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.
The wet thwack from the next room caused Brother Cadbeau’s pen to scratch across the page. Oh dear, he thought. At least these aren’t meant to be pretty records. Just accurate.
He wrapped the pen in a scrap of cloth and hurried to the next room. The door was sitting ajar, and the young maldroit was on the floor, blood seeping from a wound on their head. There was no sign of Tiva, the balding sallow-faced apprentice who was supposed to be on watch for the night. Once again, he had strapped the maldroit’s jacket on tight, but hadn’t bothered with the belts on the cot. And now they were hurt again, so soon after the black eyes had faded.
“Oh Jay, Jay, you poor thing,” moaned Brother Cadbeau. He grabbed a stained napkin from the untouched meal of plain rice and rubbery broccoli, and began to clean the wound with water from the unmoved tin cup. The maldroit stiffened and attempted to scoot away, grunting and scraping along the rough stone floor. “Jay! It’s Cadbeau! Brother Cadbeau!” he cried, and put his hand in front of their face. Jay stopped struggling, craned their head forward to sniff. Then they turned back to Cadbeau, unblinking eyes wide with relief.
* * *
They had been caught attempting to leave the library with a copy of the histories. The struggle had been terrible, and nine brothers were needed to hold them down–
remember when there were nine of us here?
–while the Abbot performed the operation. Cadbeau had been chosen to hold a shoulder, and he received the brunt of the screaming. “You could have saved us!” they screeched. “You had all the answers in here and you kept them for yourselves! For your fucking liar god!”
The rest of the abuse was along the same track, nothing worse than anything random beggars had yelled through the gates. The Abbot withdrew from his leather tool pouch a long slender point of metal. The young thief stopped struggling at the sight of the pick, their dark brown eyes now wide, a slight tremble. They looked straight to Cadbeau, who failed to look away. A tear ran down the thief’s pockmarked face.
The Abbot grabbed their short hair and, trapping the head beneath his forearm, brought the pick towards the eye socket. The monks chanted the songs of their savior.
* * *
A pungent, sour smell filled Cadbeau’s nose, and he looked down at the dark stains on the pants of Jay. At least a day without getting changed, he thought. He was sure that Tiva only stayed at the dying monastery not out of obligation to the remaining maldroits, but because he wanted the minimal room and board this position could provide. Goddamn you, Tiva, he thought, then shame burned his cheeks. I wonder if God’s listening at this point, anyway. I wonder if He’s bored with damning us.
After a cleaning and changing, Jay was beginning to relax. Cadbeau saw their eyes darting toward the food on the end table. He scooped some rice onto a spoon, flicked away a curious roach that had begun to approach the plate, and brought the spoon to Jay’s mouth. The rice was soon gone, after Jay’s mouth completely enveloped the spoon and their teeth clinked against the metal. It was a fast motion, like a lizard snapping at a bug, as if they expected him to pull it away.
Goddamn you, Tiva.
* * *
“I don’t know why you named her. You haven’t named any of the other maldroits in here,” sneered Tiva. He was leaning in the copyroom’s doorway, putting his usual delay into his care-taking rounds. Any other day, Cadbeau would have given a gentle request for Tiva to get on his with duties. Jay’s condition was still fresh in his mind from the night before, and he felt his calm demeanor slip.
“We didn’t make any of the other maldroits. We are the reason for why Jay is the way they are.” he said, a slight sigh of exasperation.
“She is. She.” Tiva said with a scoff. “I don’t care how bent she made herself look, there’s no changing what’s between her legs.”
Cadbeau paused his writing, staring at the wall. He flipped a few pages forward into the half-empty book and wrote a few words in large script. He held up the book for Tiva to see. Tiva chuckled. “Only in your dreams, Cadbeau.”
“Exactly what will happen in Cadbeau’s dreams, Tiva?”
The face of the Abbot, long and dour, had appeared behind the apprentice’s shoulder. Tiva’s cocksure demeanor melted away, and he immediately made himself as small and penitent as his inexplicable belly would allow. “Oh, it’s nothing, Abbot. Please excuse me, I must get to my rounds.”
“Oh, don’t let me interrupt. You seem so invested in this conversation. You may continue it after I leave. Brother Cadbeau,” said the Abbot as he strode into the room, his dull gray robes trailing on the floor. “How is your transcription coming?”
The Abbot peered down at the page that was open in front of Cadbeau, with the words SUCK MY DICK written in the largest script that would fit on the page. The brow furrowed, then lightened with clarity.
“Tiva!” said the Abbot. “You can read! Why were you hiding that light under a bushel?”
Tiva’s jaw tightened, a pinched smile being forced into place for appearances. Cadbeau held his own face neutral. He knew there would be more time to smile after this conversation.
* * *
Jay’s room was the last stop for tonight, and Cadbeau was late. He had to bury a maldroit who had choked on their own tongue. Passing the copyroom, the sour look he saw on Tiva’s face as the newly promoted apprentice finished his shift gave Cadbeau a great lift; an energy that had long since disappeared from reciting prayers and singing hymns.
He found them strapped down and restrained—unsoiled, thankfully. Jay’s head had shot upright at the sound of the open door, and a huge smile as they recognized Cadbeau. He pinched his lips with his fingers, and nodded. Jay nodded back. He shut the door, and quietly undid every restraint. Jay sat up and gave him a tight hug—he managed to hold back the tears this time. Cadbeau gestured to the spoon & plate of rice on the end table, and stood back.
Jay scooted over to the end table, keeping their eyes on the gray-haired monk. Some rice was pinched in their fingers, and brought to their mouth. Cadbeau held up a finger; Jay’s hand froze, their mouth open. Cadbeau brought a ratty, yellowed book out from underneath his own simple robe. He held it up for Jay to see. The rice was returned to the plate, and the spoon was grabbed. Coordination was still subpar, and half of the rice ended up spilled on the floor and in Jay’s lap, but it was an improvement. They cradled the tin cup in both hands and slurped the water with great gusto. Cadbeau widened his eyes and pinched his lips with his fingers again, pleading for silence. Jay’s eyes widened—they nodded, and slurped quietly.
The meal completed, Cadbeau sat on the cot and opened the book. Jay leaned over and attempted to grab at a page—a successful grab, which tore a page as Cadbeau tried to move the book away. He gasped. The paper hung out of the book, held by a slim tab.
Cadbeau felt himself shaking, a desire to scream and slash at everything insight. He had to clench his fist, digging his dirty nails deep into his own palm. Jay immediately curled up, arms wrapped over their head for protection.
The one thing I have left. The one thing I saved from—
His hand floated on its own, over to Jay’s shoulder. They were both trembling now; he felt it when his hand came to a gentle rest on the maldroit’s skin-and-bones frame. Cadbeau took a jagged breath, holding it until he felt the calm return to his chest. He then whispered, “If you are a dreamer, come in…”
He felt their muscles relax under his hand, their breathing slow down. He continued to read with a soft quiver in his voice, a few drops of water leaving dark circles on the pages.
Cadbeau bolted awake as the shout echoed down the stone corridor and found him. He struggled to dress himself as his mind spun, still full of cobwebs from his deep slumber. It was morning, but dark. Dawn had not even shown itself on the horizon.
It’s too early for the Abbot to be here.
He swung the heavy wooden door open, the hinges squealing in protest, and stiffly raced down the hallway towards the commotion. He felt his heart jump into his throat as he hobbled through the library and realized what room they were in.
As he turned through the doorway, he froze. There stood the Abbot, the shadow of his heavy robes eclipsing the curled body on the floor, the cane in his hand raised menacingly. Tiva stood to the side, a wicked, half toothed grin across his face, his sleeve stained with blood. Jay whimpered a painful protest.
“To eat our food,” the Abbot hissed, “To live within our walls! Under our protectection!” He brought the cane down hard across the back of Jay’s legs with a sickening crack, evoking a desperate moan from the young figure in the shadows. “To show us the disrespect of one not worthy to exist under God!” He raised the cane once more. “The audacity of your sins must be cleansed!”
“Stop!” The words escaped Cadbeau’s lips involuntarily, and Tiva, startled, jumped. The Abbot slowly turned to face the door, his lips twisted into a snarl of pure indignation. The blood drained from Cadbeau’s face.
“And who are you to make such demands, Brother?” The Abbot spoke slowly through gritted teeth. “Is it true what Brother Tiva has told me? Have you been feeding your rations to this dog?”
“Not just that,” Tiva chimed in, “He’s been trying to teach her to-“
“Silence!” The Abbot growled at Tiva, his cane extended toward him. “Your usefulness will take you as far as I decide.”
Jay writhed on the floor, staring at Cadbeau as they had the first time they had met. Blood ran from their nose and mouth. Cadbeau painfully pried his eyes away and looked up at the Abbot, his pulse pounding in his ears.
“It would seem they do not receive food from elsewhere, Abbot.” Cadbeau’s eyes turned toward Tiva, brimming with rage. “Perhaps if others were capable of keeping records, I could provide our guests with better care.”
“Care is not our primary function.” The Abbot stepped toward Cadbeau, looming over him. “Regardless of your feelings toward these animals, this one must be put down.”
“On what grounds?” Cadbeau’s voice shook.
“She bit me, that bitch! I came to get you master, as soon as-“
The Abbot slammed his cane into the floor. Tiva abruptly lost his urge to speak. The three men stood silent for what seemed like hours, Jay’s shuffling on the floor the only cadence.
“She comes with me. She will be dealt with this evening.” The Abbot’s words hit Cadbeau like a hammer as the two locked eyes. “I can’t properly express my disappointment, Brother. God is ashamed of you.”
* * *
He wrung the wet cloth out over Tiva’s wrist, washing away weeks of grime. A scowl was chiseled into Cadbeau’s stony expression, devoid of sadness, fear, hatred; of all the things that bubbled beneath the surface.
“Be careful!” Tiva whined, squirming in his chair. “She really bit me deep!”
“Pray for strength, Brother,” Cadbeau said cooly as he cleaned the wound. “Only your faith can protect you from an emaciated, restrained youth.” He paused as he examined Tiva’s arm, then sat back in his chair.
“What?” Tiva pulled his arm away.
Cadbeau fought every urge in his body, stood up, and slowly walked to the book case behind him.
“What’s wrong?” Tiva asked, his tone different this time. The man was not intelligent, but what he lacked in diplomacy he made up for in cunning and malice. He stood as well, intently watching his counterpart.
“Have I ever shown you what I read to them?” Cadbeau rhetorically asked, dismissing the question. Tiva opened his mouth to respond, but was cut off. “It’s a collection from long ago, read to children in my family when we were young.”
“Oh really?” Tiva said, only half listening as he quietly picked up the letter opener from the table.
“Yes! It’s mostly filled with rhymes and pictures, certainly nothing to be concerned with. Hardcover books of this type are so rare now…” Cadbeau’s voice trailed off as his eyes filled with tears. He ran his weathered hands across the cover and down the spine of the book. “Sometimes it feels like we’ve lost enough beauty in the world.”
“What has you thinking this way, Brother?” Tiva mused as he stepped softly towards Cadbeau, his knuckles white on the small blade in his hand. “Why do you grieve for them?”
“It’s the only thing keeping me here, you know. The guilt. I know it’s from God. He wants me to know that what we did was wrong.” Cadbeau took a deep breath and straightened. “Why do you hate them so?” The words echoed through the chamber.
“I do not wish them any harm, but they must know their place is beneath us.” Tiva’s voice wavered. “God demands it.”
“Did he also demand your cruelty?” Cadbeau’s voice boomed as Tiva approached his back. “Did he demand your lack of empathy? Did he demand your sacrifice of the innocent?”
“God works mysteriously.” Tiva raised the letter opener.
Cadbeau gripped the book tightly, and spun on his heel. With all of his strength he drove the spine of the book into Tiva’s face, feeling the hard tome come apart in his hands, yielding to the force of the blow. Pages flew into the air as Tiva, caught unguarded, crumpled onto the stone tiles. He lay unmoving, crimson pooling under his head. Cadbeau stood, shaking, the remains of his greatest treasure in his hands. Only one piece of the hard cover remained, blood dripping from the name “Silverstein” emblazoned in gold.
“Did you not think I would recognize your toothless bite, you fool?” Cadbeau mumbled to himself, glaring at Tiva’s motionless body. His head snapped quickly around. Had anyone heard?
He paced quickly to his room, throwing only what was absolutely necessary into a small satchel. He removed his bloody robe, and replaced it with common rags in an effort to conceal himself. He looked out his window for the last time, dawn casting an orange glow upon his face.
I have to hurry.
A huge thanks to the writers of this storyverse.