by John Birge
part 1 of 2
The hottest summer that Anna could remember was five years ago. She had still been in Uni at that time, and was nearing her business MA, twenty-three years old. The nights had been warm, the time had been high and her expectations had been great — they were still. Thing is, this bug complicated matters. It complicated matters a lot.
It was a warm summer again, but not as warm as the one five years ago. But it was worse. She was grateful that she had not grown up in towns, cities, counties, areas, continents of the world where humidity meant plenty of carriers. Plans to evacuate the remainder of mankind to Arctic regions had been put temporarily on hold — for how long, few knew — but it was sure to resume again after the summer, or September at the latest.
Sitting by her workstation, she allowed herself the luxury of dreaming herself back to that summer. The long, warm summer nights, which sometimes meant study, other times the warmth of bed and body, and yet others meant ferocious student drinking orgies, and they all kept coming back to her now. Replayed, cut-up and professionally edited through Inner Vision.
Then she had a boyfriend that she long intended to marry, the one she dumped two months later because he had no goals and no motivation to go places. She had hoped to change him, to make him “get up and go,” or at least do something else than pissing about, looking on the net for anything but jobs.
Ridding herself of that yoke, she had graduated with honours. She had no intention of doctoring economics, however, and quickly became assimilated into the human resources market, successfully landing a job with KDW Financing. She advanced quicker than usual there, until she had the position of assistant manager in merely three years. All this without any real challenge or effort.
So all things considered, her job at the CDC was no small achievement. She had approached the branch with her CV, which was by no means impressive. However, somebody, somewhere had decided that rejuvenation was in place, those who needed no training in the latest programs and such things. So a lot of people lost their jobs, and Anna and others got there first.
Oh, she had had lots of jobs in the past. Aside from working in a café, she had been a city gardener, personal assistant, shop assistant, receptionist and marketing person, depending on what time in her life and time of the year, but all before twenty-one. She wanted social mobility, and the job at KDW did look good on the résumé.
The office landscape reached wide and far, almost 300 metres from one end to the other, but it was still the smallest of twenty-two departments. The London office was much bigger, and one day she would earn a promotion and go there. She did not care that much for the city in itself; as a matter of fact she almost hated it more than she loved the job there.
This thing about the bug did not bother her too much. It gave her a lot to do, which in turn meant that she would be noticed for being so good at her job and ready for a promotion. Or at least, that was what she had thought at first. It was clear now that it was a matter of hanging tough for as long as possible, to earn that promotion in blood, sweat and tears.
Cinley had been promoted to dept. head last Thursday. It would seem Mr. Ollarby was not up to the job after all. How swinely male! Whenever something that could be considered a crisis was approaching, out through the window went equality and in came patriarchy.
Ollarby, in his turn, had replaced Winters, who had been her boss for two years. This meant that there were no real bosses, nobody whose word would carry much weight when this “crisis” was over. At the CDC, thought Anna, everything was a crisis, everything is in ruin. Woe is me; the world always looks like that. As far as she was concerned it would sort itself out, and she never lost faith in that.
She had really liked Winters, they had a relationship beyond just work. Anna brought her coffee or tea, and they made small talk. They’d gossip about co-workers, office performance and other depts. Well. So, okay, things were a little worse than they had been the previous years. No. Not even that. More urgent certainly, but hardly as apocalyptic as everybody made it out to be.
The only way in which the disease spread was insectile, in particular by haemophiles. It did spread cross-species, but those infected were not contagious. So with all these factors, it should have been nothing more than a minor outbreak. But you had to consider the vast number of insects in the air now. It was summer. It was hot and humid, and everywhere there was blood to be sucked and people to be infected. How do you protect yourself against assassins smaller than a bullet?
Even so, compared to earlier threats... There had been nuclear warheads on the loose, a comet or two passing uncomfortably close to Earth, “and let’s not forget global warming,” she thought to herself. The summers had gotten hotter. So what if Winters had told her that was illogical? Winters was dead and thus no longer her boss. They could disagree on some things now.
As if all that was not bad enough, Cosgrove, who had handled the South, had taken ill and was — recuperating — at home. This was more of a blow to Anna than she led her co-workers to believe, for Cosgrove was a good man and Anna thought he would have been a good man for her.
But no, it was not to be. He had most of the qualities a man should have, that is, a real man, an adult male. Responsible, tactful, determined, ruggedly handsome and the weight of the South on his shoulders: A real man. In his hard-to-place South-West-East (definitely not North!) accent, he would deplore the insufficient supply of vaccine in Doeville and, in the same breath, make it absolutely clear that there was no point in discussing the matter further.
That was exactly what Anna thought, too. No point in dwelling on reasons or accusing people who were only doing their job. If there was no vaccine to be had, that was the end of it. Whenever there were cries of distress in one plagued region, Anna usually forwarded the call to somebody else, who undoubtedly left them hanging, until they (very soon) died — just as long as she did not have to deal with them.
“Hey Anna, they need more people down in retrovirals, interested?” It was Dickie, coming towards her, no doubt to break her concentration on work.
“I don’t see what I could do there.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t do any research of course. They’re short on just about anything, or so Mack says,” he leaned forward, “including attractive assistants.”
“Uh-huh. I’d say... four more weeks, then good-bye human race.”
“Oh, you’re the one for high morale. Yeah, real booster. Why don’t you do some work?”
“I am.” He sloppily scraped a few papers from the printer.
“Dickie!” cried Anna.
“Stop messing with the paper!”
Dickie stopped and looked at the barely wrinkled papers, laughed and went back to his seat.
Anna shook Dickie’s pessimism with a smile. He was just a little dour, but actually not too bad, good for laughs and reasonably good-looking, though his hair was awful. Most people’s hair was awful nowadays. They looked dazed, fresh out of bed from a hangover, which possibly a few of them had enjoyed earlier today, and about to be rejuvenated by the first cup of coffee. They drank coffee all the time. She printed a blank page. It came out perfect.
The wicked thing about this bug was that the patient, once infected, was beyond help. The term encouraged within the CDC was “subject” instead of “patient,” but Anna tried to do her best to remember that these were all actual people dying. And a lot of them too. So many, in fact, that it was impossible to help them all. “Come to think of it, we can’t do anything at all.” Acceptance.
Once the virus was contracted, it mutated, spawning countless insidious inbred cousins to itself in a matter of hours. After the first mutation, there was nothing to be done for the patient. It infected and mutated so quickly that a cure was nearly impossible to develop.
Date of expiration varied greatly, anything from two days to several months. Again, nobody could say just why. The hypothesis was that viral bodies were eliminating themselves, like communist party members squabbling after a successful revolution. In the end, however, one prevailed and that was the end; the onslaught of the host began.
The idea to collect various mutations and continually inject infected people with them, thus always keeping a steady supply of viral rivalry, had been disappointing, and the idea thrashed. Too many pigs had died.
Two months ago, it was estimated that within a year, all of mankind would be extinct.
“But things are not entirely that grim and hopeless,” thought Anna, because there had been one important breakthrough: inoculation. It was still very limited, and very hard to produce. But, if administered, the inoculation was successful and not a single case of infection been seen since, even with high exposure to contagious materials and bodies. Preventing the first single infection was the key.
When they first learnt that no office workers were to be inoculated (at least not yet), there had been loud protests by some of the staff. Even Winters, her favourite boss, had declared the decision a “bastardly stupid” one. But there would be more vaccine soon, no need to worry about that. The only thing you had to do was to stay clear of insects, and all would be fine.
In fact, the work-hours had also changed to make sure as few insects as possible were around humans. The entire race was at the mercy of the smallest. Oh irony, thy name is... What is irony? Certainly not insects, that’s for sure. And if it was, it was not amusing. Does irony have to be amusing? Anna thought so.
This did not include all insects, of course, though contact with anything that had more than four legs was not recommended. In essence, as Dickie had once put it, “stay away from blood-sucking bastards” was a useful tip, if you wanted to stay alive.
Anyway, the decimation of mankind had slowed down. Part of the reason was that people were aware of the danger more than ever, but mostly it was because there were a lot fewer people around. And that went for all living things affected by this plague. Swine, birds, monkeys, cows, bears, dogs and all in their respective families were the primary groups that were now nearly exterminated. Great tragedy, no doubt. Not to sound anthropocentric, but they did not matter a great deal right now. Not to Anna and not to anybody else. Nature’s revenge.
“Anna, I’m homing. Don’t stay down all night,” said Dickie as he passed her.
“Very funny. I’ll be going home in a few minutes.”
“Lift? Safest car there ever was. One-oh-one percent bug free.”
“Oh-one? No thank you,” she said and added, ”I’ve seen your car.”
“Ouch!” Placing his hand over his heart, he uneasily smiled and said good-bye.
When she saw Dickie skipping across the parking lot, casually spraying around himself as he walked, she got up and went home.
Home was Kaiser Gardens 115:2. Anna had quickly developed a homecoming routine, a routine which could very well be the difference between health and sickness, life and death. Cleaning the entire flat with sonics was very simple. Like unlocking your car remotely before your enter, ten steps from the door she clicked, awaited the confirmatory beep and then all was well. How simple to stay alive in a world where everyone is dying and helpless to do anything about it.
Closing the door behind her she waited for the steam bath of DDT. She always thought it smelled... deadly. Quite safe in itself, but it still spelled death to all smaller life forms who would breathe it.
“Do they breathe?” she wondered as she brought crisps and dip to the living room for the late-night television. “Do insects breathe? Do they have lungs? Consciousness, on some level?” She did not particularly like asking those questions, because they only led to other, more difficult questions that she did not like to burden herself with. Who is murdering whom? Whose apocalypse is this? Why is the apocalypse always anthropocentric? What is life? And what lies beyond death, the final frontier?
She shuddered as censored versions of those questions stalked the corridors of her conscious mind. They remained like the insects. Deadly, but caged. At bay. For the time being.
Anna did not care too much for drama, and since it was 23:30, it was a good time to watch some news.
There were lots of rumours now, but there were always rumours. Anna thought rumours were remarkably similar to this outbreak; if you let one past, the rest would follow and with them... well. Rumour had it, she knew but never repeated, that there was no interest in administering the jabs which could save mankind.
Thus, it mutated. There was no cure. If there was, a secret organisation withheld it, government and political conspiracies, enclaves and military. Add the component that one of them manufactured the virus and there you had it: chaos.
Even at CDC, when somebody became infected, rumour had it that they had not died, but had been inoculated and transported to a safe hiding place. Even at the CDC! This was co-workers, friends and their families! Anna despised rumours and those who spread them. She had been furious with Dickie when he said, albeit jokingly, that Winters had gone to colder places.
Why everybody, as in all of mankind, could not just relocate to the harsh, healthy Arctic climates was never quite articulated. The demand for housing, food and such would have been impossible to accommodate if it had been done when the virus was first noticed. Certainly, there was reason to that. But now, with less than a billion left? She corrected herself. A billion people was still a staggering number. Imagine all those people. Visualise. Not to mention how to get them all there.
Copyright © 2008 by John Birge