Susurra

Waves lapped at the kayak, rocking her to and fro as she approached the cliffside shrine. From her pack, she produced her tithe, a lithium ion battery for the eleemosynary. She needed it, but someone else needed it more than she. The clime priests would come collect it and distribute it to the less fortunate, the refugees to this new island.

Island, synonymous with peaceful relaxation and beautiful sandy beaches had been the treble to the activists’ bass. Just think of all the new islands we can vacation to, they would say as the glaciers melted and seas rose. Antediluvian abominations were wiped out once before, so what’s the harm in letting it happen again?

She had been gobsmacked at first. Then resigned. Then hopeless. Even popular music had changed. Mellifluous melodies were replaced by lugubrious lyrics, reflecting the tightening tentacles of an apoplectic atmosphere.

Flight to the islands had seemed counterintuitive at first. But bureaucratic serendipity had worked in favor of certain locales. Landlocked areas that were now positively pelagic had lost their ruling authorities. The inhabitants could take the power back, decide their own principles. With humanity’s numbers dwindling, there was a chance that some of the stronger island states might make it through. If the old bromide about there being enough fish in the sea literally held true.

Shidookie, she thought to herself, recoiling at the bad parent joke.

She was readying her launch away from the shelf when something malodorous on the wind made her gag. A lissome clime priest stood silently above her, inspecting the lithium ion battery with one hand and in the other, holding a tangled muck of dead fish, mangled in a mass of plastic flotsam.

“I’m getting spurious power readings from this,” they said to her.

She nodded. “Those aren’t spurious. It’s charged.”

Their face passed through shock, awe, and to the sanguine. They were still speechless when she rowed out of sight. The Island of Deniers had a lot more to steal where that had come from.

Rise

“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” T.S. Eliot.

She walked amongst the bodies in her hazmat suit. She called them bodies though their heart still beat and their lungs still inspired oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide. Most of them did not register her presence. Occasionally, a reflex would trigger nystagmus as she passed through their field of vision. Most of them had found their way to a comfortable place like a chair or couch; others lay where they had stood when the symptoms took hold.

She was not in any immediate danger – the infected were immobile, unaggressive. Their sheer numbers and clogging of all living spaces was the biggest threat. Bodies strewn everywhere; cars scattered without pattern, crashed wherever the driver had stopped caring. Viral apathy.

The virus was not the killer, rather the incapacitating lassitude. She had run endless tests and found that even when the virus was no longer detectable in the bloodstream, patients still had the profound self-neglect that characterized the peak symptomatic phase of the illness. The neurons in the brain responsible for volition seemed to be the primary target. The primitive brain stem and the motor neurons remained intact, so they could move if they wanted. But they did not.

Her only real danger was the crumbling society around her. Without daily maintenance, societal infrastructure was incredibly fragile. Buildings and bridges spontaneously collapsed from disrepair. Rivers overflowed their banks, washing away streets and structures. With everything decomposing around her, jagged pieces of human-made trash could puncture her suit and expose her to the air, where the virus still drifted. One leak meant losing her will, her life.

The CDC had determined that the main cause of death was starvation or dehydration. More often it was dehydration – lack of water was more rapidly fatal than lack of food. They even did some preliminary tests to show that if you gave them water and food, they would survive. But if it was up to them, they would not eat or drink. And there were not enough functional neocortices remaining on the planet to trudge husk to husk, spoon-feeding food and water. Their volitional neurons were not going to magically regrow. Complete dependence was the only endpoint and an impossibly unsustainable proposition.

The last uninfected were primarily scientists because of their easy access to hazmat suits. There was a small group at the CDC and another group at USAMRIID in Virginia. Maybe one or two in Eastern Europe, but those were just rumors. With its long asymptomatic incubation period and an infectious dose of less than ten viral particles, it had been easy to spread globally. Completely healthy appearing persons could fly from Chile to Siberia, infect the whole airplane in their first few breaths, and continue spreading it on the ground for weeks after they landed before anyone noticed that they were not quite as motivated as usual.

She had been working tirelessly, testing any compound with purported antiviral activity, but none had been effective. The virus had no common epitopes to other viruses, so there were no good vaccine candidates. During a particularly bleak stretch of failures, they had considered waiting the infection out and not bothering with all the testing. But when it became clear that there were unaffected animal reservoirs that would continue to be a source of infection even if all the infected humans died, they were forced to push through.

There was no natural immunity. Nobody developed an immunologic response to the virus. It was worse than smallpox when Europeans first came to the Americas. At least for the Native Americans there was a miniscule immunity reservoir that had saved a few. No such luck for the apathy virus.

Her work in the lab continued monotonously, day after day. She watched the husks slowly die off, their corpses taken over by insects. In some locations, her suit exhaust was the only thing that could disperse the flying black swarms of insects born of the rot of humankind. With monotony came errors in the lab. She still worried about the mistakes, but less each day.

One morning, she dropped a beaker at the bench. The glass smashed and cascaded across the floor. Her suit decompressed, but she felt no emotion. The incubation period was too long for her to feel the effects this quickly. She must have been exposed weeks or months ago. Had it been the filter change on the suit? Or when the safe room door had been ajar upon her return?

Oh well, she thought as she laid down on the floor, never to rise again.

Perception

The 51st Annual International Congress of the Speaking was held on the 24th floor of the New Delhi Marriott. Katarina limped into the conference room and picked up her nametag. The nametags made sense when the conference first began. Back then, they had trouble fitting everyone into the largest conference centers around the world. But now with only five of them remaining, it was more symbolic of times past than anything else. On the other hand, they did seem to help Dingwen, who grew more forgetful each year.

Katarina was the last to arrive. A somber foursome sat at the lone table in the room on the 24th floor. In the background were pictures of members lost since the last meeting. It was a tradition they had started a few years before when their numbers dipped below a hundred. This year, there were three photos – Jorge, Esmeralda, and Mae.

Katarina had grown fond of Mae and Esmeralda. She was a bit of a third wheel, but still always enjoyed their times together. When she heard that Esmeralda had died, she knew Mae would not be far behind. News of Mae’s death from Takotsubo cardiomyopathy 48 hours later came as no surprise.

Jorge probably should have lived a few more years, but he was the daredevil of the group. Out alone on a hike he tripped and fractured his femur. He was found a couple of days later and taken to the hospital, but his kidneys had shut down without water and he never recovered.

So here they were, the last five humans that could speak to each other. Dingwen, Holly, Sofia, Amelie, and herself.

Sofia saw Katarina first and rose to greet her.

“Good to see you, old friend,” said Sofia softly.

They embraced and headed to their seats.

Amelie was the conference leader now that Jorge had passed. She stood to address the table.

“Welcome to the 51st Annual International Congress of the Speaking.” Amelie forced a smile.

“As always, we mourn the loss of those who are no longer with us, knowing that their companionship enriched our lives while we were privileged to have it.”

Amelie paused for a moment of silence and tears welled in the corners of her eyes.

“Hey, who died?” Dingwen joked. His memory was much worse this year. Katarina was surprised he made it to the conference at all.

Amelie ignored the comment and continued. “The only item of business today is a sad, but necessary one – the disbandment of this Congress.”

Before anyone could say anything, their Vesh hostess entered the room, followed by several Vesh waiters with food trays.

Katarina stiffened at their arrival. She minimized any contact with the Vesh, despite their necessity. She found their features unnerving. Deformed, vestigial ear buds, the concave mid-face, the short neck. Even though she knew their DNA was 99.99% similar to her own, she had never been able to shake their alienness.

The hostess oversaw the food delivery and when she was satisfied, all the Vesh left without a sound.

“Why disband now? I want every breath I take filled with words until the day I die!” Sofia was incensed.

“Sofia, take an honest survey of the room. Dingwen can’t remember any of us. Katarina and I have so many medical problems that getting here nearly killed us. There is a ninety-five percent chance neither of us will be alive next year for a meeting. And Holly is so close to deafness that she considered using the original Vesh technology just so she would have someone to ‘talk’ to.”

Sofia glared at Holly and cleared her throat so she could shout to her. “You’re that bad off?”

Holly held her hand to her ear.

Sofia stood and walked over to Holly, bending over to yell directly in her ear. “You’re that bad off? You were willing to lose yourself to Vesh tech?”

Holly nodded. “Dear, I don’t think I can go on much longer. The only reason I haven’t taken that last walk home was so that I could see you all one more time.”

Sofia’s shoulders sank.

“It’s not what I want, Sofia. But this will be the conference of goodbyes.” Amelie had been preparing herself for months for this eventuality.

Katarina surveyed the room again. She would miss these people, former strangers, united by the slowly extinguishing flame of human speech. She knew the Vesh would keep a record of their ancestors’ ability to communicate aloud, but would they understand what that meant? Without any auditory nerves, could they comprehend the concept of speech? She would never know.

The Final Expanse Countdown

“I don’t and I don’t and I don’t.”

The meandering voice encircled him, crescendoing.

He was getting closer now. The shimmering blue lights were frantic around him.

The aimless wandering of the voice gave way to an unfamiliar rumble, just as he came to a large open chamber. It was a hazmat analysis node.

Synthetic music reverberated.

Sounds like the shit Diogo was listening to.

Here was what he’d come for.

An explosion rocked the station. Or was it the music?

“Julie,” he said. “Hey. Julie. Wake up. I need you to wake up now.”

Driving drums pounded in his ears.

“We’re leaving together, but still it’s farewell,” he said. Eros seemed to be singing his words back to him.

“Who are you?” Julie asked.

“Name’s Miller.”

“I’m scared.”

“It’s all right, but right now the whole station is heading back for Earth. Really fast.”

“I dreamed I was racing. I was going home.”

“Yeah, we need to stop that.”

“Can we come back?”

“Maybe we’ll come back to Earth, but who can tell?”

“I guess there is no one to blame.”

Well, that wasn’t technically true.

Miller shrugged reassuringly. “Not anymore, no.”

He could now feel himself floating, leaving ground.

“Will things ever be the same, Miller?”

He changed topics quickly.

“Give me your hand.” He took his hand terminal and pressed her thumb to the dead man’s switch.

“What is it?”

“It’s the final countdown.”

The synthesizers were blasting again.

“Oh,” was all she could muster.

“We’re heading for Venus,” Miller suggested.

“That’s not what it wants.”

“You’re a fighter, Julie.”

“And still we stand tall, tall, tall…” the voices were overlapping again. Her eyes glossed over.

“Seen us seen us seen us, maybe they’ve seen us?” Julie’s tone was getting frantic.

All eyes are on us. Miller chuckled.

“Venus will welcome us all.” He pointed around the station at the floating blue lights.

“What happens on Venus?”

“We die maybe? I don’t know. With so many light years to go…” he trailed off.

Julie finished his sentence. “And things to be found.”

Miller nodded. “To be found.”

“I’m scared. I want go home, to Earth.”

“I’m sure that we’ll all miss her so.” The rest of humanity will be glad we missed.

The flashing blue lights seemed to speed up, furious now.

Julie’s lip quivered, she looked pained.

Miller felt the station lurch – their course was changing.

“What is it, Julie?”

“It’s the final countdown.”

50 words

Charlie looked out across the snow-capped mountains.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

Cassander took a deep breath.

“Best mountains in the galaxy! Just as advertised.”

“Isn’t it great to be aliens?”

“What do you mean?”

“We can breathe so easily up here because we’re aliens.”

“Totally!”

They slapped head phalanges in triumph.

50 words

“We are overjoyed and honored to announce that the recipient of this year’s Clarke Award is Galen!”

A standing ovation.

He looked over at Galen.

“Why Galen, I do believe they have forgotten about me.”

“Not to worry old chap, probably stopped short.”

“Congratulations Galen!”

“I say, you’ve forgotten Mopar!”

50 words

There was a sudden cacophony behind her. Her eyes darted across the horizon, but found only desert.

She quickened her pace.

The wall of sound leapt closer.

She began to run.

Closer now, licking at her ears.

The desert fell into shadow.

Sprint.

Shrieking, ear-splitting obfuscation.

Panic.

Silence.

Paralytic unconsciousness.

50 words

“What’s this broth bro?”

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“Bro. WHAT. IS. THIS. BROTH.”

He looked at the bowl, then back at his face.

“…bean broth?”

“Bro!” He shouted, stretching out the ‘oh’ sound.

“What?”

“How can you even!” he paused after putting full body emphasis on even. “Afford beans?”

50 words

He rushed into the lobby.

A few minutes late, no big deal.

Looking up, he found the building deserted.

But this is social hour…

He opened the invitation.

Right date, time, place.

He checked Twitter – a group picture in the lobby where he was standing, posted 3 seconds ago.

50 words

“What do you mean all the food tastes like this?”

“All the nutrient broth, or ‘food’ as you refer to it, tastes like this ma’am,” she responded bemusedly.

Bile crept up her throat, nauseating her.

“Oh screw this! Crank up the hypersleep until the climate can sustain decent tasting food.”