Thursday, December 4, 2008

Chapter 7 - Doing the Eagles' Bidding

That explained where The Cat came from. I don’t recall exactly what they told me, but I certainly was, as any six-year-old would be, curious. One day, no cat; the next, a ubiquitous cat. White as snow, pampered and pompous, and not exactly friendly, that cat reigned the world in smarmy silence.

I always knew my father as an exceptionally busy man, never harried mind you, but consistently occupied. He usually had something to do and was frequently in his office through the night. I’d wake up to find my father in the kitchen making a pot of coffee wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day before.

And, lingering around him, The Cat. Not always next to him, perhaps in the next room, usually within earshot.

In my father’s basement office, which he kept locked, I could hear voices, and always assumed he was on the phone. On the phone at odd hours, certainly, but then he had business contacts throughout Asia, Africa and Europe, as well as the Americas.

Now, I believe, I can see him plainly in conversation with that damn cat. As an inquisitive youngster I frequently hovered outside his office door, listening, and, there was one voice that didn’t sound like it came from a speaker phone.

There were manifold psychological effects caused by the massive reduction in births. The primary example was Lars Engvold the scientist who played the key role in developing The Test. Our best seller.

He had gone stark raving mad and shot himself in the head.

My father and I went to the Swedish microbiologist’s Brussels office to try to locate any remaining clue to the research he’d done. By that time it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. The scientist’s son explained to us how his father had slowly deteriorated.

He spent hours, entire days just staring at the desolate cityscape.

He burnt all his medical journals in the garden and then turned that plot into his lavatory.

He started filing things in nearly incoherent or oddly coherent ways.

For example, he would group items together by shape, so round flat things were put in one place, which led to plates, CDs, petri dishes, Frisbees, all stacked together in one cupboard.

Rectangular items, of course included papers, his research and important correspondences, at least the non-digital form. These were together; however, they weren’t filed alphabetically, but rather by color, and not just the color of the paper, sometimes a color would be mentioned in the paper or sometimes the contents of a letter inspired a certain mood and these were filed accordingly.

“Articles delineating the decline in population and the adverse effects were filed in a pile of ‘blue’ papers because they made him blue, but he was growing black, he then got really dark,” said his son. “His last few weeks, he was almost entirely incomprehensible. He would mutter and mumble and stumble drunk around his lab, tinkering clumsily with nonsensical experiments, his staff long gone, either dead or moved to the country.”

In the countryside around most cities, or even within cities where arable land was now available (there were vegetable gardens in every corner of Central Park) communes of various sizes were sprouting up.

These were the best sources of food and comfort as cities quickly turned into eerie, barren, unpopulated danger zones. People were generally kind and cooperative as nearly everyone was old and frail, the danger came from the collapsing infrastructure.

Consider this fairly obvious fact: 70 years after the epidemic began there was almost no one under the age of 70. Who was there to tear down crumbling buildings, who was there to dismantle bridges, tunnels, gas stations?

There were potential hazards everywhere.

The good news, if you can call it good news was that there was no electrical grid, people used car batteries and whatever solar and wind power they could generate, but there weren’t live wires coursing through vacant buildings.

Anyway, we spent weeks with the scientist’s son trying to make sense out of his father’s rambling notes, and digging through his research trying to find any evidence that what he’d been working on could rectify the situation or at least provide some solace, some hope for the future.

This came after we made our fortune.

At the outset, my father was ready and willing to do the eagles’ bidding.

"The Cat fed me information like so much kibble and nothing failed," wrote my father.

‘Buy into healthcare, pharmaceuticals,’ he purred, sitting behind his computer, a new green eyeshade back in place. So, I’d leverage myself to the hilt. It was a bet at first, sure, but what did I have to lose? I could listen to that fucking feline and take my chances or go to my wife and whoever would listen (or not) and tell them that I had been talking to eagles and cats about saving the planet by drastically reducing the human population.

It beat getting a real job.

We scored. Sales of early pregnancy tests skyrocketed, women just kept taking them and taking them hoping for a better result.

What’s that they say about insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.

Then we partnered with some doctors that were just going to market with a test that would determine fertility. First one for females, then one for males. We had damn near everyone in the civilized world buying those. At that point, we were set.

Wherever we turned we made money. Public companies selling baby-related merchandise we sold short. Laxatives, hemorrhoid treatments and the like, we went long.

I had a few bad ideas.

You may remember Waning Salons.

I figured with the slow elimination, or aging of the population, vanity would diminish. I thought there could be an industry around pampering those aging.

Real estate prices were plummeting.

Nail and beauty salons, all the places where people used to go to make themselves feel pretty, get facials, wax those unsightly moustaches and bikini lines, etc…well, I thought they would be the perfect outlet for more practical treatments.

I suppose it was me acting out on the overwhelming guilt I felt, a way of providing some comfort to those whose lives I had altered. I say altered because if I admitted ‘ruining’ or even ‘destroying’ them I wouldn’t be able to go on. I had to buy in to their storyline just to stay sane myself, no one was dying, I wasn’t really killing anyone, all I was doing was preventing them from having children.

It was for their own good.

Anyway, the Waning Salons were a flop. I couldn’t find any Vietnamese girls and it turns out that was the only reason anybody got their nails done, having their hands held by sweet young Asians.

It was around this time when I realized something had either gone terribly wrong or the eagle had lied to us, and this was no thinning of the herd, it was wholesale slaughter.

I decided to entrench and ride it out.

Fortunately, I had the wherewithal to ride it out in style.

We didn’t initially conceive of building a fortress, it just sort of worked out that way.

As the rest of the surrounding countryside began collapsing, we turned into THE destination.

I had the wealth, so I had the power.

People gravitated to the power and I couldn’t very well turn them away.

It was hard to compete with the growth of the animal population, they kept reproducing, we did not. Carnivores were outpaced by herbivores.

The natural world, grazing herds of elk, bison, deer, would graze away our crops.

We started building fences, those, over time, were overgrown by vegetation. It was a constant battle to fight back the blackberry vines, the scotch broom, invasive indeed.

Those building materials we did have didn’t last. Making barbed wire required manufacturing, an industry that hadn’t survived, the production of steel and retooling of said proved impossible. Large-scale fencing to combat feral plants and animals had to be done in wood and stone.

The first enclosure went around our little garden. Yet more and more people arrived. They had skills – construction, masonry, farming, greenskeepers – but most had useless skills.

Accountants, computer programmers, journalists, literary agents, consultants, etc…they were all obsolete, and they were the vast majority.

In short order we had at our disposal huge numbers of unskilled laborers.

Cultivation was one effort, construction of the massive outer wall to prevent wildlife incursions was another. We feared the carnivores, but we feared the herbivores more.

Herds of voracious goats could wipe out months of labor in one afternoon. Trees came down and the walls went up, impressive 15-foot high structures done with skill and craftsmanship in some areas, haphazard bulwarks in others.

There was a flow of people like a wave and then as they died the wave receded. Evidence of this wave could be seen in the rows of walls, if seen from above our compound would have looked like a dartboard with a humongous center.

Late arrivals fenced in their plots adjacent to the outer wall, but these were abandoned as the group thinned and everyone congregated around the main compound. Some walls were torn down to make room for more cultivation, but large scale agriculture became less and less urgent.

Fewer people, less food.

It was at this point that the first golf course was built. We had those greenskeepers, we had people from all walks of life. Lots of doctors and nurses, thankfully, although the medical treatment they administered became increasingly rudimentary.

The survivors were much healthier than in Old Era days, they were more rugged and a diet consisting mainly of vegetables and wild game from the occasional hunting foray proved to be quite beneficial.

It wasn't a bad life.

There were no diapers to change.

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