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As the Walls Come Down

I wrote this short story after watching several late sixties early, seventies disaster movies. It was accepted for publication and can be found in Voices 13-1. I hope you enjoy:

 

 

As the Walls Come Down

T. Masters-Heinrichs

 

Lincoln Hotel, Washington:

“Explain it to me and keep it simple,” Harold Williamson said to the nervous young white man. His daughter, had given him the man’s name: Dr. Cole Laudy. If she was right, then he was the key to the threat. To understanding what was happening. To understanding how sane people, scientists for God’s sake, were making bombs and killing millions.

The young man nodded. Though his eyes were grey, he looked like a raccoon. He’d definitely been wearing the same clothes too long.

“Let’s pretend we live at the bottom of a valley.”

“The bottom of a valley, okay.” Was this guy for real? Harold had checked Doctor Cole Laudy’s credentials, twice. Two PHD’s, enough patents to paper a wall.

“And there are these three huge dams that keep out three different types of water …”

* * *

Six Months, three weeks and twelve hours earlier, CDC head office, in Atlanta, Georgia, meeting room:

 

“We have an estimated eight months.” Doctor Warren Braidwayne closed his eyes, and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Are you sure?” Dr. Dean Wilson leaned on the table.

“No! We are bloody well not sure!” Dr. Braidwayne slammed his fist on the table. “It’s a guess Dean, a bloody guess!”

“What about Shanghai?” Dr. Leona Chin looked around the large conference table at the twenty-two men and eight women seated or standing. “Any word from Dr. Woo or Jurhrinn?”

The man sitting by the door spoke in a cold deep voice, his normally coffee dark skin looking washed out. “Shanghai went dark four hours ago.”

“So that’s it then.” Dr. Cole Laudy looked around the room. He could hear Lisa’s voice the day she’d left him. “I need to phone London. I owe Phillip some money.”

“We can’t just quit! This can’t be it! I have kids!” Dr. Kevin Black looked around the room.

“Perhaps, Kevin, you should go home, spend some time with them.” Dr. Sandra Long, took a deep breath. “We all have family.”

“So this is it?” Kathi Pott was shaking her head, tears falling from her eyes. “We just accept it?”

“We all knew this was a possibility.”

“Hubris.” Dr. Cole’s voice silenced everyone.

“How long until, it fixes?”

“Last time it took a billion years. Maybe less this time.”

“It’s not the same and you know it!” Kathi Pott shook her head. Her voice was soft. “It’s not the same thing at all. Some things will make it.”

“Yeah, Kat, you’re right, just not us.” Dr. Cole Laudy said.

“There’s a way. We scrub all infected areas.” Dr. Warren Braidwayne put his hands on the table. “Neutron. We scrub.”

* * *

The Lincoln Hotel, Washington, now:

 

“Three types of water?”

“Look,” Cole ran both hands through his hair and stood. He began pacing. “Yes, salt, fresh and, okay, forget that, just three huge dams holding back the sea. And there isn’t any other land. Okay, just this valley.”

“And we live at the bottom of this valley?”

“Yes!” He was standing, right in front of Harold, eyes dark and almost manic. There was such a thing as being too smart, Harold had seen it. Wasn’t there a movie with a math guy? Too smart and went crazy? That actor, what’s his name. Claire liked the guy, foreign accent, he was in it. 

“So we’re at the bottom of this valley. There are some people who start poking holes in the dams.” Cole was pacing again.

“Why?” Harold glanced at his watch.

“For some, it was just to see if they could do it, but for most, it was for money.”

“So they’re flooding the valley with sea water for money?”

“Fresh water then. Okay? They start flooding the valley with fresh water, from the dams. Because at first it looks like you can grow more food with the water. Like you’ll be able to keep growing more food. And generate more power. It looks like you can do anything you want with this extra water.”

“But wouldn’t the valley start to flood?”

“Yes!” Cole was right in front of him, the manic expression back. “Exactly. But at first, you don’t realize that. And the people in charge, they’re making money. They decide, and you go right along, that if a little flooding is good, then lots of flooding has to be better. Everyone is going to get richer so those in charge don’t listen.”

“And the valley starts to fill with water.”

“Right. So finally, people are losing their homes, they’re starting to get sick. The ground it’s been softening, undermining the dams. Now people are scared. But those in charge of making holes just keep doing it. They live high and dry and get to ignore what’s happening. Actually they work hard to hide it, to deny it. They don’t want to believe it could even happen.”

“Why would they keep doing it? Sounds pretty short sighted to me.”

“Oh, well, they’re human. Some of them want to save the valley. They tell themselves that what they’re doing will save the valley. Most are doing it for the potential money. But really it comes down to … hubris.”

“What?”

“It’s something a friend said. It’s all hubris. She said that when she left me. She was right, you know.” Cole had a far away look as he stared out the balcony doors. “A lot try to justify what they’re doing, but it really is all about the money, the power to change the world, the power to own everything. You keep telling yourself about all your good intentions.”

“The road to hell?”

“Exactly.” Cole turned and his eyes, those manic eyes, looked at Harold.

“This flooding has to do with the flu and the Megellons epidemics, how?”

Cole shook his head.

“Do you know computers, General?”

Harold raised an eyebrow.

“What, you didn’t think I’d come here for a news reporter, did you? This will never be printed. There’s just too much—money, involved. Let’s call it the ultimate in destructive capitalism. There’s a lot of money to be made before the end of the world.”

“The end of the world?” Harold sighed. “Son, when was the last time you slept?”

Cole smiled, shaking his head. “You’re right, the planet doesn’t care and will keep on spinning without us.”

“Son, perhaps—”

“Computer languages. We can write them all in English, in Arabic alphabet. But they don’t communicate with each other.” Cole looked at Harold. “Do you understand?”

“Programs in one language can’t talk to others. Yes, I understand that.”

“Even written in the same alphabet. The commands, the codes, they do different things. Right?”

“Yes, Cole. I understand that.”

“What if you made them talk to each other? What if you wrote patches that allowed you to insert a command from, let’s say, Java and inserted into Visual Basic. Just grab a hunk of code and put it into another language. You want the abilities of one language, so you just cut it out and shove it in. Then it gets repeated. Over and over again into your other programs. Of course, it’s being read, and sometimes it does what you want. Sometimes it doesn’t. Most of the time it does a lot of things, more things than what you intended. It keeps getting copied, spreading. Errors creep in. The thing is, you made it so that it will be inserted in every language it finds.”

“No. You’re wrong. We’re not—we wouldn’t …” Harold shook his head.

“You know my degrees? Where I worked?”

Harold nodded.

“Ever heard of Agrobacterium? It’s a genus of Gram-negative bacteria. We use it extensively in bioengineering. Along with some e.coli that we’ve bred to be resistant to most antibiotics. Agrobacterium is a fungus that allows us to insert DNA into, well into whatever we want, even things we don’t want. The e.coli is tagged to the new genes, we hit it with all the antibiotics and if the genes have transferred properly, then we plant it, grow it, eat it. Put it into whatever life form we want.”

Harold could feel himself frowning. Beth had a cough. His stomach flu …

“The thing is, we’re releasing the stuff constantly, with no off buttons. Why? Because we didn’t understand. We only saw the glory and the money. Hubris.”

“The super e.coli infections that have killed thousands, hundreds of thousands?”

“Patented and owned, but don’t worry, thanks to legislation passed years ago, you, or I, or Joe Public can’t sue the owners for releasing it. Those laws were passed to protect a struggling industry.” Cole’s laugher was sudden, hard and tinged with more than a bit of madness.

“What’s happened, Cole?” Harold could feel a chill run through him. The deaths from the super e.coli had been going on since, what the nineteen nineties? “I thought that e.coli was natural?”

“Oh, come on, General. A super e.coli resistant to eight classes of antibiotics, with ESBLs?”

Harold blinked. He scribbled ESBN on his pad.

“Oh, um, Extended-Spectrum Beta-Lactamases and no one knows where it came from? Bullshit! We use it in every biotech lab around the world. First you use agrobacterium to insert genes, genes tagged with e.coli that is resistant to antibiotics. Then you dose the new seeds with the antibiotics, or the new improved virus, or bacterium. Those that survive have the genes you want. You grow them. No off switch, just this weird belief that nothing will go wrong. You just don’t think about it  … ” Cole’s back was to Harold. He was looking at a stylized painting of whales.

Harold crossed out the N and wrote an L. “Cole, if what you’re saying is true, someone would have said something, done something.”

“That’s someone else’s job. The people in charge of my research were only worried about the next quarter. They didn’t give a fuck about five years later. They don’t even care about next year. They think in quarters.” Cole lifted his hands, his voice low. “Have you seen them? Whales? I always wanted to see them. Karen, my sister, she’s a marine biologist, she sees them all the time. She thinks the last ones will be gone in twenty years, but her boss thinks it’ll be more like fifty years before they all die out. Guess they were both wrong.”

Harold was making connections. They weren’t the kind of connections he wanted to make, but things were falling into place. “About the bombs—the neutron bombs?”

Cole laughed again. “We like to kill things. You know why? Because we’re clever apes. Smash-em, mash-em.”

“Cole? The neutron bombs?” Harold leaned closer.

“You say bomb like it’s a bad thing.” Cole shook his head. “Too little, too late, General.”

“What do you mean?”

“Go home to your family. Spend some time with them.” Cole opened the mini bar. He pulled out a tiny bottle of rum.

“Cole. Dr. Laudy, please. What about the neutron bombs?” Harold was on the edge of his seat.

“Neutron bombs, they destroy all life. Think of them as biological scrubbing devices. The group in the U.K., they’re working hard to scrub out the biggest threats. The bombs are an attempt to save …” Cole motioned about the room, a mini bottle of alcohol in each hand.

“Us?”

Cole shook his head. “There’s no magic genie. There’s no guardian angel. There’s no god of profits standing between us and our greed, our hubris.”

“Cole. I need you to focus.” Harold was standing now. He watched Cole throw back the rum. “Panic is setting in. Shanghai went dark. Most of California appears …”

“I know, saying it. Makes it real. People just have a cold. When was the last time you saw a bird? A pigeon?”

Harold shook his head.

“You honestly think the Bye-Bye Blackbird Program was that efficient?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Half the armed forces are down with a cold. This is clearly a foreign … We’re running out of body bags. We’re going to call air strikes on the three groups of scientists making neutron bombs here in the US. They dropped bombs in Brazil and those yahoos in England.” Harold was shaking.

“We knew this was always a possibility. Bacteria swap bits, okay? Viruses swap bits? We made a bridge between the two and spread it far and wide. Now our bacteria and our viruses are becoming the same thing. But we didn’t stop there. We also made a bridge between fungus, moulds and most single cell life forms. We broke down the walls. But we didn’t stop there. We inserted bridges to get around evolved defenses. After all, if you want to see what you can do, you can’t have pesky barriers. You don’t get complicated life forms in that environment. On top of that we undermined our immune systems with poison. You know what a pesticide is?”

“It kills pests.” Harold watched Cole swallow down another rum.

“Yeah, because?”

“It’s a poison.” Harold suddenly wanted a drink. Cole downed two more mini bottles, nodding at Harold as he did so.

“That’s right. So we put it into the main ingredients of most of our foods. Which means it’s poisoning us. Weakening our immune systems. Birds went first. Sure, the trans-nationals tried to hide it, but come on? Genetic drift, spraying millions of gallons of pesticides, herbicides, combinations. All of it is cumulative.” Cole was down on his knees now. He downed the last of the rum and had moved on to the scotch.

“The bombs?” Harold felt cold.

“Like I said. Too little, too late. They’re going to try and stop the dams from completely falling apart.”

“From destroying the valley.” Harold had his hand on his phone, his wife was at home. He needed to hear her voice, hear his daughter’s voice. To hear his grandchildren laughing.

“You win the prize, General. The thing is, they’re just trying to make a raft. Think of it as the,” Cole downed a bottle of gin, “as the last quarter.”

“I can’t accept this. Something will stop this. Someone has a plan!”

Cole smiled. The madness in his eyes was back, but there was also sorrow.

“No, General. You have no bombs, no bullets, no magic weapon that will stop the dams now. They have already fallen. The waters have rushed in. We’re drowning, we just don’t know it yet.”

Harold’s phone buzzed. He looked down. Mexico, Texas, Florida and most of western Canada had gone dark.

“We can seal ourselves in. We have bunkers! We have—”

Cole’s laughter was cut off by his coughing.

“When will it be safe to come out?” Harold stepped forward, grabbing the younger man by his shirt. He shook the man. Cole dropped two opened mini bottles. He fell onto the floor and looked up at Harold. The laughter gone. The room filled with the stink of alcohol.

“You don’t understand, General, this was never our world. Now we’ve made sure it won’t belong to our children. Too many holes in the walls.” Cole shrugged. “Anyway, you’re already infected. We all are.”

Harold fled the room. His driver was coughing into his hand as Harold hurried into the car. Driving through the streets of Washington, he started feeling cramps, low in his bowel. Out the window he saw a woman in a yellow coat laying on the sidewalk.

“Sir, there seems to be a problem.”

“Keep driving. Get me home!” Harold stared at the quiet streets. More and more bodies just laying on the sidewalks, in the road. Here and there, ambulances were parked. He saw a paramedic, coughing, blood pouring from his mouth, then they were past.

He opened his phone. It rang and rang, finally the machine picked up.

“Beth! Beth it’s me—” the cough startled him. His throat was itchy. His lungs were beginning to feel heavy, like the time he’d gotten pneumonia. “Beth … Beth I love you.”

 

Three Days Later:

 

The sun rose on a quieting world. No birds sang, few insects greeted the day. In fields and meadows, deer dropped, choking on their life blood. The oceans of plastic, already dying, were, in the end, the last refuges of complex life.

 

* * * * *

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