriced town house among upscale malls and office parks. But now, the office parks lie empty and overgrown, their fountains dry, clogged with dead leaves and old food wrappers. Their neighbors have either fled or were hauled away. The sight of heavily armed soldiers on city streets is now common.

Everywhere, people are on the move, in a constant, aimless migration. Masses of unemployed have taken to the roads. When they run out of gas and money, they live in their vehicles, or in tents. Desperate wanderers and fugitives survive on whatever they can beg, steal or barter. Early on, gasoline was rationed for the military and government. Whatever was left over or could be skimmed off became part of a vast black market, keeping the rich provided.


Now that the sun was up, Zoe could see the flat, endless fields of the San Joaquin Valley extending east, and the occasional barns and houses, some torn down for firewood. Signs guiding travelers to gas and food were covered with graffiti warning that everything was closed and kiss your ass goodbye. As a rest stop flashed past, she saw that it had been turned into a tent city. A large crowd of people are milling around, some drinking and playing guitars. Gas stations visible from the freeway are now either boarded up or had insanely long lines inching toward the pumps.


The couple finally takes the turnoff into the Mojave Desert, traveling across land increasingly dry and desolate, ending up on an ancient road whose pavement had long ago disintegrated. The rocks looked as if one good kick would crumble them to dust. Bushes grew twisted into grotesque shapes, and the whole area seemed mummified. Plants looked dead, but peering closer, you would notice tiny blue-green needles or grudging little leaves protruding from gnarled and knotted branches. The dry heat had leached away the surface signs of life, but not its resilience. Each plant hoarded its tiny quantum of moisture and hung on grimly.

Seth tells the couple they are in Afton Canyon, about 40 miles east of Barstow in an area called the “Lonely Triangle.” “I could not help noticing the otherworldly beauty of the approaching soda lake. Hit by the slanting sun, it mirrored back a serene and unrippled surface the color of mercury in some places and spectral blue or magenta in others. It was like the landscape of another planet or an alien moon.”


Far ahead, there seemed to be a break on the horizon; scattered structures shimmered in the distance. One was two stories tall, surrounding by outbuildings that looked like motels and bungalows. A large, green and white sign, concave at the sides, said “Destination Hope” in black lettering. Getting closer, they notice a manicured expanse of green lawn jarring against the browns and grays of the greater landscape. A long, one-story building painted dental white, sported green trim and trellises around the windows. Inside, the walls are hung with prints of desert plants and picturesque old mines and gas stations. One broad hallway has doors every few yards, the walls as uniformly white and featureless as some science fiction scenario. Inside their room, Zoe and Brian find a spotless white chest of drawers. The bedspreads and carpeting are a matching cross-grained plaid of blue-green, brown, and pale yellow. Slatted blinds keep out the sun.


A fence that looked about eight feet high, made of wooden strips woven so tightly around a metal frame that you could not see through unless you put your eye right up against it. Tom Keys opens a gate and Zoe enters a courtyard.

Instantly, the temperature drops by a good twenty degrees. A fountain shaped like a swan vomits a stream of clear water into a large white circular ceramic pool. They are surrounded by sparkling green lawns that embrace a large white wood and brick mansion. A curved pathway paved with whitewashed stones leads up to the door, painted a bright green that matches the lawn. White Ionic pillars held up the roof over the veranda. It looked like a vintage Kentucky thoroughbred estate.

“When we entered this grand building, I saw immediately that it had been converted into a hospital. We turned down a spotless, white-walled hallway, everything buffed and polished to a high gleam. Something about the place hearkens to an upper-class German spa of the 1900s: the strangely old-fashioned uniforms and caps of the nurses and their quaint hairstyles—finger waves, or short “Buster Brown” cuts hanging straight.

Those nurses are straight out of central casting: one is about forty, plump and sturdy, with two fat golden braids wrapped around her head. Her wide-cheeked face and ample pigeon’s bosom under her starched shirtfront made the nickname “Brunhilda” irresistible.

“The uniforms are for morale,” says Tom, “to remind the staff that they’re part of an honored tradition. Discipline, protocol, duty—all of it is at risk of falling away. We want nurses and medical staff to reconnect with the professionalism that medicine used to embody. And it’s working.”

Those nurses are straight out of central casting: one is about forty, plump and sturdy, with two fat golden braids wrapped around her head. Her wide-cheeked face and ample pigeon’s bosom under her starched shirtfront made the nickname “Brunhilda” irresistible.

“The uniforms are for morale,” says Tom, “to remind the staff that they’re part of an honored tradition. Discipline, protocol, duty—all of it is at risk of falling away. We want nurses and medical staff to reconnect with the professionalism that medicine used to embody. And it’s working.”


Despite her loyalty to Brian and plan to free him at the earliest opportunity, Zoe integrates into the lifestyle of Destination Hope. She befriends a worker there named ARIEL, whom Brian had attacked and beaten up on their first arrival and helps her with administrative tasks.

Seth takes Zoe on a picnic into the Mojave, and she finds herself falling in love with him.    “So what if I did manage to think of some way to spring Brian? Make it across the desert and try to subsist among the ruins of Las Vegas?

Dodging vigilantes or police—or the packs of renegade psychos hiding away in the ruined cities.

These might now be resorting to cannibalism, Tom had said, ritual hunts and frightening games; anything novel and depraved enough to keep them amused in their sinking, terminal depravity.

Here at Destination Hope, she was safe. Seth explains the evolution of the desert:

“Think of this place not thousands or even millions but billions of years ago. Think about nothing alive at all on earth—no animals, no fish or plants. There’s not even oxygen in the atmosphere yet. After a billion or so years of utter sterility, some tentative, primitive cyanobacteria, barely in the realm of living things emerge—and yet their destiny is to evolve into… everything.” After eating, we made love atop all the billions of years, feeling as though everything had happened only to lead up to this very moment.


Back in her room at Destination Hope, Zoe looks back: Seth had collapsed on the floor and Brian was in his place. She let out a loud gasp, and Brian placed his finger to his lips.

I stood shocked, my heart pounding. “Where did you come from?”

“Just come with me,” Brian said. “This guy means you no good. This whole place is a front, a cult. Vallandros is just a fast-talking guy who scammed the government.

Or maybe they’re in cahoots with him, who knows? Just grab the backpack and let’s go before he wakes up. I oughta finish the job this time.”

“What did you do to Seth?” I yanked the backpack up and put it on.

“I shot him up with something they give people to keep them quiet.”