Reprieve, a short story written by Doug Hawley at



written by: Doug Hawley



It started in January of 1990, but the exact date is unknown. George Bush was the US president. The Soviet Union was disintegrating and its satellite states were going their own way. African American politicians experienced mixed success – David Dinkins was elected mayor of New York City and Marion Barry was arrested in Washington DC. A bright light was the beginning of the Simpsons on Fox TV.
The world was experiencing its normal quota of evil and not exactly evil.
No one knew it then, but cyanic had left Africa months ago. What made cyanic different from other plagues was that it had an extremely long latency period during which it was communicable, but showed no symptoms. The public had no idea how far the disease had spread until most of the world had been infected. By the time the disease was understood, there was no treatment and most people were doomed.
The first symptom of cyanic was a slightly blue tinge to the skin, hence the scientific name. Most people referred to the victims as “having the blues.” Within a week of the color change people started to act like the zombies from the George Romero films and lost cognitive function. Later research found that cyanic hit the higher brain functions first. Unlike movie zombies, cyanics had no taste for brains or any food. They just shambled pointlessly until they died.
Researchers determined that cyanic was spread by skin to skin contact. A grim humorist was quick to start the “Six degrees of cyanics” game. No one affected was amused.
Pundits noted that it was a case of life imitating art. There were comparisons to Captain Trips in Stephen King’s “The Stand” and the Wandering Disease in the old movie “Shape of Things” based on the works of H.G. Wells.
As usual, before the disease hit its stride, there were the usual conspiracy theories. Jews were blamed because Jews are blamed for everything. It didn’t hurt that the Israelis were less affected than other areas. Sunnis blamed the Shias, the Shias blamed the Sunnis. Before being decimated, there was even more Moslem on Moslem violence than usual. Survivalists saw black helicopters everywhere. Some Christians saw it as God’s judgment on secular society and homosexuality in particular. A minority of the people believed the scientists’ explanation that cyanic arose as a mutation of the Ebola virus. The explanation was particularly derided by those who did not believe in evolution at all.
The more serious also played the blame game. Environmentalists said in essence “I told you so” as did the anti-immigration people. Those from the more rabid animal rights groups said it was fair because we had been exploiting non-human animals for far too long. A man who had predicted the demise of humans in the next hundred years admitted to being a little optimistic.
Some of those who were exposed had natural immunity. Some, particularly isolated farmers, did not come in contact with the affected. At the other end, large cosmopolitan cities were affected the worst. All of the major world capitals were depopulated. Second-tier cities and the “flyover” cities did much better. Portland Oregon, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Des Moines, Knoxville, and Pittsburgh fared relatively well.
As the enormity of the plague became clear, disposal teams were organized. Huge pits were dug and crews in hazmat suits herded walking cyanics into them.
The plague started to subside after a few months and eventually stopped. The cause of cyanics died or mutated again. By that time most of the world’s population had died. By then the estimated world population had decreased from over five billion to well under a billion. Asia, Africa and South America were particularly hard hit, but no continent had over a quarter of its previous population.
Aside from the horror, life was horrible and wonderful. There were huge stores of food, petrol, cars, appliances, and homes that inundated the remaining humans. As expected, liquor and appliance stores were looted. Because the world militaries and governments were disproportionately depleted, people could just take what they wanted. Eventually most people decided that there was little point in having five cars and three houses, and shared reasonably. This was after a few more million had died fighting over the spoils. As always a few thought that they deserved more, but there were no more African women walking ten miles to get water, the survivors just moved closer to the water, since there was no one there to chase them off. Various means in different communities were used to distribute desirable possessions of the departed. In some places, lotteries were used. In other places, it was whoever got there first.
In most of the world, the remaining people gathered around cities, states, and tribes. Such arbitrary borders in Belgium, the Middle East and much of Africa evolved over time. Ethnic minorities in Asia went their own way. China split into five different regions that didn’t acknowledge the others’ existence. English speaking North America formed a very loose confederation. A minor surviving official in the US claimed that he was the ruler, but was totally ignored. The worldwide partitioning was much easier than the Pakistan – India split years earlier.
The loosely knit North America included Columbia consisting of the Northwest, Alaska, British Columbia, and Northern California. It resembled Ecotopia in an old novel. A major product was cannabis. Mexicali consisted of Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and some of West Texas. The rest of Texas never got reorganized. Vast portions of the Canadian and US plains became Range. US upper Midwest states and Ontario became, after much debate Lake Land, although some chose to call it Heart Land. Louisiana, Utah, Florida, Quebec, and Colorado retained much of their original boundaries. The South not a part of something else went back to Dixie. What was left of the US and Canada became New England.
The regions differed on abortion, minimum wage, anti-discrimination, but had no national authority to overturn their decrees. Utah at least tacitly accepted polygamy, but not same-sex marriage. Most of the former North America did the opposite.
These quasi-governmental areas evolved over a number of years and made a lot more sense than the original state and province boundaries.
Because of the fear of new plagues and a desire for self-sufficiency there was much less trade than before. The former Soviet Union and the Middle East suffered greatly when the demand for gasoline and natural gas dropped like a rock in sync with the population. A positive side effect was that there wasn’t enough money to buy hordes of weapons. The major weapons exporters had quit manufacturing anyway. There was some minor scuffling over petty grievances and the need for arable land, but most people just moved to their own kind and found a way to feed themselves.
There were a few years when most people didn’t worry about work or how to survive. Car breaks down? Get a new one. Need food? Go to the grocery store and take whatever canned food you want. Don’t like your home? Move into a new one.
There were some occupations that were still necessary. Farmers had to grow food, trains, and truckers were needed to move things, and people needed to operate utilities. With the much lower need for food, some farmers quit and moved to town, others continued as they had and some moved from marginal land to more fertile areas. In some cases, people who got bored just picked up some of the required jobs. Jack Wiggins in London didn’t see any need to be a corporate lawyer, so he started being a railroad engineer. He was lucky not to kill anyone, but eventually, he got the hang of it.
At the end of the plague, the largest cities in North America were Calgary, Indianapolis, and Portland OR in that order. All had a little over a hundred thousand people. Calgary continued to be the energy center, Indianapolis evolved into the lead manufacturing site, and Portland moved from being a minor player in entertainment and electronics to the leader in the Americas. The previously major cities were ghost towns.
Zero population adherents were pleased by the lower number of humans, if not how it had happened. Some traditional male Catholics, Muslims, and Mormons saw the situation as an opportunity to dominate the world by rapid reproduction. The women were not as enthused.
Energy production and pollution were greatly reduced by much smaller use of energy sources. For awhile a lot of people wanted to get the biggest Suburbans, Land Cruisers, Rolls, Bentleys, and Mercedes they could find, but that got old after awhile. The energy needs of earth were scaled down roughly in proportion to the population drop. An added advantage was that there were plenty of sources for energy without using the more polluting forms such as coal.
Because entertainers and producers didn’t have much need for money and the stars were mostly deceased, local talent and local no talent took over television, radio, and the stage. The results were mixed. There were Paul Newman and Meryl Streep who simply hadn’t been discovered, as well Joe Plum, who had a post-plague short-lived TV show in which he talked about his coin collection. There were all porn channels, golf channels, romance channels, run by amateurs or low-level professionals. Into this mix, Janet Levitz from the Bay Area and Thane Gibbons, a Portland native, wandered into the mix. Their bright idea, concocted and run in Portland, was InVid, a video sharing service.
David Nelson Hilliard was intrigued by InVid. He saw it as his way to become a star. After he recalled that he had no talent, he revised his thinking to believe that he would become a world leader. To say that he had a Napoleonic complex would be an insult to Napoleon. His lack of looks was compensated for by his lack of height. He was, however, a forward thinker and saw a way to profit from the new world order and even attract some girls. After a few hours of intense work, he had a plan to rule the world.
The next day he had his tall dark and handsome neighbor Doug record the Hilliard Manifesto on InVid as well as calling as many world state leaders as possible.
“New Earth arises from Old Earth tested and improved. From this, the worst tragedy in human history, we gain our reprieve from impending disaster. For if the plague had not wiped out much of the earth’s human population, we would have soon done the job ourselves. Deforestation, ocean acidification, global storming, overpopulation, mass human-caused extinctions, and pollution were the stepping stones to human extinction.”
“Now we have to ask, will we repeat the same mistakes? I say no and I have a program to give us a few million more years of dominion on planet earth. The United Nations died with the pre-plague earth. Let us start a new organization consistent with the new reality. I propose World Harmony.”

“The states in World Harmony will agree to:

1.  Assist neighbors in need if able;
2.  Refrain from acts of aggression against my neighbors or supporting a national army;
3.  Allow immigration if economically practical;
4.  Allow emigration;
5.  Support World Harmony Armed Forces;
6.  Assist in the defense of states under attack; and
7.  Obey the decisions of the World Court.

After joining World Harmony, states may be expelled by the World Court.”
“National leaders may wonder what advantage you might gain from membership in World Harmony. You will get protection from aggressive neighbors and assistance in an emergency. The price that you pay is fairly small.”
For months there was no response. Then there was a trickle of positive responses. After a couple of years most of the post-plague nations had signed up. Some of them remembered the United Nations as a positive, if not perfect institution, and wanted a replacement. Others liked the simple set of rules. A number of states didn’t like their existing borders and decided to stay out.
As the instigator, Hilliard set himself up as the first Governor of World Harmony in 1995. The headquarters was in an abandoned bank in downtown Portland. The World Court was organized the following year. The member states formed World Harmony military bases on each continent.
In 1997 World Harmony was tested for the first time. The minor states of the former Burma – Kachin, Karen, Muslim Region, and others – were attacked by the majority Burmese state, Myanmar. World Harmony forces from Mumbai were able to restore order and expel Myanmar from World Harmony; with the promise that Myanmar could reapply for admission after proving that it had disbanded its illegal army. Thereafter, World Harmony was taken seriously.
Post-plague earth went along fat and happy for a few years using up the assets left over from before the plague. Governor Hilliard, in particular, was fat and happy. His status had indeed gotten him girls or women – those with low esteem and those that wanted to get close to power. His favorite was Rose Reed, who knew how to flatter and please him. Just as some say you can’t cheat an honest man, manipulators are often manipulated. In June of 1999, Jacque Braque of New France called Hilliard and suggested they were living on borrowed time. It was fortunate that Braque spoke better English than Hilliard did.
“Governor Hilliard, you have done a great job so far, keeping the world peace. However, we have serious challenges ahead of us. At some point the old cars, appliances will break down, utilities will need maintenance, and housing will fall apart. Something else that you may not be aware of, many computers will fail in January because they will not recognize the year 2000. Not only do we have a challenge, but we also have an opportunity, we can improve our lives compared to before the plague. We have the chance for a do-over.”
Now, Hilliard wasn’t smart and he didn’t understand the implications of what Braque had said. Hilliard thought everything was fine because he had the love (or so he thought) of several resourceful and beautiful women, all he could eat and drink and the admiration of millions. He was, however, manipulative and lazy.
“Mr. Braque, you and I are entirely in sync. I was just saying to an assistant today, we need to plan for the future. The name that came up repeatedly to head up the effort was yours. Consider that you have a blank check written by me to plan for the future.”
“Thank you, Governor. I already have tentative plans.”
Hilliard immediately put out the word that his assistant would be implementing Hilliard’s plan to improve the world’s future.
Braque knew that Hilliard would want all the credit, but was willing to proceed anyway.
In Braque’s mind engineering was the easy part, politics was the hard part. Towards that end, he asked for planners and engineers from all of the world’s states. After interviewing them, he knew which to use and which to work around. Whichever category they fell in, the contributions of all of them and their states would be highly praised.
After a get to know your party for all of them, he outlined his plans:
“As you all know we are currently living on credit. We can have a bright future or fall into darkness. It is up to us. My plan:
Those who live in dangerous places subject to flooding, hurricanes, drought, or monsoons should move to safer available places.
Fishing and forestry must be sustainable. In fact, our forests and fish stocks must be replenished.
We should move to renewable energy sources such as tidal, solar, and wind. I depend on all of you here to do the research and building as necessary.
Vehicles should be made to be practical and run by either electricity or something better if we can come up with it. As much as possible, they should be recyclable.
Each region should be self-sufficient. If this is impractical in some cases, we should provide assistance as necessary.
We must avoid overpopulation, which was part of the cause of the plague.
Rivers should run free and with the depopulation, there should be huge animal reserves. Threatened African wildlife and buffalos in the US can make a comeback.
I know that there will be resistance to these ideas in some quarters. ‘What about my house at the shore? Will I still have a cell phone?’ There may be some sacrifices, but I think that we can sell a better future, and yes you can still have a cell phone. If you have a house on the coast, no one will insure it. So before we start, you have to sell the plan to your people, if indeed you are on board.
Questions or comments?”
“Yes, Ms. Sebastian of Chile?”
“Your plan sounds good, but what benefits will my country get?”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that your country imported crude oil before the plague and now you are having difficulty obtaining supplies. We want you to be able to produce your own energy and fuels indigenously.”
“Mr. Kralic of Bosnia?”
“Will your government people interfere with our customs or government?”
“Depends on what you mean. In general, no. If your state should produce an unsustainable population, or overexploit your resources, you will not be in the program and you will not be receiving our assistance. Is that clear?”
“All too clear.”
“Now if you would, we have arranged for all of you to join tables with facilitators to answer your questions and take your comments.”
Several hours and bathroom, snack, and drink breaks, the state leaders left with a fairly clear idea of what Mr. Braque’s plan was. Most were in favor, but there were a few dissenters. The somewhat diminished China was not sure about blowing up its major dams. The North America Columbia region was ambivalent about losing the dams that provided most of the region’s electricity.
Mr. Braque had his engineers draw up scenarios for the dissenters showing how they would come out ahead by moving their constituents to safer areas, letting rivers and forests return to their state before the industrial revolution, and replacing coal-burning power plants by solar, wind and tidal power. They also showed how much the energy needs would be decreased by some simple changes, for example replacing much of the heating and cooling of houses by circulating water underground and then back through the houses. Most of the world states bought it. Some that distrusted anything smacking of Western culture were hold outs.
With most of the world on board, Braque made a five-year timeline for what he was convinced was a way to keep the planet going for a long time. The next few years would see a modest beginning to a lessening of the extinction of flora and fauna and pollution.
The first step, replacing computer legacy programs before the year 2000 was easier than expected.
Rose was immediately attracted to Jacque’s intelligence and looks, particularly compared to Hilliard’s. The only thing that Jacque was missing was Hilliard’s power. She made sure that they bumped into each other, literally in some cases, from time to time. Jacque, whose wife had died in the plague, was interested.
The morning after meeting in a local motel, they discussed the future. They had been too busy to talk the night before.
“Tell me, Rose, how that buffoon could become the most powerful man in the world. His World Harmony idea looks like it was taken from a cereal box or an episode of GI Joe.”
“I think that it was a Cheerios box. He had three things going for him. He got the timing right. He had a feel for attracting the right people. He is a master manipulator. Oh yeah, four things – he was incredibly lucky.”
“Are you satisfied being his number one consort?”
“Hell no, it was just the best deal I could make at the time. I admit it; I was looking for my main chance. You tell me something. Are you happy letting somebody you call a buffoon treat you as his lowly assistant?”
“As you say, hell no.”
“I know with certainty that Hilliard will die in the next few months, are you ready to plan for his exit?”
“How do you know that Rose?”
“You’re better off if you don’t know. Here is my question for you Jacque, are you ready to take over World Harmony with me? I’ve already arranged to be married to him before he dies, which will give us some legitimacy from the get-go.”
“I can’t think of a better team than you and I. How do you know he will marry you?”
“He’s so insecure. I just told him I’d leave if he didn’t. When he is gone, after a reasonable mourning period, we get married. Our ascension will be almost a coronation. I’ve already lined up support within the government. I’ve been running several departments for months. Can you get your engineering staff behind you?”
Fifty days after this conversation Hilliard was dead. As Reed had indicated, taking over was easy. Hilliard had been seen as a figurehead for at least a year, and people were used to working with Reed and Braque. Their marriage a month after Hilliard’s death sealed the deal.
A decade later there were clear improvements in land, sea, and air. Many formerly endangered species were thriving. There were few conflicts between modern conveniences and the ecology. The world population had only increased by only 2% since the plague. There were a few local conflicts, but nothing major. Reed and Braque had a son and a daughter, who were in training to run the world when the time was right. In a self-congratulatory mood, Rose said to Jacque, “I was thinking we should declare a Thousand Year Reich, but that might not sound right.”
“Right, but we should get our PR people to work on that, see what they can come up with.”
“It is hard to believe how this has turned out for me. I was always smarter than the other guys, but people only paid attention to my body. That’s where Hilliard screwed up. If he had given me more credit, he might still be around.”
“I had it tough too. I was always scorned as the French version of a nerd. Nobody wanted to hear me talk about anything except other scientists. If she’d lived longer, my wife would have left me.”
“And here we are at the head of a dynasty.”
The phone rang.
After listening for a while, Reed blanched. When she hung up, she said: “This is very bad.”
“It couldn’t be worse than what we’ve been through the last ten years.”
“It could and it is. An asteroid is heading towards earth.”

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