Beside the Mississippi Sea, Part 2

Steve tries being a wise ass only to discover he’s facing the reason there are no longer any people around.

A photo by Conrad Ziebland.

“Is this your penthouse, sir? My compliments to your interior decorator.”

“That’s really cute, Steve. If it weren’t for some fast thinking on the part of a worker back in 1987, this place would be history. A fire broke out up here in the head house. Only his fast action kept the place from blowing up. If that had happened, neither of us would have enough life left even to start an interview. I was a cub reporter back then, even greener than you. Drop the notebook by the upscale sleeping accommodations. Then come over to the windows facing the bluff. Tell me what you see.”

His boss was making no sense at all, but Steve went along with it. “Well, I can see farther up the bluff. Of course, we’re something like eight stories up here. So what?”

Jerry looked at Steve, disappointment in his eyes. “Try again. Tell me, is there anything odd about what you’re seeing? Investigate with your eyes. Report what you see.”

“There’s dust or fog rolling down the bluff,” Steve finally said. “It’s some nasty looking, grayish brown stuff. The appearance is similar to the smog in the larger cities.”

“That,” Jerry replied somberly, “is why we’re up here. You’re looking at the results of a bio-terror weapon called the Omega Bug. It is heavier than air, so we might be able to survive up here. It consumes every part of anything containing human DNA. After a few moments, a person becomes only a little pile of fine dust. If even a speck of it gets on you, you’re dead. There is no cure.”

Steve stared at the dust coming down the hill. “Is that what happened to all the people we don’t see any more?”

“I’m afraid so. Terrorists spread it. They are doing their utmost to ensure nobody remains.”

Steve shook his head. “Why kill everyone? Who would they terrorize?”

“Whoever said terrorists made any sense?”

Steve stood there and stared at the foul haze now going by the lower portions of the elevator. “Are we high enough here to survive?” he asked finally.

“Do you know of anyplace taller?”

“Nowhere near here. That’s for sure.” Steve stopped and looked over at Jerry. “You got all this off that crank-up radio of yours?”

“Bingo. That’s not the only information I got. The shortwave receives just fine. It’s unfortunate that I can’t transmit. I could have helped people.” Jerry stopped to think about what he’d just said. “On the other hand, considering all the insanity I’ve heard masquerading as official pronouncements, it may be just as well nobody knows we’re here. We’ll hide out and wait for the dust to clear.”

Steve couldn’t believe what he just heard. Then again, Jerry was not known for practical jokes. Also, there was the issue of where everyone had gone. He turned to look out the window again and saw the level of the dust was now about halfway up the side of the elevator.

“If the Omega stuff gets all the way up here, what will happen?”

“We’ll be two more piles of dust, telling St. Peter how we tried to avoid it. There is an access ladder to the roof. I looked out there, but it’s not a place to spend any time. Going out on the roof might be a last resort, but I don’t recommend it.” After a pause, Jerry added, “You’re right, of course. Let’s migrate on down to it, just in case. Grab some extra water.”

The ladder was not far, with a window next to it. The two stood by the window, watching the level of the dust continue climbing the building. Steve looked back toward town but could no longer see any buildings. It was like they were in an airplane just above a cloud layer. There was nothing attractive about this cloud, though. The idea that he was looking at the remains of millions of people made him shudder.

The rate at which the dust, bug, or whatever, climbed toward them finally slowed, although it was hard to pick out the top. At last, it stopped about ten feet below their floor.

“So will it get better now, or can it get worse?”

“I don’t know, Steve. We’ve already done better than almost everyone. Survivors I monitor are in underground bunkers built for nuclear war. Other than the dust gumming up their air filters, they are doing just fine. I have not found any eye witness accounts. We should get a couple more bottles of water, and toast our success. Would you care to do the honors?”

Steve left the water he held, and went to the stash. Back at the window, he handed Jerry a bottle, and commented, “With what you’ve got, there’s more than one IOU laying around town.”

Steve was surprised when Jerry cracked a grin. “Yeah, there are. Do you suppose anybody will collect on them?”

“Not if you’re a member of the truth telling tribe, boss.”

“How would you know, I wonder? By the way, that Omega cloud makes sounds. You should listen.”

Steve cocked an ear out the open window for a moment. Then he listened some more. “There’s a humming sound. There are also intermittent popping noises. That’s exceptionally strange. For what it’s worth, I don’t think the dust level has come up any higher.”

“I don’t believe that it has, either. What say we each pop the lid on another bottle of water and celebrate? We just won a couple more breaths of air in this, the best of all possible worlds.”