Mortal Canyons

The wind whipped down the side street, as it does so often this time of year in New York. Like some entrapped banshee, it screeched, wildly, tearing past the long sharpened shadows of the afternoon sun, then suddenly, more restrained, whistling softly like a frightened child in a graveyard.

It burst forth upon the broad avenue, now swirling in whorls of unseen turbulence, sweeping up gently with hidden hands the week-old newspaper, tossing it in graceful arcs and dives like some savage cat toying with its prey, ending its flight with bored indifference in a doorway swinging gently in the lingering eddies. Its newsprint preached in foreboding tones of warming planet and warring sects, of homeless and health care and dishonest pols. But the world thus depicted was now convulsively changed, new beyond recognition, dark beyond comprehension.

Down the grand avenue, the lucent cadence of stoplights kept their ordered rhythm, now green, green-red, now red again, an endless choreographed chronos now futile in purpose, whose lifeblood yet poured forth through subterranean copper veins from whirling turbines crafted to run unattended, for days.

The synchronized lines of green and red receded unbroken, their vortex co-mingling at the vanishing point of the now-empty boulevard. The once-vibrant canyon stood lifeless, the once-seething froth of trucks and horns, cabs and transport now a dry wash devoid of motion, the scattered gravel of abandoned cars marking its course like tombstones on a high mountain pass. In funereal silence, a man lay slumped near a steam vent, its wispy vapors rising like a fugacious ghost fleeing some ghastly tomb.

It had all come suddenly, stealthfully, like the bitter wind of winter. There were numerous threats that fall, known mostly to those tasked with tracking them, those silent sentinels long grown weary of warning a public indifferent to their vigilance. And then there were the diversions — just often enough to distract the attention of the watchers, just small enough to justify complacency, always the work of a few “lone rangers.” The seeming incompetence of the Fort Dix plotters, their staged videos planted at the local drug store; the lone Arab shooter at the shopping mall; the small Somali cell arrested in Hoboken; the serial sniper in Spokane. Like a gifted magician, you must distract them from your hands with grandiose motions and faux gestures.

Not that greater vigilance would have paid off. The threat was invisible, the weapon unseen. It was the perfect strike.

The nuclear test blast had been much in the news — exploded in northern Iran with far more success than North Korea’s incompetent gesture, though low in yield and too bulky for deployment on Iran’s long-range missiles. But nukes were for another day, and far too easy to trace back to their source, with unfortunate repercussions. There were, praise Allah, far better things in store.

The labs were well-hidden, small buildings far removed from population centers, their low profile virtually guaranteeing invisibility. The program had been running for years, staffed by geneticists and bioengineers enticed from the dying Soviet Union by rich salaries, luxury accommodations, and an ever-changing harem of Iran’s finest prostitutes. They had recruited the best of Russia’s biological warriors, but the task was immense and the risks proportionate to the rewards. The lab accident had nearly ended the program, killing most of the scientists and requiring 6 months of decontamination before work could resume, with new minds and a new director, the former retiring early with a blindfold and a bullet hole. It had been in retrospect a fortuitous setback, for the younger scientists were better trained, more zealous for Allah, and experts at the genetic modifications needed for a breakthrough.

There was no shortage of agents for research. Anthrax was easy to grow but hard to aerosolize properly. The 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S showed its potential as an agent of asymmetrical terror, but also demonstrated the difficulty of scaling the attacks to the degree desired. Clostridia — the flesh-eating bacteria — was highly lethal, digesting its host with a most satisfying putrid necrosis, but was even more difficult to deliver. Hemorrhagic fever produced a spectacular illness, with blood oozing forth from every orifice, but mortality rates were too low for the desired effect. Ebola was deadly and dramatic — but killed its host far too quickly, making epidemics savage but short-lived.

What delicious irony that the Crusaders had handed the servants of Allah the key to their own destruction, by reverse-engineering the genetic code of the Spanish Flu virus. The 1918 H5N1 influenza had taken more lives than all the killing fields of WWI that year, and would prove a superb candidate for modification. There was little need for animal research, as a constant stream of political prisoners and agitating students from the universities arrived by bus. None needed a ticket for the ride back home.

The genius of the jihadi virus came largely by accident — a nucleotide insertion which allowed the virus to replicate silently for weeks, with minimal symptoms, while remaining extraordinarily contagious. The unsuspecting host would disperse the virus far and wide, in coughs and kisses, with handshakes and on handrails. When the viral load reached critical mass, the illness was fulminant, furious, and fatal. Within hours the lungs filled with fluid, asphyxiating its victim in his own body fluids. The massive edema of the lungs caused rapid heart failure, shutting down major organ systems, resulting in profound shock. Mortality approached 100%; those few who survived envied the dead.

The vectors were carefully chosen — British, French and U.S. converts of non-Arab ethnicities, selected for their zealousness and utter commitment to jihad and martyrdom for Allah. They arrived asynchronously by air from widely disparate cities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Inoculated several days prior to boarding, each flight became a viral seed pod, as flight attendants unwittingly distributed the virus on snack packs and pillows and soda cans.

Disembarking in New York, the agents of death dispersed widely, riding subways and buses, bumping through packed sidewalk crowds at rush hour, dining in high-volume fast food restaurants, slapping backs and shaking hands at basketball games. Cops were thanked for their service, cabbies tipped generously for short rides with well-rubbed dollars. In their final moments of martyrdom they lay, their swollen faces blue and unrecognizable, in crowded city emergency rooms, ensuring that those who might stem the plague were themselves its sure victims.

It seemed at first like just another bad flu season — coughs and aches and headaches, hardly enough to keep the driven denizens of brokerage houses and corporate cubicles away from their desks. Then, by the thousands, in abrupt deadly waves lasting days, they fell — slumped over keyboards, leaning on car horns, prostrate on subway platforms, crumpled in doorways. Those few who made it to hospitals found no hope therein, as the facilities were rapidly overwhelmed, and staffed by increasingly decimated doctors and nurses.

Those not yet sick frantically sought escape, and panic quickly ensued — but escape was no mean feat. Abandoned cars and countless accidents left streets impassible, and massive crowds surging toward the exits served only to inoculate those few who were as yet uninfected. Many were crushed in the rush to safety. But none were prepared for what they encountered when they reached the bridges.

The Gerhardt-Joyner plan had been around for some years, created while war-gaming biological terrorism in the days following the anthrax attacks of 2001. It anticipated a widespread epidemic from crop-dusters spreading aerosolized anthrax over a large city, in hopes of containing the spread of the deadly spores beyond city limits, a last-ditch measure against a far different threat. Its existence was a tightly-held secret; those few congressional chairmen who had been briefed found the scenario so implausible it was deemed too bizarre to generate even an anonymous press leak.

The Guard sealed the bridges with Bradleys and Humvees, firing only when overrun. The crowds, already panicked, turned back into the surging wave, crushing those who pushed forward, shoving hundreds off the side to drown hundreds of feet below. This carnage lasted for days, until there were few left to mount another siege over the fetid mounds of trampled flesh. An uneasy quiet settled over the skyline, a sonic solemnity broken only by the cries of carrion drunk with their lavish banquet, soaring and screeching like gloating gargoyles, their shrill cries echoing through the mortal canyons where life once thrived.

Those few who survived uninfected — the loners, the shut-ins, the prisoners in solitary — died slowly of attrition, as food supplies rotted and utilities gasped their last. No rescue was feasible, nor was any planned, despite political bravado to the contrary. To live in the city was to die in the city.

The epidemics in Europe and Asia fanned out from the embarking cities, deadly and far more widely dispersed, lingering for many months. The celebrations in the Middle East were short-lived, as the plague swept through the slums of Cairo and the streets of Damascus and Tehran. Death unleashed could naught be restrained; no country was spared the visit by its dark angels, and those who unleashed its fury felt its full rage in righteous revenge.

Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it vanished, a random mutation declawing the viral raptor. The epidemic whimpered to its exhausted end. The Jihad had succeeded, beyond the faithful’s most fevered dreams: the infidel had died in numbers unspeakable, the triumph of Allah was righteous and just.

But Allah was a vengeful God, a destroyer of worlds, the evil of man enthroned and deified. Meager were those who would rejoice in his victory.

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