Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.
A Short Science Fiction Story by Tamara Wilhite
Dr. Leakey the 5th continued on to the next section of the museum. “It has been theorized that the formation of the African Rift Valley triggered human evolution into bipedalism. Chimp ancestors who lived in trees found trees scarce. Predators of the plains became rapidly became a rapid threat. Mobility over the terrain became a survival trait. And walking and running upright is faster than being on all-fours, especially over long distances.”
“Why are you so certain they were chimps? Orangutans walk upright 10% of the time, and have better hip design to allow that transition.”
“Human-chimp ancestors of that era may have had hips in between orangutan design and current chimp design. We evolved to upright, and the chimps evolved to a more robust quadra-pedal design.”
I decided not to question the greatest mind of the greatest lineage of hominid discovers. Not that day. After I’d done my own research.
The bonobos were screaming at each other, rare behavior for their species, common for those creatures dumped into the experimental lab’s cages.
The introduction hand out was plain English only to those with biology degrees. “Bonobos are normally quadrupeds, but they also engage in bipedal locomotion, both on the ground and in the trees.” I knew chimps almost never will walk upright from my classes. What makes chimps and bonobos walk upright might have made human ancestors walk up right, too. Would they walk more often for carrying food or for escape or for lack of trees? My task was to find out.
The bonobos were still howling. They should be glad they were on my project and not the neurology one.
“Walking was indicated most often for carrying food in a hurry.” I didn’t add for human approval, since that wouldn’t be approved by my advisor. “Escape behavior led to reversion to all four limbs. Lack of tree substitutes had no bearing on this behavior.” Kami, the lead female, stood up, hoping to get another treat for it. When she realized that reaching food on trees without lower limbs required this, like a human picking an apple, it became her favorite pose. My adding apple squares to the reward stack for taking that pose for digital 4-D capture only reinforced her behavior.
I tossed her a rice crisp treat. She broke it into four pieces and shared with the three males in her cage. Fortunately for her, her species was fine with that gender ratio. If they’d been chimps, a couple of the males and maybe even the female would be dead. A more socially adept species, I thought, than chimps. That’s why I worked with them instead. Greater potential.
Larry, Moe, and Curly promptly adopted the sexual pleasing behavior in exchange for the treat. Kami made the sign for “thank you”. Always polite. The males followed suit. They always did.
The drills kicked in next door. Mitchell’s neurology interface project to bump up the IQ of his subjects must have led to another round of testing. DNA nano-viruses meant to build up neural growth. Unfortunately, probes designed for humans didn’t do as well in bonobo immune systems, nor provide all the data he needed. So open-brain surgery was the result. All four sets of eyes went to the double doors where they heard the screams of the subject not properly sedated.
I stared at them, wondering how intelligent they were.
Kami’s face fell into a pout. She then signed “thank you” again before all the males said it over and over again. Then they retreated to the back of the cage, as if Mitchell - the mean human experimenting on their kindred - might come for them, too.
Several generations in captivity had led to a slightly higher intelligence, if not situational awareness.
A bunch of weirdos tried to raid the facility and set the monkeys free. In the chaos, I found the lab open. Larry, Curly and Moe were gone. Kami sat inside her cage, silently waiting. When she saw me, her eyes were on me, but she did not move. Through the crowd dispersing smoke, did she recognize me as a good human?
In rushed Larry and Curly through the door, arms full of food from the cafeteria, one knuckle on the ground as they sought speed over carrying capacity. I rushed to the doorway in response.
A short man was limping down the hall, a long string of cheese and veggie sausages dragging on the floor. As he got closer, I saw the fur. It was Moe, walking upright to carry the food. He waddled into the cage, arms carrying the greatest load. He then dumped the food on the floor and they all began to eat. Kami saw a security guard standing in the door, and she promptly closed the door. It automatically locked, so that no one could open it without the key. My key.
Their environment was also resulting in a strong survival trait of understanding human behavior.
The bonobos were getting skilled at upright walking. They’d seen the benefit of Moe’s catch and it added to their determination to develop the skill. I got more time to do a doctorate on the subject, since it was so unusual.
A young female from Mitchell’s group was dropped into my mix. The site manager wanted to see if this mental meme would become cultural and be passed on to the new female, Lucy.
I doubted it. She had wild eyes yet was terrified of the others. At their first introduction, she saw them walking around like hairy humans. Thinking them human, it took weeks of signing and sharing for her to even let them groom her. She didn’t like grooming, for all the questions they tried to ask about her cranial scars. Although her language capacity had tested high, she rarely signed at anyone or anything. Nor would she take food from me, but only Kami.. She had stopped eating for Mitchell at all. That was why she’d been reassigned here. Better than being put to sleep and wasting her entire research value.
The site manager came in, asking for proof that Lucy was contributing to the group. He gestured at her, at the others, at me. Lucy cowered behind the others, as they shielded her with their bodies. The others signed to her and each other quickly, though she did not sign to them, merely whimpering.
“If that chimp doesn’t start walking soon, she’s going back to Mitchell’s project!” he yelled before leaving. Dumb ape, I thought.
The next night’s video was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. Lucy was practicing walking upright, holding onto the males for support. She’d understood the ultimatum. More importantly, she was doing something about it.
It was vindication of my project goals. It was also proof her IQ had gone up under Mitchell’s project, such that she understood so complex a sentence.
What would happen if my project was done? Would they all go back to Mitchell?
I sat on the tapes in a super-secret backup location and worked on coming up with more tests to run instead. For all they were becoming, I didn’t want them to fall into a lesser creature’s hands.
Lucy lay sick on the cage, the others stroking and grooming her. Kami asked questions when I took blood and checked other things. I offered medicine, which Lucy only took when Kami gave it to her. At least Kami gave it to her. It managed the symptoms, but only the lab could state what was wrong.
The lab results were horrifying. The pump out more neurons viral treatment Mitchell had created had not been wiped out by his “neutralizing” method, before he dumped her in with my group. Worse, it was viral. And it was in the blood of my four subjects. They were already tired and stressed from its initial effects.
They were all going to get destroyed if word of this got out. And the results were in the lab system. Word would get out.
The break in the next day was bigger than the last. That, or security had decided not to protect the staff as much this go around. Kami and kin were let out. And this time, they all ran for the cafeteria, including Lucy. They busily signed to each other as I hid behind my desk. Kami looked over her shoulder briefly, as if to see what my reaction was, before leading their charge past the cheering animal rights activists.
I could not understand what they were thinking, except to get away from all the humans. Kami was sick, as she understood Lucy to be sick, and I had been giving them all medicine for it. I was just another human, although a friend gone bad.
When the lab was wrecked and the EMP pulse bomb done, there was nothing left of my research and videos and lab results but the masters’ thesis I’d finished before Lucy’s addition. When the activists had been convinced that it was my job to help sick animals, that I wasn’t much different from them than who paid my pay check, they decided not to kill me.
When they left, I moved to a different hiding place. Security would eventually find me in their mop-up. When corporate security showed up, I was far from where the activists had gone and from the dead bodies of my former comrades.
I had my life. And with the hiding place not so far from my office, they might assume I had never been in contact with the animal rights activists and let the creatures out under minor threat instead of protect the integrity of the experimental data. That act had been the deciding factor for why the activists had decided I was merely a corrupted fellow, working for “the evil corporation”, instead of an evil researcher. An evil researcher would have killed the creatures to ensure the creatures didn’t end up in the wild, carrying whatever secrets the company might have to harbor.
That they carried my secrets as well mattered to me less then than my life.
I sat in the security briefing room for a day and a half, answer the few questions I could. Yes, I’d seen Mitchell’s body. Yes, I knew there was an EMP – the blast was unmistakable. That’s why I went for the boiler room – protection from radiation, with metal to protect me. That steel pipes and concrete also protected from the expected bullets didn’t need to be mentioned.
There were a lot of questions on Mitchell’s research. With the data drives destroyed by axes and EMPs and Mitchell’s brain ripped to shreds by released chimps, there were no other data sources. I described the screaming of tortured creatures. I described his few comments that could be heard when he said anything at all.
“Did you see anything he actually did? Do you know any details of any methodology or reasoning?”
“He knows – knew - that given the sensitivity of his work, the silencing shield should have been on. I should have known nothing at all. And his carelessness disrupted my subjects.”
That I had seen infectious status, silence was my only refuge. Yet the transmissibility of the genetically enhanced virus was starting to worry me. And there were a lot of human behavioral systems tracking my every reaction. “Do you know where my subjects are?” I asked eagerly. “My research – my job – my life –" quick catch – “work depends on them.
“They’ve escaped into the bordering wild lands,” the security guard said. “It’s all trees and swamp. We saw them follow the wastewater stream to it. We’ll round them up after we’ve finished clearing out the bodies. They won’t go anywhere; they’ll stay where it’s green.”
The next days were a hectic blur. I visited with friends I hadn’t talked to in ages, wanting to connect after nearly losing my life. No one asked about work. No one even knew anything except for another attempted hit on the facility; no one knew that anyone but an activist or two had died. The secrecy frightened me, though the fact that no one had said not to talk about it worried me more.
I hit a dozen offices of colleagues who’d gotten further in their research, wanting ideas of what might happen to the chimps in their situation. Would they seek humans? Would they avoid humans? What route would they take, if deciding to get further away from “home”? I tried to be vague.
I tried to contact Mitchell’s research colleagues. What did his vector do? Could it spread to other species? In a wild life refuge, there were animals …
Lucy’s symptoms had been two weeks, roughly, from her introduction to illness. The others grew ill within 48 hours. Was that a mutation or had she just become contagious at the last stage? None of Mitchell’s peers knew anything except “he could do more to a creature he’d be allowed to do to a terrorist”.
I took the train to all the parks along the greenbelt. If they saw me, they might come out. It was on a trip about two weeks after the raid I saw a dark skinned nudist raid a messy picnic table. It was early morning, when few people were otherwise out. It was trash, so the person might be mistaken for a clean up crew, since some of the trash was dumped into a trash can.
Then the nudist picked up a selection of food wrappers with burgers and fries that had sat out over night and ran back to the woods, holding the food close to the chest. A fast run to escape any prying eyes or criticizing voices. Someone shouted, “Damn vagrant! Freaking crazy homeless!”
From the gray fog from the creek bottom, I saw a familiar site - sheen on fur. That wasn’t a black or tanned vagrant – it was a chimp with water on its fur. I couldn’t tell which one, except that it was a male.
Seeing those seeing me, I ran after the creature. Tired from walking so much, head spinning at the site of one, I nearly collapsed once I entered the deep greenery. It was thick and dark and stank. I fell on a branch. After catching m breath, I rolled over. My vision was blurring, probably from a head blow. Four dark figures were standing over me. They squatted down, barring canine teeth. Terrified beyond reason, I blacked out.
I saw Kami and Lucy, Larry and Moe. They haunted my dreams. Curly, missing, watched from the shadows of the forest. I was woozy from the fall and hardly able to move. Lucy stared into my face, nose to nose, sniffing frequently. I begged for a soda, tea, and IV. Nothing but more sniffing, more listening, more abject idiocy.
I asked for a bottled water. Dirty creek water was dumped into my face by the handful. I tried to scream but could not find my voice. Then Lucy remembered something and held cupped hands to my mouth. It was foul, it was horrible, and it was life giving. I didn’t think about the possibility of parasites. Dehydration would kill me far faster.
I felt the fever start soon after the water was given. I drank more, not thinking straight, too thirsty to care.
Time ceased to matter. I smelled rotted food, burnt hot dogs, bug sprayings of the area, and fumes from nearby roads that drifted down the hills. We were near a road, somewhere, but I could not remember the geography. It was uphill, so it would be impossible for me to climb. No one could track my digital angel signature, since I’d reprogrammed my personal sensor for privacy. Couldn’t let anyone find me, if the company decided to kill me for maybe asking too many questions. Thermal sensors might, but nothing ever flew over head except birds and bugs.
The trees provided thick cover from rain that fell a few times. Lucy offered me more rain water via leaves at those times. Larry and Moe brushed away flies and pulled away worms or bugs that tried to get into my hair or skin. I was there because of them. I was sick because of them.
And I was still alive because of them. And that was all that mattered.
When the fever finally passed, I felt clearer than I’d ever been. Mud caked, mosquito bitten, exhausted unto death, and starving. Literally. I was skin and bones, sustained by water only and a few leaves or mushy juicy fruits Lucy stuffed in my mouth. Someone’s over-ripe apples or wild grapes.
I sat up under my own power though almost fell back over. The four creatures walked about with two legs, carrying their spoils of food wrappings. It looked like misshapen grizzly bears rummaging through a dump. Then I remembered where we were. We were near a dump. And the roads up the hill were in an area still prone to littering. If there wasn’t nearly edible stuff to salvage from the dump, the recent litter would. And there was always the park, built on top of an old land fill that sometimes had people who cared as little for what they left behind in trash cans.
They knew what was edible because they’d seen me eat many of these pre-prepared foods at the office and lab. How to unwrap it, how to eat it, how to wrap up and put in the trash can.
They even had a trash can pilfered from the park. Loaded up with the bonobos throw-aways. In imitation of the humans. I rose and looked inside, only to throw up. My clothes were in there, covered with remnants having been sick for a very long time. I realized then that I was naked.
How, oh how, would I ever explain this if caught?
Though I was thinking clearly, I had trouble remembering sign language for a while. Lucy asked if I wanted food, and I could only nod vigorously. She gave me pecans without the shells. The next was two handfuls of tomatoes from someone’s garden. They’ve expanded to peoples’ gardens.
There were no new hamburger leavings now, just overly spicy jerky in a wrapper with the ants washed off.
I wondered how to ask for a bath. Then I was able to wobble to the creek and do it myself. The bonobos said nothing, only watched me and signed amongst themselves. Once clean, I stared at the reflection. Sun-chapped, still gaunt, really, really tanned. My eyes didn’t look so great either, red and trembling a little. Infection? Parasites? What I needed was medical attention. What I wanted was clothes. I signed to Kami without thinking for clothes. I remembered sign language! Yahoo!
I didn’t want to run naked into someone’s back yard to do it, so I let Kami and the others do it.
Larry and Moe came back with shirts and pants, mostly mens’. Kami had a baby blanket in one hand and a handful of socks in the other. Lucy, going slower, dropped to all fours and carried another blanket. As she did, I realized she was pregnant.
I put on the largest shirt as a dress and wrapped another around my waist as a skirt. Now all I needed was enough strength for the climb up the hill. That would be another day or two.
I expected the blanket to be used for that cooler evening. It was getting chilly. But Lucy kept the blanket. As she huddled against the males, I realized why she had to drop to all fours – she was pregnant. Kami saw my reaction and signed for a baby. Then Kami signed for herself. She was pregnant, too. My experiment, into the second generation.
I’d leave them here. They’d managed days without getting caught or hit by a car. I’d leave them to start their lives and let someone discover them much later.
“Kami?” I asked aloud. My voice was a horrible croak, like my mouth didn’t want to work right. Her eyes lit up in response. “I need to go home.”
Kami asked, “Bad men come?”
“Need human food?”
Sure. Give her an answer she’d understand. She knew what I used to eat, and how very different their gathered fare was. “Yes.”
“You come back?”
“I don’t know.”
The next morning, I hiked back to the park. I followed the trash cans they’d dutifully filled and dragged to each more remote camp site. A few more weeks, and the bonobos would either be camping under the bridge for that hillside highway or in the rocky caves nearby.
I walked along the property edge of the fence, no longer caring if people saw me. Walking to my car was irrelevant – the keys were in my clothes, clothing that sat in one of those trash cans, covered with rotted food. I wanted to get into a house, get a TV on, check my e-mail.
How? I’d have to tell someone I’d been raped, my clothes were in the woods, that I urgently needed medical attention. All true but the raped part …
I found a house with a gate that wasn’t super-locked. It opened easily. A security system started blaring, but no one came running. I stood in the yard for a while, waiting for an owner or neighbor or security company. No one. I found a sunroom door. It was even unlocked.
The house looked like any upper class house. Clean as the house robot could keep it. Everything was in its place. I found the kitchen. All dark. Energy saving mode, probably. Then I opened the fridge. Rotted food in a dark fridge. Power was off. For a long time.
I slammed the fridge closed and let my stomach settle. After all the nearly rotted food Kami had given me, how could a few days without power smell so bad? I found canned pastas and tried the can opener. Didn’t work. Found a couple of pop-top soups and drank those. A still closed box of cereal shut up my stomach. Yes, Kami, I’m going for human food.
I found a guest room and entered the shower. The water was still flowing. I took the shower I wanted. The couple that owned the place was later in years, but not too far off in size. I put on undergarments and clean pants that fit with a belt. Oh, that felt good. Then came a bra, safety-pinned to fit, and a long sleeved guy’s sweater, sleeves rolled up. The house was starting to feel cold after the shower.
I wandered the house. Nothing. I needed shoes. Their guest room had been clothes storage, but there had been no shoes. For that, I needed the master bedroom. I took the stairs slowly. Despite food and bathing, I was still only partially recovered.
I opened the master bedroom slowly. The smell there was worse than the fridge. The couple was there, in bed, dead. And had been so for a long while. The discovery would have scared me itself if not for the thought of how could they have been this way for so long. I returned downstairs and curled up on the guest bed downstairs. I slept in a bed under blankets. Civilization.
The next morning I found that all the fiber cereal was making me sick. I pooped a lot, flushed a lot. The water was flowing, but not as good. I started watching out the windows for neighbors who might notice me. Didn’t see any.
It was afternoon before the silence dawned on me. There were no cars on the street. This wasn’t a thorough-fair, but it was a residential street in an upper class neighborhood, next to the greenbelt. There should be drivers to and from work, lawn care guys, pool care people, nursing assistants to check on elderly residents. Nobody at all out and about.
There was finally activity when a pack of dogs came down the street, chasing a smaller dog – before eating it. I waited a long time after they were gone before investigating any other houses.
Most were locked, and I would not want to break in. If there were security measures, they could kill me, even if the power was off. I finally found an open garage door with an unlocked door to the inside.
This house looked like it had been ransacked by looters. Then I realized there was blood and feces on the walls. One dead body was half hidden by a pile of litter. I was motionless for a while. No violent murderers appeared. I explored the house gingerly around the ruins. This house had no power, as well. And the kitchen was a wreck, with food scattered everywhere. Squirrels had taken up residence in the pantry. They entered at will through a doggie door. Dogs. The thought of being ripped apart by aggressive guard dogs inspired pure terror. Was I so weakened physically from the long exposure that I had no control of my emotions? Or were the lingering affects of the fever affecting my judgment? I looked down at the makeshift clothes and lack of human protection or even security systems and blamed it on the vulnerability of the situation.
I explored two more houses. One had a dead woman in bed. The other had two men – probably men – dead by violence. From sheer hunger, I sat at their table and ate all the pop-top canned food I could find. I crashed to sleep and woke the next day. Thinking a little more clearly, I scavenged some bottled water and pop-top pasta cans. Then I went for a walk.
Further down the street was a car crash, there in the middle of the street. Still crashed. Like it happened and there was no one left to clean it all up. I stopped at the top of the street, looking down the hill that I didn’t want to climb back up. It was late evening, and the sun was setting. There were scattered lights in the city, but far fewer than there should have been. Like everyone left and didn’t turn off all the lights.
Had there been a pandemic and I’d missed it? The thought brought back an even fuller clarity. I didn’t touch Lucy, but Kami touched Lucy and Kami touched me. If I’d been infected that way? And infected others while looking for my experiments? Or maybe the security teams, who wouldn’t know much of hazmat protocol except to shoot and wear protective clothing for animal bites but not to wear facemasks? Or could Lucy and kin have spread it to animals who then spread it to people? Epidemic, then, if the species gap was crossed.
Pandemic. And my fault, for not killing the animals as protocol dictated. Lucy and Kami, Larry and Moe. A lot of thoughts of blame crossed my mind. Then I heard dogs. I ran, dropped part of my load, and took shelter in the first house I could find unlocked. The frantic searching made the distance between us close. I thought it was safe until I heard barking in the back. Doggie door here, too.
I found a bathroom and locked it. When they tried to bash in the door, I held it with my weight. When they seemed to slow, I put a laundry hamper against the door. I sat in the dark for a long, long time. Only a single can of pasta had survived my frantic escape. I waited until they were long gone before opening it. They already thought I was food. No need to add beefaroni smell to lure them back.
It was a day or more before I exited. I lay in the dark for a long time, letting processed food crunch in my stomach. I wondered if it would come back up, from being so different from the wild fare or from being bad. There was still water, so I didn’t die of dehydration. But water pressure in the house was dropping, and soon there would be no running water. I would need to search for more supplies, and that meant getting out. And keeping the danger out. I checked the doors and windows. No dogs. I locked the doggie door. But if there were other doors to the house open …
I started heading back the way I came. I took refuge in the house with two dead guys by violence and refueled for two days. Their house was secure except for the unlocked front door. Their windows were barred. If the predators came, they couldn’t even break through the windows. And from a telescope I found for one of the peeping toms. Those with doggie doors didn’t have broken windows, but had other damage inside.
I searched for signs of time. I hated living in a digital world that was as good as dead without power. There was no working computer connection, all the wireless devices lacked a connection, and all the batteries I found for devices were dead. There were “honey do” lists with dates for two weeks after I’d found the bonobos. But how long ago were those notes written? The realization that it had been weeks, not days, since I’d gotten sick was one more bar on the fear meter. I wondered if the terror was justified or whether something worse had happened to me. If the bonobos hadn’t taken me in, I’d be dead. That everyone else was missing only added to that certainty. No one else wanted to be here either.
I did good on the promise to Kami and stuffed myself for another day or two. Without any good weapons, all I’d be able to do was run and climb, and that required strength. Finally looking human again, I found a guy’s car keys. I had a backpack full of food and bottled water, in case I needed it. I tried all the cars on the street until I found one the key worked with. I climbed in, eager to go. Maybe even home.
Then I saw the drunk driving protection on it. Didn’t work unless the signal said yes, you are drug free and drunk free, you can drive. Puff and drive. But the unit wasn’t functional, so the car wouldn’t start. For all my education and experience, I screamed and thrashed like an angry chimp. I spent the night in the car, windows locked, curled on the bottom. The dogs were outside, and I could not outrun them.
Back to the old folks’ house. It was safe. It was closer to the bonobos.
I searched their house from top to bottom. I finally found a paper news circular, listing car ads and grocery store stuff. Two months after I’d looked for the bonobos. Which meant it was at least 7 weeks since I’d left. But if it had been that long, why hadn’t clean up crews swept through, sterilizing or burning everything?
Unless the pandemic was too big. And this was epicenter.
I imagined army choppers raining down nukes to sterilize the bonobos’ plague. I decided to use up all the supplies here that were about to expire. Then I’d go back to the bonobos and take the steep hill up to the road. I’d follow that to the outside world with working cars.
The next morning, I woke to a sprinkling of snow. And bonobos had less shelter than I did.
It was time to stock up for the winter.
I returned with a wagon full of canned goods. The bonobos hooted with joy. I saw only frozen fruit and rotting nuts off trees. They offered thanks for the food. I signed that it was returning the favor.
I saw Lucy huddled under blankets, but that wasn’t enough for a tropical mammal in winter. I opened cans and shared the food. They’d saved my life. Now I’d save theirs, again. And with extra eyes and ears, we’d make it south down the highway.
“It is getting cold,” I told them. Then I decided to sign so they could all understand me. “Snow is here. It will snow for many, many days. We need to go where there is no snow.”
“Where?” Larry asked.
“South,” I said. They didn’t understand. “I can take you. Less snow. Or, if snow, shelter from it.”
“Go no cold?” I was asked.
“Yes, but we’ll have to walk there.”
I imagined the sight of me driving with a car full of bonobo passengers. I just took them up the hill, with a stack of blankets and lots of canned goods. And, with a little foresight, two scavenged can openers.
We traveled for maybe ten days. They couldn’t cover a lot of ground with two pregnancies and with me checking all the cars for one that worked. We had to hide from dogs, sometimes, too. Trees worked good for them, solid cars for me.
I checked out a gas station. I was able to push the doors open and thus refueled everyone. We closed it, so that the dogs couldn’t follow. I checked other walls and found a door to the delivery dock locked. I’d check it later.
They opened plastic wrappers with their teeth. I opened some twist top drinks. It was shelter from the snow with food. Fortunately, the food delivery hadn’t arrived for a long time before the end of the world. Except for some milk in the now cold from the cold freezers, there was nothing to have gone bad up bread in its wrapper and some green might have been hot dogs.
We stayed until the food I made edible by opening began to run out. I didn’t want to stay until it all ran out, because that left no reserve. Yet we needed to build up reserves on our own flesh. I regained full weight and a little more. We’d walked ten days and had who knew how much longer left. It was cold. And we’d bored the dogs into leaving.
I opened the delivery dock door. There was a higher power watching over us and had pity. That, or it liked the sense of irony.
Finally, a truck had keys and an engine that worked. Parked nearby, and it even had a load of beer and pretzels, bottled water and salty snacks. Not the healthiest food and drink, but food and drink. And I could take us where we wanted without making everyone walk.
I loaded everyone in with the food left from inside, making a point of taking dried foods and cans. Then I took all the T-shirts and kerchiefs as blanket substitutes for the five of us.
I checked the office for things to take. I’d avoided it for the body. I loaded up the dead owner’s coat rack load in his office. Two leather jackets and a scarf. I left the clothes on his back on him. The dried remnants of his blown out brains out were too much to wear. But I took the gun, and all the ammo I could find.
Five to ten miles an hour, for about half a tank of gas. What mattered was we now had range and a direction. I said nothing to the bonobos while they watched through the windows. We stopped that night in the truck. The next morning, there were barking dogs, sensing food inside. I hit several as we kept going. The bonobos screamed with delight at dead predators.
I made it to a bridge. Across it were a few cars stopped here and there. The lake was long, and there were islands across it. The bridge crossed a few. With a lot of thought and arguing, I inched the truck on its last fuel across the bridge to a point on one of the islands. Far from houses, where dead bodies were. Where the dogs would keep their range, where squirrels and cats were plentiful. Where the bridge over the island gave a kind of shelter. Almost a cave, but better than nothing. Where a few cars here gave some shelter and protection from any packs that might come. Where the lake gave water on whim. I’d have to teach the apes how to poison dogs since they really couldn’t fight them unless they had spears …
That’s where we spent the winter.
It was a lot better after I found a smoker’s body and his still working lighter, and we had fire. I felt like such an idiot for not thinking of it sooner.
I’d learned to fish by trial and error through the winter, and the bonobos learned to fish by hand and patience. It was different food. Lucy finally trusted me, since I fed them so much from the truck and line. Two babies. A boy and a girl. I held them sometimes, but let the mothers nurse them. My experiment, into the second generation.
Thaw brought new life to the land. We’d walk to the other side, but not before there was fresh blooms for the bonobos to eat. They’d learned to eat cooked fish and dry jerky, but fresh leaves were what they were made for.
I left the bonobos at the island when I scouted the other side. It turned out to be the right decision. There was a military station at the other side. Humans. Men. With guns.
We had a long, long argument. Larry peeked out from a section of bridge at one point. I didn’t look at him. The guards probably didn’t see him. How had they let me drive that far and not stop me? Because they thought I and my friends were crazy from infection, and they’d left us there. And with only me back here, the rest must have froze over winter or drowned in the river. I decided to ask these figures in containment suits for a history lesson.
The pandemic had started here. It had spread elsewhere. There were maybe a billion dead in that pandemic. Another billion got sick as hell before their IQ’s bounced up a couple dozen points. The smart survivors reconnected, realized how to contain the disease, and started wiping it out. A lot of deranged guys with triggers and nuke buttons exchanged bombs. Another couple billion died in that war. Not a lot of people were left after that.
Being a containment area, there was military here and civilians in quarantine. And a lot of researchers had set up camp nearby, to study the original disease. Being way smarter, they didn’t nuke this place since the original virus had started here. If it could be harnessed, to ensure all future generations were way smarter than the sick idiots that almost ended the world. They needed people now, especially those that had practical skills.
“I had a bachelors degree in biology and anthropology. I finished up my masters in anthropology before the war.”
“How does that help us?”
“I worked at …” I was hesitant for a moment. I named my employer. Then I admitted what I had not ever wanted to say. “I used to work with …” and I uttered the name I so despised. “I took care of the animals he maimed and injured. I got infected, probably from one of them.” Long pause, brain working. Was my IQ higher from the disease, or less? “That’s a first generation viral strain, isn’t it? If you need to understand the disease, I have antibodies to the first human strain.”
“How’d you live? You aren’t in any of the hospitals. Never been in quarantine.”
I told him my transceiver number. “I turned it off, so that no one could track me via Digital angel.” Time for honesty. Lace a few lies into a whole lot of truth, and they’ll never see any other tapestry but the one I’d weave. “I was infected so early on, my judgment was affected. I was cared for by friends, who are all dead now. Those that came with me are no longer a threat to you. I’m the last human here, unless you can find other human survivors. I knew what Mitchell was doing and did nothing, and that led to all those dead …” remember the dead, feel the emotion “and if I knew and did nothing, then saw the sick animals and didn’t report it, the pandemic might be my fault. And I got sick so soon after handling the animals, but Mitchell said that I couldn’t be, the animals in my care weren’t infected with retro-virals – “close enough, never said it, but assumed such – “so he even mixed them into other research populations. I was muzzy headed at that time, and no one even thought to check me. And I should have gone to the doctor, but collapsed so soon after those activists showed up and blew up the EMP and destroyed all the research –“ a minor lie, on the timing of my illness. That I was infected in the lab was true. That I might have spread it so soon after was a maybe. Let them think the activists spread it – “and I was cleared by security at the briefing to go home. I was there for a day and a half. How could I be there and not have them say it was OK? Shouldn’t they have done a medical check?” – blame the bosses, security. My IQ had to be at least back to post-infection normal. Why hadn’t I thought of all this before? Or had I thought like a bonobo, among bonobos, and only went into human mode around humans? “I’ve survived out there, since.”
“How’d you survive all the violence?”
“Hid in the woods.” It was true.
“Fruits. Fish. Some canned goods, after everyone was dead. Still had to hide from dogs, though.”
“How’d you do that? You’re not a survival expert,” one of them challenged. Probably had accessed my profile based on my ID.
“Friends helped when I was sick. By the time I recovered, I might have been the last living human around. If they aren’t here and you can’t find them alive by their ID tags, you’re not going to find them.” Please don’t find them. “I salvaged peoples’ gardens and fruit trees, too. Not just canned goods. I didn’t even fish until the very end.”
“Eight months, off canned goods and fish and some green stuff? And the winter? We didn’t even see your fire until you were here near the bridge.”
“I used blankets and stuff.”
They wondered about me. I wondered what my body did to survive, how else it might be changed by the virus. Four sets of body heat did help under the blankets. Eight months? It would be terrifying, except that I wanted to be among my own kind. There was a growing family out there. And I’d got them this far. They’d make it back.
Larry was gone from sight. Hiding from the others. “What are you going to do about the dogs?” I asked. “They’re a threat to any other survivors.”
“What other survivors?”
“If you couldn’t find me, and I made it this far, there could be others you can’t find. Hiding in boilers for safety, in basements with locked metal security doors, blocking signals. Kill the dogs, so that they can’t rip other people apart like they almost did me.” The guards thought about it for a long time. Talked about it via implanted comms, too. “And think of what they’re doing to the ecosystem, if you leave the island sealed off. There are cats. They’ll control the pests. But kill the dogs. They’ll breed to wolves in another year or two.” And Kami and Lucy’s babies would have no chance. “And, who knows, if the disease jumped to humans, it could easily jump to dogs.” I saw their reaction, their fear. “Especially since we’re at the origin point. Who knows how it’s mutated?” They had their reactions. “Super-smart vicious dogs that hunted humans. Not something we want to get out.”
While I was in quarantine, I gave tons of advice on how to poison dogs while leaving the rest of the wildlife alone. By the time I was trusted to be in a lab, I found out that the virus in birds. The lab work of figuring out what happened and the implications took months more.
The census came through my headset a few weeks later. About 20 million super smart humans left in North America, because the original strain here leaned toward intelligence. It had devolved into a coma – causing virus in Africa and South America, where a large reservoir of remaining wild monkeys remained. Central Asia wasn’t much better, due to the macaques in India and human animals there left weakened by chronic hunger. Nukes wiped out most of China, Japan, the Middle East. Pacifica was a big unknown.
Civilization stretched from Central Mexico through the central United States through most of Canada and much of Alaska. There were outposts of humans in the Pacific, infected by migrating birds and reduced to wild animals. South America and Africa were gone, nuked to wipe out the contagion. A thick radioactive barrier was put through southern Mexico to prevent anything infected from crawling across.
Europe picked up a horrible strain, gone encephalitis. With socialized medicine, it killed patients in homes for lack of hospitals. Spread across the Continent and killed all infected. Since there was no immunity, that meant everyone except a few holed out survivors. Siberia’s cold would have been a shelter from infected refugees – human or animal – but they’d been nuked to kingdom come in the nuke exchange with deranged officers.
I’d helped find an antidote, with the lingering viral load of original human version in my system. That’s why I’d never come back to full consciousness. Not until the virus was neutralized and the full IQ boost put into effect.
After the dog-killing operation and related remote torching of all buildings, I’d gotten assigned to supervision of the site. I was the only surviving human with any familiarity with the area and of the pathogen’s vectors. My job was to prevent another outbreak, which by then had killed about 95% of the world’s population. The survivors were enhanced, as I was after the virus was finally wiped out from my system using a viral inhibitor I developed, based on bonobo neural transmitters. It was worthy of a doctorate, if anyone cared anymore.
As a carrier of the original version, my blood provided the original strain on which to base a vaccine. Yet the doubled IQ in the same sized brain meant that the virus wouldn’t be entirely wiped out. With time, it would be used as the next stage of human evolution. Those who took it willingly were educated in its control. Those who didn’t take it willingly were infected and left to suffer the after effects.
Humans had almost been wiped out. And humans could be counted on to live down to their lowest impulses. Fewer people meant more room, but that wouldn’t prevent rivalries over some resource or even pride from flaring up into more violence. We’d just be more efficient about it next time. I then realized that a better brain was no guarantee of better behavior. The only guarantee would be rewiring the animal instincts in the hindbrain, or starting over with a new, less aggressive species.
I checked the visual logs of the fly-overs for signs of my friends. I would have gone back personally, but it wasn’t allowed.
The place where I’d left my friends was now a wildlife preserve. The water level had dropped that summer, and greenery sprouted along the river bottom as it was dredged for human bodies. Bonobos would have eaten well that summer. And could have walked anywhere.
But they’d seen the way home via the road and slow travel by truck and walking. They’d learned the advantage of indoors and underpass living from me. I finally saw hope when I saw a new trash can at the old creek-side camp site.
A few weeks later, there was an old baby blanket on the ground. I’d have thought it blown by the wind at random, for all the trash there, except that it was down wind from the underpass and caves I’d told Lucy and Kami about during the long winter. Follow the river up to the creeks, follow the creek up to the road on the hill. There are caves there, for protection from the cold. And under the underpass, dogs don’t like it. And if they made it to the caves, they’d have seen all the dead dogs.
A fishing stick with a dead fish left on it, near the second winter’s thaw, gave final proof. They’d survived. And they’d learned survival tricks from me. And they were doing very good hiding from humans. A sign of improvement in their species. And with the neuro-virus in their systems likely to keep boosting their intelligence as a matter of natural selection, it would be interesting to see what happened.
I wondered what would happen over their generations, as they evolved. And whether or not the virus that accelerated that process would act as a natural protection for their species. It was the best defense for the better of our two species.
© 2018 Tamara Wilhite
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on January 21, 2019:
Interesting plot and engaging characters, Tamara. I enjoyed the way you described the research project and the finale.
Your stories always leave something for the reader to consider. My intent is to dive deeper into your short stories because they remind me of the best sci-fi stories I've read over my life.
Much respect and may your day be rewarding,