Beside the Mississippi Sea, Part 3

Steve tries to figure out whether his boss is telling the truth. If it’s true, why is he alive and not someone else?

A photo by Conrad Ziebland.

They clinked their plastic bottles, which didn’t make any sound, of course. “If this is the best of all possible worlds, I don’t think I want to know about worse ones. There would be way more news than I could keep up with.”

Steve sipped the water and stared out at the mass of dust. That humming and popping never stopped. Nothing added up to anything rational. A nagging thought rose to the surface of his mind, and he turned to look at Jerry.

“Two questions. How do I know what I see does what you say?”

Jerry nodded. “That’s a reasonable question. I’ll give you an answer you should be able to absorb.”

He then pulled out his wallet and extracted a bill. “Here’s a hundred dollar bill. Not long ago this governmental promissory note would buy something. The last time I found a place open, one of these barely paid the sales tax on a bag of groceries. Let’s go to the stairwell. We should be able to see the level of the Omega dust in there. This bill, as you can tell, is pretty rumpled. Lots of people handled this thing a lot. Who knows how much sweat, spit, and other magical human things are on it and absorbed within it? I’m going to drop it down the stairwell. The idea is to watch it go into the Omega dust. If nothing happens, you’re welcome to get it. You’d be a hundred bucks richer, for what that will get you. If the dust eats the human DNA on it, then you’ll know what will happen to you.”

At the stairwell, Jerry directed Steve to a spot with good visibility. Then he dropped the picture of Benjamin Franklin. As soon as it got to the dust, there were popping and crackling noises. The current suddenly seemed alive, jerking, twisting, and spinning. A moment later, the action stopped, and it silently dropped out of sight.

“That bill is now clean of anything human. It probably has holes in several places and might even fall apart if you touched it. I’m in no rush to pick it up. If you want it, that’s up to you.”

They both headed back to the stash of water and rations. Steve sat on one of the cots. He picked up the looseleaf journal before looking back at Jerry. “Well, that answers my first question. It was not what I would consider a satisfactory response. At the same time, you recall I was curious about two subjects.”

Jerry just nodded.

Steve hesitated, took a deep breath, and wondered, “Why was I the lucky ticket holder to join you on this glorious adventure past the end of the world?”

Jerry studied Steve for a moment before he snorted and shook his head. “I get the impression you’re concerned about your virtue. For your information, I’m not into boys. If I were, it wouldn’t be anybody even vaguely resembling you. By the time I managed to put all the pieces together, you were the only one around. There simply wasn’t any time to go searching for the girl of my dreams. Now I can only hope to connect with other survivors after this clears off. If you’re still not convinced, you can haul your bed down the head house gallery as far as you please.”

Steve grunted at Jerry’s less than reassuring response but decided not to move just then. “So this stuff that looks like dust started out as people. Where were they when this started?”

“The dust we see now was the population of East Asia, according to the military.”

“How did dust from Asia get all the way over here?”

“The outbreak coincided with a large dust storm. It swept up the Omega bug’s victims. The storm was off the charts for severity and duration. Air currents brought it across the Pacific Ocean. What we’re seeing is just a remnant of the original.”

“How long will it be before we can get out of here?”

“The best guess I’ve heard is a couple of weeks, but nobody knows. From what I’ve heard on the radio, the humming sound is where the bug is still eating human DNA. The popping noise is when one of the bugs has run out of sustenance, and either eats itself or otherwise pops out of existence.”

“That explains your stockpile of rations and water. Did you bring any entertainment?”

“My original intention was to have entertainment of the female persuasion. If you get bored, try paying close attention to your breathing. Compare that to the alternative a few feet below us.”

Steve got up and went over to the nearest window, peering out at the flowing dust. It was about where it was before. That felt like a good thing at the moment. After a while, he headed back to his cot.

Finally, he got up enough nerve to look back at Jerry. “I don’t know why you brought up the thing about living at the newspaper. It became home the day after Thanksgiving. There was one hell of a bump as I drove onto the bridge and another as I got off it.”

“The reason for having you interview me is called attribution. It separates the reporter from the witness. As for the bridge, you’ll recall that the gaps at either end kept getting bigger, and they closed the bridge just after you got across. You had no place to stay, so I let you bunk at the office.”