(Human Calicivirus Disease (HCD) is a newly emergent, highly infectious viral disease of humans. There is no effective treatment for this disease at the time of writing …)
… ‘Nor is there likely to be;’ said the bitter Californian voice emanating from the speakers echoing in the concrete starkness.
The screen, deep within the heart of the European Disease Monitoring Agency isolation lab illuminated her with a ghostly glow.
‘Richard, you’re just too damned optimistic.’
Dr Julie Jamison, international calicivirus expert and EDMA acting Director, stared long and hard at the words on her laptop, green eyes straining, fighting against the tiredness. This, she thought, is it. She had spent her short, illustrious career in virology attaining this goal – obituarist – technical writer for and of the dead. She smiled but it hurt. No lipstick, no make up, just dry cracked skin. What else could she do? She continued typing. Colleague, vet and one time lover, Richard Grabinski, hiding in a Colorado bunker, watched her words appear paragraph at a time, using the voice function of the chat line to prop her up as best he could.
( In 1984 Rabbit Calicivirus Disease (RCD) a highly infectious, highly virulent, viral disease of Rabbits (Oryctolagus sp.) appeared in the Peoples Republic of China. The original reservoir from which RCD emerged remains unknown. RCD, also known as Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD), rapidly spread to Europe and other parts of Asia. It was probably spread via infected rabbit meat and live rabbit shipments. In 1988 it appeared in Mexico where it was contained and eradicated by 1992. In 1995 it was trialled in Australia as a biological control for feral rabbits but escaped into the wild. It was officially released by the Australians in 1996 as a safe, effective control agent.)
… ‘Dick heads.’
’That’s Australian for kind of silly, right?’
‘You know me Richard, always polite.’
She knew they could not have known; dick heads just the same. She was still an Australian post-doctoral fellow when it mysteriously crossed from Wardang Island to the mainland. She was also present, just before moving to Europe to take up a lucrative job with EDMA, when it crossed species. The obituary continued.
(The Caliciviridae are divided into five distinct types. Four are known human pathogens. The fifth type, which includes RCD virus, was not thought to be a human pathogen. Unfortunately …)
‘Master of understatement as usual!’ chimed Richard, watching darkly bemused as the letters emerged in pale phosphor on his screen as well as hers.
‘Are you still there Jules?’
‘Yes, Dick … I was just thinking about why I’m doing this.’
‘Well someone’s got to do it and you’re the top dog right?’
‘I am now, but how come we didn’t see it? Not me, not them, not anyone.’
‘Stuff happens, just this time it’s big stuff.’
(… RCD proved capable of causing disease in humans but was not regarded as a major health risk as it only produced minor gastroenteritis and flu-like symptoms in a minority of those who closely handled infected animals or ate infected meat.)
She still could not believe it. No alarm bells rang. RCD could cause close to 100% mortality within infected populations. It probably had a history of crossing species and still it did not ring bells until it was too late. It ate away at her. It was too late when she saw it, far, far too late. Remorse? – yes. Too late? – yes. Give up and die? – no, not yet. There were more words to write. Her slender fingers, old maroon nail polish glinting in the glow, caressed the keys. The words emerged – like the disease – from nowhere.
(By 2015 the global economic recession of 2009 deepened into depression and by 2017 it had all but destroyed many once prosperous nations. Australia was not immune to this economic disease. Consequently, as in times past, many Australians were forced to eke out a subsistence living and bush meats became a regular source of protein for many rural and semi-rural families.)
‘This is when it happened,’ she opined.
‘Sure seems like it, god damned aussies! I knew you lot were trouble,’ came Richard’s forced, cheery voice
In the soft radiance of the screen she could almost see the meal in question. The pathogen sliding silently from mouth to gut, gut wall to gut tissue, gut tissue to organ tissue, organ tissue to pain, pain and fever, more pain, panic and pain. Agonising, foaming, death rattling pain and then, ultimately, putrefaction. Still, an irony amused her. RCD had reduced the feral rabbit population in Australia to a fraction of its previous size. Catching rabbits had become hard work. Many families went without meat for long periods and paid dearly for their ‘bunny tummy’. Life’s a bitch and then you die.
Her morbid reverie ended with the onset of a new silence.
The lights went out, all the machines working on external power died as the supply fizzled.
‘Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!’
She thumped the table in defiance. Her slender arms complained with spasms that shot bolts of lightning through her angular shoulders and long delicate neck. Death was all around, near. Soon, came the thought, but not yet. The laptop soldiered on, precious battery electrons vanishing with each keystroke. Odd noises rattled around the building as emergency lights twinkled on and somewhere deep in the concrete recesses a monster generator kicked into life, restoring essential power as it slowly drained its precious diesel.
‘Are you still there Richard?’
Software flashed little signs, network down, try again?
‘Bugger!’ Loosing her erstwhile companion without so much as a fond adieu did not sit well with her. Working the keys she demanded it work. Somewhere an errant computer booted into life.
Blinnng! ‘Hi Jules, where’d you go?’
‘Oh Richard, glad you’re back – power has gone off outside and the server and satellite link went down I think. Emergency generator has started up I guess.’
‘Thank goodness for automation, hey?’
‘Well, I could do with some automated system for building antiviral drugs. What do you say?’
‘Keep typing babe, someone sometime somewhere might need you.’
(The increased exposure of a poorly nourished population to RCD-infected rabbit meat almost certainly laid the ground for the species cross over. As in 1984, the mutant virus variants that naturally arise produced a strain of RCD that thrived in its new host. Once virologists realised an RCD variant had truly become HCD it was far too late.)
(Far, far, far, far too late.) she added, only to erase it.
‘Way too late Jules.’
‘So why am I bothering, Dick? We damn well worked it out but by the time we nailed it down over a billion people were dead.’
‘Yep, the entire global economy has gone to shit. I know you probably haven’t seen any news broadcasts. There’s no international travel and trade has pretty well ground to a halt. Its dog eat dog. Folks are dying of starvation and people trying to flee, god knows where, are being shot en mass on state and federal borders all over the world. Even here.’
‘Shit, it really is that bad?’
‘Yep, worse probably. That’s just the cheery news.’
‘So we’ve banished all sorts of horrid things to the furtherest corners of the world but in eight weeks it all came undone. That was ten weeks ago. Eighteen weeks in all. Crap, what a house of cards!’
‘Networks are down everywhere, you’ve seen that. At least ninety percent of my chat line address book are either really dead or trying not to die but I can’t find out any more. No news TV, radio or net most places. I only have power and net connection ‘cause I live in a part of Boulder that is serviced by the same systems that are keeping some military installations going.’
‘Good old uncle Sam eh?’
‘Stars and Stripes forever, babe’
The world echoed with messages, calls for help and last words to loved ones. Safe but stranded in Europe’s most secure laboratory she watched and listened as the world died around her. Harrowing stories from each and everyone of her international colleagues before their parts of the network fell silent. Worse still, the last calls to her mum and dad, sister and brother, all still living in or near the Melbourne family home. She was the only member of the family with a degree and the only one to travel and live overseas. How proud they were of her. Wishing she was home, helplessness was a new but ever more familiar condition for her. How do you put the phone down on someone you love when you know you will never see them, hug them or talk to them ever again? When you know they’ll be dead tomorrow. It wasn’t fair.
‘Richard, how far gone are we?’ The deadly serious tone in her voice was unmistakable.
‘We as in … ?’ Richard probed.
‘Us, the humans, the primate plague we’ve talked about so often.’
’We’ll the numbers are too big, Jules. Ninety seven percent of everybody seems about right but from my bunker its hard to tell for sure. Strange isn’t it?’
’What’s that Dick?’
‘’Most folks dead and you and me still talking with most of a planet between us.’
She figured most of the remaining three percent were not long for the world either, now that they were back in the dark ages. The little computer made a tired, giving up sort of noise as the screen flickered between light and dark, as if to make the point. Her long auburn hair, long overdue for a wash, clung to her sweat sticky brow.
‘So what’s next babe?’ said Richard, trying hard to keep her going.
‘Read and believe, Dick. Read and believe.’
(HCD is highly infectious and highly virulent. It damages liver, intestines and lymphatic tissue and causes terminal massive blood clots. The incubation period is approximately 36 hours. Victims die within 6 – 24 hours of the onset of fever with few clinical signs. Fever is often not detected until terminal clinical signs appear. In the final hours before death victims become incoherent, suffer violent muscle spasms, and sometimes froth from the nose and mouth. The death rate ranges from 75-100% with many survivors dying of secondary infections producing pneumonia, meningitis and other rapidly fatal conditions that were difficult to treat at the best of times.)
She laughed aloud, shouting at the walls.
‘It was the best of times, the worst of times, the end of times! What would Dickens think if this soliloquy?’
‘I think he’d understand.’
A stifled cough followed, Richard said nothing. Julie said nothing in reply.
Dickens was dust; sobs replaced laughter. Hunger demanded more than stale chips and chocolates from the wrecked vending machine. Despair worked her fingers.
(HCD is easily spread via aerosols generated through victims coughing. Close contact with infected persons, breathing air from a room recently occupied by infected persons or handling objects recently used by infected persons (e.g. clothing, utensils) is enough to spread the virus. Infected persons that do recover may carry and shed the virus for many weeks after recovery (carrier rabbits shed RCD virus for up to 4 weeks). High-density populations are most at risk although only the most isolated of population groups are likely to avoid mass mortalities.)
‘Just as well there’s no one else here with me then.’ came Richard’s dry west coast drawl in comment to the words appearing on his screen.
‘Guess so, have you got any help there Dick?’
‘As in mothers big little helpers?’
She typed on, he kept talking her on.
‘Sure, I’ve got all sorts. You know us vets, always trying out new dog stuff on ourselves.’ Richard’s cough choked a chortle.
She thought of Australian scientists over-wintering in Antarctic research bases as the glorious European summer beyond her Level 6 containment seals presided over a global extinction event.
‘Do you reckon anybody will make it?’ She needed to hear his voice, she knew what he’d say.
Musing on the problem she figured isolated groups would avoid the horrors of today but would they survive in the long term? She doubted the Antarctic denizens would. It was too hostile down there surely? Then there were the submariners. Military men, no longer needed. She figured the abandonment would kill most of them. HCD was so virulent very few survived infection. Undergraduate memories (useful at last!) informed her that survivors were going to be too few and far between to form viable groupings likely to survive and begin the long haul back. Back to what? A jaundiced cynic behind her eyes sneered, Civilization! at her faint reflection in the screen. She ignored the ghostly look her pale reflection and skin and bone appearance imparted. All too real.
‘Well you know, I’m sure there are small bands of desert dwellers, folks in the mountains and up in the icy tundra that might make it.’
’You’re right Richard, but what a thought. We’ll be right back to the dark ages, … no! We’ll be back at the pre-dawn in the depths of the last ice age.’
’You’re not wrong. Assuming they do make it through, I wonder if they’ll just crawl back to here and have the same thing happen. New race, new bug, same doom.’
‘Thanks Richard. That really helps … NOT!’ She thumped the screen for good measure. He managed a laugh despite the coughs.
Just the same, her spirits were somehow buoyed when she thought of these tough ones. They have proved themselves, she smiled, survivors all. The theoretical prospect of the species avoiding total extinction moved her to wipe the tears away and type on.
(The rapid, unexpected onset of HCD and the resultant high mortality and concomitant collapse of social infrastructure has prevented any chance of vaccine development. Susceptible individuals (75% -99% of the entire population) can only be certain of survival through total isolation from infected individuals.
Survival of uninfected groups can only be guaranteed through the most rigorous of quarantine procedures. Procedures must include:
- Physical barriers to separate uninfected from infected people, survivor-carriers and contaminated materials.
- Strict quarantine rules denying entry of any material from beyond the physical barriers that cannot be sterilised by boiling in salty water for 5 hours.
- Strict quarantine rules placing all those possibly infected by accidental exposure to potential sources of disease in total isolation for 5 days.
- Strict quarantine rules either excluding all newcomers in perpetuity or placing them in total isolation for 5 weeks.)
‘Five hours, five days, five weeks. That’s got quite a ring to it, Dick.’
‘Some clever medical program promotions officer could use that. Any left in sunny Europe?’
‘Nope, all dead!’ She groaned weakly from exhaustion.
‘You still OK Jules?’
‘Yes, Dick. Just tired. Nearly done. How is the Boulder dungeon treating you?’
‘Well, you know; no light, not much air, feeling like shit, radio mostly static now. Don’t worry about me. Us vets know when to put a sick dog down.’
‘So, has it really got you?’
’I’m no human MD so it could be flu, SARS or even bird flu but somehow I’m thinking being in an underground bunker doesn’t afford the same protection a Level 6 biohazards lab can so I guess its in here somewhere and if it hasn’t found me yet it soon will. Don’t worry about me, I know what to do.’
‘Shit, Dick! I want you here so I can cuddle you, just get a red eye and leg it over here.’
‘Would if I could babe, jets stopped flying weeks ago I’m afraid.’
Sobs echoed around the concrete world that had become her home.
’Don’t cry babe, I’m with you, I always will be. NOW, just get on and finish the job at hand.’
‘Ok, ok, I will, just don’t die on me!’
She cut the paragraphs from her text document and dropped them into the Fact Sheet proforma the European Disease Monitoring Agency routinely used when issuing information to the public. She stared at the watery blur of words. Puzzled at her own determination to produce a document for a non-existent audience she frowned as she hunted out her portable printer/communicator.
On her desk stood three metal canisters. In happier times she called them her titanium miracles, T1, T2 and T3. She managed a
‘Hello there’, as she approached the desk, as if they were sitting expectantly awaiting their masters voice. They glinted hello back, reflecting the summer sun exuberance burning in through the skylight above. It the only source of sunlight in her concrete cave. Identical in all respects save an ID label that read EDMA ISOCAN 1, EDMA ISOCAN 2, and EDMA ISOCAN 3 respectively, the canisters were amazingly strong. Multi-skinned, the vacuum-flask-like design ensured the interior temperature remains stable. Once the lid was on and rotated past three distinct ‘click’ points the interior would also flood with an inert gas, protecting the contents from the ravages of the normal air it displaced to a space below the outer skin. The seals were engineered so precisely that without any non-metallic components they could safely contain any known pathogen for a very long time. Now they had a new job.
Carefully, reverently, she loaded each canister with one of her newly printed fact sheets. Her last publication she mused. At least her co-author was still alive. Tears smudged the fresh ink. No matter … … no one is going to read them anyway. She stared at the damp imperfections demanding
‘So why the bloody hell did I print them on acid free paper?’
No answer came – she moved on. Next came a copy of her most recent paper for the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases. In draft form. This one would never go on-line, or anywhere else for that matter. Her co-authors on this one were dead, her publishers were dead and she, despite appearances, was dead. She remained animated for the sake of the living, should there be any. The paper, entitled Rabbit and Human Calicivirus Emergence from Mammalian Reservoirs, described in excruciating scientific detail everything there was to know about HCD. Even the abstract was impossible, but for (now dead) virologists, to understand. The Fact Sheet was the translation the rest of the dead would need. Finally each canister received a small, green, clip-seal plastic box. In each was a duplicate set of the histological slides figured in her paper to compliment the various electron microscopy images and other data. The ghosts of a thousand dead virologists whispered in her ear that this was a good thing. They would need them should they question the veracity of her work. Always refer to the primary source intoned the melodic voice of her long dead mentor joining the recently dead in the discussion.
It took her two hours, torch in hand in case the emergency lighting failed, to manually extract herself from the safety of isolation so she could she visit the vault. Everyone called it the vault but it was much more than that; it was THE vault. Set in a university research and development park, the European Disease Monitoring Agency looked like a modest three story research facility from the outside. Inside it was anything but. Sometimes appearances are meant to deceive. There were twenty-one levels below ground. Set into the solid granite walls of the lowest level was a secure storage like no other. Designed to resist a direct multi-megaton nuclear strike this was the modern equivalent of the Pharaohs chamber deep within the pyramids.
Her rationale was as simple as it was crazy. She figured the circumstances demanded crazy. A dedicated scientist, teased for her exactness in everything in life by her family, friends and work mates, she applied the same conditions to this craziness. Here in the vault was a biomedical library without peer and its additional science holdings would be the envy of most universities. It would probably still be here when all other books were dust and insect dung. If this was to be the legacy her world left its descendants – if there were any – then she as the last, albeit de facto, librarian would humanise the holdings. She realised as she wandered the corridors and offices of long and not so long dead colleagues that despite the personal hopelessness there remained within her genuine hope. No hope for mum and dad, no hope for friends and lovers but some hope for humanity, somewhere, somehow. These last actions of hers were testimony to human optimism. She filled the backpack of a dead immunologist, a wannabe rock-climber, with objects of life: Novels of the moment – good and bad, great ones of times past too, read and re-read. A snow dome, London. Music discs and a player less the already flat batteries. A box of 35mm slides from an African holiday, images an older Nobel Prize winning colleague never quite got around to scanning. He told her once he preferred real pictures. Pencils, pens, erasers and notepads. The mundaneties of office life. A handbag with the lot, mobile phone and capsicum spray. It seemed so futile, so necessary. Dr Julie Jamison, dedicated research virologist also placed T1, her finest creation and life’s work, in pride of place on the Chief Librarians desk. If anybody ever did find this place T1 would be recognised as important. Grave robbers, explorers or scientist? Hoping for the latter she sat in a stairwell and rested, lost in the dark between despair and determination, for what seemed the longest time.
‘Richard, are you there?’
‘Yes mate, still here.’ Pain in his voice was palpable.
‘Did you get it all done?’
‘Yes Dick, the emergency power is still on but the genny is making odd noises.’
‘Genny as in ator?
’Yep! Don’t you yanks know English?’ came her dark retort.
‘And the T team?’ he said ignoring the yankee slur. He was used to it.
‘T1 is secure in the vault. I ’ve loaded the others and have them ready to roll. You know once I go outside I won’t be able to get back in touch.’
’That’s OK, the bunker has a gate crasher so I’m gunna have to evict him one way or another. Mothers little helpers are going to pitch in.’
‘Oh Richard no, can’t you hang on, you might have enough resistance. We know a few have.’
‘Maybe so babe but let me tell you I’m not one of them. I filled myself with antivirals, top ones from key labs you know, and kept well out of the way but I’ve read your work and I know what goes down.’
‘No Dick no, please don’t go.’
‘No choice babe, you’ve gotta go and do what you gotta do. Those titanium babies need you.’
‘Love you Jules.’
‘I love you too Richard.’
‘Remember me in your memoirs …’
A little icon appeared on the chat window indicating the session closed.
‘Richard! No no no …. ….’ Desperate hands stroking the screen Julie slumped across the desk and sobbed inconsolably. Exhausted, sleep engulfed her.
Once outside she approached one of the many battery powered campus transporters neatly parked under an awning, patiently waiting with its companions. All with keys, free for the riding anywhere in town. The rest were going to sit disappointed until they were rust. She loaded the wire carry basket with another pack borrowed from the dead. She had stuffed it with books, odds and sods and her titanium friends. The things of life, her life. Small comforts in the gloom. The electric whirr of the buggy filled the quiet space where people once buzzed as she headed for the campus Agora – the social hub of her dead society. Gagging on the odour of decay, she surveyed the campus as she navigated the dross of total social disintegration. The human silence was awful. Everything else was noisy. Birds, bees, dogs. A cat, deep in the entrails of a dismembered corpse, eyed her warily. In the centre of the Agora was a metal pillar,about a metre high, protruding from the garden feature. It too was ISOCAN titanium technology. It was hollow and capped with a locked, highly ornate lid. This was to be the gift of the Alumni to the university in celebration of its upcoming 500th anniversary. The never to be built T4 would have been solemnly lowered into the tube by the Chancellor during a moment of great import where upon it would have slid several metres down the exactly fitting tube, triggering several seals as it went. It was her idea to use the ISOCAN technology for a time capsule so she was duly elected project manager. The tube was completed six months ago and she had held the key ever since. Academic squabbles over the contents of the time capsule, and hence the size of T4, delayed its construction and the necessary ceremony. Oh well she thought, announcing to the Agora and a startled squirrel.
‘I guess I’ll be Chancellor for a day’.
Mock solemnly she unlocked the tube. T2 was raised from the carry bag.
‘Sleep well my friend’,
echoed around the open space as she kissed her metallic lover goodbye and ceremoniously placed it into the feeder tube.
Click, click, click; gas displaced gas. T2 would be safe here for a long time. She hoped that whoever, or whatever, read her work would understand. Somehow she was certain it would one day see the light of day. T2 in lieu of T4 dropped to its uncertain destiny. The capsule was originally due for reopening in another 500 years. Such self-certainty we had. Walking back to the little buggy, the sense of anticlimax was overwhelming. She sat out the afternoon, staring fixedly at nothing.
The beautiful summer day drifted into evening, dappled warmth on her face reminding her of those brilliant Melbourne autumn days she now longed for. She fully expected to detect the signs soon. The fever, the general uneasiness. The beginning of the end. She had a drug on hand that would spare her the worst when it approached. Thoughts of Richard revisited her. It is so peaceful, it seems a shame to leave. The key of the time capsule lid found a place around her neck, the solid gold chain a relic of a long lost lover. The key too. It was crafted by her most recent, a wonderful artisan of the ancient locksmiths craft. Her fingers polished the key, trying desperately to wish him back but his last phone call left her in no doubt that he was beyond her modern magic. He was her perfect match and he too was gone. The early evening brought the usual sea breeze. Its gentle firmness blowing the days miasma away. Rousing from her trance as the air cooled she prepared to leave the meeting place to the ghosts.
The campus was a few minutes buggy ride from the marina of the coastal university town. Her boat was there. It was her hobby, her retreat, her life after work. Now, she reasoned, it would be her coffin. Her boat was her home. A mobile home capable of sailing anywhere but going nowhere.
Where will I go now?
She turned the buggy along the familiar route towards the dock wondering what she would do while she waited. T3 silently kept her company as she took the yacht out to sea on a last ride to nowhere.
Lying on the deck lounge of her gently rocking habitat she dozed as the night air and the last rays of sunlight fought for her attention. The weeks of fear, the unimaginable deaths and dying, Richard gone, the disintegration of her world retreated as she succumbed to weariness. Sleep washed over her. Was it morning? Was it time yet? Julie Jamison, virologist, citizen of Australia and probably the last keeper of civilizations many millennia of knowledge was sure she’d know when it came. She was dreaming. Magpie songs, wattle blossom scent and hot sandy beaches that went forever…
She was home.
Footnote 1: I have tried to represent the text that the main character is typing into a chat room inside round brackets with italic font. I am not sure whether this is how it should be done but you see where I am coming from.
Eg (Human Calicivirus Disease (HCD) is a newly emergent, highly infectious viral disease of humans. There is no effective treatment for this disease at the time of writing …)
Footnote 2: All descriptions of HCD and its affects on humans in this document are a faithful reworking of the actual descriptions of RCD and its affects on rabbits. See references for details. HCD does not exist (yet).
Australian Academy of Science (1997): A plague on the pest – rabbit calicivirus disease and biological control. Australian Academy of Science NOVA website February 1997.
Capucci, L. and Lavazza, A. (1998): A brief update on rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus. Emerging Infectious Diseases V4: 2 Letters
Mead, C. (1998): Rabbit hemorrhagic disease. Emerging Infectious Diseases V4: 2 Letters
Munro, R.K, and Williams, R.T. , Editors (1994): Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease: Issues in Assessment for Biological Control. Bureau of Resources Sciences.
Smith, A.W., Cherry, N.J. And Matson, D.O. (1998): Reply to Drs. Capucci, Lavazza and Mead. Emerging Infectious Diseases V4: 2 Letters
Smith, A.W., Skilling, D.E., Cherry, N., Mead, J.H and Matson, D.O. (1998): Calicivirus emergence from ocean reservoirs: zoonotic and interspecies movements. Emerging Infectious Diseases V4: 1
United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (2000): Rabbit Calicivirus Disease. Veterinary Services Fact Sheet April 2000
Story about the present mass extinction event coming to a rather dramatic close and the new civilizations that will rise and how their knowledge of human civilization will inform their development.
This is a self contained story but is also Chapter 1 of a longer story spanning about 5 million years :-) that will certainly end up as a novella or novel given enough time for me to develop and research the background information.
The science of this story is real, albeit adapted for the sake of the story line, and has been sourced from actual and reputable scientific references that are listed at the end of the story.