Epitaph For A Planet
by Chris Oakley
(based on the series "The Second Black Plague" by the same author)
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the human race was devastated by the most lethal plague in recorded history, respiratory disintegration syndrome (also known as "Morgan’s disease" or "the Rome virus"). Over the course of eight years that relentless contagion wiped out entire countries and sent humanity to the brink of extinction before a cure for the virus was finally found in the laboratory of a biologist sheltering in the jungles of Hawaii. Now suppose for just a minute that the aforementioned scientist had never existed and the nightmare scenarios people had been envisioning at the peak of the global RDS epidemic became reality....
From the logbook of the second New Zealand Special Scientific Expedition to North America, entry dated January 8th, 1971(continued):Our hopes have been dashed, possibly beyond even the faintest hope of
repair. The radio signal we had previously deduced to have been transmitted
by a survivor of the wretched RDS plague has instead turned out to be nothing
more than an automatic homing beacon which short-circuited and died shortly
after the scouting party found it. The beacon, originally built as a navigational
aid for fishing ships in the waters around these islands, had apparently been left
operational by the island’s last surviving inhabitants in what ultimately proved a
vain hope of rescue…
From the January 9th, 1971 Auckland Daily Mail:SPECIAL NORTH AMERICAN EXPEDITION REPORTS NO SURVIVORS IN HAWAII
Radio Signal Found To Be Old Navigational Beacon
From Mr. L’s final diary entry, written January 11th, 1971:Everything’s finished. My only remaining reason for living went out the window when
I read the Daily Mail two days ago…I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom, put my
gun to my head and blow my brains out. It’s the only way I can think of to make the
From the January 13th, 1971 Auckland Daily Mail:P.M. COMMITS SUICIDE, GOVERNMENT IN CHAOS
From the logbook of the second New Zealand Special Scientific Expedition to North America, entry dated January 15th, 1971:
Morale in our ranks is dreadfully low, and I’m afraid it may sink still lower….three
members of our expedition have already committed suicide and two others have
admitted to contemplating suicide. To make matters worse, we’ve lost radio contact
From an editorial in the January 18th, 1971 issue of the Auckland Daily Mail:It is with indescribable grief and sorrow that we must announce the indefinite closure of this
newspaper effective immediately. Our battle to survive the chaos of the worldwide Morgan’s
pandemic is coming to an end, and it is now apparent we are doomed to lose that battle…
From the logbook of the second New Zealand Special Scientific Expedition to North America, entry dated January 22nd, 1971:More than one-third our number is gone now and many of the remaining two-thirds
have taken to fighting among themselves. In my more optimistic moments I had been
hoping that if worst came to worst we might establish a colony here to act as a sort
of nucleus for rebuilding the human race, but that appears less and less likely every
From the January 26th entry:Any semblance of unity in our ranks is now gone. Last night 20 of our surviving number
deserted us to form their own separate camp in the Hawaiian interior; our situation has
now come to disturbingly resemble that of the boys in Lord of the Flies….
From a sign posted outside the town hall in Geelong, Australia on February 2nd, 1971:DUE TO THE PRESENT HEALTH EMERGENCY, ALL OFFICES AND FUNCTIONS ARE
CLOSED EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
From a secret communiqué to the New Zealander provisional government dated February 8th, 1971:In view of the present circumstances it is time to ask ourselves where it might not be wise to follow
Australia’s lead and begin making so-called ‘suicide kits’ available to our fellow countrymen who wish to
spare themselves the agonies that inevitably accompany the onset of RDS…
From a sign posted outside a hospital in Adelaide, Australia on February 11th, 1971:EUTHANASIA CLINIC NOW OPEN 24 HOURS A DAY
SUICIDE KITS AVAILABLE WITH PROOF OF IDENTITY
From the logbook of the second New Zealand Special Scientific Expedition to North America, entry dated February 15th, 1971:Three hours ago our camp was attacked by the dissidents; ten of our number were
killed and five wounded while the enemy-- how shocking it still is to me to think of some
of my former colleagues that way! --lost seven dead and twelve injured. Much of our
scientific equipment has been rendered useless…
From the February 18th entry:
Our camp has been attacked again, this time by wild animals….our casualties are
four dead, seven injured, three missing….
From a suicide note by the Hobart, Tasmania chief of police dated February 25th, 1971:No sense in trying to keep the peace when we’ll all be dead any day now. Whoever
wants my service pistol after I’m gone is perfectly welcome to it…I’ve got no more
use for the damned thing....
From a directive by the acting chief of staff of the Australian army dated March 3rd, 1971:AS FROM 0830 HOURS ON 4TH MARCH, ALL PERSONNEL CURRENTLY STATIONED IN
ALICE SPRINGS ARE INSTRUCTED TO WITHDRAW FROM THERE WITHOUT FURTHER
From a letter by the mayor of Brisbane, Australia to municipal workers dated March 10th, 1971:In view of the present instability engulfing our city and our nation I cannot in good conscience ask you to
subject yourselves any longer to the hazards you now face in attempting to discharge your duties. Therefore,
I hereby release you from your responsibilities effective noon today….
From the logbook of the second New Zealand Special Scientific Expedition to North America, entry dated March 16th, 1971:We’re now down to a quarter of our original number. Those who haven’t committed
suicide, succumbed to illness, or been killed by animals have become casualties of the
dissident camps’ increasingly bold raids on our settlement; we, in turn, have killed a
good many of the dissidents in defense of our own camp. I suspect there will be no
one left alive in either camp within six months….
From the March 24th entry:
God help me, I’ve taken sick! During a routine medical examination a few hours
ago I learned that I have apparently contracted mosquito-borne malaria, and as
there are very few medicines of any kind available to us now and none for treating
malaria, it is sadly inevitable that I will be dead within the next week or so, if not
sooner. I rue the day I agreed to take part in this wretched expedition....
From the April 8th entry:Our situation continues to deteriorate every day….there are only a dozen people
left in our camp now. The dissidents, who themselves number less than twenty at
this point, have ironically suffered a few desertions from their own ranks within the
past 72 hours…
From a suicide note by the mayor of Auckland, New Zealand dated April 12th, 1971:May God forgive me-- it’s painfully clear no one else will. I have failed miserably in
my duty to see to the welfare of my citizens…
From the logbook of the second New Zealand Special Scientific Expedition to North America, entry dated April 20th, 1971:Only six of us left in this camp now, with the combined total population of the
dissident camps numbering less than fifteen. Our original expedition leader died
of heart failure late last night, and the rest of us will no doubt perish in our turn
soon enough; what started in a spirit of hope and scientific inquiry is ending in
division, acrimony, and death. For all I know, we may be the last remnant of the
human race on this earth....
From a sign left outside a Melbourne church on May 5th, 1971:REPENT OR BE CAST INTO HELL! THE END OF DAYS IS UPON US!
Not a very pretty picture, is it? Yet this might have been the fate of the world had the men and
women of the second New Zealand Special Scientific Expedition to North America not had the
good fortune to encounter the refugee biologist who invented the Lazarus-2 vaccine that ultimately
stopped the Second Black Plague and has since become the primary medicine for treating or
preventing respiratory disintegration syndrome. One Sydney University biologist has estimated
that if left unchecked, the Rome virus would have wiped out the last remnants of the human race
Now let’s borrow a page from the old EC sci-fi comics of the early ‘50s and imagine that an extraterrestrial archeologist has landed on the now-deserted Earth a century after the global RDS pandemic began. His homeworld has until now been picking up broadcast signals from this tiny blue planet on the outer edges of known space, but for reasons he is not yet aware of those signals have gradually slowed down and then stopped; he and his survey party diligently probe the planet to see if any trace remains of the beings responsible for the transmissions, but wherever they go they only find skeleton after skeleton. Further investigation suggests that this world has been depopulated as the result of an as-yet unknown disease which was invariably fatal to all those who contracted it. How will the archeologist’s report on his preliminary findings describe this once-teeming planet now devoid of all intelligent life? Probably something like this…
There still remains much work to be done in translating the languages and sub-dialects of the extinct
alien race that once inhabited this world, but from what we do know it is becoming clear that the disease
which ultimately caused their demise was beyond the ability of their medical technology to cope with
and that it spread across this planet with alarming swiftness….Regrettably, we have as yet been unable
to obtain any actual samples of the virus responsible for the disaster…
It is also clear that the inhabitants of this planet were beginning to take the first tentative steps towards
a long-term spaceflight capability before all space travel research by its people was halted due to the
spread of what the aliens’ own records call "the Rome virus". We will never know what they might
have achieved had they not been annihilated by this lethal contagion, but the groundwork had certainly
laid for a concerted effort to chart the skies beyond their own world.
The process which led to the extermination of this world’s inhabitants by the virus appears to have
played out over a span of at least seven or eight solar years....Had their air and ground transport craft
been a bit more technologically sophisticated, the disease might have been able to spread even faster;
it is an established scientific fact that long-distance travelers infected with a given illness can carry it with
them and infect others with frightening ease. A larger number of travelers between the various nation-
states of this world would have, in my estimation at least, led to a corresponding acceleration of the
Rome virus’ proliferation across this planet.
If I might be allowed make a purely subjective observation at this point, it is my judgement that the
demise of this civilization constitutes a great tragedy in the history of intelligent life. Though further
investigation is needed before a final conclusion can be made about the intellectual capacity of the
extinct alien species, what evidence I’ve been able to examine so far suggest that this civilization was
on the verge of starting an era of technological advancement and scientific inquiry that, given time,
might have made them a valuable addition to the interstellar community. That era was unfortunately
stillborn due to the ravages of the virus, and we are left to ponder the empty shell of a society cut down
before its prime...
Our world an intergalactic Pompeii.…a chilling idea, yet that one might have become reality had the Lazarus-2 serum had never been invented. The creation of the vaccine that ultimately rescued humanity from the global RDS pandemic was, to borrow a phrase from the Duke of Wellington, "a near-run thing"; absent that creation, you would probably not be alive to read this and I wouldn’t be alive to write it. As it is, the human race has spent the past four-plus decades struggling to rebuild the civilization that was decimated by the Rome virus.
In 2009 the world will mark the 45th anniversary of the first RDS outbreak; in its battle to defend humanity against a recurrence of dangerous pandemics, medical science is laboring at a bit of a disadvantage given the blows dealt to scientific progress in the early years of the RDS plague. But with time and diligent effort, doctors may yet succeed in reconstructing the immunological lines of defense that before the plague were an integral part of human society.