Friday, September 28, 2018

Short Story: The Plague Ship 2.0

For a PDF version, click here.

We’ve been on this airplane for two and a half years. 

Two and a half years.
“Talk about a flight delay,” we say and crack thin smiles.
Deep within the hollowed out remains of DFW, there must be a monitor high above the concourse, bolted down with titanium, out of reach or beyond the strength of the successive waves of refugees, government agencies and criminals who rolled through the terminals and borrowed, confiscated or stole everything that wasn’t locked down and might possibly be of use before they scattered across the plains like homesteaders. A monitor that displayed the message for so long that even now, years after it last experienced electricity, the words still ghost the screen: TransPacific 640 Delayed Indefinitely.
Indefinitely. That’s a crucial word. For although each of us knows to the day how long we’ve been incarcerated, it’s considered impolite to acknowledge this precisely. We say “For some time” or “around two years.” Exactitude would make it real. Vagueness means a day might come when we’re free, that we’re simply experiencing an extended and not very enjoyable vacation, like spending a year in Pyongyang or Lubbock. A couple of months into the ordeal, we discovered some damn fool in first-class marking the side of the plane with a Sharpie as though he were in a dungeon: 

We put it a stop to that right away and made him clean it off. That kind of thinking is poisonous when you’ve got 193 people living in 19,000 cubic feet.
“Thank God we’re on a 787 and not a narrow-body,” we say, and the response comes: “If this was a 737, we’d have gutted each other with plastic utensils by now.” 
And again those grim smiles.
Our flight proceeded normally until three hours after takeoff. 38,000 feet above the ocean east of the cold Kamchatka Peninsula, a disturbance rose from Seat 43C. A cough, not the dry, throat clearing sound that’s the lingua franca of commercial aviation, but a wet, hacking variant, with the rhythm of a car that won’t start and a sound like mud bubbling at Yellowstone. The poor gentleman tried to suppress the cough, but succeeded only in making each outburst more explosive. Gradually he woke everyone in his immediate vicinity. He rose and attempted to ghost down the aisle to the lavatory, but was coldcocked by a coughing fit that roused even more people before he staggered the remaining distance.
His seatmate noticed with disgust that his blanket was flecked with blood and mucus. She alerted the cabin attendant, who knocked on the lavatory door. She received no response other than more desperate coughs. Soon another flight attendant rolled a portable oxygen machine and medical kit down the aisle, two others opened the lavatory door with an emergency key, and a doctor came back to offer her services.
They managed to extract the man and place him in one of the crew jump seats. Now his horrid, pitiful attempts to clear his lungs carried through a big chunk of Economy and Business Class. Our hearts approached tachycardia as we listened to him, a suffocating miner seeking the one remaining pocket of air at the bottom of a shaft. With the exception of the people traveling with noise-dampening headphones, earplugs and Ambien, we were forced to bear witness to the drama that was Jack T. Doran’s (a 43-year-old manufacturing manager for a pharmaceutical company) last two hours on earth.
We had just witnessed the first death from N52H29, now simply known as “Dry Dry.” It would be weeks until the virus was identified, months before the mass outbreaks that devastated the world’s population, and years before we understood that our carbon fiber prison was actually a lifeboat. We knew only that we had a dead passenger—and any lingering notions that it had simply been a bad dream evaporated when we woke and began stumbling up the aisles to the lavatories: a body shrouded in gray airline blankets was strapped upright in a jumpseat, a small pool of water forming underneath from the melting of the ice the flight attendants had packed against his body.
The first hint of our coming ordeal was an announcement shortly after dawn. “Folks, this is Captain Fitzwallace from the flight deck. As you’re probably aware, we had a passenger unfortunately pass away during the night. Now normally we’d just continue to our final destination, but we’ve instead been directed to land earlier. We’re awaiting final instructions but it seems they want us to come down at a military base in Nevada. I wish I had more details for you but that’s all they’ve told us for now.”
“They”: the ubiquitous force that would rule our lives: “The government” “The authorities” “The powers that be.” It’s never been entirely clear who’s in charge (and it’s moved from murky to opaque as authority dissolved in the face of massive population loss). We’re governed by acronyms, some familiar, others new and mysterious as though someone had pulled tiles from a Scrabble bag: the FAA, the CDC, the NIH, the FBI, HLS, HHS, WHO, USAF, DOD, NSC, NSA.
As the sun rose, we found ourselves heading south, the snow-capped peaks and turquoise lakes of the Northern Rockies giving way to the salt crumble terrain of southern Utah and Nevada. Aside from the usual announcement to prepare the cabin for landing, there was no further word from the cockpit. We slid in over a dry lake bed, landed, then taxied to the end of the runway where we stopped and waited.
We turned on our mobile phones. No signal. Not a single bar. Hands danced in the air pointing phones in every direction, but no luck. Lacking the normal end of flight activity of calling spouses and colleagues, and checking email and texts, we began to speak to one another.
This was how word about our location spread around the plane: we were in Area 51, the infamous secret military base where popular conspiracy theorists claim the government hides the remains of UFOs and alien lifeforms. “That’s bullshit,” according to Nathaniel Tate, a former Air Force captain, now a supply chain director for an aerospace company. “It’s just for top secret experimental aircraft.”
It didn’t look like a top secret airbase. With its corrugated roofs, unmarked white exteriors, and the desert sunlight haze over everything, it looked a throwback to some earlier and dustier era of aviation. We half expected to see biplanes, but there were no signs of life at all. 
After a couple of tense hours, flashing lights appeared against a distant building. More and more lights showed until they reached critical mass and began to move toward us, the vehicles gradually assuming the shape of military jeeps, each fixed with a machine gun manned by a fully equipped solder: helmet, body armor, and, most creepy of all, gas mask. They reached the plane, fanned out and formed a perimeter.
Our mood had been confusion and irritation. Suddenly it became darker. Why surround us with armed men? Was there a terrorist element? “There’s something they’re not telling us,” was a common refrain. And the crew had nothing to offer: “We’re seeing them, too, but no one’s told as anything. Just hang tight.”
Interminable minutes later, another convoy set out in a mass of flashing lights. The lead vehicle was white, a hexagon high above the ground on huge, spongy tires, with two small porthole-like windows on each side like a deep-sea exploration vessel. Close behind a truck pulled a set of stairs. All the vehicles halted near the plane, except the truck, which spun around and backed up to position the stairs next the plane. Three figures then emerged from the rear hatch of the white vehicle. Each wore a clunky, yellow biohazard suit. One pushed a stretcher. The other two waddled up to the stairs, and then pushed and yanked until they had the stairs positioned correctly. We heard the door snap open, a brief conversation between the people in the biohazard suits and the purser, then the three people waddled down the tight aisle, knocking into seats and passengers indiscriminately like a New York City version of the Michelin Man. They wasted little time. Two of them grabbed Mr. Doran by the arms and feet and trundled him up the aisle while the third member of the party went to Mr. Doran’s seat and confiscated his blanket, pillow and personal belongings. 
Only two days later did they inform us of the reason for the diversion: the CDC and WHO had been monitoring a virus in Asia. Our flight departed as their scientists reached the conclusion that two deaths had been caused by this new disease. When Captain Fitzwallace reported Mr. Doran’s death, the air traffic controllers passed the information along to their superiors, who in an excess of caution reported the scenario to the CDC, who in turn consulted with the State Department and White House, who decided that “These people can’t be allowed to mingle with the rest of the population.”
Over the first 15 days, our relatives, business associates, employers, friends, even political representatives, created a rising wave of protest about our incarceration. Airlines that have kept passengers on the tarmac for a few hours have been excoriated so imagine the reaction to having over 200 people held indefinitely and incommunicado. In the face of the utter dearth of information from inside the plane, the outside world filled in the blanks, imagining a hellish world of claustrophobia, thirst and violence. Their imaginations were remarkably close to the reality: the first few days were hell with overflowing lavatories, no food or water, gradually rising temperatures as the crew cut the AC back to save fuel (without AC, we would have turned into baked husks on the blistering plateau), smokers forced to go cold turkey at the time when they most desperately needed to smoke, screaming matches, panic attacks, a fistfight. The heat situation improved when the authorities finally relented in the face of an apoplectic Captain Fitzwallace – we could hear him halfway down the airplane – and ran a cable out to the craft. Then after five days, a tractor pulled us into a rusted corrugated metal hangar abutting an ancient salt lake scarred by the large X of two runways intersecting. There were pallets of bottled water and several trailers with cafeteria trays. A tanker truck drained the lavatories. Figures in the familiar biohazard suits moved everything close to the aircraft and then departed. Only after they had cleared the hangar entirely were we allowed to open the doors and retrieve the supplies. “They’ve given us very strict orders not to venture outside,” the announcement came, but we’d seen soldiers with automatic weapons surrounding the hangar. It was clear that leaving could have fatal consequences.
As the outbreak in China sputtered and died, the outcry grew and the tide was swinging in our favor. “These poor people have been entombed in a commercial jetliner for two weeks and no one else has died or come down with the virus. Surely we can let them return to their families.”
Then two of the three people who’d come aboard the plane to remove Mr. Doran’s body became sick – and one of them died – in spite of being outfitted in the latest biohazard suits. Simultaneously, the CDC and WHO determined that Mr. Doran had died from an entirely different and unknown virus.
Just as suddenly, opinion swung the other way – and the authorities determined we must be isolated until they understood more about the virus and how it was transmitted. They would turn the hangar into an isolation facility. 
Their attempt is still visible: a slick poured concrete floor with corner pillars and half-constructed walls, pipes and cables jutting out where toilets, showers and electrical outlets were to go. This was all they were able to accomplish over three months due to the slow process of hiring and bringing contractors into the most secret military facility in the world, not to mention trying to create a completely sealed isolation chamber inside a hangar built in the 1950s with no insulation or air conditioning and only one barely functioning washroom. 
Then four months after we’d first touched down at Area 51, the first large-scale outbreaks occurred, in areas with no apparent tie to us – or to one another: in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a remote region of the Bolivian Andes. Dry Dry was here to stay.
“Dry Dry” is a bastardization of the German word for 33: drieunddreißig. For it was a German researcher who first confirmed the strange math of this virus: in any outbreak, precisely 1/3 will die, 1/3 will get sick but recover fully, and 1/3 will experience no symptoms at all. There are no variations. An outbreak in a cardboard and zinc-roofed shantytown will produce the exact same statistics as one in a wealthy region with ultra-modern infrastructure. Singapore’s outcome from Dry Dry was the same as Lagos; Hamburg identical to Rio. 
News has become scarce between a couple of billion dead, and most others doing everything they can to put distance between themselves and the remainder of humanity. Even so, it slowly dawned on us that something unusual was happening aboard our ship. Even before the disease’s deadly ratio was understood, it was clear that the virus killed many people when it struck, and yet we’d only had the one death. We all remained not only alive but free from any illness at all. No coughs, sniffles, or even minor upticks in body temperature. We are disgustingly healthy, particularly in light of our confinement, rarely experiencing sunlight other than through airplane windows, not often able to wash ourselves, with exercise limited to jaunts around the plane’s “figure eight” (the path up one aisle, crossing over in the middle lavatories area, continuing up into business and first class then coming back down and crossing over again). The only deaths occurred when people left the plane over a year later.
Dry Dry has rampaged through the world, but we remain healthy. There are widely scattered, geographically isolated areas that have yet to experience an outbreak: narrow swaths of North and South America, a larger piece of sub-Saharan Africa, and a few outposts in the Far East. Otherwise, it’s damage is total. No one even pretends to know the exact number of deaths.
There was no “a-ha” moment. Most of us individually and quietly reached the conclusion that TransPacific 640 is unique. And our opinions were outed when the authorities gave us permission to leave – and only 35 people took advantage. We came up with excuses that bore some relation to reality (a popular and acceptable one being “Half my family is gone and other half has scattered God knows where”), but we were operating on gut instinct. And sure enough, within a week of leaving the aircraft, 32 of the 35 people were dead – and the remaining three fell off the radar screen. We can only assume they died, too.
Scientists laboring in isolation in remote labs all over the world became aware that we, the inhabitants of this modern plague ship, were the only population that had defied Dry Dry’s perverse statistics. We became a subject of fascination. Requests arrived for blood, for saliva, for hair samples. We’ve answered all the inquiries we’ve received. What the hell else do we have to do? We’ve poked ourselves with needles for blood and bone marrow; scraped cells off our tongues, our arms, our legs, our finger and toenails; pulled out strands of hair; dabbed cotton swabs into our ears, our eyes, our assholes; the men have jerked off into test tubes while the women have provided vaginal swabs. There’s not a section of the human body from which we haven’t provided some type of sample. No lab was able to identify anything unique across our cohort. They critically examined the structure of the virus in Mr. Doran’s body compared to other victims. There is no difference – his perfectly matched the north China variant. So they expanded their research. Perhaps it was something in the plane itself. We systematically sampled every part of the 787: seat cushions, carpet, the interior walls, glass, lights, in-flight entertainment systems, magazines, air sickness bags, emergency cards, control surfaces, electronics, food and beverage systems. We’ve crawled under seats, swabbed armrests, cut chunks out of the fuselage, removed the sheaths from wires. We’ve taken water samples from the sink, the toilet, the kitchen. There’s nothing about this aircraft that’s different from any other 787 out there. We moved on to suitcases, knapsacks, purses, belts, clothing, headphones, computers, mobiles devices, books. Nothing. They switched focus to environment factors. Perhaps it was something in the air or soil in the area of Nevada where Area 51 is secreted? Before they could complete that research, however, we staged our Second Rebellion and began jetting about the world, resting for days or weeks in one location before moving on – and we all remained perfectly healthy no matter the location. 
Rebellions have defined our history, as with many societies. We started by eliminating our class structure – the most precisely defined in revolutionary history. Resentments rose about seat assignments. Why should people in Economy being indefinitely consigned to the cage-like confines of Cattle Class? Why should those in First-Class continue to have lie-flat beds when Economy had only 3” recline? It began as mutterings, and devolved into the lower class turning on itself. Fights arose over knee space and elbows. Attempts to devise a system by which people slept in shifts spread across rows of seats fell apart when those trying to sleep during the day and evening had their sleep interrupted. The provision of sleep aids and tranquilizers helped, but then left half of us functioning as zombies.
Like so many revolutions, it was an idealistic member of the leading class who took charge. Unlike most first- and business-class passengers, Devon Armstrong paid full price for his ticket, rather than using upgrades and frequent flier points. Devon is a thoughtful man, not to mention one of the world’s leading philanthropists. He simply decided that it was unfair to have a minority of people hog the few comfortable places in our prison. He claims not to have known about the muttering and general unease at the back of the plane. He started to work on his fellow First Class passengers, using the persuasion, charm, and muscle that made him a wealthy man. The 12 passengers in First Class were easily convinced we needed to adapt a rotation system so everyone had regular access to comfortable seats. The Business Class passengers were not so easily convinced. They clung to their seats like drowning people to driftwood. “We paid for these seats.” “I travel every week and never see my family and this is the tiny reward I get for all that travel so why should I give it up?”
In the end, Devon and the First Class group guilt-tripped Business Class into giving up. They consulted with Economy Class, counted the numbers and started a rotation system: everyone got two nights in a lay-flat bed in First Class, then rotated back to Economy. The sight of passengers moving through their cabin, silent and resentful, eventually broke the back of Business Class. In ones and twos, they gave in and the Class Revolution came to an end with a complete rotation system that treated everyone exactly the same. Oh sure, there were a few mutters of “socialism” here and there, but in the end, most everyone accepted the new system with equanimity. 
This was just one of many ways we learned to cope. Our methods of coping were of some fascination to the outside world, at least in the early days. Media inquiries flooded in: “How do you live?” “What do you do to pass the time?” “How do you keep from going crazy?” 
Initially we had no real answers. We were just doing what people do in airplanes: eating, sleeping, trying to get comfortable, talking to our seat mates when we had nothing better to do. We were remarkably passive in the face of our situation. We were in an airplane on a ultra-secret military base surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. That tends to tamp down dissent. Not that our lives were easy. They supplied us with food and water, we had a fair amount of entertainment via the plane’s new media system, but the first real problem involved the obvious: b.o. While our activity was non-existent, beyond walking the aisles occasionally, no one can wear the same clothes for days without eventually becoming aromatic, no matter how many times one applies deodorant. A low-grade funk spread through the fuselage, starting with the folks whose biology inclined them to more aromatic output or who wore non-cotton clothing, but eventually infecting us all. There are no shower facilities and as anyone who’s ever been aboard a plane can testify, the sinks don’t produce a huge stream of water. The solution turned out to be baby wipes. We convinced the authorities to provide us with cases of baby wipes. A few baby wipes and a quick scrub off with a wet towel afterward has proven remarkably efficient. 
As far as what we “do,” that, too, has evolved over time. Many of us have learned languages. This was an exercise in practicality at first: most of our English speakers didn’t speak Mandarin, and most of our Mandarin speakers only spoke limited English. And we had mixed in a few who spoke neither. We eventually identified 11 languages spoken to some degree by the passengers. Lessons began, at first informal conversations with paper and pen, or typing on a computer, with lots of hand gestures. Eventually it became more formalized, with passengers leading study groups. Access to the internet provided online training programs and resources. Now there isn’t a single passenger on board who doesn’t speak at least three languages and many of us speak five or more. The record is held by Aubrey Jenkins, a former college basketball star who blew his knee out three games into his junior year, just as he was being touted as a potential #1 draft pick. Depressed and without any direction once his career as a pro athlete went over a cliff, he dropped out and fell into drugs and petty crime until a religious awakening helped him clean up, go back to school as a business major and eventually start a highly successful sports agency. In recruiting players in other countries, Aubrey had discovered a certain facility with languages, but only in the forced circumstances of our plane was he able to focus on it. He now speaks 27 languages with some degree of fluency. 
At the McMurdo Research Station at the South Pole, they keep a straitjacket handy in case someone goes cuckoo during the interminable months when the sun never rises and it’s too jaw clenchingly cold to stick so much as a finger outside. We don’t have a straitjacket, but we are normal people. Stuck in an abnormal situation. It’s not all peaches and cream, Kumbaya, and “Imagine all the people living all in peace.” We’ve had screaming arguments. And yes, people have gone crazy.
The first time it happened, we weren’t quite sure what to do. Xu Nian Zhen had been muttering to himself for days. We ignored it at first as all of us had, by this point, taken to having conversations with ourselves, although most of us conducted these interchanges in the privacy of the lavatory or while walking around the plane. Nian Zhen simply sat in his seat facing forward, hands folded neatly on his lap, muttering away in what we learned was Jin, unlike most of our Chinese passengers who speak Mandarin. It started to annoy his seatmates but they just put earplugs in or headphones on and ignored it. 
Then it grew louder and more sporadic. We’d be asleep in the sci-fi deep blue glow of the plane’s LED lights when suddenly Nian Zhen would begin chanting. He ceased to notice when others spoke to him. He began performing strange rituals in the aisle, like a Muslim praying towards Mecca combined with a Pentecostal speaking in tongues. 
All of which was very odd, but didn’t prepare us for his ultimate breakdown. One day, he rose, walked to the lavatory and proceeded to smash his head in the door over and over, hard enough that he knocked himself unconscious before we could stop him. He barely regained consciousness when he started up again. Lacking any sort of straightjacket, we restrained him in the only way we could: by wrapping plastic wrap around him and his seat. (For those who face a similar situation, five wraps will provide a perfectly adequate restraint for all but the most powerful of individuals.)
While we had decided as a group to ban alcohol in the plane, we do allow select pharmaceuticals, as long as they’re approved by one of the doctors on board. “Approved” and not “prescribed” as the breakdown of normal processes has created a large, electronic grey market for most drugs and medical supplies. So we were able to obtain an anti-psychotic medication for Nian Zhen and he’s been a fully functioning, if occasionally dozy, member of society ever since. 
Mainstream media outlets avoided the question at the back of everyone’s minds. The tabloid press was not so restrained: the sex question came up. “What do you do for sex? Are people hooking up? What about the couples?”
We refused to answer these questions. We are a tiny society. We know more about one another than any society in history. It’s unavoidable. But we are highly protective of one another. The majority of passengers on board are or were married. (The internet has allowed for five divorces.) But most spouses were not on the plane. There are only 11 couples in our group. Put any group of people together in a confined space for any period of time, and sex is going to happen.
As to the logistics, large aircraft have crew compartments. We make ours available on a first-come, first-served reservation system (or, as the wags on the plane call it, a first-served, first-come system). 
For the first few months of our incarceration, many of us were able to work with varying degrees of success and wildly inconsistent hours. Phone calls were challenging and the people who needed to be in a particular location were screwed. We have a plumber on board, for example, and he was, if you’ll pardon the expression, shit out of luck.
But the work eventually ran out, either because our employers got frustrated and let us go, or, more commonly, because the economy tanked when Dry Dry started to wipe out hundreds of millions.
There are exceptions, of course. Two of our passengers were remarkably prescient and made huge amounts of money by exploiting the very turmoil caused by Dry Dry. One invested heavily in shorting transportation and energy stocks, and made millions when those companies collapsed. The other took a more positive approach, investing in companies that looked to profit from the disaster: coffin makers, medical suppliers, funeral homes, solar energy providers. 
And thank God for their wisdom and foresight, not to mention their generosity, as it’s their money that funds our operations. The airline has long since disappeared, and governments have washed their hands of us so we’re on our own. Henry and Jocasta arrange for supply drops at the various airports we visit. We pull up, make sure that there’s no one in the area and load up. 
We try to avoid other people not only for the sake of avoiding the disease but because we don’t know how people are going to react. We hear little in the way of news anymore, but we heard enough before radio silence sank over much of the world that we know things got wild out there. 
There was a massive outbreak of extreme religious fervor, a not surprising response to something as mysterious as Dry Dry with its precise and yet non-scientifically explainable ratio of victims and survivors. Those religions with a strong eschatological system particularly benefited, although that’s required tricky and agile manipulations to make everything jibe. There’s a cottage industry devoted to reinterpretations of Revelations, Nostradamus, Moses, Joseph Smith, Mohammed. People have actually started welcoming Jehovah’s Witnesses at their doors (although we have yet to receive a visit in our plane).
The Pentecostals did quite well for a while, replaced by Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Branch Davidians and other newer and more esoteric sects. Non-Christian parts of the globe have adapted better, especially if they have a Buddhist or Hindu background, although the Zoroastrians also had their day in the sun. The Madhi came back (twice), the Messiah appeared (seven times), and the Second Coming is on its 17thiteration.
Alas, this religious awakening has fallen rather short of the mark. Each time a particular religion or, increasingly, a single charismatic leader proclaims prescience, the ability to provide salvation, or a shield from death, Dry Dry asserts its mathematical certainty. “Follow us and you will be saved!” Then, inevitably, irrevocably, that group of believers is reduced by a third while another third is sickened, and the survivors heave a collective sigh that says, “Next!” People lurch from religion to religion like drunk men cruising women at last call.
In accordance with Newton’s Third Law, there has also been an equal and opposite reaction: a burst of hedonism that makes the Summer of Love look like a tea party. This is not the Epicurean version of pleasure. This is unadulterated lust, letting the id rule debauchery. These are the folks who looked at the numbers, looked at who’s affected by Dry Dry, and said, “There’s no salvation. Good or bad, saint or sinner, we all die so why not go down partying?” With churches working full-time to bury victims, comfort the survivors and milk the situation for new converts, they’ve had little time to moralize. And public safety agencies – their own ranks equally diminished by the virus – are too busy trying to keep up with the bodies while monitoring newly empty buildings in an often failed attempt to keep looting and arson down to manageable levels to care less whether a group of people wants to wander naked through the park, lathering themselves in honey and lavender, and fucking their brains out in plain view. 
Our second revolution was our true liberation, our Bastille Day, our Shot Heard Around the World. There was no storming of the ramparts, or waves of People Power holding their place against tanks and guns in the city square. Our rebellion began with a simple yet subversive act: Captain Fitzwallace turned on the engines and we slowly taxied into the sunlight. There was no one to stop us. The armed guards had disappeared. The trucks that brought food and water every couple of days stopped appearing. The lavatories began to stink, we were down to a few packages of plain potato chips, and the water was almost gone. The crew had no luck raising anyone on the radio. The few of us who were willing to take a chance and exit the aircraft were unable to see any signs of movement from the hangar windows. We had, apparently, been abandoned, the general consensus being that Dry Dry had finally struck the area and between the normal toll of dead and sick, and the inevitable, futile attempts to flee, no one was left to tend to us.
We held an intense meeting. By this time, we had realized that participatory democracy wasn’t an efficient system for governing a group of people jammed into a plane. We had moved to a form of representative government with the various unofficial factions choosing representatives who met every few weeks to discuss issues of common concern. Even the more withdrawn, introverted, and misanthropic passengers had gotten together and picked someone. The 14 of us gathered in first-class, and quickly broke into three factions: those hellbent on fleeing entirely, just pointing the jet down the runway and taking off; those who favored sending a small group out across the sunbaked flats to try and obtain supplies; and the middle group, initially the smallest but containing the best salespeople, who suggested a brief reconnoiter around the base. The hours of argument that followed could be summed up as “We can’t just roam around a military base without someone deciding to take action. They could blow us up!” followed by “But we can’t sit here and starve and die of thirst, can we?” followed by “If we take off, where are we going to land and where are we going to get more fuel?” followed by “Is there anyone even left here? The government must have much greater worries on their mind right now.” 
In the end, the captain asserted what lingering authority he had: “Listen, I don’t give two shits anymore [giving him the nickname he holds to this day: I Don’t Give a Shitswallace]. We’ll do a slow reconnoiter around the base. Hopefully we’ll get someone’s attention. They can’t have abandoned the base entirely.”
Someone had the idea to write a message on the windows, one big letter on each pane repeated on both sides of the aircraft: NEED FOOD WATER. And off we went on our low-speed cruise of the world’s most secret military site. We rumbled past identical stark, low, white buildings with no windows, larger buildings that were obviously hangars, and older steel-sided monstrosities with curved roofs and large sliding doors. Everything was shut tight. Silos and bulbous tanks loomed on the low hills at the back of the base beyond the reach of our plane. We cruised past the control tower but could see no signs of life, although with the tinted glass, there could have been 50 people up there. Still, after 30 minutes of rolling about, we hadn’t seen a soul. 
Then we spotted a vehicle driving away from us between the hangars. A chorus of voices called out: “Fitzwallace, stop the plane! Back up!” but the captain barked over the intercom: “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This thing doesn’t stop on a dime, and there ain’t no reverse!” Instead he turned the next corner, sped up slightly, and the world’s most boring car chase began. It was more Keystone Kops than Bullitt. We’d cruise down a row of buildings and someone would see the vehicle (a tractor pulling a baggage trailer). The captain would slowly ease the plane around corners until we were in the right row and there’d be no sign of the tractor – until we’d spot it now moving the opposite way in a different lane. We felt like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner.
Finally we turned a corner, now completely confused as to where we were in the complex, and found the tractor driving right toward us. The driver was leaning over the steering wheel not looking up and, for a few seconds, it looked like he’d plow right into us. Then he looked up, hit the brakes and halted 50 feet away from the jet with a “I just saw a UFO” gawp slapped across his face. He slowly dismounted, slipping his earbuds out as we crowded to the left side of the plane. “What’s that on the trailer?” someone asked. “Body bags,” someone else responded. “And they look full.”
Fitzwallace, Jonesy (our co-pilot) and the few passengers who’d jammed themselves into the cockpit suddenly realized the flaw in our plan: we didn’t have a good way to communicate without opening the cockpit window, and since we’d come to believe the aircraft provided a magical ring of protection, we weren’t willing to open it in the presence of a stranger.
The driver waved his arms, looked around and then trotted into one of the hangars, emerging a minute later wheeling a large whiteboard on wheels with the assistance of another man. They rolled it in front of the plane.
“Do we have something to write on?”
“Here’s the pad of paper we used to make the note on the windows. We can write big letters on each page.”
WHERE DID U COME FROM? one of the men wrote on the whiteboard.
That explained the body bags. 
The men chatted briefly. Then WILL TRY NOT MUCH LEFT HERE WHAT HANGAR U IN?
OKAY GODSPEED And Fitzwallace eased the jet forward and we bumbled our way back to our hangar.  
We did eventually reach the skeletal remains of the FAA. “You wanna fly somewhere, be our guest. There’s no else up there now except for a few military jets and a bunch of small planes out in the countryside. You’d just better be sure to let the military know so you don’t get shot down.”
So off we flew, destination DFW, arriving some 14 months after our original ETA. Landing proved tricky given that people were living in sheds and tents scattered around the runways. Shitswallace managed to slide us in safely and we pulled up to the gutted terminal. We had notified our remaining relatives we were coming and a few of them showed up. We stared at each other dishearteningly through layers of glass. It was worse being close to one another and not able to touch than it was to communicate over the internet. And seeing the reduced numbers in each family was a knife in the guts. So that was the last time we did that. 
We cruise around the country for changes in scenery. Initially we’d touch down where we had family or friends, but it was too painful to see the depleted ranks – parents, siblings, aunts, uncles erased. So we became disaster tourists instead, roaming at will, constrained only by the availability of an airport and aviation fuel. The latter is easy to come by. Most airports have huge stocks of it that were never used, and since its properties ensure it doesn’t lend itself to other uses, no one has bothered taking it.
We cruise lower than normal since there’s no need to worry about conserving fuel. Often we’re a mile or less above the earth. During the day, we don’t notice many changes, but at night, the wholesale restructuring of the world becomes clear. The normal neural network of brightly lit clusters with connecting lines has regressed, like seeing a satellite picture from 50 years ago. Population centers are obvious, but faded, the dimmer switch turned down with city populations reduced by over half due to death and departure, and the power system unreliable. But there’s a much greater number of small nerve centers, clusters of lights across the vast swath of the Great Plains and the Mountain West. Dying farming and Rust Belt towns revived. Ghost towns reoccupied. And many people have avoided even these small population centers and have headed for the country, setting up camps, building small cabins like homesteaders 150 years ago. Sometimes we fly so low we see campfires flickering in the middle of woods and fields in Nebraska and Wyoming and South Dakota.
There are also much larger fires burning. The authorities still make last-ditch efforts to keep fires out of heavily urbanized areas, but otherwise forest and brush fires burn themselves out. A series of small fires in the canyons and hills of the Colorado Front Range united a couple of months ago and now when we cross from the Rockies to the Plains, we see the whole Front Range on fire. Approaching from the east is like heading toward an enormous fireplace, each ridge or mountain top forming a ginormous log of flame. When we reach the edge, the plane is buffeted by the usual mountain updrafts, made worse by he heat. It lends a rollercoaster feel to the flight and allows us to play one of our favorite games, Surf the Friendly Skies. The idea is to remain standing in the aisle without touching anything when we go through turbulence. Shorter people have the advantage here as the tall folks have tendency to get their heads whiplashed against overhead luggage bins, a trend noticeable in our official standings: Zhang Xiu Ying, all 147 cm of her, has the record of 32 minutes, during a particularly aggressive bout of turbulence spawned by a row of powerful thunderstorms running up the Mississippi. Only slightly taller at 5’ even is Alviera Bracken, a former collegiate gymnast, in second place. Third place is equally petite. 
Innately we know this can’t go on forever. Something somewhere somehow must give. We’ll outlive our shelf life.
Our 787 hasn’t been maintained in over two years. Sure the crew pokes and prods at things, but they can’t see into the heart of the aircraft. Rivets may be failing, composites straining, engines parts wearing, computer programs developing bugs. Someday the imperatives of physics may override our magically charmed existence, and we’ll fall from the sky in a massive fireworks display. That’ll be the true test of our immunity: perhaps we’ll all float to earth or walk from the flames untouched, immortal, god-like.
But we’ll not push our luck. We’ll eventually look for a place to colonize. It could be anywhere as long as there’s water and food. Crops and animals are unaffected by the virus. Untended, domestic animals have broken free, foraging where they can. Every chicken, cow or pig is “free range” now. Walk into the countryside or a city park, swing an axe or blast a shotgun, and you’ll hit something. Crops grow wild. Warehouses full of processed food remain for the taking.
We will become modern conquistadors. We’ll land, find open territory, and, unlike our colonial ancestors, we’ll not need to build sod-roof cabins or live in tents. We’ll find buildings and infrastructure galore. We will move in. Organize. Rein in the animals running wild. Tame the plants. Live our lives. Reproduce. Perhaps in our genes is the blueprint for a new society, untrammeled by fear, by class divisions.

No comments:

Post a Comment