by Ed Ahern
Artwork, “Lit” by Sloane Adler
The devastation began softly, with the nocturnal humming of housefly wings. Flies that had shared tens of thousands of years of daytime activity with us, living off waste and excretion, began to explore the night. And to explore other nutrition.
When the biteless fliers found it they had dined on our sputum. Now, in the hours of darkness, they explored open sores, nostrils, ears, and mouths. What was not liquid enough for them to suck up they decomposed with their own saliva.
The flies’ genetic aberration didn’t launch in a famine stricken region of tropical Africa, but in a privileged portion of the USA. The epicenter seems to have been near Murphysville, Ohio.
The infestation initially spread among those of us least able to fight against it- the infirm who could not swat away invaders, infants, addicts and alcoholics too stuporous to defend themselves. Those first corpses found were assumed to have become maggot riddled after having died, rather than having been promoted into death by the flies.
Female houseflies are sexually receptive within a day and a half of hatching, and lay 500 eggs every few days. Their newly respiraled genes dominated reproduction and dispersed rapidly. Before we grappled with the problem the flies had crossed the Mississippi, the great lakes, and the Appalachians.
These altered houseflies were particularly fond of our nostrils, for after having dined on sputum and tissue they laid their eggs in the nasal passages, warm, moist placentas for the larvae which emerged within days and crawled further up to begin dining. Snorting cocaine addicts were especially susceptible.
At first, we ignored this nocturnal infestation, or treated it as nuisance which could be quickly remedied. The maggots in our bodies were removed and then forgotten. But the damage had been done. The ten millimeter flies carried on their bodies and in their spit and constant excretions diseases like antibiotic resistant dysentery, typhoid and cholera, and, as a bonus, various parasitic protozoa.
The night flies’ spread was facilitated by the open sores given to us by other, biting insects, notably bed bugs and ticks, but even an overly aggressive scratch, self administered while half asleep, provided entrée.
As matters worsened the diseases would frequently leapfrog the houseflies, arriving in our towns by automobile and airplane and spreading without insectal help. We expended huge amounts of manpower and money to combat and isolate antibiotic resistant diseases rather than the bugs, requiring a lurching about face when we finally identified the underlying culprit. There were too many corpses to bury or burn, and gravel pits and vacant lots became bone yards as the corpses decomposed.
The multiple epidemics were seized on by some religious sects as proof of St. John’s Apocalypse, by others as the reckoning of Ba’alzebub, the Lord of the flies. It did not matter. Believer and disbeliever died indiscriminately.
Many of us living alone died and were undiscovered for days, allowing several cycles of reproduction and multiplication. But even supposedly sterile locations were not immune, and doctors and nurses reported discovering maggots in the bodies of patients being operated on.
Our domesticated animals died off even more quickly than we did. Several of the fly borne diseases transferred quickly to fleas who rode their hosts until they died. The litter boxes of cats provided millions of additional breeding grounds. House mice died and festered within the walls, attics and cellars of suburban houses, and flies began emerging from electrical sockets and the holes cut for water pipes.
As the plague of houseflies became overwhelming, our public authorities made urgent recommendations which on afterthought merely compounded the problems. Some encouraged sleepers to use plastic plugs for ears and noses, but there had to be an opening to breathe, and the flies simply crawled up the back of the mouth and into the nasal passages. People resorted to taping a mesh over their mouths before going to sleep. But flies would explore the mesh for openings long enough for their constantly dropping, infection saturated feces to enter the mouth and throat.
The supply of insect repellent ran out quickly, and even those of us with a stock pile tended to over apply it, causing the skin to crack open and provide a nutritional sore. Bug zappers provided dead tissue for other flies to eat. Door and window screens were false reassurances, for the flies entered and left with their human hosts.
Our densely crowded cities died away first, the harvest of death facilitated by a double-bladed scythe of selfishness and fear. We urbanites had been encouraged from childhood to care for ourselves first, and harshly declined to step into harm’s way. No clean up details for us, thank you. And many who could still care and were unriddled by maggots were already riddled with dread. We offered money and encouragement but not ourselves.
Our financial and monetary systems collapsed along with the cities. Derivatives and swaps became inane once the underlying industries and agriculture broke down. Paper money was made worthless within days of an epidemic hitting a region. Gold and silver retained value only as ornamentation, worth a few small units of food or alcohol.
Scientists, with their long research lead times, were only beginning to gear up when the infrastructure fell apart. Their initial efforts included the study of housefly specific poisons, the sterilization of millions of male flies so there would be curtailed reproduction, the utilization of insect pests which subsist on the flies, and mechanical, electric and attractant traps. But the scientists had to break off their research and attempt to survive.
Disease and infestation broke down our sanitary services. Garbage collection stopped, Surviving sanitary engineers refused to handle fly breeding grounds. Police and Fire Department personnel inspecting a home would simply seal up the entries if they saw swarms of flies inside. Thousands of us began to die with no record of our passing.
Food burglaries became rampant. Gated communities were prime feeding grounds. After our minimum wage security guards had deserted, remotely situated, expensive homes became prized locations for both thefts and forced occupations. In some cases, the security guards themselves ram sacked our houses.
Gravity fed water systems continued to provide drinking water to increasingly empty buildings, but the reservoirs for the water became contaminated with decomposition and disease vectors, and the water became undrinkable. Bottled water was quickly depleted. Many thousands of us independently decided to refill discarded water bottles with whatever water was available, reseal the cap and sell the water as pure for food, alcohol and sex.
Our military and National Guard were powerless to contain or defend against the infestation. Their sophisticated weaponry had no existential overlap with the life of a fly. They set up barricades and road blocks from which they perpetually retreated until, decimated by disease, they escorted the political leadership into hiding within sealed underground bunkers provisioned with food and water for years. Neither our elected federal officials nor our military played any significant part during the continent’s degeneration. They did, however, issue daily uplifting radio broadcasts to we survivors who rarely had electricity or batteries.
Handguns and rifles were used more by our private citizens than by law enforcement. The murder rate soared to over one per five hundred survivors, many of us killed by armed occupants repelling home invasions. Our bodies lay where they had fallen, additional fodder for flies and disease.
The electrical and heating systems collapsed that fall, leaving us to die on an accelerated basis through the winter, many from simple starvation and exposure to the elements. The flies, however, hibernated. With the warmth of spring they resumed their circular expansion, reaching into Mexico by mid summer. Canada, with a colder environment, took until the next fall to be completely infested.
The vast majority of us owned a hand-held audio/visual device, a telephone capable of taking pictures, an I pod, a Blackberry. Most of us were also members of a social network such as Facebook. As death approached and battery power remained we sent out pictures and messages, and recorded our thoughts on our pages. A few of us felt obliged to display photos of our worsening healths. By far the largest number of us, however, sent out messages of love and remembrances of times shared. Many of the messages were stored unheard on the phones of the already dead. There were almost no messages of gloating or hate. Those of us filled with venom apparently died with it still trapped within us.
Many of these devices were gathered later from empty apartments and houses. Hundreds of the dying had the foresight to wrap their device in plastic and store it in a spot that would remain dry. The recorded voices are the words of ghosts.
Scott Kruliwitz in Fairfield, Ct from his brother in Tennessee: “Scott, I’m sorry I never got around to calling. Maybe it’s a guy thing. Anyway, I hope you’re still okay. (Pause) We were never as close as I wanted. We’re in pretty bad shape out here. Esther is gone, and both kids are sick. There’s no power, and we’re down to eating canned stuff. I hope you’re not in the same shape. If you get this please call. I’d really like to hear your voice.”
Karen Donnahue in Kitty Hawk, NC, from her mother in Estes Park, Colorado: “Sweetie I got your message and I’m so sorry to have to leave one of my own rather than talk with you. Don’t worry about me. I’ve moved in with what’s left of another family. Just make sure you and Paul stay sealed up until this is over. I wish (message broken off by the sending unit)
Emile Langevin in Chicago, IL from his former wife in Sheldon, AL: “Hi. Long time since we talked. I don’t want your memory of me to be that yelling and screaming argument. I never blamed you, not really. I just wanted so much, and what we had together seemed like so little. You were as good to me as you could be, I guess. (Coughing) Please try and get through this, for my sake. I’d like somebody to remember me.”
The pestilences recrossed the continent in diminishing, overlapping waves, like echoes in a cathedral, infecting fewer of us with each ripple. Except for sporadic fires, our buildings, land and machinery were undamaged. The availability of this fully equipped and undefended territory was too much to resist. A major Asian power began marshalling troops and settlers. But the invasion force concentrated itself after the ocean hopping flies and diseases had established its own invasion fronts, and hundreds of thousands of military and civilians, forcibly prevented from dispersing, died of infectious diseases in their tents. The invasion was abandoned.
Some of us who survived the first wave tried to reverse our diurnal habits, sleeping during daylight hours and attempting to work at night, but the lack of illumination greatly hampered these efforts. Many of us continued our mundane habits, knowing no other way to assert that we still lived and were human. One of these was Alfred Gorshen, an undertaker.
Without gasoline, electricity, or even embalming fluid, Alfred continued to remove the dead from their buildings and assemble them for unmarked, communal burial in an already open excavation site. There were no coffins, just ragged rows of bodies. He noticed that the concentration of flies among the as yet unburied was much less than when the bodies were in their living quarters. This despite their further decomposition.
As Alfred was rope dragging a body into the pit he slipped and the body tumbled onto him. Along with the suppurating tissue and maggots he noticed a host of extremely small flying insects. After cleaning himself off he took a mason jar to another cadaver and collected about 50 of the bugs. They were smaller than a pin head, almost impossible to accurately see even with his reading glasses. After letting them die he put them under a microscope and consulted a reference book on hexapods. They were, as best he could figure it, tiny wasps. He read on, and learned that the wasps drill a hole in the fly pupa case, dine, and deposit offspring of their own. Slaughter houses and livestock farms sometimes encouraged their presence to keep down the numbers of horse flies.
Alfred Gorshen wanted to live. He took another wasp loaded mason jar back to his apartment building and let them loose. They died within a week of natural causes, and Alfred brought more- there was no shortage of wasp-generating fly eggs. Within two weeks the fly population in the building had plummeted. Word spread that the building seemed safer than others and the apartment building was again fully occupied.
Alfred also began collecting the spiders which spun their webs throughout the burial ground and dined on the flies. He let them loose in the apartment building and instructed the occupants to not disturb any web building spiders they encountered. The corners of rooms became festooned with webs and the husks of dead flies. A new superstition emerged that it was deadly bad luck to kill a spider.
Over time there were fewer easily collectable bodies, and Alfred organized a collection system over a ten square block area, about as far as a body could be readily dragged or carted. He no longer buried the remains but allowed them to weather into bones. The bones were periodically gathered and piled in heaps, in order to make room for new arrivals.
The only communication was by word of mouth, and when Alfred encountered foot travelers going to other districts and towns he gave them instruction in how to use the wasps and spiders, giving them a jar of the wasps to take along the trip. This became known as the Undertaker’s Solution, and miraculously, Alfred’s name remained attached to it, although the spelling of Gorshen varied widely and the first name mentioned was often Al, Alan or Albert.
The wasps and spiders were haltingly installed in our houses and apartments. Replenishment was a problem in communities with strict burial practices. Over time it became our unwritten law, under threat of being beaten, to never inter bodies. Corpses were gathered and concentrated in open air lots and allowed to rot and generate flies and wasps. These body collectors were still called undertakers, and for their efforts and risks became wealthy in the emerging barter economy.
The diseases ran their courses, dwindling spring river floods of death, cutting channels through some areas, sparing others for no apparent reason. Those of us resistant or untouched began to restart power facilities, plant crops, and repropagate the remaining livestock. Eventually we restarted oil and gasoline refineries. Our recovery efforts were slowed by rampant crime, ignorance, and lingering deaths from disease.
Our hermetically protected federal officials emerged from their bunkers to find that they were superfluous. Our society had clotted into communities and gangs. The senators and representatives attempted to reestablish their position and privilege, but whole units of the remaining military deserted to try and find family and reestablish their lives. Unable to persuade or coerce, the politicians snuck back into the residual populations.
Perhaps 60,000,000 of us in North America died from the fly borne diseases, and another 40,000,000 from varying combinations of exposure, starvation, dysentery, pneumonia and, of course, murder. The mass of bones accumulated became overwhelming, filling entire vacant lots and landfills.
Our recovery fostered innovative solutions. It was another, unknown undertaker who looked at the unrepaired, gaping potholes in many streets and highways and saw opportunity. Electrical and gasoline powered equipment was still a rarity, so he jury-rigged a hand operated press to break our discarded bones into small fragments. These fragments, often still recognizable as finger and toe knuckles, were poured loose into the potholes, creating navigable surfaces. The idea caught on, and as damaged roads were filled in and reopened they were frequently referred to as “Memorial Highway” and “Remembrance Lane.” But the remembrance was only in the aggregate, for we would never know the names of those we walked and rode on.
Survival brought a search for blame. We grudgingly accepted that the mutation of the flies was unpreventable, as was the initial spread of suppuration and disease. But we tied the mass deaths thereafter around the necks of local and national political figures. In our rage we hunted down and killed several thousand former officials with whatever instruments we had at hand. In some cases we simply stoned them to death. Some of the politicians we lynched screamed protests that they had not even voted on a counter measure, and so could not be held accountable for a wrong decision. They were our ritual sacrifices, and their murders marked a steep decline in the overall death rate.
Many of our religious leaders who had promised an apocalypse managed to survive the pestilence and their mistake and reasserted themselves. They now preach to us that the pestilence was not, after all, the start of the Apocalypse, but merely a manifestation of the wrath of God, an unleashing of a devil, a reckoning by Ba’alzebub, the Lord of the flies.