[August 1665] I went on a walk to Greenwich, on my way seeing a coffin with a dead body in it, dead of plague. It lay in an open yeard. ... It was carried there last night, and the parish has not told anyone to bury it. This disease makes us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs. —Samuel Pepys
A disfigured man picked a sharp chard from the floor amongst the ruble of a wrecked street. Blood oozing out from his infected lymph nodes; muscles and organs visibly engorged, adding to the piercing, unending pain.
He raised his arm with the object firm in his hand and uttered a guttural and primordial sound from his bleeding throat. Behind him, the lights from tyres and barricades on fire, filling the night sky.
He took the chard and cut his chest bare open. The swellings immediately blasted in the rain, releasing blood and infected liquids. And then, a final sound of relief as death came to stop the pain.
A month or two earlier, he might have been the local school teacher or a shop assistant. If he had a family, maybe they were still alive, or not, and who knows if in this last moments, he would think of them at all.
The rain poured and poured, gallons at the time, warm in the summer night. Shops in flames; most houses pillaged and abandoned; the remnants of toys and some soiled garments laid scattered around the garden of an other time prosperous mansion.
As the thick smoke cleared for a moment, the road appeared filthy, covered in slime mixed with rotten fluids, garbage, mud.
There were thousands of corpses already decomposing in every street, a hundred or more still alive, looting and raiding everything along their path, moved perhaps by desperation, survival instinct or simply by the greed of man.
An explosion shook the walls of the old shopping mall, as a military patrol zoomed down the main street, gunning down anybody who would dare nearing the vehicle, ill or not.
Down at the city hall, a group of some twelve women with children, had barricaded themselves with machetes and hand grenades for days, but had run out of food.
I saw several men setting fire to the building just for fun with two tanks of kerosene and a lighter. I don’t think they were ill. As the flames quickly devoured the site, a woman emerged from a side door, running out in panic while trying to escape the flames. They shot her down at point blank, right in the head. Her child inside the building, didn’t make the flames.
Some died alone, at home, or in some field or in a street corner, perhaps after living long time in isolation, hoping to survive the worst, not quite understanding what had happened to everything and everyone they once loved.
Less fortunate perhaps were in fact the children from parents who had been killed by the disease and that for one reason or another had survived and were then left to their fate, sleeping rough on the streets, gathering in small groups and feeding off garbage here and there, amongst the rabbles of some city suburb. They were known as ‘the small rats’, colloquially, and most of them had built some immunity to the disease. Many of them didn’t speak, perhaps due to traumatic disorder or perhaps as a way to protect themselves from the outer world, the world that had let them down, and that showed no empathy to their predicament.
When you saw a man shaking uncontrollably, violently, foaming from the mouth, you knew he had less than a few hours to live. Most victims were unable to communicate or to understand anything during this stage of unbearable pain. The disease would take two or three days to destroy its host starting from a simple fever, then the swollen lymphs, glands and vomit. But then, during the last day of illness, a transformation of the personality would also take place. From the early state of lethargy and tiredness, the diseased would acquire new strength, an almost unnatural strength in fact, along with an attraction and an unquenchable need for destruction, violence and aggression.
Some would take their own life before reaching this stage, knowing what it would be waiting for them if they didn’t, sometimes to protect their loved ones, sometimes to simply die a dignified death. The rest, perhaps carried away by fear or cowardice, would let that last day run its course, morphing gradually into a horrid and brutal version of their former selves.
We were three years into this, living in a reality that none of us really fully acknowledged. This disease had taken all that was once good and beautiful, leaving a wounded and decadent society unprepared to deal with the ripples of its shock.
This disease had come so fast and taken humanity so unprepared, so slow in its response, that there was still much debate as to what sort of germ it was. The survival rates were very low, perhaps no more than five or six percent, more than enough to classify as one of those end-of-the-world pathogens that in the past have completely changed the course of history.
And so, in our modern and complacently over populated world, interconnected by the most efficient transport systems, dense cities and open societies, the antibiotic resistant germ found the perfect environment, the perfect host, to flourish even faster than any pandemonium before it.
At night I would open a bottle of gin and slowly wash it down, as I turned the pages of a photo book of my beloved and child who I had lost early on to the disease. In the distance, always resonating, the screams of horror, gunshots, the odd explosion.
Along with the last swig of spirit, I would take also a sleeping pill, which had become a ritual of sorts, a necessary evil.
Being a good pilot, perhaps one of the best around, had kept me alive. Stationed at a high-security military base in the northern territory, I had become a comfortable viewer, complacent somehow, to the unstoppable decadence of the world.
Many were unhappy with government while the mobs ravished entire cities. I kept my opinions for myself and never got into political debates.
Our outpost was one of the largest around, housing a good portion of the existing army apparatus, including some of the finest planes around. In spite of all the cute machinery, I never liked the place, partly because I had arrived at it in times of extreme uncertainty when most of the daily duties and training, had to do with ruthless control of the mob, at any cost.
Besides this, the station was a gruesome and shabby place with more in common with a morgue than a true military base. The lower level was made in cement but the first floor. for some odd reason, was adorned entirely in wood, indicating that it had had a different origin, perhaps a hospital or a children’s home.
During the day the thick smoke of fires covered the land with a toxic stench. We had been told not to be out in the courtyard during daylight hours as the air was too polluted to breathe. Indoors, the base kept filtering its own air through a very rudimentary but still operational, circulation system.
I had spent just over four months in that rancid place with another hundred and fifty frightened souls, all shivering to the bone. When you are the spectator of the fear of others, it is easy to become a coward, and there were a lot of them amongst us.
Towards the end of that period, before the bacterium found its way in to the base, we used to watch our country on TV go to flames, slowly slowly, day by day. I never kept any faith, that somehow, anytime soon, someone would find a cure or a vaccine, and life would come back to what it once was. I didn’t believe in people anymore nor in promises.
After two months of being there, we were asked to carry out infra red reconnoiter flights over the province, mostly during the night. We would take off at around 1am, gather in-depth HD photo analyses of any human activity and be back at 4am.
We also dropped various experimental chemical aerosols over parts of the population, sick or not, it didn’t matter. I never asked any questions, I expected no explanations, I didn’t want any. I was trained that way. All I know is that nothing ever changed with regards to the pestilence on account of those spraying missions, whatever that useless stuff was.
One sticky summer night, around one or two in the morning, we got waken up suddenly by the emergency siren. Everybody jumped out of bed and immediately put their biochemical protection suits on. The computerised security system ordered to isolate the eastern wing of the complex. The entire base had been originally designed with nuclear security in mind but had been quickly and ineffectively adapted to the biological emergency of the plague.
The security system found an infected badger dead in the air conditioning conduit. The disease spread in a matter of minutes. By the time we were ready to isolate the eastern wing, the western wing and lower levels had been contaminated.
Amongst the increasing confusion and chaos, we were given orders to use flame throwers on all living things, ill or not, the dying, our friends, our comrades. All went up in smoke.
The fire got out of control and a few hours later, the base was abandoned. From a population of one hundred and fifty, only eight of us survived that night.
With another pilot called Parker I headed to the mountains. In the distance of the valley behind us, a column of black thick smoke marked the location of the doomed base. We walked fast, carrying two telecom packs, ammunitions, food for three days and one machine gun each.
The geography was extremely rough. The temperature continued to drop as we gained altitude. A day later we found refuge and shelter amongst the thick forest vegetation of the deep river ravines and dangerous gorges. We lived up there for a few days, hunting the odd rabbit and quail until Parker disappeared one foggy night without saying anything about his intentions.
I set fire to some clothes he left behind and picked up all my belongings and equipment en route for the higher plains above the valleys.
Food was growing scarce and so was my hunting. Up there, surrounded by bare grass slopes and boulders, I could hardly find any roots and insects to feed on.
After half a day of walk, I found a suitable shelter, a half formed cave with some overhanging rocks above it, which lead, some two hundred metres over it, right to the top of the mountain.
I entered the cavern, set up my sleeping bag and slid in it for some rest. My hopes of survival were fading hour after hour. I remember feeling extremely lonely and disheartened about the life I had been given to live. I had been trained to be alone, to expect nothing from the future and to accept each day as it came. But all of this didn't seem to make my current situation any more bearable.
I knew that, if I were to survive alone, I would have to keep as high as possible in the mountain. This would help the transmitter signal, which further below was easily absorbed by the hight of the mountain peaks above. A mountainous location was ideal.
A few hours later I woke up with a cold sweat. I came out of my sack looking for something to eat. Amongst the variety of herbs adorning this mountain slopes, I found an edible root with a slight sweet flavour quite similar to liquorice. I pulled four or five big ones out and sucked and chewed them for as long as I could. Somehow that little bit of sugar, although slightly bitter and sour, gave me enough energy to feel better. I went back to the warmth of my sleeping bag and quickly dozed off.
Fifteen minutes later, no more, I woke up with an excruciating abdominal pain. I was shivering and I cold sticky sweat run down my forehead. The cramps were unbearable, unstoppable. I crawled out of the bag, on all fours, rolled out to the edge of the grotto, and vomited all that I had in me, to the last very drop. I laid exhausted on that soft and humid grass with the first stars above me on an otherwise, fairly cloudless sky. The violent spasms and lack of fluids had left me extremely shaken and debilitated. I was shivering.
I drifted away for a few minutes, mumbling some incomprehensible words and sounds possibly due to the temperature that ravaged me. My head pained furiously with a thumping pulsating beat which also stopped me from fully falling asleep.
After a few hours the stomach pain subsided which allowed me to relax muscles, come out of my supine position and stretch my body to catch up with some rest.
In my nightmarish dreams and surreal visions I flew away from that world of fires, death and steep mountain gorges. There was another world that I had belonged to, one that still existed in a little corner inside my head.
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