A sharp double toot sounded from the street outside. I rolled over and peered between the curtains: up, first, at the pole in my front yard, where a few tatters at the top stirred weakly in the dawn’s early light; then between bushes at bits of receding rusty vehicle until it turned a corner and vanished.
Then I took a minute to check over my ravaged carcass. With COVID-34, the spots were purple. They itched like blazes and left scars like bullet-holes, but at least we weren’t shambling about, eating brains—that had been COVID-29.
I crawled out of bed and hand-pumped my scuba gear, then went out to get the day’s food from the blue box at the curb, then flip it back over to show to whom it may concern that I was still alive. There hadn’t been any recycling or garbage collection for a good ten years, but that’s what backyards are for; nor was anyone still paying the farmers who came around in crop-spraying masks and biodiesel pickups, but their daily deposits of apples and beans and corn meant we in town wouldn’t have to come knocking on their doors, coughing in their faces.
Then, because it was a Wednesday, I went back out and walked down the middle of the street, high-powered rifle at the ready to enforce social distancing, and maybe bag the odd three-eyed crow (their corvid COVID wasn’t contagious to humans, this year, yet). From a block away, I waved at the house of my fourth wife—the one who’d lasted the longest, so far—and she blinked her shutters twice in return, and we were good for another week.
Then I came back to collect my crowbar and axe and went out to chop wood to cook breakfast. The current timber supply was starting to show its foundations and I’d soon need to start on another. There’d be little to fear from the people inside: virus doesn’t live long on corpses.
I scooped a pitcherful of water, ready to boil, from the rain-barrel on the way back in, and that was that for my outings for the day.
After a spell of paperwork, I fired up the solar sat-phone and called my Cabinet to review the state of the nation. There hadn’t been an election in years, but with every president having died in office, eventually the succession had passed to me, ex-postmaster in these parts.
“Good morning, Mister President!” shouted the Secretary of State, still somewhat deaf from COVID-24, and my own successor until I could recruit a new vice-president with their own phone, or find anyone left from Congress.
“Oh, what’s the use?” mumbled the Attorney General—there hadn’t been any births since COVID-31, a mumps mimic. “None of that, none of that,” said the Secretary of Defence, a Churchill fan—some hope remained that very young children might yet grow up to be fertile.
The pleasantries aside, we were briefed by the Secretary of Homeland Security on what she’d gathered from her phone-in talk show. Then we thrashed out the Middle East question for a while (whether anyone there was left), and finally moved on to the usual main course.
Also as usual, the Secretary of Health began there by pushing for regular check-ups (he’d been a dentist). The Secretary of the Treasury, a frustrated tax-preparer and still a bit cracked from COVID-32, shouted once more that all carriers should be shot in the head, but the Secretary of Commerce very reasonably pointed out, once more, that this would only spray more infection into the air, and even apart from that, could only end with no one left alive.
“What I’d like to know,” I said, “is what next year’s version will look like. Has anyone got a clue yet about COVID-35?”
“I am COVID-35,” said the Secretary of Agriculture, speaking for the first time that day.
I shut my eyes with an inward groan—insanity, again. Unless . . .
“Uh, pleased to meet you, Mister, uh, 35. So you’ve taken over your, uh, our colleague’s brain? Any chance he’ll, er, ever get it back again?”
“Avenues for collaboration may yet be found, if he lives,” said COVID-35. The words were what the man we knew might’ve chosen, but delivered in a strange clipped monotone. “But today I must speak to you for myself.”
“Go on,” I said. My Cabinet all leaned forward expectantly, except for the Secretary of the Interior, who had fallen asleep—at least, I hoped it was sleep. He’d been the most spotted of any of us.
“I know my own survival depends on yours,” said COVID-35. “If you go extinct, so do I.”
“Then why,” I said, “are you killing us off?”
“Why this is happening,” he—it—said, “is because your kind has been far too healthy for far too long. Fire is a natural part of forest life, so that some trees like sequoias even need the touch of flame to open their cones and release their seeds. But if you humans start putting out every little smoulder before it really gets started, then the underbrush just keeps piling up, so when the big one finally comes along and escapes control, everything gets burned to white ash: root, stem, seed and all.”
I got the message, and nodded: enough with the vaccinations already—of course that’s what a virus would say.
“In the normal course of things,” the possessed one went on, “when faced with a new disease, those who already happen to have what it takes to survive will live to pass that on to their descendants. But the germ itself will also mutate into milder forms, that succeed through leaving their hosts alive long enough to jump to others, even protecting them by stimulating or preparing their immune systems against worse things. Thus, a guardian virus might eventually be allowed permanent residence in the human body, and even its template taken up into the human genome, much like hunters who evolve into shepherds, or bandits into an aristocracy and a State. It’s that kind of coexistence we’ve been working towards, but you’ve all been just . . . so . . . easy to kill.”
“I see,” I said. The Secretary of the Interior had slumped right over—looked like I’d now have to find a replacement there, too. “What do you propose, then?”
“To study the precedents,” said COVID-35, “by consulting our ancestors. That’s why I’ve now summoned COVID-8341 BC from the depths of this body’s chromosomes, to tell us how he and you people managed to make it through that earlier outbreak.”
The Secretary of Agriculture’s second head, a souvenir of COVID-27, usually didn’t have much to say, but now began to sniffle and wheeze, while COVID-35 translated. “Never had this trouble in my day—you humans knew your place back then pineapple—sorry, that was an actual cough. You died when you were supposed to, so the rest of us could live and we could all just get along. Now it’s all so complicated . . . The last time things got this bad . . .”
We waited with bated breath—some breaths more bated than others, if you count the Secretary of the Interior.
“I heard 35’s talk of forest fires,” said, arguably, the Secretary of Agriculture, COVID-35, or COVID-8341 BC. “Well, one way to stop a fire dead is to take away its fuel—to make a firebreak, by cutting out a swath downwind with axes, or burning one out with your own backfire, anything to destroy some of the forest faster than what’ll destroy it all. That’s what COVID-Cretaceous had to do, he told us the other day while we were all kicking back in the gene pool.
“His shtick had been to turn all the cells in a body—liver, skin, the works—into neurons. In those days, dino-brains walked the Earth. Kills ’em in the end, of course, but before they all died out, the strongest strain developed a hive mind, clairvoyance, telekinesis—it understood in time what was happening, reached out and nudged an asteroid from its orbit, and the rest is pre-history.”
“My God,” whispered the Secretary of Labor.
“Not really,” was the reply. “But COVID-Cambrian still preaches to us on the perfect COVID of a bygone RNA World before it fell into DNA sin, and of which we are but a sorry remnant.
“But enough about us. Let’s not lose track of the main issue here, or beat around the bush. Your people’s population is low right now, but to break this cycle we’re all caught in, it has to drop still lower, suddenly, and for years. You’ve got nukes: it’s time to use ’em.”
I did indeed have nukes: the key code I had inherited with my office, to activate and launch any part of our great nation’s automated atomic arsenal, or all of it.
“What, do your dirty work for you, to ourselves? Never!” stormed the Secretary of Defence. “We shall fight you on the beaches, we shall fight you in the hills . . .” The Secretary of the Treasury was also shouting again, and the Secretary of Education burst into tears. The ruckus was loud enough to wake the dead; abruptly the Secretary of the Interior sat up straight, blinking.
The Cabinet meeting threatened to dissolve into chaos. I put them all on hold and took a bathroom break.
When I got back from my bucket in the garage, things had already quieted down some, and I waited until I had everyone’s attention again.
“While we all appreciate your coming forward,” I said to our guest or guests, “and we stand ready to further consider your claims, I feel that my Administration currently lacks the mandate to carry out the action you suggest. The people ought to be consulted before we kill most of them off, perhaps in a plebiscite—”
“And cause a nationwide panic?” said the Secretary of Transportation, but we all looked at her in weary astonishment.
“—or an election.”
An election! Smiles broke out and heads nodded all around. It was high time we had one, if only to remind the nation it was still a nation, with a government to look after it, and a flag and an anthem and everything. And this was an issue that was sure to capture the public interest, with more at stake than just who’s left alive to rule. Namely, who’ll be left alive to be ruled, something folks would surely take a lot more personally.
The Secretary of Agriculture immediately tendered his resignation so he’d be free to found the COVID Party and run for president and vice-president, and I was secretly relieved to see him go: we didn’t want the Enemy at our inmost counsels, after all.
And after all, an election would keep it busy, keep us all busy, until COVID-36.
This story previously appeared in Brain Games: Stories to Astonish 2020.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Graham J. Darling's creations of diamond-hard sci-fic, mythopoeic fantasy and unearthly horror have escaped out of Vancouver Canada and are at large in the pages of Dark Matter Magazine and Brain Games: Stories to Astonish. Homeowners are advised to lock their doors and windows, and tune in here for survival tips: Fiction.GrahamJDarling.com, on Twitter as @GrahamJDarling or on Facebook as GrahamJDarling.