“This is Radio Scott, back on the air after a brief absence of… well, it’s been a while. We have no idea if anyone is listening, but we’ll try to broadcast at our previous times. Since we were the only broadcaster before, we doubt there’s anyone else out there able to transmit. As you’ve no doubt guessed, the plague, or more accurately ‘plagues’ which we’ve taken to collectively calling ‘The Great Death’, have devastated the country and, we assume, the entire world.
As far as we can tell it’s struck most animal species. We’ve got dead animals of all sorts around here, and of the farm animals we’d picked up to last us through the winter, all that’s left are two chickens, both hens. The only other critter that survived was a single wild rabbit, and luckily it’s pregnant. It’s not much to start restocking with, but it’s a start. We can’t eat them since they’ll become breeding stock, assuming we can find any more, and we won’t eat any eggs until we’re sure they aren’t sick, but we consider ourselves lucky to have even that much.
It’s also reached into the plant world, but only affecting certain species. The pine trees that the modern world has come to rely on are mostly gone at this point. What’s more, it seems the soft wood trees were more heavily damaged. I don’t know whether it’s safe to burn these dead trees or not, so be careful using them.
Weeds seem to have had no problem as our property already needs a lot of work, but we can only assume that certain types have survived while others haven’t. Grasses have done well, so any animals that have survived should be able to fend for themselves. We’re assuming that most carnivores have been wiped out, since they have likely been feeding on the diseased carcasses. Again, we’ll have to determine which farm plants have survived. For now, be cautious of fruits you find on the vine, and try to focus on vegetables that grow underground, like potatoes, carrots and beets.
We have no reports of the world yet, and haven’t even managed to explore our own town, so if you have access to a ham radio, please call us so we can report on what’s happened. We plan on conducting some surveys to see what’s survived and what hasn’t, so we’ll be focusing on that for the next few broadcasts.
For those of you who don’t know, it appears the plagues were caused by the meteor storm we suffered a few … a short time ago. It seems they were from some planet with a healthy aquatic environment, which we imagine was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, freezing solid when exposed to the near absolute cold of outer space and preserving the microbial life forms. When they entered the Earth’s atmosphere, these ice balls broke free from the meteoroids, rapidly melting and releasing the alien life into our air.
Since these microbes were alien to our planet it took them time to adjust, and we can only imagine that the vast majority of them died, but those that survived proved to be very robust. As they struggled to adapt to the Earth’s environment, they learned how to acclimate to whatever life form they encountered, and each time they crossed species they became stronger and more adaptable.
We personally counted four separate diseases that we could identify from the symptoms alone, and we know that there were at least two that were detected in various labs. However there were probably more, as viruses can’t be detected without an electron microscope, which are not readily available.
If you’ve survived the sicknesses you still need to be careful, as you’ve likely only survived a single strain. You’ll also need to start preparing for what’s going to come next. It looks like the vaporized meteors produced a significant cooling, so we’re preparing for a very extreme winter. You’ll need to harvest any leftover crops you can find, canning, drying or preparing them so they’ll last—not just this coming year, but for the next several years after that.
Anyone that has access to seeds, surviving livestock or foodstuffs, be cautious with it, but don’t hoard it either. We need to survive, and we’ll need each other if we’re going to do that. For now, assume we have a barter economy. Find anything useful you can, and be prepared to trade a portion of it either for other items or for goodwill.
What’s more, let’s try not to kill each other, folks. We realize you’ll need to arm yourselves for protection, but try not to hurt anyone if you can avoid it. Each person you shoot is one more survivor you cut out of the gene pool we’ll need for humanity to recover. However, like animals that have learned to feed on man, you need to treat anyone who kills other humans as a future danger both to yourself and to other survivors. Don’t let anyone you capture attacking innocent people walk away to do it again. Theft can be forgiven, as it can help those without options survive, but murder is punishable by death.
That’s all for now. We hope to have more information after we explore a little more. We’ll also begin adding details on how to prepare for the coming winter. Tune in again for our six PM broadcast, and stay safe.”
After finishing her broadcast, Alice sat back and considered everything that had led up to the present. It had been a very hard several weeks. What had started out as a simple weekend trip to spend the weekend with her father at his country house had turned disastrous when a meteor storm started up, wiping out nearly everything in its path before continuing on, sweeping westward and affecting most of the world.
It had wiped out the communication satellites in outer space, slowing most communications. The meteors that fell on the Earth, while uniformly small, effectively wiped out the exposed power and communications networks of the entire world. Any wire, telephone pole, relay station or transformer exposed were likely to have been hit somewhere along the line, and the entire country lost both its communications and electricity at the same time. All the single points of failure the interconnected modern world had developed, all managed to fail at the same time. While it could recover from any single failure, it couldn’t cope with that many occurring at once.
While the deaths from the initial storm seemed modest, mainly because no one ever got any official reports of the dead, the troubles the meteors caused were widespread. They damaged cars, buildings and infrastructure indiscriminately, leaving useless hulks of abandoned cars lying across the roads, while the many potholes created by tiny meteors rendered most of the roads impassable. There had been reports of widespread fires in the dry areas to the west, but it had rained enough locally to prevent that particular problem.
As the power companies got to work trying to reestablish electricity, most of the rest of society simply fell apart. People were willing to work, but their inability to get there kept most places closed, and the lack of electricity meant they couldn’t do anything even if they did make it in. City and State workers mostly refused to work without guarantees that they were going to be paid, and that belief seemed justified, as most governmental agencies simply stopped functioning. Private businesses, with most of their employees unable to reach work, simply shut down until conditions improved.
No word was heard from the Federal government in DC for a couple of weeks, and the few people that came to work found themselves without much to do. Instead, David and the people he’d managed to collect around him began taking on the roles the government had previously played in maintaining order in the surrounding community.
The federal government finally revealed what had happened to it. It seems the President and most of the leading governmental elite still remaining in DC had flown directly into the path of the storm and had all been killed. Trying to cobble together a functioning government, they picked a relatively minor official who was terrified of the job ahead of him, so he relied on another minor Pentagon official, who led him to institute martial law, closing the banks and establishing restrictions meant to preserve their delicate hold on power rather than trying to help anyone. That had ultimately resulted in armed attacks by the military against nearby cities that had only ended when a surviving nuclear sub had shown up in DC and lobbed a few well-placed rounds near the Pentagon.
The efforts to restore power also failed as several unexplained diseases began cropping up, wiping out the few people willing to work, and plant after plant ended up either closing down or failing due to damages suffered earlier.
Riots broke out in many communities over food shortages, but most people were pretty reasonable about it, assuming that someone would set everything right if they waited long enough. However, as more people got sick and help never arrived, that positive outlook soon turned sour.
They’d finally figured out that the meteors contained multiple minute life forms—both microbial and viral—trapped in the frozen water surrounding them. As they entered the atmosphere the ice broke off, melting from the heat of reentry, releasing the alien microbial life into the atmosphere. It was assumed the vast majority of those alien life forms died out, but the few which survived had actually thrived.
It took several weeks, but once they found hosts to support them, there were no preexisting defense mechanisms to resist them. Several different diseases became endemic, even though most doctors couldn’t differentiate them. What’s more, as devastating as the diseases were, they rapidly mutated, crossing inter-species barriers quickly and easily, crossing from humans to deer to other animals.
Alice and David Scott, along with the people they gathered around them, had fared better than most. Thanks to David’s attention to detail in building his little hideaway tucked into the side of a mountain, it had escaped physical damage. They’d maintained their electricity thanks to a wind turbine on top of the hill over their heads, and their elevation and remoteness kept the spreading plagues away from their door.
However, those benefits proved short lived. The diseases arrived with additional people, and they surmised the sources of the diseases were now airborne as well, meaning that there was no way to avoid them. Everyone in the house had gotten sick, one by one, with the death rate rising as the diseases had time to adapt; acting faster and killing quicker.
Both Alice and her father had thought they were the last to die, but they’d managed to awaken an untold amount of time later, exhausted, famished, dehydrated and weak. They didn’t know why they’d been spared when no one else had, but David was sure it was due to some genetic fluke giving them an edge that no one else had seemed to enjoy.
Now they appeared to be alone in the world, and David had announced his plans to try to find anyone else still alive, and to help them adapt to the continuing complications he saw rapidly approaching as most of the conveniences of modern life had been stripped, and it looked like the weather was going to turn much colder due to the soot the burning meteors had left in the atmosphere.
There was one thing that Alice was sure of, even given how horrible things had gotten. She was glad her father had been one of the survivors, because if anyone could figure out how to survive, it would be him.
“Keep your rifle handy,” David reminded his daughter, Alice, as they climbed out of their SUV at the Jacob’s farm, one of the local farms that grew produce for the local market. Since they weren’t large enough to sell their goods to the larger produce dealers, they instead specialized in growing organic crops. David wasn’t as interested in that at the moment, instead he wanted to know what crops survived the Great Death that had killed everyone off. What’s more, he wanted to save any unharvested plants that might otherwise rot on the ground.
“I’m pretty sure the plague killed off most of the carnivores, since anything that feeds on dead or sick animals has likely died, but that still leaves plenty of omnivores that may react strangely after what they’ve experienced lately.”
“Yeah, like the way humans have been responding the last… since we last ventured out,” Alice responded, not wanting to recount what had happened during their last conflict with others. Having lost both her mother and best friend to those conflicts they still unnerved her, even though she felt prepared for whatever they encountered.
They watched their surroundings as they approached. About all they could see on the way in was that the corn crops looked to have been decimated, but that was about all they could observe easily. What they did notice though, was just how quiet everything was. Despite the sound of the leaves blowing in the gentle wind, there were no other sounds. No children playing, no birds singing, no trucks passing on the nearby road, no jets passing overhead. Instead an eerie silence hung ever everything, accentuated by the isolated sounds of the breeze, calling out just how silent the world they were in now really was. There was no way to mistake just how alone they were.
“Martha, James!” David called out, wanting to warn the owners before they showed up bearing guns. However he received no response in return, and the stark contrast between David’s yell and the silence around them struck them as overly harsh, causing them both to recoil hearing it.
“Dad, if the carnivores are dead, won’t that screw up the ecosystem?” Alice asked, filling in the renewed silence following her father’s inquiry.
“Yeah, it will, honey. While it will allow the other animals to recover more quickly, there won’t be anything to prevent them from quickly overpopulating the environment. In a few years things are going to be nuts.”
“Yeah, like they’re perfectly normal now,” Alice smirked.
They’d reached the door by then, so they halted their conversation while David loudly knocked on the door. When no one responded he tried the door. Finding it open, he entered and they split up, checking out the house. David took the upstairs, where he knew the bedrooms were, while Alice took the downstairs where she could check on the kitchen supplies.
Entering the master bedroom, David took in the silent silhouette lying in the bed, surrounded by the frozen tableau undisturbed by the passage of time. There was a layer of dust over everything, but nothing else had been disturbed for some time. When he peeled back the twisted covers, he discovered the long dead form of Martha Jacob, and he assumed she must have already buried James before she succumbed. Since she’d been lying in their bed for so long, he knew they’d have to carry her and the bed out, disposing of it after they buried the body.
“Dad, James is down here in the den,” Alice called out.
“OK, Martha’s up here. I’ll come down and help you get James out, then we’ll come back for Martha.”
While it was obvious that Martha had died from the Great Death, looking gaunt and bearing the telltale pox on her flesh, James didn’t bear the obvious signs of it. He still had the marks of the disease on his flesh, but it didn’t look like it had progressed as far. So David guessed that the strain of the disease had set off his heart problems, saving him the agonizing end that eventually took his wife. However they could both imagine her waiting for him, crying out in her pain for him to return to comfort her in her last hours. There was no escaping it, no matter how dispassionately you attempted to handle such scenes, each one made your heart ache.
It took a while, but they got the two bodies out, and David managed to start up one of the Jacob’s tractors to dig a quick pit to bury the bodies in. They did so, and stood silently over their makeshift grave without saying anything, Alice simply crossing herself. Neither thought anything they could say would make much of a difference. However that wasn’t it for the bodies yet.
There were three dead cats inside the house they buried with the owners of the farm, but after that they went to check on the various farm animals. This farm kept chickens, a few pigs and a couple of lambs. What they found was anything but encouraging. The Jacob’s family dogs were found dead in the garage, and another was found under the house where it had apparently curled up to die. The henhouse looked like it had been decimated, with dead chickens everywhere. They didn’t know how long the eggs had been unprotected, so they chucked all of them as well.
“Dad, I think I’ve found something here,” Alice announced as she worked her way through the pile of dead chickens, handing them to her father who dumped them into the wheelbarrow they were using to carry them to the burial pit.
Curious, David looked over Alice’s shoulder. There, covered by other chicken carcasses, lay a feeble, thin, disheveled rooster which twitched pathetically.
“Lift it carefully, the Jacob’s water is off due to their lack of electricity, but I’ll give it some water from my bottle,” he told Alice.
As Alice lifted the poor animal up, David dribbled a few drops of water into the animal’s beak, which it seemed to try desperately to swallow. He maintained a very slow trickle of water, only allowing it to access a small amount at a time, and it seemed to calm somewhat as it got the water it desired.
“It still feels hot,” Alice observed.
“It’s probably still infected,” David observed. “It may or may not live as a result, but at least this will give it a chance. If we take it with us we’ll have to keep it separated from the other animals, since we don’t want to contaminate the others, but any animals we can save would make a lot of difference.”
“It doesn’t seem that hot. I think it still has a fever, but I suspect it’s already over the worst.”
“It would be a major coup if you’re right. Since we already have two hens, this will allow us to potentially breed some plague resistant chickens. Let’s see if we can find a box to put it in. It’s still sick enough we don’t have to worry about it getting out, and that will help ensure it doesn’t contaminate the car seats.”
Even though he tried to prepare Alice for the worst, David knew that if the animal was strong enough to move around and respond on its own that it was probably already mostly recovered. The same thing had happened to both Alice and him, and he knew the fever would pass in only a short time.
Once they got the rooster settled, Alice wandered off, finding some chicken feed which it ate, even though it couldn’t manage much. She finally left it in the truck, returning to her father.
After cleaning out the chicken coop, they removed the three dead lambs and then examined the pigs, which were a bigger problem since they were too heavy to easily lift into the wheelbarrow. The farm clearly had some tackle for lifting the large animals, but David, being unfamiliar with the equipment, was unsure how to maneuver it to where the animals had died. Out of desperation, David finally tied a chain to the tractor and dragged the animals one by one to the burial pit.
He’d gotten the first two out of the way, and Alice was trying to get the others ready before David returned, when she noticed a small plaintive cry. Looking around, she finally located the source of the call coming from under the body of a mid-sized pig carcass. Grabbing a spare two-by-four, she shifted one animal while probing under it until she found a small piglet. Its calls had been hidden by its larger brethren and its call were so weak it hardly sounded like a piggish grunt, sounding more like a cat’s plaintive cry.
Alice managed to get the animal loose with some work. It was, as expected, not in very good shape. It too looked scrawny, weak and exhausted, bearing the tell-tale sunken look of something too weak to either eat or drink for several long days. Following her father’s lead, she used her own water bottle to dribble small amounts of water into its mouth, then when it began responding she started pouring a small but constant stream into its mouth, which it hungrily lapped up.
“What do you have there?” David asked when he returned to find her cradling something in her arms.
“It’s a baby pig. Somehow it survived all this time under its mother. It’s weak but it’s responding. I’ll need to find something for it to eat. It may be old enough to eat solid foods, but milk would be the best thing for it.”
“That may be, but there’s no way for us to lay our hands on any. We froze several cartons of it at home to last us, but we didn’t think about bringing any here. I’ll check inside. It’s possible they may have some canned condensed milk inside which may have survived, but even that’s going to be a stretch. Frankly, anything you can get it to eat would help.”
“This one doesn’t seem to have a fever, and it also doesn’t have the convulsions the rooster had. I think it’s a survivor like us.”
“You know, for finding only two survivors, that’s actually incredibly lucky. Considering how many people have died, we were lucky to have found any animals surviving here.”
“Still, as we’ve seen, they get awfully big. Do we have enough food to raise one, especially if there’s no hope of finding it a mate eventually?” Alice asked plaintively, not asking the obvious question aloud.
“If nothing else, we can always eat it later if we need to, but right now any animals we can save, we should, just because it makes sense to try to save as much life as we can. Again, these animals potentially represent those that have beaten the odds, so they may provide a weapon to producing resistance in other animals. It’s worth taking care of. After all, they can eat our scraps. That’s how farmers used to feed them years ago, and it looks like the Jacobs left plenty of pig chow behind as well. If you can feed it some kind of mush it should be fine.”
“I think I’ll call this one Jacob,” Alice decided. “And it’s only partly because we found them on the Jacobs’ farm. We’re laying out the future of his species in his lap, just as God laid out Jacob’s people’s future before him in the Old Testament. I think I’ll call the rooster Lucky, for obvious reasons.”
“Yeah, I just hope he’s lucky enough to earn the name,” David commented. “You do realize that naming animals isn’t the best thing in the world if we aren’t keeping them as pets. If we end up having to eat them, it could prove traumatic if you’ve grown too attached to them.”
“But I thought you just said we were trying to save these animals for the future of their species?” Alice asked, confused by his contradictory comments.
“I’m just keeping our options open. If we can, we’ll try to keep them alive, but it’s very possible these are too sick, and Lucky might not live long even under the best of circumstances. If things get tough for us in terms of finding food, we may have to decide on saving ourselves rather than trying to preserve pigs that may not have survived elsewhere.”
“Oh, then I guess I’ll be OK. I mean, after what we’ve been through, I can understand what’s necessary for survival. But if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll keep the names. It makes me work harder to keep them going if I can think of them as individuals rather than just two animals.”
“OK, you’d better lay it down and give it some of that feed while I get busy getting rid of the rest of these. I’m still anxious to check on how the plants here have survived.”
What he found when they managed to get out and examine them was better than they’d expected. As they’d observed on the way in, the corn had been wiped out, apparently having been infected by a variant of the plagues which seemed to demonstrate the diseases were actually viruses, attacking the victim species’ DNA. “By cracking the DNA, it’s easier for it to cross from one species to another, but because the plants are so different from animals, it’s still a harder barrier to cross,” David explained to his daughter.
“So why do you think it only affected the corn?”
“I really don’t know. Maybe it has to do with the way it transmits material to its cells, maybe it’s due to how plants accepts outside elements, relying on bees and other airborne pollen to fertilize it, or it could be something else entirely. Frankly, we should probably burn the entire field to prevent this crop from cross infecting anything else, but I don’t trust lighting such a large source of dry material. It could easily get away from us.
“Besides, burning it would pass the infected material to every other plant nearby. What we need is to pick each infected plant and bury it in a separate refuse area where it won’t infect anything else, but we simply don’t have the time or manpower for that.”
“I suspect anything it would infect has already been infected,” Alice suggested. “Have you noticed how there are no insects around? Not only the buzzing insects like gnats and mosquitoes, either. I tried examining the ground looking for any signs of them, but I can hardly find anything. What do you think happened to them?”
“I don’t know. They serve a vital niche in the Earth’s ecosystem, as they generally recycle the dead, thus I’d assume they were more directly exposed to the viruses than other animals, just as the carnivores were.”
“I’ve noticed certain weeds seem to have died out, and one of the plants from their private garden, though I’m not sure what it was,” Alice observed. “I bagged it so we can identify it later. But otherwise not much was affected. So what do we do about all these plants?”
“Well, we need to maintain them and store as much as we can. However, since we can’t easily take over the farm, our best bet is to take cuttings to try to grow them in our own garden and greenhouse. We’ll also have to try to find any seeds they had that we can use in the future. While I hate to take everything on the off chance anyone else survived and needs something to eat, we should take as much as what’s already ripe so it doesn’t go to waste. Likewise, we should take the seeds with us to ensure they’re saved. If someone else were to come in and lay claim here, they may not know enough to save them.”
“Couldn’t we just let the spinach die out?” Alice asked playfully. “Personally, I could stand a life without that vile plant.”
“Nope, the more things we have in the future, the better it will be for everything. Even if we choose not to eat it, it’s still better for other animals to eat. Why don’t you search for the seeds in the house while I start taking a series of cuttings. When you’re done, you can start picking any ripe fruits or vegetables we can use. This is turning into a much bigger project than I’d planned, and we’re already going to be getting home late.”
The trip back, like the trip out, was interesting. The streets were unoccupied, but that doesn’t mean they were empty. Surprisingly, the streets no longer contained the many dead bodies stacked along the curb, which David attributed to the fact that people had probably been too sick to deposit anyone else on the streets. As for the people falling over on the side of the road, he figured that people had been too sick to venture out, no matter how dire their situations were.
What there were, though, were hundreds of animal carcasses. Birds seemingly dropped from the sky, mice and rats fled their underground lairs for unknowable reasons to die on the streets. There were also the occasional woodland animals, seeing as they were in a fairly remote region. David doubted they’d have been as likely to venture into the heavily populated and well-travelled areas. Still, there were plenty of small animal carcasses.
David and Alice picked up what they could of these animals, but they realized they couldn’t spend all their time doing it, as there were simply too many. They’d get what they could, but it would take a long time before they’d get the region cleared of them.
David stopped by the police station once again, even though they’d stopped by on the way out, on the off chance they might find some sign of someone, but they didn’t see anyone. The door was firmly locked, showing that no one had died inside, instead choosing to close up when they’d finally abandoned it, but that left no clue whether they’d survived or not. David scrawled a note and stuck it to the door.
If anyone is alive, contact me.
P.S. I’ll be by periodically, so if you don’t know where I am, just leave a note here.
After that he checked around back. There weren’t any new burial pits dug, even though both the tractor and the pickup the boys had used to collect bodies remained there.
“You know, we can at least pick up the dead animals from here, making it look a little more hospitable,” he suggested. “If anyone passes by and sees that it’s been taken care of, they’ll be more likely to investigate. That is, if anyone happens by.”
“There is that,” Alice agreed.
“I’ll tell you what, after I dump the animal carcasses from around here, how about if you drive the pickup back home with us. I figure we’ll be doing this a lot more often, and it would be handy having a vehicle we can toss the dead into while we’re traveling. We no longer have to worry about you not having a license, but as long as you’re careful, you aren’t likely to run into anyone.”
“Very funny,” she responded. “Do you think you can find the keys for it?”
“Billy told me where they hid the keys. They wanted to ensure that people could still collect and bury the dead if anything happened to them, and that looks like what happened.”
“Sure, I don’t mind learning how to drive. It’s an automatic so I shouldn’t have a problem; though don’t panic if I swerve occasionally to avoid the dead animals in the road.”
Again, there were really too many dead to collect them all, so they just did the immediate area around the police station, leaving the ones around the main downtown area alone. They’d get to them eventually, but they still had stuff to drop off, and a couple of sick animals to take care of.
Reaching home, David took care of unloading the truck while Alice handled the late broadcast, since it was already early evening. They still had no idea if anyone was listening, but chances were if anyone was, they’d appreciate hearing from them.
He put Jacob in his own cage near the other animals, but kept the rooster quarantined separately, not wanting to risk further infections. They’d have to check on them throughout the night, but Jacob was already looking better and happily ate the fruit that David fed him. Lucky managed to drink some more water as well as eating a little feed, but was still too weak and feverish to eat much, even for a chicken.
After seriously scrubbing his hands, David set about fixing dinner. Alice showed up shortly, having prepared what she was going to say during their drive home. Not knowing who was listening, she didn’t worry about making errors from speaking without a prepared script. For now people would be relieved knowing that someone else was alive. They’d be unlikely to quibble over proper broadcast etiquette.
“So do you think it’ll be like that everywhere?” Alice asked her father as he served their dinner.
He merely shrugged. “There’s no telling. It seems to have hit animals harder than the plant world, and I suspect it hit humans harder than it did the other wildlife, given the survivors we’ve found. Though I suspect we’ll have our hands full cleaning up the dead if the carnivores and insects were as badly hurt as we suspect. It’ll take a long time for the bodies to rot, and it’ll make traveling nearby difficult. I’ve decided to start washing the used masks instead of treating them all as disposable, since we only have so many. Hopefully they’ll still work like that, but with our supplies running low, we don’t have much of an option.”
“How are they doing?” she asked, not bothering to specify who as she dug into her food. As disturbing as all those dead were, she’d gotten largely inured to it over the past several weeks, now focused on herself instead of worrying about the health of others.
“Actually, I think you were right about Lucky. The whole time I was taking care of him he was watching me, which is better than when we found him. Jacob is still too weak to do much, but he’s revived pretty well. It’ll take several days before he can regain his muscle tone enough to get around, and it’ll take weeks or months before any of us put on the weight we lost, but I think they’ll both pull through.”
“So were the hens happy to see Lucky?” Alice teased.
“Frankly, there were only interested in being fed and watered. They’ve seen their friends and neighbors die just like we have, so if Lucky survives they’ll be pleased, but right now they don’t seem particularly concerned one way or the other.”
They remained silent as they continued to eat. After that Alice quizzed her father on his plans for the next day, and after checking on the animals, they simply spent their evening in quiet contemplation, listening to music and playing a few games. As glad as each one was to be alive, neither felt very talkative at the moment. David was sure that damn would burst eventually, and all their emotions would pour forth, but for then, silence seemed better than the alternative, which was contemplating what the death of all their friends and family implied.
When David figured he’d had enough, planning another full day tomorrow, Alice followed him as he headed off to bed.
Ever since they both woke up from their plague induced semi-comas, the two of them couldn’t stand to be far from each other. What they’d experienced together, especially what David had shared with her while trying to encourage her and Ellen to live, was so intense that their lives would never be the same. Although there was no way she wanted to have sex with him, Alice made a habit of sleeping with her father; craving the close physical comfort and reassurance he offered.
It wasn’t without its problems, though. Each night, David would visit the restroom after Alice finished preparing for bed. He’d work hard for a few minutes, burning off the day’s frustrations and relieving any unwanted physical reactions to his daughter, then he’d come out, smile awkwardly at her, and climb into bed.
But David had to admit, even though being this close to one’s daughter could be awkward at times, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. After having watched everyone else perish, he clung to Alice like she was the last person on Earth, for as far as he knew, she was. And she clung to him too, feeling not only safe and secure in his arms, but both cared for and understood like no one else could possibly imagine.
Curling up beside him, she snuggled in, appreciating the comforting strength he offered, and the reassuring warmth of a warm body. When one thinks that they’re not only dying, but that those closest to them are dying too—each suffering more than they ever have, and knowing the others were suffering the same things—they’d established a reliance on each other that would be hard to comprehend if you hadn’t been through it. David was more than just a father to her, he was the only other person on the planet that could appreciate what she’d experienced, and when he was nearby, the nightmares of what she’d experienced remained quiet.
Heading out early the next morning, they traveled a little further to the other nearby farm, the Phillips’ place. The Phillips raised organic beef, mostly grass fed, but they also kept horses for people, so David hoped they’d have a few surviving animals. He also knew they raised a variety of plants, but about all that David remembered seeing previously were pumpkins during the fall and strawberries, apples and peaches during the spring and summer.
When he and Alice arrived, he checked his pistol before getting out. A rifle would be more useful, but he knew they’d need both hands to do what needed to be done. Instead of running back and forth, David carried extra tarps and cleaners in a backpack this time.
Not noticing anything obviously out of place, they approached the house, noting the eerie quiet once again. Although David knocked, he didn’t bother waiting before he tried the door, finding it unlocked. Entering, David again took the upstairs while Alice checked the downstairs.
David found Rodger Phillips in his bed beside his wife Regina. Although Rodger looked peaceful in death, Regina looked like she’d suffered. David suspected that Rodger had passed first, and that Regina has straightened him up before she died alone. But that meant that their son hadn’t been around at that point.
“Alice, I found Rodger and Regina, but I don’t see their son or either of their dogs.”
“I don’t see them either. Things are pretty neat down here, except in the kitchen, which has had food sitting out for a long time. It’s pretty moldy.”
“OK, I’ll check out back. I suspect they probably buried the boy and the pets before they died. Dump the food, we’ll bury it with the bodies. Let’s get them settled before we check on the animals.”
The couple was easier to transport than James Jacob had been, since they were both older and had been thin even before their sickness emaciated them. As David expected, he found a gravesite in the backyard, as well as one behind the barn where they’d buried some of the animals before they’d died themselves. There was only a simple cross on their son’s grave, so David buried them beside him, shifting the marker over to serve for the whole family. He didn’t think anyone taking over the farm in the future would care who resided there before, so it didn’t make sense marking their names for anyone else to mourn them.
The barn stank when they entered it, and the reason was immediately clear. There were dead animal carcasses all over. And not just any animals, but large ones, each one left to rot in the heat of the enclosed barn. All the cows and the few pigs they kept for themselves were dead. David wondered why the cattle were all in the barn, as they typically don’t sleep inside such structures, but he decided the Phillips must have corralled and confined them to the barn when they realized that both they and the cattle were infected, hoping to control the spread of the disease. Knowing it would take a long time to remove the bodies, David left them alone for the moment, moving behind the barn to check on the horses. There they found a clear surprise.
David had forgotten that they also raised llamas. There wasn’t a big demand for them, but they made for a nice conversation piece, attracting a fair number of tourists to the farm, and they’d used them to create sweaters they sold locally, as well. But what was surprising was that all four of the llamas were in perfect health. They’d finished off whatever feed had been left for them and they were looking lean, but they didn’t look like they’d ever been sick.
“What’s up with them?” Alice asked, pointing at the llamas who were staring at them.
“I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s a question of a breaking point. With humans, there were so many that the diseases developed, adapted to a new host, and mutated rapidly, meaning that few people escaped. The same was true with the large number of cows, just as it did with the deer. Most of the dogs and cats we’ve seen perished as well, since they were nearly as numerous as humans. The llama, however, didn’t have the numbers that would give the diseases the opportunity to gain a foothold, thus they escaped unscathed. If they’d been in South America, where llamas are more numerous, they’d probably all be dead, but here, they’re all untouched.”
“So what the hell are we going to do with llamas?”
“I guess we’re going to keep them. If we can’t find any remaining cows, they may become our go to food source. If not, we borrow the Phillips’ loom and weave our own blankets to help us survive the winters. But right now we’re the only humans around, and there’s only a handful of animals remaining. We can hardly get picky as to which animals we adopt.”
“That makes sense, but if one of those suckers spits at me, I’m taking it out,” Alice promised him.
“I’ll ask them to be polite,” David offered, reflecting on how much Alice had matured in such a short time. She now spoke bluntly and more clearly than she had before, and he had no doubt she could easily do as she’d threatened. “Let’s check the horses.”
“I suspect they’ll have suffered because there are a fair number of horses in this region, but they’ll probably do better than the other animals,” Alice guessed as they headed to the stable.
“That’s what I’m guessing,” her father answered.
When David swung the heavy wooden door open, the smell was again overpowering. They entered, seeing one dead horse after another, until they neared the back. There hadn’t been that many horses, since horses aren’t exactly wildly popular anymore, but the Phillips had used them to round up the cattle, and they also housed the horses owned by the local girls in the region. In the third stall from the end, they found a tall proud horse staring back at them. When it looked them squarely in the eyes, it whinnied, shaking its head, shocking David and Alice since they were unused to sounds coming from anything beside themselves.
The horse was older, and looked like it had been sick. It was thin, gaunt, its hair was matted and dirty, and its skin and eyes looked sunken. But it was standing on its own without assistance.
“Alice, run grab some apples from the trees in the back, if they’re OK. I’ll give him some water. He looks like he needs time to recover, and the sooner we get him started the better.”
“What about the other horses?”
“I’ll check them after I’ve given this one some attention, but I don’t hear any motions, and I suspect the rest are dead. Now go on, I suspect he’s hungry.”
“His name is Aristotle,” Alice called as she ran out, and she was gone before David could ask her about the name choice.
Not wanting to risk contaminating the bottle, David looked around and found a pan. He suspected the Phillips had an old water pump he could use to carry buckets to give Aristotle more water, but he needed to watch his intake at this stage. When he set the pan out, the horse lapped it up, glancing up at David after he’d finished. Shrugging, David poured the rest of his water out for him.
Alice ran back in, carrying several ripe apples in her shirt, holding it like a scoop.
“I didn’t know how much he could eat,” she said, seeing her father’s doubtful expression.
David left her to her task and checked the other stalls, but he found one other dead horse, with the other stalls being empty.
“So why Aristotle?” he asked when he returned, watching as Alice held the apples for the horse to pick out of her hand.
“Because he found his fame as an old man, his early years forgotten to history, and he’s remembered for surviving his master and teacher,” she explained.
“That makes sense. See if you can lead him out so he’s not exposed to this anymore,” David said, indicating the other dead horses. “Remember to not touch him directly, after all, we don’t know if what he had was different than what we suffered from. We’ll wash him down and check to see what symptoms he had to see if we can identify what strain he had. Take him out by the llamas, but don’t put him close enough for him to infect them. Got all that?”
“Yeah, Dad, I can manage that. What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to try to find some tackle we can use to lift these animals. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. Hopefully we may be able to get Aristotle to help if I can find the right equipment. If not, maybe I can hook something up with one of the trucks.”
“Are you sure it makes sense going to all this work?” Alice asked, scratching her head. “I mean, seeing as there are dead carcasses everywhere, what’s the point?”
“The point is that I’d love for someone to come along, see an abandoned farm, and decide to take it over. However, if they came upon it looking like this,” David said, making a wide sweeping gesture of all the dead animals, “they’d run for the hills. What we’re doing it making it easy to take over. We can’t afford to do it ourselves, since we have so many resources at home, but that doesn’t mean that others couldn’t do so. I’ll also leave a note telling anyone who comes by that we have the animals and seed.”
“In that case, if we’re taking the animals with us, maybe it would be better to just burn the barn?” Alice suggested.
“No, that’s not really an option. If the fire isn’t hot enough, burning the bodies would just spread the disease that much more. What’s more, if anyone wants to take over, I’d like them to be able to succeed. I doubt anyone showing up will be anxious to raise a brand new barn, nor will they likely have enough people to do it either.”
“OK, I’ll come and help as soon as I get Aristotle settled.”
“And see if you can find some water for the llamas as well. They’ll all need more,” he added as she headed out the door with Aristotle walking calmly behind her.
“Dad, about this theory of yours,” Alice asked, as she guided Aristotle as he lifted another animal off the floor using the manual pulley system that her father had found, “about how the more animals there are, the more likely they are to get infected?”
“Yeah,” he responded as he guided the beef carcass so it would line up with the Phillips’ pickup, which he was using to transport the bodies outside for burial. The Phillips probably had better equipment for this, but David thought searching for the proper equipment and getting it prepared would take too long.
“Well wouldn’t that mean that the more members a species has, the worse they’d be affected?”
“Yeah, we’ve already seen that. The llamas were unaffected, while the cattle were wiped out. Spinach and carrots are fine, but corn has been eliminated.”
“Wouldn’t that mean that the most populous animal species, namely humans, would then die off at a higher rate, with the diseases getting worse and worse as it mutates among the various people with it?”
“That’s exactly what it means, but again, it’s a statistics game,” David replied as he released the hitch, causing the cow to fall the remaining distance with a thud, shaking the entire truck. Alice pulled Aristotle back so he could cool down. He was still weak, but he realized he needed the humans to survive, and was thus willing to do whatever he could to assure they’d take him in. That meant that Alice had to watch over him, because he was likely to work himself literally to death. Multiple times so far she’d had to restrain him back so he wouldn’t overwork himself. “With large numbers comes greater exposure and increased complications,” her father continued. “But it also means that there are more responses. If there are enough test subjects, then some will respond in the right manner. Hopefully some will find a successful response. Like we have. If human’s weren’t as widespread as they were, we might not have made it, but because there are so many, that’s why we managed to survive.”
“But how many others would? If there are millions of humans in the U.S., then wouldn’t a bunch survive like we have?”
“That’s hard to guesstimate,” David responded as he moved the tackle over to the next carcass. The truck wouldn’t hold many bodies, but it had room for another, maybe another two if they were smaller. “We have no idea exactly why we survived. Since we both did, it seems to be based on genetics, so it may be that only those with those specific genes survived, though we don’t know which genes those are. We’ll only know by observation.”
“Well Lucky and Aristotle survived. If they did, then surely out of millions of humans a lot of people would as well.”
“That depends on a lot of things we don’t know,” he said, getting the next animals hooked up, giving Alice the signal to begin lifting. She led Aristotle forward, and after struggling for a moment, the carcass began rising, easing the strain on Aristotle. “Given the number of horses in the US, it may be that horses were only exposed to a single strain, so Aristotle may have survived that one, much like Billy survived his first attack. However, because there are so many people, many different deadly strains developed. If you’ll remember, Billy died only days later of a different disease.”
“Man, this gets complicated.”
“Yes, it does, even more so since we’re only guessing at the moment. If we knew specifically what was happening, it would be easier to understand.” As the body rose high enough, David began shifting it towards the truck again. “But that’s why I kept encouraging everyone to keep struggling, and for others not to let anyone go. We needed each person to struggle to survive, because only through suffering through the sickness would they have the opportunity to develop the antibodies that would save both them and their offspring.”
Alice remembered the scenes he’d described when he’d come upon a group intent on burning down the house of a family trying to dispose of a dead body. Their intent was to burn the entire family along with their house, all their possessions and the infected body. Somehow he’d managed to convince them not only to let them live, but to assist them and anyone else who got sick, teaching them how to safeguard themselves.
“So what you’re saying is you have no idea whether anyone else survived?” Alice asked, sounded weary of not getting a clear answer.
“No, I’m convinced there are plenty of survivors. I just have no idea how many there are, or how many we’re likely to encounter. The fact that we survived means the odds aren’t insurmountable. The fact Aristotle and Lucky survived means that even the few animals here managed to survive at least one strain, so figuring the sheer number of humans, they’d be likely to survive even if the odds increased exponentially.”
Getting that carcass positioned, David again released the cinch, dropping it into the back of the pickup. The body dropped with a sickening wet smack as the truck reverberated with the force of its fall. Alice again pulled Aristotle back, giving him another apple slice as encouragement.
“But if it’s purely a numbers game, then what about the dead lambs we found yesterday? Surely there aren’t that many lambs running around, so why would they all be wiped out, while something as prevalent as grass survived?” Alice asked, clearly unable to work out the seeming contradictions as her father got the carcass settled.
“That’s a bit more difficult. Sometimes a mutation occurs quickly, like the infection spreading to the lambs, and sometimes it doesn’t, like humans surviving the Great Death. It’s not always so clear cut. But I’d be willing to bet that we’ll find other lambs that are uninfected, since there aren’t enough of them to spread the strain they died of easily. That is, if they didn’t die from a strain from another animals that they were vulnerable to without its having to mutate.”
“I was right, this stuff really gets complicated,” Alice answered as she fed Aristotle another bite of apple. He still couldn’t eat much, but she found that after working, he was able to eat a little more, and the moisture from the apple seemed to be as beneficial as the nutrients were.
“OK, I’ll be getting these to the dump site. You take Aristotle back out for some more water and a walk, he deserves it. In order to give him a break I’ll take a look at the plants the Phillips were growing. I’m anxious to see what survived, and what we might be able to use.”
“Yeah, it looks like both corn and potatoes are gone. I’m going to miss a world without popcorn,” Alice lamented.
“Well, I’m sure there are plenty of bags lying around in people’s houses, so I don’t imagine you’ll miss it completely, but there’s a good chance your children may never know what corn tastes like.”
“What about bugs? What do you think a world without bugs will be like?”
“As much as it seems counterintuitive, I think it’ll be worse. As annoying as mosquitoes, ticks and roaches can be, they all served specific purposes. If they’re truly gone, then we’re going to have an incomplete life cycle. I have a feeling the dead bodies lying around are going to be there a long time if nothing feeds on them.”
“After I walk Aristotle, I’ll check the house for seed packets or books on farming and animal husbandry,” Alice suggested.
“That’s good, we need to grab those to ensure that anyone who may stumble on the farm here doesn’t waste or spoil them. I don’t mind people helping themselves to the spoils here, but we can’t afford to waste resources.”
“Man, I’m glad we don’t have that many farms around here,” Alice observed as they finally reached the house and she and David were taking the animals out of the horse trailers they’d found. Luckily, the Phillips had more than one, so they were able to transport the llamas and Aristotle in separate vehicles, avoiding cross contamination. The llamas may be unlikely to contract whatever affected Aristotle, but there wasn’t any sense exposing them if it could be avoided. After all, it was only through repeated exposure that the virus found a way to adapt.
They’d worked like dogs, or rather horses, all day. Between burying the family, pigs, cattle and horses, it had been quite an ordeal. The vehicles they’d ‘borrowed’ from the Phillips to carry the animals were loaded down with produce, both ripe for eating as well as transplantable cuttings. They’d also loaded a couple bales of hay to feed the animals with, as well as more bags of animal feed, animal antibiotics and whatever books Alice had found to help them take care of both the animals and plants they’d recovered. It would take several more trips to get enough hay to keep the animals going for years, but they had time to go back at some point in the future. They had enough for the moment.
“It’s too bad about the potatoes,” Alice commented.
“Yeah, it’s like I was saying, with potatoes being the nation’s number one crop, it was a likely candidate to suffer heavily from the plagues. The entire potato crop was wiped out. We’ll either have to find another source of carbohydrates, or we’ll have to eat a lot more lower-carbohydrate foods in the future.”
“Just another thing I’m going to miss in this new world of ours,” Alice observed. Somehow it was easier imagining a world without electricity and cars that it was one without French fries. “So what did you think about that thing I saw?”
David sighed. He hadn’t seen it himself, driving in a separate vehicle, but then neither had Alice, as she had no idea what she may have seen. Yet she couldn’t let the idea that it may have been something go.
“I don’t think it was anything. It could have been anything from a casual breeze to a small animal, to your imagination being sparked by your desire to find someone else who’d survived.”
“I’m still convinced I saw someone,” she insisted.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if so, then why wouldn’t he, she or it stick around? Why wouldn’t he approach us for help? I can’t imagine it was a person, nor am I convinced anything as large as a deer would have survived. The deer were heavily infected before people started dying in large numbers. Again, deer are among the most numerous of wild animals in the US, so they’d have suffered heavily not only from exposure, but also to additional mutations and adaptations.”
“But not plentiful enough to develop survival adaptations?” Alice guessed, relying on what he’d already taught her.
“No, I’m sure there are probably a lot of survivors among the deer, but I doubt they’d be plentiful enough for us to be seeing any of them yet.”
“I guess that’s why the pines are all dead now?” Alice asked.
“It’s the most populous tree, thanks to the timber industry planting them everywhere they went. In regions where the pine never grew natively before, pine now accounts for the majority of trees. Or at least they did.”
“Still, whatever it was, I saw something, and it obviously ran away.” Alice insisted, veering away from that particular topic.
“It may have been a fox. They’re small, but they’re the largest animals I can imagine would have survived. But then, they’re omnivores, so they’d be in danger as well from the dead animals they’d be likely to eat.”
“I’ll take the llamas and Aristotle, I’ll leave the hay for you,” Alice suggested.
“I’ll need help to pull them out. We won’t need the pulley system, but Aristotle can help drag them out of the back of the truck. By the way, what are you going to call the llamas?”
“I think I’ll call them Moe, Shemp, Larry and Curly.”
“I’m impressed. I never thought you were that impressed by the Stooges.”
“I’m not, that’s why I named them that. I figure llamas aren’t much brighter than they were. I really can’t think of a dumber animal,” Alice replied, winkling her nose at the idea of having to take care of them.
“Yet you managed to remember the name of all four of them?”
“Yeah, well, you made me watch them enough when we were young. It took a while to remember Shemp’s name, but I remembered the others right off the bat.”
“You do realize that three of the llamas are female, as is Jacob. I checked as we were loading them.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think they’ll mind the names, as I said, llamas aren’t terribly bright.”
“Dad,” Alice asked as she led the llamas out one by one, “do you miss Ellen?”
“That’s a silly question,” David responded. “I miss her terribly. When she died, I wanted nothing more than to join her, but it was my concern for you that kept me going. I wanted to be there for you, so I left her behind and carried you to the accompanying bed.
“What’s more, I miss each of the women: Linda, even though I was surprised when Ellen forced us together, or Maggie, when she surprised me by telling me that her husband didn’t mind her sleeping with me, or even Flora. Ellen got me to accept each of them, and I did it for her. She felt they needed to be included, and I wanted to keep her happy.”
“So you keep saying, but once you slept with each, you never looked back,” Alice responded.
“That I did, and I cherish each of them, but it was Ellen that held my heart. Not that your mother didn’t, as well, but we’d had a lot more distance between us, as Ellen held the central role in my heart.”
“Don’t you think you’d like to meet someone else,” Alice asked, revealing what David considered to be the heart of the matter.
“Frankly, as much as I loved all of them, it was stressful handling them all, especially with you girls watching us. Not only that, but after watching them die, I feel a bit emotionally exhausted. I don’t think I’m ready for love, and probably won’t be for a while. I know how much you were responsible for getting us together, and I know how much you think I need someone else in my life, but not only do I think it’s unlikely, I just don’t think I’ll be ready for it for a very long time.”
“That may be, but you may not have much of a choice in the matter. Not only will that depend on whoever we meet, but you’ve got to consider both the psychological stresses on people, and the need for us to recover. Between wanting to get together, and our need to repopulate the species, I think you’ll be pressed into service again.”
“That may very well be true, but it doesn’t mean I’ll fall in love with them. After watching four lovers all die within days of each other, you grow a bit distant, and you don’t want to expose yourself emotionally again. Chances are I’d be happy to go the rest of my life without getting together with anyone, and it’ll take a lot before I could truly care again,” David responded honestly.
“I don’t know, Dad, just watching you with me and with these animals. You’ve got a way of caring about anyone. If we were to meet a new survivor, I suspect you’d care deeply for them. Given a little interest on their part, I have a feeling you’d fall for them just as hard as you fell for the rest.”
“Well, as much as I hate to say it, I suspect we’ll have a long time before we’re in that situation. First we have to meet other survivors, then we’ve got to find any interested in sex, and after that we’d have to find someone interested in me.”
“I think you’re underestimating the odds on all three counts,” Alice told him confidently as she led the four Stooges away. “I suspect you’re going to be quite surprised just how soon it’ll happen.”