Darwin's Disease

It's the year 2250. As predicted, Earth's population is growing too large for the planet to support. So the government has decided to take matters into their own hands. In a secret laboratory deep underground, a plague is created to weed out the weak and frail…and eliminate them. Only the strongest will survive in this world. But the plague is more than the government expects. It knows no boundaries; power and money mean nothing. Only the strongest of body and spirit can make it. It is all too real; it is Survival of the Fittest.

Professor Neelum Joshi squinted at his notes. The only light in his lab came from a small reading lamp perched on his desk. He shuffled his papers around to better catch the light and leaned forward. His glasses slid down his nose and, unconsciously, he pushed them back up. His hair hung in his eyes, wishing for a shower and his stomach growled, reminding his that he couldn't remember the last time he had eaten. He ignored them both, focusing instead on his research.

It might have been minutes. It might even have been hours before the professor's watch alarm went off. He started and quickly shut off the alarm. He shook his head, trying to clear the thoughts of consequences and morality issues and gathered his papers together. He shut off the one tiny lamp in his lab and climbed the stairs to floor above him. Getting out of the lab was considerably easier than getting in and he soon found himself standing in the middle of just another generic waiting room, with white washed walls and the lingering smell of disinfectant.

There were two men waiting for him, one short and pudgy and the other tall and lanky, but both dressed in dark business suits. "Dr. Joshi," the shorter one began politely, gesturing toward a nondescript beige couch behind him. Neelum shook his head, preferring to stand after hours hunched over his desk.

The taller man cut in before the shorter one could continue. "Let's cut to the chase, Professor. The White House wants the disease. Now. They don't want any more excuses."

Neelum felt a shiver crawl up his spine. "I'm sorry, gentlemen. It's just not ready. It can't be released yet. The effects…the consequences of releasing such a thing would be disastrous. The risk is still too great."

The short man fidgeted nervously, but it was the tall man who spoke up. "That's no longer your concern, Joshi. Your job was to create the disease. It's our job to do something with it. If you don't want to find yourself looking out through vertical bars for the rest of your life, it would be in your best interest to give us what we want." The shorter man chose that moment to make his move. With more agility than his body suggested, he leapt forward and snatched the folders from Neelum's grasp. Dr. Joshi reached toward the shorter man to try and retrieve his research, but it was two against one.

Neelum felt a club of a fist connect with the back of his head. "Don't worry, Professor. We'll take good care of your disease." As Professor Neelum Joshi's vision slowly went black, he decided that was definitely not reassuring.

The news spread like wildfire. At first, they called it the "epidemic of the century." After three weeks, however, they realized this was much bigger than just "the epidemic of the century." This was the "Plague to end all plagues."

It hadn't taken long for panic to set in. Scientists and doctors alike were stumped, and the world's leading diagnostician, Dr. Neelum Joshi, had gone missing.

As the weeks passed with no progress, the panic turned into mass hysteria. The disease had started in the slums, as most things do, and had spread from there. It had taken some time for people to even notice it. After all, they thought, what were a few less hobos? But as the disease slowly worked its way up the ladder, it garnered more and more attention. It had seemed random at first; people seemed to catch it by chance. One day they were hale and hearty (or so they thought) and the next they'd be laid up in bed, slowly withering away.

The disease always attacked in the same order: loss of appetite, sleeplessness, followed by muscle weakness and flu-like symptoms as the plague set the immune system to attacking the body. At first scientists had assumed it was a new strain of AIDS and didn't worry. After all, they'd managed to solve that riddle, hadn't they? But as the weeks crawled by, an answer was not forthcoming. And the only man who could help them had left his classroom behind and had vanished into thin air. Dr. Neelum Joshi was going to be in a lot of trouble when he finally showed up.

As it turned out, Dr. Neelum Joshi was already in a lot of trouble. And in a lot of pain. Funnily enough, having your head smacked around by a man almost twice your height left you aching afterwards. Neelum came to slowly, trying not to move until he'd gotten his bearings. He slowly cracked his eyes open, squinting in the dim light that was still much too bright for him. He was in a concrete room that looked like a prison cell from some action adventure movie. As he thought about that example, he supposed this probably was a prison cell. For him, at least.

A more thorough survey of his surroundings revealed a cold steel table facing the door, a metal, seatless toilet in the corner, and the single, fold-down, bench bed he was lying on. No sheets, no pillow. Just a single lumpy mattress.

The door proved no more relenting. A thick steel door stared him down, with only one slot that he assumed was where food would come in (that's how it went in the movies, wasn't it?). Not even a single window.

He felt almost like a dangerous mastermind, but he knew that this was probably the only cell they could put him in. After all, he wasn't much danger. Even a window would be able to stand up against him. Without his research, he wasn't much of a threat to anyone.

He sat up and stretched, trying to work out the aches of a night spent on a thin, wimpy mattress. He stared off into space, wondering what possible use he still served. After all, assuming they disregarded his warnings (and really, when have you ever heard of the government listening to scientists?), the plague would have been released by now. And if that point had already passed, then there was no longer anything he could do.

Time passed. With no windows and no watch, he could not be sure how long he'd been awake. It could have been days he sat there looking at that door or it could've been mere minutes.

He was startled out of his reverie by a clank on the other side of the door. He briefly wondered if he should pretend that he was asleep (he'd heard somewhere that that's what you were supposed to do when you were kidnapped), but his curiosity won out and so he remained sitting on the pull-down bed, facing the door.

It was the government men again. They did not look happy. The short one spoke up immediately. "What kind of sick-minded bastard are you?! That damn plague of yours is killing everyone! The Secretary of State contracted it, for Hathor's Sake! What the hell is the matter with you?!"

Dr. Neelum Joshi, needless to say, was quite taken aback. "Well what did you think the plague was going to do?" he asked incredulously.

"Well obviously it was supposed to kill off the garbage in the streets. But not the government. And not those with money."

The professor's mouth dropped open at the man's blatant stupidity before his lips pressed into a thin line of repressed rage. This is why he had resisted having to do this research in the first place. For all that he was killing them, Neelum Joshi did not think that the poor and the homeless deserved to die over the rich and powerful. In fact, he rather thought that if he could've, he would've killed off the rich and the powerful first.

The tall man's eyes grew hard and cold. "Make an antidote," he said. Joshi stared at him, not believing the man had just said that.

"Make an antidote? Just like that? You think it's that easy, that I can do it at the snap of your fingers? Why do you think I said it wasn't ready? There is no cure," he stated coldly.

At his cold, hard glare, the two government men left, snarling, realizing they had no leverage over him any longer, now that they had reduced his life to the confines of the metal room.

The clang of the door had a note of finality that froze Neelum to the core.

After the altercation, Dr. Joshi's meals stopped coming. When it became apparent that no water would be forthcoming either, Neelum began to drink water from the toilet in the corner in order to stay hydrated. His stomach growled for hours (or at least it seemed that way to the hungry professor) before it finally fell silent.

It did not take long before he curled in on himself, light-headedness setting in. He felt weak and silently slipped into a fitful slumber.

The former professor (for what is a professor without anyone to teach?) drifted in and out of consciousness several times before a great clanging from outside his cell brought him crashing into wakefulness.

Hunger gnawed at him, his insides furious that he still hadn't seen fit to fill them. He blinked blearily, trying futilely to focus on the clamor in the corridor outside his prison.

Something started banging on his door, then fell briefly silent, only to be followed quickly by a muffled BOOM. As the door was shoved open, Neelum tried to deduce whether he'd finally passed to the stage of hallucination yet or not. When two large men came in wearing army fatigues that looked like they were from the twenty-first century, Dr. Neelum Joshi decided that he was, in fact, crazy.

The second man who had come in leaned back into the hallway and yelled to more of his hallucinatory comrades, "Hey guys! We found another live one!"

As the first man, a tall, military man drew closer, Neelum tried to figure out what one said to a hallucination. The man beat him to it though. "Are you alright?" it inquired. Neelum thought this an odd thing for a delusion to ask, since he'd assumed it would say something ridiculous, and simply cocked his head. The man muttered something to himself about foreigners who couldn't speak Common and leaned forward as if to check for fever.

When his calloused palm made contact with Joshi's forehead, Neelum started rather violently and decided one thing: this man was definitely not a mirage.

The man jumped back, just as startled as Neelum. "I'm not gonna hurt you," he said slowly, as though talking to a child or a frightened animal. He held his hands up in the universal gesture of peace and tried to smile kindly.

Neelum just stared at him. "I," the man punctuated the word by pointing to himself, "not," a shake of the head, "going to hurt," miming killing someone (Neelum thought this made him look insane but kept the thought to himself), "you," with this he pointed at Dr. Joshi.

Silence fell for a moment before Neelum broke it. "I'm not stupid you know. You don't have to treat me like a half-wit." The other man looked shocked, though whether because Neelum had talked or whether because he'd spoken in Common, Neelum couldn't decide.

After the man regained his composure, he introduced himself as Val. He and the others with him had banded together to free any government prisoners that might've been forgotten in the panic and chaos. Dr. Neelum Joshi didn't think it was such a great idea to be releasing prisoners (and said as much), but when Val pointed out that he himself had been one of these prisoners and didn't look too dangerous, Neelum quickly shut up about the whole thing. Though the rebels (or whatever one wanted to call them) naturally wanted to know what had landed him in the metal room, Neelum Joshi decided that the world didn't need to know that he was the one who was killing it, and kept his past to himself.

The band only found one other prisoner still alive, the others having succumbed to starvation or dehydration. The man, in much the same state as the former professor, was carried into Neelum's cell, where the two were placed on the drop-down bed, and where they remained for lack of strength to get up and go anywhere else.

The other prisoner looked over at him, head seeming too heavy for his neck as he leaned it back against the wall. "You don't happen to be a hallucination, do you?" he asked, half-hopefully.

Neelum looked back at him in empathy. "I'm afraid not," he said, a touch regretfully. "Wish I were though."

As it turned out, the other man went by the name Evac Nai, and was, in fact, the world's leading diagnostician. At least, he became the leading one after the world's first, Dr. Neelum Joshi, went missing. Dr. Nai had been brought in only a few days after Neelum's meals had stopped. They figured that if Neelum refused to create an antidote (for they decided, incorrectly of course, that Dr. Joshi simply hadn't wanted to find a cure) then they would bring in the second best and he would do it for them. Needless to say, Dr. Evac Nai did not have much luck with the engineered disease. Dr. Joshi didn't really have the heart to admit exactly who he was and what he'd done, even to a colleague, so he made up an alibi (renegade CIA agent was believable right?).

As it turns out, they expected a CIA agent to be useful. Unfortunately, as he wasn't really a CIA agent, this made being useful rather difficult. He'd tried to play it off as being rusty or out-of-service, but apparently retired marines think retired CIA agents should still be helpful.

They slowly forgot his alibi the longer he stayed with them. And really, where else did he have to go? Each day passed by, more grim than the last, as more and more of their comrades fell prey to the plague.

Some got lucky and simply didn't contract the disease. Some, like Neelum and Evac, had built up an immunity after years spent in various scientific studies. Some were just strong enough to resist the plague. Many were not so lucky though. The disease indiscriminately wiped out families and lineages and whole demographics.

Slowly, as months dragged by , the world recovered. Economies had crashed when the panic set in. Little by little the strong picked up the task of reforming governments, now that the soft, pampered leaders were gone.

Darwin's Disease, as Dr. Neelum Joshi's brainchild had come to be called, had more than fulfilled its intended purpose. The earth had been purged of the weak and helpless and a new era was beginning.

Each morning, Dr. Neelum Joshi woke up and prayed to Luna, the goddess of death (polytheism had become popular again after the fifth World War) for the deliverance of the souls taken by the plague and begged atonement from the victims.

Each night he prayed to Firenze, the fire god, to help those in the mass pyres find their final resting place.

The world had been saved, but the sacrifice had been great. Dr. Neelum Joshi bore the weight of thousands of deaths on his shoulders and still he did not tell anyone. The only thing he had left to do was to write down his story, that none would ever repeat the mistake.

With that task in mind, the man who had killed millions finally set his attention on saving the world from ever reaching breaking point again.