The bright sunlit day created an illusion of warmth and wellbeing, but insidious reality could not be so easily ignored. Beyond the sunny rays, softly rustling leaves, and morning-quiet street, the world was not right.
It was apparent in the lack of people taking their dogs on daily walks, the absence of traffic on the roads, the lonely, empty grocery store aisles, boasting all the produce but none of the buyers. These sights, which had been so common, had slowly disappeared in the past months, and now they were completely gone. Nobody stepped outdoors, nobody drove, nobody shopped in stores. One might think this was all yet another after-effect of the pandemic of 2020, but it’s worse than that – this was a result of the cure.
* * *
Everyone remembers how the pandemic started – the virus that traveled worldwide in a matter of a few short months, with every safety measure enacted after it was too late to control the spread. As a global community, the world was too interconnected to reliably isolate and contain the disease, and the death toll rose daily. In those early days, rife with restrictions and health protocols, all everyone talked about was the vaccine. Scores of pharmaceutical companies worked on developing an effective countermeasure that could immunize the population and defeat the pandemic. Politicians campaigned on promises of the vaccine becoming widely available before the end of the year, and everyone bated their breath and kept sane by thinking about how life would return to normal soon.
But 2021 arrived with little fanfare and delays in the medical trials, and safety measures continued to be the only, if minimally effective, way to curb the virus. Soon, automation replaced most non-emergency essential jobs, with robots stocking food stores and kiosks replacing salespeople. Unemployment grew steadily and the government was forced to offer universal income to stop the daily riots of people who had nothing left to lose. The election in late 2020 had gone in a way nobody could have predicted, and the “elected” government consisted of nobody who had been on the ballot. Everything felt hopeless and returning to normal seemed like a cruel joke that enraged every time it was repeated.
And then, the most unexpected thing happened. After endless delays and countless setbacks that made the whole endeavor seem like a lost cause, a vaccine was approved. The trials had been enormously successful, with 99.9% immunity, and all recorded side-effects were so mild as to seem negligible. Production was fast-tracked worldwide, and lotteries assisted with fair distribution. Within 6 months of vaccine approval, 60% of the world’s population had been immunized, with the rest slated for vaccination before the new year.
2022: The world brought in the new year with rabid excitement, finally able to partake in activities that had been banned for nearly two years. Huge celebrations erupted in all major cities, and people felt like they were truly alive again, as if they had woken from the deepest sleep, Snow White-style. Of course, there were many pandemic changes to adjust to normal world functioning, including employment and education restructuring, governmental role implications, and so forth, but nothing seemed insurmountable after conquering the pandemic.
The death surge was just a trickle at first, scattered across the globe and therefore harder to place within the emerging pattern. But just like the virus, it seemed to spread exponentially. Yet unlike the virus, it appeared to leave no survivors. In short order, communities worldwide deduced that the deaths were associated with the vaccine – but not everyone who had been immunized died, just most of them. The unpredictable nature of the cause-of-death pattern among vaccinated individuals caused a blinding panic. People were used to taking precautions when the threat was outside of themselves, but they had no idea what to do when the danger was already inside.
* * *
The dawn of a new humanity provided chaos, and opportunity. With the majority of the world’s progressive thinkers either dead or banished, the foundations of civilization began to crumble. Religious leaders worldwide preached the evils of scientific progress with a renewed zeal, prosecuting even their own who dared suggest that research had it’s place. Many claimed the death toll was in fact the the rapture, but in reverse – the survivors being God’s chosen.
At an alarming pace, civilians who had not been innoculated turned on those who had, fearing contagion. Unmarked vans began patrolling in the dead of night, violently collecting the vocal few who were so bold as to stand against the church. Camps were constructed for those who had taken the vaccine without complications, victims of a growing certainty that their presence in society was both unholy and dangerous.
As public services ended, cities failed. The once proud monuments of progressive metropoli fell to disrepair, and then just fell. Those who had enough to barter commissioned transport to what the church had deemed Holy Cities, only to arrive to unbridled masses of refugees. Within the massive walls that were being erected, life became a struggle for all, as most of the tech and health care professionals had perished.
The belief that the virus was a boon was soon common, and those who had not yet been infected were so, intentionally. The people who would not submit were murdered or exiled, and their children injected with the disease. Over time, the smell of garbage and death in the streets slowly turned from revolting, to annoying, to normal. In spite of it all, humanity tenuously held on.
* * *
It was subtle at first, undetectable at a young age. The health care professionals that remained had few theories and even fewer answers, and medical discovery as a whole had been all but abandoned. One thing, however, was clear. Something was wrong with the babies.
The mortality rate was disheartening to say the least, and certainly the resurgence of smallpox and polio in the overpopulated cities had taken its toll, but this was different. The first wave of children since covid had spread were happy, healthy, and broken in ways that could never be anticipated.
Few would speak before five years of age. Many lacked the focus to learn to read and write, and most were incapable of basic mathematics. While distressing, the world’s powers declared these children “marked by God”, unburdened by the trivial matters of humanity.
The church, behind closed doors, employed what scientists remained to find the cause. It did not take them long, but their work would never find the light of day.
* * *
A 20% loss in higher brain function in the first generation. That’s what the numbers said. The technology no longer existed to properly account for the drop, but it was heavily theorized that the dormant covid virus was capable of editing the genetic makeup of humans. 20% was horrid, but acceptable. These people were functional, able to complete simple tasks, and didn’t ask many questions; that was, until the second generation came.
The issue was compounded. Children were born unable to breathe, some didn’t know how to blink, or swallow. Parents who were barely competent enough to tend to their own needs couldn’t raise their children, and the death camps that had been deserted for decades reopened as “care centers” for abandoned or difficult cases. Those with all their faculties looked on in horror as millions of children were shipped off to live in captivity as feral animals.
The churches, which had enjoyed relative omnipotence for several decades, fell. Entire generations of people incapable of processing the idea of an all-powerful being led to their demise, and with it, the last semblance of centralized power on Earth. With every sunset, mankind was sliding closer to the brink.
After 3 more generations, people forgot how to use basic technology. 3-more generations after that the use of crude hand tools was practically impossible and cities and infrastructure, no longer being maintained, fell into disrepair and eventually succumbed to the natural environment. Jungles took over cities formerly teeming with human life and
3-generations later, human kind had died off to such an extent that they were in fact outnumbered by many other land mammals on the planet.
Human intelligence had regressed to the point of being less intelligent than the least intelligent of the higher primates. Being outcompeted for food, and shelter, humankind was all but lost.
Humans rooting around in the dirt, two naked Neanderthal like men begin fighting over one half eaten mushroom lying on the slimy ground. Pavement covered with moss and slick algae. Their bare feet making a sick sucking noise as they lift them from the ground and try to obtain leverage on each other. One man, we’ll call him Grunt, grabs the mushroom and shoves it into his mouth quickly. The second man, we’ll call him Groan, grabs Grunt and puts him into a crude sleeper hold. And tries to make Grunt spit out the mushroom.
Which he ultimately does, with a cough and you guessed it, a grunt.
Groan, triumphant, puts the mushroom in his mouth and chews, well… triumphantly. With a huge half-toothy smile on his face he chews and chews. And then he swallows. And nearly immediately his face shows a Neanderthal version of regret. For he was too dumb now to remember. But he realized he just saved his non friend’s life.
Groan, groaned terribly, clutched his stomach and fell over stiffly on the ground. Dead.
Grunt, scared for a moment, approached cautiously. Sniffing the now corpse tentatively he finally grew bold, and took a bite of Groan’s bicep. Chewing happily. Smiling spitefully down at Groan. Once he’d eaten a few bites. He, too, suddenly got a look of the Neanderthal version of regret on his face.
Clutching his stomach, eyes wide. Grunted one last time before he too began to fall over. BUT, something weird happened.
The next second, Grunt froze mid-air, mid-fall, already basically dead.
“Well that was a huge fat failure wasn’t it Gabriel?” God said with disdain on her face. And a beautiful woman, with flowing black hair, and ebony skin stepped over Groan, in her high heels and pristine white suit, and grabbed the now mostly dead but frozen jaw of Grunt.
“Look at this face. Just look at it… “ she commanded Gabriel. “What do you see?”
Gabriel answered, a chided childlike quality to his voice “Another failure. But Goooooodddd…”
God cut him off with a warning finger wag “No. No more excuses. Covid-19 is a failure. Just like the last 18. Total failures.”
She dropped the lifeless face of Grunt and he finished his now slow, feather-like fall to the ground.
* * *
God Riccardi could be forgiven for having a bit of a superiority complex. Her parents had been belated but zealous converts to the self-esteem movement, and spent most of her childhood impressing on her that she could do great things on the order of the namesake they’d selected. When they succumbed to the pandemic three days apart in the winter of 2021, they left her not only with immunity, but with the financial wherewithal to devote her life to her own interests.
Though only thirteen at the time, she’d excelled in her homeschooled science lessons (her father had been less successful at teaching literature and physical education, but no one was perfect). While most children her age would have had the humility to try a less complicated career, God had learned self-confidence just as well as she’d learned biochemistry. Never having to put her skills to the test against classmates, she believed herself to be smarter than any of her peers.
Little did she know it, but the aftermath of the pandemic had made that largely true.
At a time when most of humanity saw its collective brainpower degrade, God had used hers to seal herself in a well-funded laboratory on what was left of the Florida coast. The loss of technology had come too late to stop the waters from covering much of the state’s former footprint. But as neighbors fled to drier places, she purchased their abandoned units at a fraction of their price, until she owned the top few floors of her parent’s condominium building and knocked down enough walls to make it a multi-tiered workspace. The floor-to-ceiling windows, empty space, and general sterile aesthetic made it look like the headquarters of a late twentieth century supervillain, but God had watched too little television to see it that way.
Like any aspiring scientist, she failed far more often than she succeeded. One corner of the lab still had a big hole in the floor where a would-be love potion proved too acidic to test on human subjects. Every so often at low tide, one could see some of the people who reacted poorly to God’s various experiments, now-empty vessels waiting to be carried out to sea. But trial and error sometimes produced results. The immortality elixir she discovered was intended to be a mere energy booster. It killed the first few test subjects – God was thankful that IQ depletion led to no shortage of volunteers willing to test experimental drugs in exchange for a cool t-shirt – and had some odd side effects on others.
She didn’t realize at first that she’d created a veritable death cure in a vial. When she tried it herself, nothing seemed to happen. But as the years passed, and she lived through generation after generation of dumber and dumber individuals, she realized she’d stumbled into living up to her parents’ perception of her.
Hiring Gabriel had been a mixed bag, but good help was hard to find. It wasn’t fair to call him smart exactly; the thirteen-year-old edition of God would have bested him at most intellectual pursuits. But by the standards of the new world, he was of above average intelligence. And that was all God needed when it came to an assistant who could go out among the stupid populace and test out her newest creations.
“Is this right?”
God stood to check. Gabriel was needy, as assistants went. Not that she’d employed many others, so maybe that was an unfair comparison, but she thought probably not. He often asked her to double check his work, even the simple or the rote. It was irritating, and usually unnecessary, but she checked anyway. You really couldn’t trust anyone else with your work.
Especially something like this.
A dozen vials were packed neatly into a cooling container of God’s own design. It could hold a steady -95 degrees for at least two weeks. Revolutionary. Or it would have been, before. She pulled a vial out with two tapered fingers and held it up to the light. Clear. Almost opalescent. Good. The compound hadn’t split.
“It’s fine,” she said. “Come on, pack up. We’ve got work to do.”
They would start right where they were. The Florida coast was a wild place, growing wilder by the hour. But even in the distant past – a place of orderly lines of pavement and little brick houses; something hard for her to imagine, now – she knew her little corner of the world was one of the most biodiverse. Dense everglades and storm-tossed beaches would shape her creation. It was a good place to start.
But it wasn’t good enough. This wasn’t a cradle of civilization situation; God didn’t have time for a new dominant species to drag itself out of the muck and spend several million years avoiding predation, inching its way towards sentience. Or, well. She did, but it sounded terrible. Plus, it was entirely possible there were limits to her ‘immortality.’ It wasn’t the kind of thing someone could definitively test. If the responsibility for shaping this planet were to rest on her shoulders, she needed to take it seriously.
One injection site wouldn’t be nearly enough.
God shrugged into her coat, running through her mental checklist a seventh, eighth, ninth time. She did not leave things to chance. Gabriel appeared at her side, looking chipper over an armful of gear. He spun around obediently, and God attached the cooling container to the rig on his back. All her work. All her hopes for a better world – a world in her image. He carried them all.
Her boots clunked less imperiously than the heels she preferred, but they were too impractical, even for her. She had flirted with modifying ancient automobile tech, to moderate success, but there was no simple solution for the task that lay before her. Even God had to admit that sometimes the simplest solution was the best.
If she wanted to get to the top of a mountain, she had to climb the damned thing.
She had picked the first site with care. God had always carried a bit of a dramatic streak, she could admit that, but this was historical. These would be the sacred sites of a new dominant culture. The St. Peter’s Basilica of a new world; the Wailing Wall; Mecca. It needed to have some narrative weight to it. Plus, there were practical concerns. Moving water was a must – a stagnant pond would be a waste of a sample – but she couldn’t run the risk of her work being carried out to sea. No, the site was too important to be influenced by something like her comfort. So they went.
Through the everglades. Through the swamps. God’s boots sunk into the mud more often than they found firm purchase, and the rain sleeted, plastering her hair against her face. She grit her teeth. This journey was her life’s work, and she had to admit, with her stomach giving an uncharacteristically nervous flutter, that it might be beyond her. Would she have the grit to see this through?
Their destination was, unglamorously, a sinkhole.
That sounded bad, God realized. It was a geographic limitation of Florida – the place had no decent waterfalls. Her best option, a 75 foot fall in the upper panhandle, only existed through the grace of an unusually sized sinkhole. But the water plummeted through a natural opening into the cave systems below, hitting a clear pool and creating a miniature, underground valley. It was safe, and it even had the sacred echo to it that God’s artistic inclinations craved. It would do.
The climb to the top was a slippery, graceless affair. More than once, Gabriel had to steady God and help propel her forward up the mud. Once, she nearly lay her hand flat on top of a cottonmouth. She wasn’t so eager to learn about the limits of her immortal life as to test it directly, so they moved on. And when they reached the top, up to their knees in mud, gazing down the length of the fall to the caves below, God took a second. She let her eyes flutter shut and felt the sting of the rain, the beat of her heart, the song of the world around her.
It was time to begin.
Gabriel spun around for God to select a vial. She did so with care. This was the first of many, but it would likely be her favorite. A mother always favors the first. She broke the seal and popped the top. Gabriel handed her the needle without being asked. A clean hypo, still in its package. She tore it, found the vein. Pulled the blood. One drop went into the vial. Then two. The pearly substance inside grew darker, tinting first crimson, then the deep gold of honey, or madness. It began to froth.
God tipped the contents of the vial into the waterfall.
Creating life wasn’t that complicated, when you got right down to it. Carbon based lifeforms all followed more or less the same recipe, like variations on a cupcake. The ingredients were always the same, though the quantities could and did differ. Something that seemed so sacred and knowable actually broke down so simply to a handful of basic compounds.
But there was more to it. It wasn’t enough to have the right chemicals in the right amounts, to add genetic matter and stand back. She had tried that many, many times, over many generations. All failures, black and smoking. You needed constant motion, the rapid breaking and mending of bonds; you needed a piece of the world you were trying to rebuild.
You needed a piece of yourself. God could provide that.
“Is that it?” Gabriel asked, his small voice high over the wind.
No. It was not. There was so much work to be done. She had taken the first step, but the work stretched out before her, endless. How much could she accomplish before the universe began to grow cold and still? What could a global civilization achieve, guided by her?
“Come on,” God said, her tone clipped. “We have a lot to do before we move on.”
Gabriel didn’t argue. She was, after all, infallible.