Back in the days before everything fell apart, people were always talking about "Saving The World." What a poorly worded sentiment. The Earth itself was in no need of "saving". The planet had gotten along fine without us for more than four billion years. Time and again, it had been subjected to cataclysms well beyond any which we could inflict upon it. Each time some life survived and, after a few ticks of the geological clock, grew to diversify and flourish once more. So, what people really meant by "Saving The World," was the far different, and far more selfish, idea of maintaining the planet in a condition that would sustain us. The underlying assumption was that as long as we didn't destroy ourselves, our species would continue in perpetuity. However, the one lesson of evolutionary biology that we always seemed to ignore is that extinction comes to most species eventually. When a species becomes too comfortable in its niche, even when the environment is stable, nature adjusts to move things along. Nothing lasts forever. The belief that a species that had been around for a mere million years would somehow be above all this just because of a slightly larger and more wrinkled brain was nothing more than sheer hubris. In one of those funny twists of fate, the source of our arrogance turned out to be the avenue of our end.
The instrument of our undoing was a virus that infected certain tissues of the brain. At some point before the end, the nasty little mass of nucleic acids and protein was named, appropriately enough, the Apocalypse Virus.
Patient zero died on December 21, 2012 in a small town outside Chicago. I still recall seeing the story on the news. The poor guy, after working all day without incident, had gone to bed complaining of a headache shortly after having dinner with his family. When his wife had gone to check on him a few hours later, he was dead. This story, while sad, would never have made the national news were it not for the manner of his death. The man's eyes were so bloodshot that they were little more than pupils in a sea of scarlet. Even worse, by the time his wife found him, he had nearly bled out completely through his mouth, nose and ears. The man's family didn't have much time to mourn. Within a few days, they, too, were gone.
By Christmas, a thousand more had died all across the Midwest. Panic grew exponentially. Even though no one knew where AV had come from, there was a growing amount of speculation. As my granddaddy had always told me, "Never let your own ignorance keep you from speaking up and telling it how you see it." Some said that it had gotten loose as the result of an accident at some big government lab. Others said that it had been created and released by terrorists who didn't realize just how potent a weapon they had wrought. Still others said that it was a curse placed upon us by a wrathful deity to punish us for our sins. Of course, the nature of the sins for which we were allegedly being punished varied widely depending on where you were.
By the end of January, the death toll had risen to over a million with cases reported in more than one hundred cities world wide. It was around this time that we had our first two survivors. Sort of. There was one in Australia who survived the disease with no ill effects other than permanently bloodshot eyes. Based on my few Aussie friends, he probably didn't even notice the difference. The other survivor was from California. He wasn't quite so lucky. The illness robbed him of all higher brain functions. No, he wasn't a vegetable. The best explanation I can give is that he was left with id, but no ego. The base drives were all there. He wanted to eat and mate and instinctively knew how to do so. However, these drives were completely unconstrained by anything resembling reason, morality, or intellect.
By April, roughly a third of the Earth's human population was gone. Entire cities had completely dropped off the grid. While there were also a growing number of survivors of the illness, the vast majority of them fell into the nearly brain dead category. Martial law was in effect in every country which still functioned as a nation. Any travel was discouraged by frequent checkpoints manned by men with gas masks and automatic weapons. As a result, most of those who were left who had not yet contracted the disease sealed themselves in their homes in the hope that the disease would pass them by. Others, like myself, kept going about their usual business, at least to the extent that was possible, out of habit and out of a deep abiding belief that the government would surely find a cure before too long. Unreasoning faith in authority is, after all, one of the defining characteristics of our species.
I'm an attorney. To be more specific, I 'm a corporate lawyer employed by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, a company which, despite the name, produces a lot of glass coatings but very little actual glass. On April 12, 2013, the CEO, our third in the last two months by reason of attrition, asked for a volunteer to take a sample of a polishing compound to the CDC's main research lab in New York City. It seems that several of the individuals who were exposed to the compound on a regular basis as a part of doing their jobs had survived the disease with brain functions intact.
There was, of course, a high probability that this was just coincidence and they would have survived anyway, but our species was circling the drain and we couldn't fail to explore any possibility, however remote. After all, random accidental discoveries had brought huge advancements in the past. Like Post-Its.
A few months earlier and the sample could easily have been sent by mail or Federal Express. Now, however, those services were all but nonexistent. Those who worked in jobs with a high amount of contact with the general public, and those who worked with these people, had been among the first to get infected. While the USPS still did its best, the screening procedures that had been implemented for all mailed items and the ongoing loss of personnel meant that any package sent by mail would take more than a month to arrive at its destination, if it ever did.
I volunteered. Yes, I know it was foolish to go into a major metropolis during the height of a global pandemic, but I was young and still had that irrational belief in my own immortality which is exclusive to the very young and the very foolish. Besides, it had been strongly implied that if I succeeded in this task, undertaken at such great personal risk, I would receive a significant promotion and pay raise. What can I say? Even with a third of the world's population dead, money still talked.
The plague had wreaked havoc on our transportation industry. With most of the consumer base either dead or holed up in their homes, there wasn't any real demand for plane seats. So little, in fact, that all of the commercial airlines had shut down even before martial law had been imposed. The government had, fortunately, stepped in to provide limited domestic service but this was available only for travelers with tasks the government deemed essential. Given the nature of my business, I apparently passed this test. After a blood test and a few hours, my supervisor presented me with my very own bright and shiny travel pass.
On the bright side, getting through security was a breeze. The few TSA staff still on duty simply waved travelers along while eyeing them fearfully over the top of their medical masks.
The fear of infection apparently overrode the sadistic glee which they had formerly taken in the zealous, or overzealous, performance of their duties. Besides, the mere presence of a person in an airport meant that they had been screened and were on business that the government considered critical. Not exactly a high terrorist risk.
The flight itself was uneventful. I was one of only three people on the plane, dispersed to provide the greatest possible distance between us. There was no small talk and no flight service.
Conversation risked contamination
I had been to LeGuardia Airport a number of times in the past. This time was much different. Gone was the hum of thousands of separate conversations blended together. Gone were the throngs of people anxious to be about their business. In their place were a handful of silent travelers, anonymous behind their white medical masks, hurrying through the airport to be about whatever task they thought was critical enough to risk their lives over. While there were a few civilians like myself, most of my fellow travelers wore either the cheap black suits or the rare biohazard containment outfits that stamped them as belonging to some government agency or another.
Even the great airport itself was suffering from the effects of the plague. Despite the greatly reduced traffic, the floor was dulled with scuff marks. Every level surface was covered with a fine layer of dust, marred only by the occasional hand print. The windows were smeared and dirty, and peering through them I could make out more than a few weeds sticking from the tarmac.
There was supposed to be a courier waiting for me, but there was no sign of him. After waiting for the CDC representative for more than an hour and getting no response when I called the contact number I had been given, I decided that I would have to take the sample to them. As one would expect, the car rental agencies were sealed up tight and there were no taxis to be had outside the terminal. Fortunately, by some miracle, the MTA still had the M60 bus in service, the driver outfitted in what appeared to be an army surplus gas mask and chemical protection suit. I was the only passenger the entire way to Broadway and 106 St.
Flanked by boarded up and vacant buildings, this portion of Manhattan was much like the airport had been. The street was every bit as desolate as one of the wild west ghost towns I had visited on vacation a few years ago. All that was needed to complete the picture was a tumbleweed blowing down the street. As with the airport, other life was taking advantage of the reduced human activity. Weeds sprouted from myriad cracks in the pavement of the streets and sidewalks. Some small scavenger, either a cat or a possum, rooted through garbage cans across the street. Silently I wished the beast luck; from the look of things, pickings would be meager at best. The air was still noisome, although for a far different reason than in days past. Faded to the point of being nearly imperceptible was the overpowering combination of car exhaust, endless varieties of ethnic food and the colognes, perfumes and body odor of thousands upon thousands of people which had been omnipresent during my previous visits to the city. Now the air was filled with the smell of decay, so powerful it nearly triggered my gag reflex with every breath I took. Apparently, I reasoned, here, like in most major cities, services had broken down and the bodies of the plague victims were left where they fell. This last thought was punctuated as I spooked a small flock of crows on my way to the subway. As they flew away, I caught sight of the object of their feast: a human arm and hand, stripped of flesh to the bone in places, protruded from a small alleyway. I clutched my mask tighter to my face, averted my eyes and continued on my way.
I took the subway to Union Square, feeling fortunate that the train system had been fully automated a few years ago. Here, closer to the financial district, there was some traffic in the streets and a few people walking along the sidewalks. Most of the latter wore paper hospital gowns over their clothes in addition to the ubiquitous medical masks. There were metal barrels in front of every building in sight. I looked at these in confusion for a moment until one of the other pedestrians used a barrel to dispose of his paper gown in a gout of flame before entering the building. As with the rest of the city that I had seen so far, the shops and bars were boarded up.
Sadly, I saw that Pete's Tavern was among these. I had many fond memories of grabbing a beer and filling up on bar food there before the plague. Idly, I wondered if I ever would again.
It took me a while to find the CDC lab. The place hadn't been there the last time I was in town, but had sprung up almost overnight to take advantage of the vast medical expertise, and, as the cynical side of me noted, the vast number of potential patients, available in the huge city.
When I did find it, I have to admit that I wasn't very impressed. They had simply retrofitted a small office building with an airlock and filtration system and added some caulking to make the windows airtight. Near the airlock was a small intercom system and a camera. I pressed the call button and waited. After a few minutes had passed, I pressed it again, much longer this time. A few more minutes passed and I pressed it repeatedly. There was still no response. Just for the hell of it, I stepped over to the door and gave it a tug, almost falling over backwards when it opened with unexpected ease. I stepped inside and was immediately doused with a strong smelling disinfectant dispensed from what looked like a standard sprinkler system.
After my soaking was complete, I tried the inner door and found it to also be unlocked.
The lobby of the building was dominated by a large security desk manned by a single security guard in a medical containment suit. A hose snaked from his suit to a series of pipes which had obviously been installed recently and with little regard for aesthetics. The guard was semi reclined in his chair with feet on the desk, head back and arms folded in his lap. His automatic weapon lay casually on the desk top next to his feet.
Dripping wet and pissed off, I went to wake him. When I shook his shoulder, his head flopped forward and I stared into his unblinking eyes, pin points of black in a field of red.
Fearfully, I backed quickly away from him, belatedly noting the large flashing words on the terminal in front of him, "Biohazard Containment Failure." I'm ashamed to admit it, but I fled the building. Even though I possessed what might be the salvation of humanity, I didn't look for survivors. I simply beat feet.
I ran through the streets for at least an hour before my panic began to subside. There had to be other labs, right? All I had to do was find out where one was and get the sample to them.
First, though, I needed to find something to eat and a place to sleep. The original plan had been that the CDC was going to put me up for the night before I caught a flight home the following day. So much for that.
I walked for another two hours before I found a hotel that was still in operation.
Checking in was complicated slightly by the thick sheet of plexiglass that had been erected to separate customers from the manager. The port that had been installed in the transparent wall to allow the exchange of a key card for cash was a makeshift affair that was, apparently, quite prone to jamming. Once checked in, my room was everything one would expect from a five star establishment, although everything from the toilet to the bed covers was sealed with plastic wrap festooned with a bright red paper ribbon that proudly proclaimed that the item had been sterilized for my safety. After splashing some water on my face, I placed a quick order to room service and pulled out my laptop to check the news and find an alternate CDC lab.
I did try turning the tv on to CNN, but, as in Pittsburgh, it consisted of nothing but inefficient scrolling text and loud Emergency Broadcast System announcements. Live news shows had been pretty much universally discontinued the previous month, but one can always hope.
There was no good news. Over the past few days, communications from the Peoples Republic of China, Bangladesh, Singapore ... hell, all of the most densely populated countries, had abruptly ceased entirely. Across the country, the institutions, mostly prisons and mental hospitals, that had been caring for the mindless survivors of AV were closing their doors to additional patients. Apparently, even though census numbers for those places were down significantly, staff levels were also down and it was much harder to care for people who were rabid, cannibalistic sex offenders. Sadly, I also learned that AV wasn't limited to humans, but had spread to other primates as well. Mountain gorillas, chimpanzees and the like, were now all but extinct. There was, of course, still no reliable vaccine and no cure in sight.
I also discovered that the closest CDC lab still in operation was in DuBois, Pennsylvania, a town less than a two hour drive from my home. Although I was a little upset that I had been sent to New York instead of there in the first place, I figured that there must have been a good reason.
I sent them an email, copied to my employer, telling them of the fate of the NYC facility and requesting instructions concerning the sample I possessed.
My reading was interrupted by a knock on the door accompanied by a muffled voice calling out, "Room service." When I opened the door, all that greeted me was a plastic tray sitting on the floor. No one was in sight. I guess the hotel staff member who brought it didn't think that any potential tip I might give him was worth risking his life over. Looking down, I groaned in consternation: the fare offered to me by this fine five star hotel consisted of a vacuum sealed microwave dinner and a bottle of water. It was steak, though, just as I had ordered.
Across the plastic covering my meal were again stamped the words, "Sterilized for your safety and ours."
After eating, I popped a couple of aspirin to take care of a minor headache I could feel setting in and went to bed.
I awoke in such pain that I tried to scream in agony. Really, I tried. For at least ten minutes I tried and tried and tried again. All that emerged from my parched lips was a rasping croak. It didn't help that my swollen tongue was quite firmly adhered to the roof of my mouth.
With great difficulty, I managed to open eyes coated with a crust so thick it felt like cement. I shouldn't have bothered. Even with my eyes open there wasn't much to see as the room was just barely lit by a soft orange glow coming from the window. Standing was out of the question, but I did manage to roll off of the bed to the floor. With my fingertips, I laboriously clawed my way to the garbage can where I had deposited the remains of my last meal and retrieved the half empty bottle of water.
That first sip of water was better than the finest wine I had ever had. Greedily, I gulped down the entire remaining contents of the bottle. Big mistake. I immediately threw it back up.
From somewhere, I had a dim recollection of hearing that in severe cases of dehydration, it was necessary to rehydrate extremely slowly.
Even the little water I had managed to retain had restored some of my strength and I was able to crawl slowly to the bathroom on my hands and knees. I turned the spigots on the sink and ... nothing. Same with the bath tub. In desperation, I turned to the only other source of water available and used my hand to scoop some water from the toilet bowl to my parched lips. Things were a blur for a while after that. During each period of semi-clarity, I did manage to choke down at least a little water. I have no idea how much time passed, but when I was finally able to retain consciousness, the toilet bowl was nearly empty and the room was much brighter.
Standing shakily, I moved into the main room and discovered that it was still night, or maybe it was night again. Hard to say. Either way, the source of the brightness was the glow I had noticed when I originally awoke. The source of the glow was readily apparent. The entire skyline was in flames! For a time, I was so overwhelmed by horror that I could do nothing but grasp desperately at the bathroom door frame. How was such a thing even possible?
How could fire spread so profusely among those towering edifices of glass, steel and concrete?
Why had no one come for me? I went to the bedside phone to call the front desk, but there was no dial tone. The only real option available seemed to be to go to the lobby to see if there was an evacuation procedure. I flicked the light switch so I could collect my necessities, but there was no power.
Working by feel more than sight, I managed to dress and gather my briefcase, a change of underwear and some toiletries. I couldn't find my watch. Thus provisioned, I headed into the windowless hall. It was pitch black. I had noticed a number of emergency lights when I had arrived, but they were lifeless. Again, I wondered how long I had been out. Surely it couldn't have been too long or I would have died from dehydration. Putting these thoughts aside, I felt my way down the hall. I have no idea how I managed to fumble my way through the lightless corridor and then down ten flights of steps without breaking my neck, but I made it.
The lobby was vacant. Even the plexiglass shielded manager was nowhere in sight. I beat on that barrier as fiercely as I could with my fists, but there was no response. Mentally striking myself on the forehead, I pulled my cell phone from my briefcase. No service. A quick glance around the lobby revealed that this hotel had followed the standard practice of removing all public phones. Such easy avenues of infection could not be permitted.
After a few moments of thought, the best idea I could come up with was to find a police station. Although I did not recall passing one during my wanderings after the visit to the CDC lab, there surely had to be one close by. With this tenuous plan in mind, I stumbled out onto the sidewalk. The air outside was thick with smoke and the tall buildings around me allowed only a diffuse glow to penetrate to street level. I shouted for help several times, but there was no reply.
Was I the last person left in the city? I was not familiar with this part of the city and hesitated for a long while before choosing a direction of travel. Even though my life could quite possibly depend on finding help fairly quickly, I ended up basing the decision on a hastily muttered,
"Eenie, Meenie, Minie Moe."
As I stumbled down the street, still weak from my illness, it occurred to me that I had survived infection by the Apocalypse Virus. The hysterical laughter that bubbled up from deep inside me was so violent that I had to stop for a moment and grab hold of a lamp post to stay upright. My certainty in my own immortality had been validated!
An explosion followed by the sound of collapsing masonry dispelled my mirth, and I continued on my path. Through gaps in the buildings, I could see the flames roaring into the sky just blocks away. Under my breath, I muttered, "I did not survive the damn AV just to get roasted alive," over and over again like a mantra. Repetition did not help me to believe.
It had never entered my mind that I was in any personal danger, aside from that posed by the fire. So, when I heard footsteps pounding towards me, I happily turned towards the sound, raising my hand in greeting. Any gleeful exclamation that I might have uttered died on my lips.
The man racing toward me was dressed only in a tattered, filthy hospital gown, darkly stained down the front. As he grew nearer, his lips pulled away from broken teeth in a silent snarl.
Throughout his approach, I stood dumbly, hand still partially raised. The brief hope I had felt replaced by fear so intense it turned my knees to water.
Then he was upon me, the stench of him so overpowering it made me gag. He ran into me without slowing, his momentum carrying us both to the pavement. The feel of his fingers closing on my throat finally broke through my mental paralyzation. Any thought of pleading for my life was dispelled by the look of animalistic fury in his bloodshot eyes. There was nothing of sanity there, only rage. From flat on my back I drove my fist into his face and had the satisfaction of feeling his nose break beneath my hand. Hot blood rained down on my face and chest. He gave no sign of having felt my blow but tightened his grip on my throat while slamming the back of my head into the pavement hard enough that I saw stars.
Again I hit him, this time even more ineffectually. I couldn't breathe! As the edges of my vision began to blur, I grasped at his hands, trying to break his grip on my windpipe. His hands might as well have been steel bands for all the effect I had. In a final act of desperation, I humped my hips upward as violently and quickly as I could and was rewarded by seeing him tumble over my head, his hands torn from my throat. Mentally I thanked the trainer at my old gym who had insisted that I finish each work out with multiple sets of ab crunches.
Gasping for air, I rolled in the opposite direction, trying to gain my feet before he came for me again. I had managed to get to my knees when I saw him rushing at me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my heavy Samsonite briefcase lying on the edge of the sidewalk a mere four feet away. I lunged for it and grasped the handle with the tips of my fingers just as he connected with my midriff in a full body tackle, sending us tumbling again. As we both hurried to get upright, I brought the briefcase around as hard as I could. He saw it coming and started to pull back, but the corner caught him on the temple with a satisfying crunch, sending him back down to the pavement. As he pushed himself to his knees, I struggled to my feet and kicked him in the stomach with all of my remaining strength. The air left his lungs in a loud "Humph!" and he fell backwards, gasping for air.
Grasping my briefcase in both hands, I looked down upon him. Had there been fear in his bloodshot eyes, I would like to think that I would have stopped. But there wasn't. There was only bestial fury. Raising my briefcase high above my head, I brought it down upon him, falling to my knee to put all my weight behind it. I cannot describe the sound that was made when the heavy luggage connected with his head, but there was a resonance of dreadful finality to it that tore at the very foundations of my soul. He convulsed once and was still.
Gasping for air and clutching at my bruised and abraded throat I again struggled to my feet. I looked with revulsion at the blood spattered briefcase I still held with one hand and threw it violently from me. I was a murderer! A killer! The fact that I had no choice was but small consolation. I drew a breath to call again for help, but was silenced by the thought that there might be others out there. Others like him. It took some time, but eventually I regained my composure. Before continuing on my quest, I walked over to my briefcase and removed the sample, placing it in my coat pocket. I couldn't bring myself to reclaim the luggage turned murder weapon.
Less than a hundred yards from the site of the struggle, I found a police station. Through the sooty windows, I could make out some dim lights, giving me hope that, even if the place were vacant, I could at least make a few calls before the generator gave out. When I opened the door, I was assailed by the intense odor of rotting meat, ending any hope I had of finding living assistance. The reception room was fairly large with rows of wooden benches facing towards a service counter. To the left of the service counter was a door that presumably led to the inner portions of the station. It was, of course, locked.
Still retching occasionally from the intense smell of putrification, I hopped up on the service counter, reclined to avoid the half window and swung my legs to the other side. As I eased down to the opposite floor, I almost stepped on the source of the smell. A police officer, still in uniform and with a gas mask in place, lay stretched out on the floor surrounded by a large area of dried brownish blood that he had leaked out in his final hour. From the look of him, he had been there a few days. I hesitated for a moment, thinking that I should do something for this man who had obviously continued to serve his city until death claimed him. In the end, I realized that there was little I could do in the time I had and he would soon be getting cremated in one of the grandest funeral pyres in all of human history.
It took less than an hour to search the station. I found a steel gun cabinet, but it was locked and the keys were nowhere in evidence. The phones, each accompanied by a large can of disinfectant, were dead. In the back of the station, I found a short wave radio. After a few moments of studying the device, I figured out how to turn it on and dial through the channels. I stopped on each channel and asked, "Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?" At least I think I did. The radio was fairly complicated and I had never used one before. In any event, I didn't receive any response. I had just about given up when I heard a voice. I keyed the microphone and said, "Hello! Hello!" I repeated this a few times before realizing that it was a recording. It was some reverend from the Mid-West making the now familiar claim that God had caused the plague to punish us for our sins. He then went a step further by exhorting his righteous listeners to travel to the cities and burn them to the ground. He reasoned, and I use that term loosely, that after these bastions of sin and inequity were destroyed, God would surely realize that the survivors had repented and would, in His mercy, end the plague. Well, at least it solved the mystery of the fire.
Ransacking the radio room further produced a Sangean portable shortwave radio receiver that I decided to take with me. Further search in the other rooms produced a small duffle bag, a crowbar, a first aid kit, a large flashlight, some batteries, and a few MRE's. With the bulging duffle bag slung over my shoulder, I left the station and its smell of rot, stopping only to take the dead police officer's service revolver and the ammunition he had on his belt. As soon as I was outside in the very slightly fresher air, I dug into one of the MRE's. The main course was beef enchilada. I ate it cold and it was delicious.
Feeling much better with some food in my stomach and some supplies on my back, I decided that it was time to find my own way out of the city. Walking down the street, I couldn't help but notice that while the shops were locked and boarded up, looting had been almost nonexistent. With a few applications of the crow bar, I had some sturdy hiking boots on my feet and a few changes of clothes and a number of bottles of water in my duffle. When I finished my little looting spree, I discovered that I had made a potentially fatal mistake. While I had been trying on clothes, cackling gleefully at the delicious lawlessness of it, the fire had spread. I don't know if the wind had picked up and shifted or if the good reverend's faithful were still at work, but there were now flames to my north, east and south.
As near as I could figure, I was in or near Greenwich Village. A review of my admittedly woefully inadequate mental map of the city revealed that I was pretty much fucked. The fires to the north and east cut me off from all of the bridges that I knew of while the fires to the south stood between me and the Battery tunnels.
Half a block from me was an exotic car dealership. Five minutes later, after making quick work of the showroom window and the key lockbox with my crowbar, I was heading west in a new Porsche. Shortly, I had passed the warehouses and reached the docks lining the Hudson River. Giving the Porsche a fond pat farewell, I jogged quickly out to the end of the longest dock in sight and peered up and down the river. All possible land routes for escape were indeed cut off. The far side of the river was also in flames. There would be no escape to Hoboken or Jersey City even if I could manage to swim across the Hudson in April.
There were a variety of water craft along the waterfront. I wasted a good hour searching among the non-commercial boats for one with a key in the ignition, cursing the fact that I didn't have the vaguest idea of how to hot wire anything. All the while, the flames grew closer, blown to greater and greater heights by a fierce wind that had kicked up. Finally, I found a small open hulled boat that had a twenty-five horsepower outboard with a pull start and a full tank of gas. I looked dubiously from the boat to the river with its three foot high waves, but I really had no choice. It was secured to the dock with chains and padlocks, but, with my crowbar, I managed to pry the cleats from the dock.
Now all I needed was a destination. I knew the little boat wouldn't make it very far with the waves as high as they were. Peering down the river through the thick smoke, the choice suddenly seemed obvious. The trip to the Statue of Liberty seemed to take an eternity. I imagine that riding down the River Styx would be similar with fires burning high on each side of me and the air thickly laden with acrid smoke. I made the entire journey with one hand gripped white knuckle tight to the side of the boat and the other alternately adjusting my course and bailing out the water that was entering my wave tossed vessel at an alarmingly fast rate.
The wind howled for a week. I spent the entire time hunkered down at the base of the great statue, breathing through a t-shirt soaked in brackish river water and watching the greatest city on Earth go up in flames. I think I went a little mad before the end. I know that when I left, Lady Liberty bore a new engraving along her base in crude, foot high, crowbar carved letters: "I am Ozymandias, king of kings: Look upon my works ye Mighty and despair!" Thanks, Shelley.
On the morning that I left, the winds had not only died down but vanished completely, leaving the Hudson as smooth as I had ever seen it. This was fortunate as I had finished my last MRE and bottle of water the night before and I would have had to leave soon, high waves or not. The waves had swamped my little boat, but the Styrofoam under the seats and in the sides had kept it afloat enough that the engine hadn't gotten too wet. I spent a half hour bailing it out and then started up the river.
From what I could see through the thick smoke, most of the buildings on both sides of the river had collapsed. The few still standing were nothing more than burned out skeletons.
Although the bulk of the fire had died out, flames still shot up here and there and the entire area smouldered.
By mid-day I finally passed into areas untouched by the great fire. I pulled into shore and, with a little help from my trusty crowbar, managed to secure some more fuel for my boat, food, fresh water and a few blankets. There was no sign of any living people, but the ever present smell of decay made it clear that there were plenty of dead ones.
I continued up the river until I came to the place where interstate 87 crossed the Hudson.
I tied the boat up to the shore and continued inland on foot. Near the river I found one of those areas that seem to exist for no other reason than to provide nearly every conceivable service to travelers on the interstate. As in the city, there had been almost no looting and there were no people in evidence. Fortunately for me, the multitude of shops included a GM dealership. A few applications of my crowbar and I was the proud owner of a new Hummer V. Designed and manufactured by GM after President Obama made the auto industry's receipt of bail out money contingent upon them producing vehicles with vastly improved fuel efficiency, this baby could get 60 miles to a gallon of fuel and could run on anything from straight gasoline to cooking oil.
It wasn't as reliable or powerful as the old Hummers, but it still had respectable off-road capabilities. It's amazing how innovative the car manufacturers became when their future survival depended on it. It's a shame the same could not be said for our species as a whole.
After a quick tour through the shopping plaza, I was well provisioned with canned goods, bottled water, a few boxes of ammo and a Coleman stove. At Walmart, I also found a hand pump with fifty feet of hose, which I thought might come in handy if the service stations along the way were abandoned or had no electricity.
As I was finishing loading my vehicle I heard the sound of foot falls approaching me rapidly from behind. I whipped the service revolver from my waistband and spun around, ready to shoot any mindless son of a bitch who dared attack me. It was a dog. A dog that had the features of a German Shepard but had fur that was likely cream colored under the thick layer of grime that coated it. Despite the fact that it was not a zombified human as I had expected, it was still apparently a threat, so I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Cursing, I fumbled for the gun's safety. Before I could find it, the dog was upon me. When it jumped up and started frantically licking my face, I was forced to reach the conclusion that it was not actually a threat.
With a great deal of ear and belly scratching, I finally managed to calm the dog down.
Sitting at my feet, the dog looked up at me with desperation in her eyes. Looking her over, I could see that all of her ribs were showing and her eyes had an unhealthy flatness to them. I wondered at the obvious signs of starvation: there was, after all, a lot of meat laying around. Is it possible for a dog to be squeamish about eating human flesh?
As desperate as I was for any form of companionship, there was no question of leaving her to her fate. Sighing, I headed back into Walmart to grab a few bags of dog food and, after thinking about the smell, some pet shampoo. She followed me into the store, so I broke open a bag of Iams and spread it out on the floor. She ate ravenously as I loaded the additional supplies into a cart. Despite her obvious hunger she broke away from the bag of food and followed me without prompting when I headed towards the exit. I decided to name her Heidi.
In a few short minutes, I was easing the Hummer up the exit ramp and onto the Interstate, Heidi perched happily in the passenger seat, her head hanging out the partially opened window. I tried the radio, but could get nothing but static. As we reached the highway, I was astounded by the number of cars that sat, apparently abandoned, at odd angles all across the interstate. The highways had been essentially unused since martial law had been imposed, so I wondered what had occurred that could explain the profusion of vehicles. As I began to weave the big SUV through the maze, I quickly learned that they had not been abandoned at all. The drivers and passengers were still there.