Retrogression

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Some of those steps back are big ones.

Submitted: January 15, 2017

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Submitted: January 15, 2017

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Jordy parked the Range Rover at the convenience store and let the animals out.  Phantom, a German Shepard, stayed with his master.  Duke, the Labrador, followed Mr. Jones at a distance.  Duke stood guard while the orange and white cat hunted.  It took Jordy a while to convince Mr. Jones to catch just squirrels.  Since the Collapse, fresh meat had to be shot or caught.

 

Filling the gas tank was a lot easier after Jordy rigged the car with a power inverter.  The device ran off of the vehicle’s battery and provided electricity to a pump.  While the animals did their thing, he snaked a hose into the underground tank.  He watched as the fluid poured into a large glass bottle.  That allowed him to inspect the fuel before it went into the car.  Jordy learned the hard way, if a storage tank failed and had water in it, that was a good way to destroy an engine.

 

It took a half hour to fill the tank.  The dogs hadn’t sounded any warnings.  A pile of prey accumulated as Mr. Jones did his thing.  Jordy skinned and gutted the animals and set up the camp stove.  In a few minutes, the smell of grilled squirrel made the cat more interested in eating than in hunting.  Ever vigilant, one dog stayed on guard while the other ate.  Jordy and Mr. Jones trusted the dogs.

 

 

Many people, from esteemed scientists, to religious leaders, to complete wackos, warned the human race about the dangers of technological advancement.  It didn’t matter.  The human race had no mechanism to control itself.

 

For countless centuries, the capacity for humans to kill each other was limited.  A rock, a sword, or a musket was good for one killing at a time.

 

The Industrial Age upped the ante considerably.  By World War II squadrons of airplanes could carpet bomb an entire city.  Then came the thermonuclear bomb.  Just the tip of the iceberg.

 

As computers entered the scene, the rate of advancement accelerated.  The people doing the work believed they were benefitting the human race.  The problem came from how the new technologies were put together.  It was a different kind of war.

 

Nanotechnology formed the first layer of the Collapse.  It allowed the manufacturing of complex structures, with moving parts, literally out of molecules.  The incredibly small size of these devices led to the advent of self-replicating machines.

 

 

The dogs were not on the lookout for human threats.  Jordy was the only human they’d ever seen.  They guarded against other animals.  The biggest threat, ironically, was other dogs.  Since the Collapse, packs of dogs ruled the otherwise quiet streets of the world’s cities.

 

This time, there were no encounters.  Jordy cleaned up after the meal.  He packed the leftover meat in a makeshift refrigerator in the front seat.  He’d rerouted part of the air conditioning from the Range Rover to blow through a cooler.  That would keep the meat from spoiling for a few days.

 

Phantom and Duke piled into the Range Rover when Jordy whistled.  As usual, the cat pretended not to hear. He continued to clean himself until Jordy carried him to the car.  He wasn’t impressed by the growl the cat let out.  He knew Mr. Jones liked being picked up and would begin purring any moment. 

 

Before he pulled out of the parking lot, Jordy left a packet on the counter in the store.  Something he did everywhere he stopped.  It contained three items.  A picture he’d taken of him and the animals.  An agenda, the dates he planned to be in the larger cities as he trekked across the United States.  And a letter Jordy had composed.

 

“Dear fellow human.  My name is Jordan Harrison.  I am from San Diego.  I survived the Collapse.  I do not know of other survivors.  I know you are out there, somewhere.  I intend to find you.  Every day at 8pm, Eastern Standard time, I broadcast on shortwave radio at 9,580 kHz.  I will return to this spot, eventually.”

 

On the front of the store, Jordy spray painted a large arrow, pointing to the door.  Under the arrow he left his initials and the date.

 

 

An object floating on the surface of an ocean has access to a variety of elements.  Water is made of hydrogen and oxygen.  Sodium and chlorine make up salt and are present in large quantities.  Smaller amounts of elements such as sulfur, magnesium, and calcium are also dissolved in sea water.  The air above the surface contains even more oxygen, as well as nitrogen, and a variety of trace elements.  Most importantly, air contains carbon dioxide.  A source of carbon.  The building block of life.

 

The self-replicating machines appeared to have only one purpose.  Make copies that were exactly alike.  These were not ordinary machines.  As they floated in the Earth’s oceans, they looked like masses of seaweed.  On the outside, that is essentially what they were.  Long strands of genetically engineered algae.  The tiny green cells soaked up sunlight and converted it to energy.  

 

Inside, at the molecular level, was the brains of each machine. The tens of thousands of strands were all connected together.  Combined, they functioned as a computer.  In the strands, complex molecules, lined up by the billions, stored information.  Each machine contained two sets of instructions.  The first set told the machine how to make a copy of itself.  The strands sucked carbon dioxide out of the air and the algae mass grew.  It took a machine five days to double its mass.  Then it split in half, to form two machines.  

 

The machines were placed in all of the oceans.  In deep water away from shipping lanes.  They grew and made copies.  Occasionally, something would go wrong and a machine would die.  Most survived, and continued to reproduce.  In four months, one machine could lead to 8 million copies.  By the time humans noticed the unusual masses of algae, there were trillions of them.

 

The machines measured water temperature, dissolved solids, and the motion of the waves.  These factors vary in predictable ways in the shallow waters where oceans meet land.   Where there was land, there would be people.  When the machines detected a shoreline, they stopped reproducing.  And began executing the second set of instructions.

 

Rigid stalks grew up, out of the water.  Each stalk branched into many smaller spikes.  The branching continued to a microscopic scale.  Under magnification, the tips would look like a dandelion gone to seed.  Like the flower, cottony wisps flew in the wind toward the shore.  But these were not seeds.  Each wisp carried millions of viruses.

 

Why?  Nobody knew.  Whoever made the machines never identified themselves.  The human race died without knowing why.

 

 

Jordy and his menagerie resumed their trek.  He never knew what he would find on the road.  Sometimes it was clear for miles.  In places, the highway was littered with debris blown in the wind, or washed onto the road by a storm.  He travelled slowly over the bad parts.  The rugged vehicle could handle just about anything he found.  

 

There were many wrecked and abandoned cars.  Authority broke down at the end and people panicked.  Bridges were the biggest problem.  The Range Rover’s winch could pull a car out of the way.  That would only cost Jordy an hour or so.  Sometimes, it was worse.  

 

He stopped on I-10 as he approached the Colorado river.  Both lanes of the bridge were filled with school buses.  Parked side to side with no space between.  From one end of the bridge to the other.  

 

Jordy could imagine what led people to do this.  In the early days of the Collapse, nobody knew what was causing the deaths.  This was a desperate attempt to keep the problem on the other side of the bridge.  It didn’t work.

 

But it was an effective deterrent to Jordy.  The winch was no match for a sea of school buses.  After a ten hour detour, he was back on I-10, heading east.

 

Jordy had memorized the list of items he would search for when he needed to go shopping.  Getting into the stores was a simple matter.  Few of the doors were locked.  A sledgehammer substituted as a key for the exceptions.  The hard part about shopping was navigating inside the dark buildings.  Flashlights and batteries were on Jordy’s list along with food and ammunition.

 

And always, cans of spray paint.  Every few miles, Jordy would stop at an overpass, and leave behind his mark, on both sides.  Where another traveler could easily see.

 

After the detour at the Colorado River, he left this message in Quartzville, Arizona:  JH  4/24/2037 —> Phoenix  SW 9580kHz 8pm EST

 

His initials, the date, his next destination, and the shortwave radio information.  Jordy was determined.  If other humans were still alive, he would find them.  His worst fear was that he was the only survivor.  But logic told him, he couldn’t be the only one.  There had to be others.

 

Jordy drove as far as he could each day.  His plan was to drive back and forth, across the United States, taking a different route each pass.  He would repeat this process until he died or found other people.  Whichever came first.  At night, while he waited for sleep, he thought about what he will do.  When he meets someone.

 

He always stopped in time to for the radio broadcast.  He wasn’t sure how far his signal would reach.  But he was convinced it was his best chance.  It took a few minutes to bolt the antenna poles together and attach the guy wires.  They ran through fittings he had mounted on the bumpers of the Range Rover.  

 

The winch slowly erected the antenna, while Jordy worked his way around the vehicle, pulling the slack out of the wires.  When the winch stopped, the top of the antenna was 30 feet in the air. 

 

“Hello, anyone.  This is Jordan Harrison.  Today I am broadcasting from Houston, Texas.  I am heading east on Interstate 10.  Upcoming destinations are New Orleans, Mobile, and Tallahassee.  When I reach I-75, I will follow it to Miami.  I intend to travel on every interstate in America.” 

 

“I will broadcast every day on this frequency, at this time, weather permitting.   If you can hear me, but cannot reply, leave me a message on an interstate overpass.  When I see your message, I will find you.”

 

 

The machines made several kinds of viruses.  Some were designed to infect rats and other rodents.  Some would infect bacteria, common kinds that are found all over the planet.  Each machine knew its approximate location and made the viruses that had been tailored for that area.

 

The viruses did no harm to organisms like bacteria and rats.  A host would live out its life cycle unaware of the infection.  And continue to spread the virus.

 

That would create a big problem for the species that was the intended target.  Humans.  When the virus infected a human, they showed no symptoms for about a week.  Giving them time to pass the disease on, before they died.  

 

The viruses spread quickly, from coastlines, inland.  Within a few months, every inhabited continent and island had been infected.  Panic ensued when people realized what was happening.  Survivalists hunkered down in their hidey holes.  Government officials locked themselves in state of the art underground bunkers.  

 

Some of these places were sophisticated enough to protect their occupants from the viruses.  It didn’t matter.  That gave the viruses more time to spread.  They would be there, waiting, when people hiding underground ran out of food or water and were forced to emerge. 

 

Social order spiraled out of control as the disease spread.  Jordy watched his parents die the same as everyone around him.  At first, he was terrified, certain he would be next.  But it didn’t take long to realize.  Everyone was dead or dying.  But he felt fine.

 

Jordy remembered the lecture in biology class about how bacteria had become resistant to antibiotics.  In extremely rare cases, one organism would have a genetic variation that protected it from the medicine.  Despite the long odds, Jordy had won the immunity lottery.

 

 

Duke’s excited barking meant only one thing.  Danger.  As usual, a pack of dogs.  Jordy didn’t hesitate.  He aimed carefully and shot the lead dog.  He kept shooting until the rest ran off.  After a close call with Mr. Jones, he’d begun a shoot on sight policy.  He would never run out rifles or bullets. The gun and sporting goods stores had more than the Range Rover could carry.  And the dogs were breeding faster than he was killing them.

 

Jordy continued his trek.  Days bled into months.  Seasons and years went past.  Every evening, excepting thunderstorms and high wind, he broadcast on the shortwave radio.  

 

On the long drives, and equally long nights, the young man often wondered why he kept going.  He ran through the same argument, over and over.  Quit?  Keep trying?  Every time, he came to the same conclusion.  Keep trying.  Why?  

 

Jordy didn’t know that optimism and hope were programmed into his DNA, along with the combination of genes that protected him from the virus.  He was genetically incapable of giving up.  When he was having a cynical moment, a line from a Bob Dylan song ran through Jordy’s head:  When you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. 

 

Somehow, that comforted him, even though he knew it wasn’t true.  He had Phantom, Duke and Mr. Jones.

 

At night, everyone slept, curled up in the back of the Range Rover.  Every morning, Jordy fed the animals and ate breakfast.  He broke camp and the menagerie got back on the road.  The game continued.  One evening, after five long years, he found out what happens when you don’t quit.

 

Jordy had to tell himself to drive slowly.  His heart was racing.  Tears were streaming down his face.  Phantom and Duke sensed the emotions and were making soft whimpering sounds.  Mr. Jones had his ears pulled back.  He’d never seen his human act this way.  Jordy eyes strained, staring into the narrow beams of the headlights.  He wasn’t used to driving at night.

 

The Range Rover had reversed course and was now heading west on I-80.  A few minutes before, the impossible had happened. When Jordy broadcast on the shortwave, someone answered.  

 

“Hello, Jordan.  My name is Muriel.  We are in Denver.  We found one of your packets.  There are three of us…”


© Copyright 2017 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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