This week's challenge from Terribleminds.com (author Chuck Wendig) was to write a horror story about a disease, just in time for Halloween. I think this one is horrible enough (no snide comments, you in the back!).
It took the old first, and people accepted that they were relieved as well as saddened. Food was in short supply, with little to spare for those who were past contributing. When the disease began to move among the children, the grief was greater. Some saw it as sparing them the slow death by starvation, mental and physical, that seemed the doom of the colony.
The disease itself was not so horrible, Marda thought. The old grew feverish, stopped eating, and wasted away in a few days. She didn’t say it aloud, because it sounded absurd, but she thought that they just lost the will to live. Maybe they had.
It looked more sinister in the children. They, too, grew mildly feverish, but with them it was not so much that they lost the will to live, as that they lost any kind of will at all. The first a parent might notice was a child who became silently obedient. The initial response of many was to rejoice at how well-behaved their child was. Then the parent would notice the child said nothing, did nothing unless directly commanded. They showed no initiative, not even enough to eat or drink. Within two days, the fever set in, and the next the child ceased to speak or move. Death by starvation followed. If they were medically fed, they only lived long enough to lose the will to breathe.
“For all that,” Marda told her partner, Erno, “death is better than life as an automaton.” She was thinking of the last stage before the fever.
Erno had seen what Marda was afraid to say. “The only ones who aren’t getting sick are the ones who are too dull to think for themselves anyway.”
“It kills any who show a will,” Marda whispered, horrified. “It’s as though the disease is selecting for a world of mindless drones.”
Marda returned to that thought in the following weeks. The disease spread among the children. It responded to no treatment, no containment strategy. If a child was dull-witted and docile, no exposure resulted in illness. And no efforts at quarantine could prevent a bright, quick and curious child from falling ill. A few recovered, after a fashion.
It was while treating these listless, obedient shells of children that Marda broke down. “We’re being culled!” she told Erno. “We’ll soon have no one left with the brains to do anything original.”
He nodded. “And have you noticed who’s getting pregnant and who’s not?”
She had told herself it was only that the smarter and wiser among them would not try to reproduce while this disease ravaged the colony. Erno wouldn’t let her believe it. “Kim and Lee can’t get pregnant. Tom and Erika lost their baby.” He listed a dozen other couples, all leaders and scientists. “We started testing. They are all sterile. We are all sterile.”
“What kind of disease selects for stupidity and dull-wittedness?”
He shrugged. “One that prefers sheep to sheepdogs.”
They sat and stared together into a future that was no future.
The disease had spread over the whole planet, despite the complete separation of the two populations. The planet was not large, and there were only two habitable land masses, each colonized separately. As they had quickly reached their carrying capacity, the two populations had severed all ties; it was the only way to keep their uneasy peace.
Marda hoped that old enmity would have kept the other colony safe, but radio communications from the other continent crushed that hope. All their efforts to find a cure had failed as well.
Efforts to cure the disease were hampered by those who saw children recover and believed the crisis had passed. Marda saw only that no one among her friends had a living child, though a few acquaintances had been left with the hollow husk of a formerly sparkling son or daughter. Some of those whose children “recovered” were unable to bear life with the shell of a person. Others rejoiced that their child was spared, and some boasted of their well-behaved offspring.
Marda had to stop visiting such friends, after she had screamed at one proud mother, “Don’t you see? That’s not a child, it’s a machine! She’s not alive, she’s just breathing!” Erno had had to pull her off the weeping parent. After that, they stopped going out. Their whole group lived in the lab anyway, though with less and less hope. They were past the point where a vaccine could do any good, and they had little hope for an actual cure. Yet against all reason they held onto hope, or at least the habit of working.
That lasted until the day when Tom turned from his computer to ask a question, and saw Kim sitting, staring into space with a vacant smile. “Kim! What is it? Do you have an idea?” he asked in desperate hope.
She didn’t turn, or even blink, just sat. A question was not a command.
The next day Kim had a fever, and her partner, Lee, sat starting blankly, moving only as told. They set him to bathing Kim’s face, resorting in their desperation to ancient ways of reducing a fever, for whatever good it would do.
When Lee, too, began to run a fever and ceased moving, the remainder of their little group knew what the future held. The Disease—they had begun to think of it as the Farmer—had selected those to keep, and it was culling the others.
“Do we wait for it?” Marda asked the question in all their minds. “Do we wait to turn into mindless husks and die of starvation because we lack even the will to eat?”
“No.” Tom said, Erno’s echo only an instant behind.
Erika said nothing, but held out her hand. On her palm lay four capsules. No one spoke as each took and swallowed the only cure they had found. They would not stay to see the end.
The Farmer had won.
Copyright Rebecca M. Douglass 2014