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Fiction Speculative Science Fiction

They said this day would come, but they never really believed it. When they started wearing masks, they said it would go back to “normal” eventually, but instead we reached a new, devastating normal.

The world population is unsustainable - at nearly 20 billion, we are overcrowded. Forests are gone, except for a few rare stands constantly battling those trying to plunder them. We grow food in tall buildings hydroponically, and the question of being vegetarian or not is moot. Where would a cow graze? Who has the space for a chicken, much less a pig? 

The diseases have grown, too. We all cover up against mosquitoes day and night, and boil and filter our drinking water even as it leaves the tap. We light fires to keep away the bugs, seal up our homes, cook everything until all germs are killed. 

Those masks are not just to filter our viruses but also to keep out smoke and pollution. We’re forced to stop flying, to use our solar panels and wind turbines for electricity, but it’s still not enough. 

The storms won’t stop. It could be fire, or lightning, or flood, hurricane or tornado, a sand storm or a tsunami. Or it could simply be war - everyone needs something these days. The sound of bombs or helicopters blends with the sound of thunderclouds, and gales. 

Steadily, we’ve moved inland as the seas rise, into tall (but not too tall) structures. There are few of us left, the scientists, because no one believes in hope anymore. We’ve adjusted to the reality of a post-climate world. A world in which resources are scarce and getting scarcer. Where the few own much, and everyone else must scrounge. 

So why am I here? This year, everyone is dying of a novel virus that cannot be treated. They’re calling it AVRV-53, an avian respiratory virus that was discovered in ‘53. Sure, we created vaccines, but in this burgeoning population, the virus simply mutated until we had to keep making vaccines and eventually could not keep up. It only got more aggressive. We searched the world for medicines, much too late protecting forests we’d flattened generations ago. 

All the true elderly are gone, mostly from disease, but also from simple things like poor sanitation or lack of water. At 49, I’m practically aged. I am certainly gray-haired, but then, so many of us now are. Stress, I suppose, or just fear. 

Still, these past months, I’ve been taking a closer look at this virus. It’s like many others we’ve seen in the past - the so-called previous bird flus, coronaviruses, SARS, and others that kept coming back until humanity just got used to dealing with them. But this one is different - nothing seems to be beating it back. 

After many, many experiments, many of them done on my own body, I was lucky to hit on a process that allows me to test if the medicines I’m using work. There is one that I am confident of, a beautiful little organic compound that neutralizes it without harming the organism. 

Unfortunately, the active ingredient is only found on the southern border of the Amazon rainforest, or what remains of it. It’s the only rainforest still around these days, though only about ten percent of it remains, in scattered woods, the rest mostly savannah, as if it were in Africa, not South America. 

I have traveled here, these last weeks, taking trains and boats, obtaining special carbon passes to come to this protected place. I must continue to wear my mask, of course, and also sign a pledge saying I have no designs on the wood here, will not start a fire, and won’t take anything away. It’s just a formality - so many tourists come here to just see the last standing forest trees. 

Here I stand, surrounded by an ancient Kapok tree that the natives worship. Nearby is a rare cashew that grows only here, the fruit of which is exported at exorbitant prices. The remains of cocoa trees and rubber trees are seen, but they produce little, having been transplanted indoors for the valuable commodities they contain.

No, the one I am looking for is Leopoldinia piassaba, a palm tree that now grows only here. Here, near the black river, the remaining stands of trees should be ahead, soon. The trees are squat and long-leafed, the fibers once useful for making brooms and baskets. But many decades ago, many of them were destroyed, because they harbored “kissing bugs” that spread Chagas disease. I can only hope this last stand still remains.

I cross the river, which would pass for a creek in the old days, it is so dry. Just past these few fragrant magnolias, I can make out some trunks, wide and fibrous. If I can just reach them in fruit, with their nuts ripe, I can make more of the extract that will prevent another couple of billion from dying. I need only a few fruits; even two will do if nothing else is available. 

As I cross, a native Amazonian greets me. He is here in his home with his family. They smile, their faces marked by the radiation burns many now have, and unrecognizable under their masks and hats. The children peek out from the hut. They look old beyond their age. Unlike me, however, they are still free of disease. 

I look around - the trees are nowhere. The man tells me the trees are gone, chopped for the fibers not a week ago. Not one is left.

I start scratching around in the dirt - perhaps some fruits have fallen. Perhaps the seeds are here, ready to be replanted. But he explains their policy of burning the area around the trees, making a clearing to prevent a further fire. It is this that allowed him to build a permanent home here. 

I smile ruefully. His permanent home will not be so permanent. I kick at the dirt - what is left is only a shell. The last shell of the last piassava palm, the last hope for humanity.

April 19, 2021 22:32

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