Running in Place

Carter hit the treadmill with gusto. It was old and worn—mechanical, not electric—just a rubber strip wrapped around a couple of rollers, no motor. Electricity was a scarce commodity these days, and he wasn’t the wasteful type. He wasn’t a brainiac either, though, and couldn’t figure out how to use the treadmill to generate and store power. It was somewhere in the middle of the endless to-do list.

The treadmill was set up in front of a second floor window, and even with a plastic film duct taped over the glass and heavy caulk around the edges, he could still see a bit of the wetlands outside through the glass. Today he saw six mallards—three male and three female—a couple dozen Canadian geese, and a crow that struggled against a wind that didn’t seem to bother the other birds. Birds were the only animals around anymore. He saw a mangy-looking black Lab about six months ago, but it was nothing but birds after that. They were immune.

A year-and-a-half ago, an animal aid worker was infected with H3N8 influenza while rescuing seal pups in the Aleutians. Symptoms hadn’t started to show yet when he transferred to the Red River Delta region of Vietnam to set up antibiotic-free pig farms. That’s where he picked up H1N2. Separately, the two viruses were mildly annoying: runny nose, cold sweats, a hacking cough, that sort of thing. But when they got together in the same cell they underwent something called antigenic shift and created a new strain.


It ravaged southeast China first, where it picked up the name Yama Flu, though the rest of the world took to calling it the Shenzhen Flu, somewhat unfairly considering patient zero was a 26 year-old white guy with a Boston accent.

The treadmill band snapped and Carter bit his tongue hard when he toppled over, filling his mouth with sticky blood. He spat and cursed, and then lay panting on the floor. Everything was falling apart; bad luck on top of bad luck.

He wondered if he’d hit the bottom yet. Had civilization’s slow climb up started yet, or were they still on the downward slide?

A grackle flew into the window with a dull thud and fell to the ground, dead.

Screw it. There were plenty of other things to do, and he hated running anyway.

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