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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Pleistocene Plague: A Science Fiction Story

The Pleistocene Plague: A Science Fiction Story “Insanely cold temperatures – check,” said scientist Russ Hamilton. “Danger of death by falling into freezing cold water – check. Absurdly difficult engineering task – check. This has got to be the worst job in history.”

Hamilton was standing on top of a frozen lake in Antarctica, with five engineers. They stood next to two large sleds containing various items of engineering equipment. The men were trying to accomplish the very difficult task of drilling through two meters of ice at the top of the lake, and then extracting sediments 100 meters below, at the bottom of the lake.

“Remind me again why we are freezing our nuts off trying this crazy task,” said engineer Terry Johnson.

“It's related to exobiology, the quest to find life on other planets,” explained Russ. “If we find life at the bottom of this frozen lake, it will prove that life can survive in incredibly hostile conditions. The discovery of life at the bottom of this lake would show us it's more likely that life exists on many other planets.”

The men struggled with the engineering task, which dragged on for several days, requiring multiple trips between their Antarctic scientific base and the frozen lake. After much difficult work, they were finally able to extract muddy sediments from the bottom of the lake.

The sediments were sealed in ten special containers, and taken to the snow-packed scientific base where dozens of scientists worked. Russ analyzed one of the containers using microscopes at the base.

“It's life!” said Russ. “Imagine that – living organisms at the bottom of a frozen lake which has been cut off from the rest of the planet for at least 100,000 years.”

Russ Hamilton took the other 9 sealed samples back to the biological laboratory at Plum Island on the eastern end of Long Island, about 100 miles east of New York City. The remote laboratory at Plum Island had long been used for research relating to diseases. Hamilton figured that if anything troublesome turned up in the Antarctic lake samples, it could be isolated and confined at this remote laboratory.

Hamilton then returned to his office in New York City. One day he attempted to contact the Plum Island laboratory to find out how the investigation of the Antarctic lake samples was going.

Hamilton got no answer from any of the phone numbers he tried. He then sent emails to people at Plum Island. There was also no response. He found on the web a list of twenty phone numbers and emails of people working on the island. There was no response from any of them.

Very alarmed, Hamilton quickly alerted the Emergency Response Unit of the Center for Disease Control. The CDC sent a team of four men by helicopter to Plum Island. The four men wore special white spacesuits that protected them from any biological contaminants.

Landing on Plum Island, the team of four men entered the main laboratory. Everyone inside was dead.

The men examined one of the dead bodies. There was blood oozing out of the mouth, and pus dripping from the eyes. The other bodies in the lab were found to be in the same condition.

The men reported back to the Center for Disease Control their findings. Hamilton spoke on a conference call with the experts at the CDC.

“When we were considering the risks of raising life forms that had been buried under the ice for at least 100,000 years, we considered a worst-case scenario,” conceded Hamilton. “We called the scenario Case Black. This was the case that some life forms from the Pleistocene era might have a virus that man was totally defenseless against, because it hadn't been around for many thousands of years. But we discounted that possibility. We judged that there was less than 1 chance in 1000 that Case Black would occur.”

“Looks like we have Case Black,” said the CDC director. “Black as in the Black Death plague. Or something almost as bad.”

The White House was notified immediately. An attempt was made to quarantine the entire eastern third of Long Island. The Long Island Expressway was shut down, and all other Long Island roads were blocked. The ferries between Long Island and Connecticut were canceled. The Coast Guard and US Navy were brought into Long Island, with instructions to destroy any boat or ship trying to enter or leave the eastern third of Long Island.

Helicopter flights revealed that the frightening plague had quickly spread miles west of the Plum Island research center. A helicopter flight over a huge water park not far from Plum Island showed hundreds of dead bodies floating in the water.

Over a period of several weeks, countless thousands died. Helicopter flights over the infected area showed many dead bodies in the streets. There was no sign of life in the Hamptons, which had been infected.

After a horrible period of many days, the President of the United States went on television to announce that the quarantine of eastern Long Island had succeeded, and that the terrifying disease had been entirely confined to the eastern third of Long Island. The quarantine would continue indefinitely, he announced.

The next day twelve birds mingled with other birds in a park in New London, Connecticut. The birds had flown the eight mile distance from Plum Island to New London, a medium sized city. The birds began to cough up blood, and there was pus in their eyes. The plague would soon spread throughout the city, and to many other cities where birds had flown from Long Island.

Note: this fictional story was inspired by a recent real-life discovery just announced here. Need we worry about a real-life Pleistocene Plague?