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.
.... There is more of this story ...