Bonus Short Story: The Plague

That horizon ahead? It used to be alive. It was more real than the stars and a million times brighter, like someone had cut holes through reality to the multicolored fabric beneath. The glow could be seen for miles, and it would’ve rushed toward you as soon as it would’ve appear from nowhere. That was before everything; before the misery, before the plague, before the end of the world.

It didn’t happen like we thought it would. There was no nuclear exchange. No zombie outbreak. No horsemen. There was just sickness, death, the stink of poverty and grief. Even the war didn’t really hit us in the States, not until the retaliation strikes wiped us out. It was our own fault.

I remember hearing the air-raid sirens; It was one of those typical Tuesdays, or as typical as they’d become with the state of things. The media were screaming nonsensical ravings about imminent destruction. They’d always done that though, the narrative had just changed, the rhetoric shifting from general to pointed. Instead of offhandedly implying certain things would cause a certain end, news-anchors and pundits began to say this would cause that end. It was all very intentional, charismatic fear-mongering, but no-one thought they’d be right.

It wasn’t like we’d have been able to do anything about it anyhow. The US economy had collapsed, just like most others’, and the rest of the world was following more by the day. Most of us had leveraged our national assets to the Chinese in exchange for debt relief. After all, they had the largest workforce in the world, and with their communist-state becoming more democratic by the day, they were on the rise. Debt relief came in the form of trillions of dollars, but with the obvious caveat that those whom defaulted forfeited those leveraged assets. What a fucking mistake. It was the worst bargain ever, and no-one I know– or knew– thought otherwise.

But the politicians and governments thought it was the greatest thing since sliced-bread. The propaganda, media-machine kicked into overdrive, and we started hearing more about how good it all was and would be. All the while, people were getting more and more angry, protesting and threatening to riot, feeling more and more as if they’d been sold into slavery. Eventually, they were proven to have a point, but at the time, everyone was too angry to speculate.

We should have though. All of us. Maybe then someone would’ve hit upon the kernel of truth in what was to come. Maybe, just maybe, we’d have seen the shit-storm on the horizon and been better prepared to batten the hatches when it arrived. We weren’t and that’s ultimately how that horizon died.

Every country has its own story, but as far as the US goes, it was the steel industry that went first. American steel had built the world for almost two hundred years, but coal had become scarce, oil more expensive, and exportation more difficult. Tariffs and embargoes, imposed by the UN countries, eventually forced us to close up shop, but not before our number one industry was bled dry by money-hungry vultures.

Hundreds of thousands were suddenly, and immediately, out of work. Their Unions threw them to the wolves, then fought for the scraps before ending up euthanized by political mistakes and missteps. When the unemployment rates came in, they’d tripled. The next election cycle proved to only be a catalyst to the chaos, with both sides proclaiming to have the answer. They were easy answers to extremely complex problems though, and everyone with sense worth a damn saw it. Funny, it still didn’t save us…

The problems spread; without cheap, easy access to steel, the auto-industry went belly up. It didn’t hurt that our Chinese “saviors” were the new, number-one steel producers, and were hiking their prices up higher than a whore at a garter-convention. It was probably the first time in history the Chinese had managed to piss off both Americans and Russians in such equal measure.

Of course without the auto-industry, public sectors began to break down. Everything from public transit to car-dealers felt the blow. The big three were dead, and like big-steel, had taken a large portion of the country with it– to say nothing of the culture around them. Then, because of the lack of vehicles, big-oil took the hit too. They rode out the end of the world in style, of course, still able to export most of their stock, but to an utterly discarded reputation state-side.

Only a few of the newer, electric-car manufacturers seemed to hold to any scrap of hope, but the tech still wasn’t there, and the cars cost twice the average salary. In a country with a 30% unemployment rate, it wasn’t hard to see how fast they were going to fail if they didn’t compensate. Eventually, their compensation killed them off anyway. With them went any hope of renewable energy alternatives– and a few-hundred-thousand more jobs.

With all of that upper-middle class money gone, simple things like supermarkets and department stores started closing down. Unemployment shot up to 50%, the rich got richer, and the poor were so destitute most were dying. Even the government couldn’t help anymore. Most of their biggest money-making assets had been snatched up by Chinese companies to pay back the debt. It wasn’t long before it was merely simpler to close-up shop a world away and bring the businesses home.

It was total, economic collapse. The only thing we had left was the military, and it was the only time their bloated, runaway budget had ever seemed like a good thing. It had given them fiscal padding, enough to keep soldiers, sailors, and fighter-jocks in chow and shelter. Eventually though, the bombs fell, and none of that mattered anymore.

I couldn’t tell you who shot first. Maybe it was us. Maybe it was them. Both sides had good reasons. We were biting the hand that fed us, bitching and whining alongside the rest of the world, while the Chinese were trying to slap us down for it. I guess I don’t disagree with their stances; we made the deal and failed to uphold it. They merely enforced the terms and we turned on them for it. Whoever shot first seems less important now that everything’s gone. Or rather, now that everyone is gone.

We thought they were nuclear ICBMs when we saw them on the news. A couple of sat-images and alarms came blaring in over the televisions on emergency broadcasts. The Air-force scrambled squadrons to intercept, but the Chinese had been expecting it. They weren’t nukes. They were chemical bombs filled with something called Substance-42. It was like a combination of chlorine gas and Ebola. The first people dead were the pilots, but it didn’t matter, we’d done exactly what they’d wanted.

We blasted apart those ICBMs mid-air and the resulting debris contaminated the entire country. In less than a month, it was the continent. Four-hundred million people died in the first two months. Most of the rest went in the next few; twisted, mangled corpses of either retching poison-victims, or blood-drained casualties. It was like someone had opened a vein on the world, replaced the oceans with blood.

Those of us immune were considered lucky. Sure, lucky…. Lucky is dying in your sleep after a long, full life, or hitting the lottery and retiring early. Nothing about this was lucky. The ones that died were lucky. They didn’t have to watch the world go to an even deeper hell than it had been in.

But I did, because I survived.

Without industry, and with most of our country dead or dying, the war ended. Before the TV-stations went off-air, they’d said that the infection had just hit mainland Asia and was sweeping Europe. Even some dumb bastards who’d fled their countries had managed to infect Australia and most of the world’s islands.

I don’t know how many are left, but I know we’ll never survive. The virus they used mutated, killed off most of the animal life. If you can even find it to hunt, you eat it raw or over pioneer fires. Nothing else in this world works anymore. All the fuel is gone, all the public utilities, all the power, water, and heat.

I don’t know how long I’ll survive, but I’ve only seen a few people since the war ended. Terrifying, considering how dense and overpopulated Chicago used to be. I know there aren’t many of us left now. There isn’t much of anything left, really. Maybe the Chinese didn’t unleash a plague, maybe they’d just harnessed it– or maybe, just maybe, they’d eradicated that last true plague on the planet; humanity.

We were a blight on the universe, it seems. I guess now that we’re all dead the scales are balanced again…

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