The Infinity Bug by Bernd Struben
NOTE: This is a work of fiction not intended to take any political sides in the various disputes concerning Covid-19.
Bruce Monroe paced the halls of his sprawling ranch house in socked feet. He was a tall man, with a long stride. He’d already worked his way around the house five times, mind racing.
Today was a big day.
No, today was the big day.
Bruce was accustomed to keeping his emotions tightly under wraps. Never mind what his psychologist said in their weekly VR sessions, both of them donning surround vision goggles and sensory suits to up the illusion they were in the same room.
Keeping his emotions at arm’s length was his means of coping. But today excitement, not misery, bubbled inside him.
Not because he would get to drive further than the end of his street for the first time in seven months. Though that, in itself, was momentous.
But it paled in comparison to where he got to drive.
Today he was going to see his wife Maddie again for the first time in far more than seven months. Even if it was through a viewing window, they’d almost be in the same room…centimeters apart! And, God willing, today they would rekindle a spark of hope from the ashes of despair left in the limitlessly morphing virus’s wake.
The Psi variant in 2025 was the last of the coronaviruses anyone had bothered to name. These days it was all COVID-∞…or more commonly, the Infinity Bug.
The Psi variant had been bad. Not as bad as Upsilon in early 2024. But far worse than Sigma in ‘23, or Delta in ’21, or the original Alpha that swept across much of the planet back in 2020. Part of Psi’s menace was how long it could survive outside a host body. Up to six weeks on glass, even in warm weather.
Though it wasn’t Psi that had almost done humanity in.
It was the damn Infinity Bug. A personalized variant that rendered every man, woman and child contagious to everyone else on the planet.
Bruce ambled into a big home office that had once been the guestroom. He dropped into a high-backed leather chair and spun a lazy circle.
Guests were a curiosity now, relegated to history. He’d finally removed the queen-sized guest bed last year — burning it in the back paddock — and replaced it with an L-shaped desk. The desk supported a computer, three big screens, and a range of VR goggles and an immersion suit, all of which he still used to connect with work four days per week.
One of Maddie’s paintings — portraying a beach shack obscured by palm trees — hung on the wall beside the room’s single window. She’d done that one in 2023 when yet another brief easing in the rolling coronavirus lockdowns allowed them to rent a beach cottage in the nearby town of Goolwa.
It had been rebadged Sigma by that point. Like the earlier Omicron variant, it was more contagious but less prone to cause serious illness or death than Delta or the first Alpha COVID–19 strain that had come out of Wuhan, leading optimistic health experts to opine that the worst was behind them.
But like most Australians, the Monroe family was blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead during that gorgeous summer holiday in 2023. Even with social distancing still loosely in place the family had a great time. Sally, then seven, and Peter, 10, had spent half their days in the Southern Ocean’s formidable waves. Sally with her pink Barbie boogieboard; Peter with his blue soft foam surfboard.
Their grinning faces, both smeared with chocolate, looked out at him from a framed picture hanging above his desk. The frame’s glass itself was smeared with his own lip marks. He took it down and wiped the smudges away with his shirt sleeve before carefully hanging it back up.
He remembered taking that picture like it was yesterday, not almost two years ago on Christmas morning 2026. Sally was 10 then and Pete had just turned 13.
Sally had been too excited to open her presents to bother brushing her long blond hair. In the photo, it was still all ruffled from bed. Pete’s mop of brown hair was disheveled too, but not because he’d forgotten to brush. The ‘naturally messy look’ was back in that year, he’d insisted.
The chocolate on their faces came from the foot-high chocolate Santas Maddie had set atop the heap of gifts spilling out from beneath their Christmas tree. Both Santas could be seen — sans chocolate heads — in the picture’s background.
A tear rolled down Bruce’s freshly shaven cheek, belying his smile. He wiped it away absently. It had been one heck of a Christmas. Perhaps their best ever.
If 2023 had offered a ray of false hope in the virus wars, 2026 had ushered in a blinding chimera.
* * *
By April of 2026 the good word was out.
Working collaboratively, the world’s leading drug companies had created a novel vaccine. One based on what they called smRNA technology.
The mRNA vaccines first rolled out across the globe in 2021 had been meant to put an end to the pandemic. But the virus had other ideas. With each new mutation the last batch of vaccines proved less effective. And just as quickly as a new mRNA vaccine was tailored to help people’s bodies ward off the last version of the coronavirus, a new one emerged. Which meant most people were getting vaccinated six or more times each year, yet still couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t get gravely ill, or worse.
But with smRNA, which stood for smart-messenger RNA, the world’s top medical boffins were confident vaccinated people would be safe from every existing mutated COVID strain, as well as any future strains that might emerge.
The smart part of the vaccine meant that it was able to evolve alongside the virus, enabling a person’s immune system to squash any and every possible virus variant, including the common cold. And a single dose would reside within a person for life. No more multiple jabs. No more lockdowns. After six long pandemic roiled years, life looked set to return to normal.
By July 2026 pharmaceutical companies across the planet began churning out tens of millions of doses per day. By December most people in developed nations had been immunized, with poorer countries not far behind.
As promised, lockdowns were lifted. Social gatherings were given the green light. Airplanes again became a common sight overhead. Even the often-shuttered sports arenas reopened their doors to the masses.
Bruce had been vaccinated in September. As an essential services worker, he was among the first group to get the novel vaccine in South Australia.
Now, wrapped in the deathly silence of his former guest room more than two years later, he chuckled bitterly at the memory.
Why couldn’t he have been a bartender? Or a chef? Or a goddamned airline pilot? None of those professions were essential. None of them would have received their smRNA vaccine until November or December, when his own family had finally been vaccinated.
And if they’d all been vaccinated together then perhaps…
But no. He worked in management at the local Woolworths, overseeing the grocery store’s supply logistics. People had to eat, so Bruce’s role was labelled essential. And in September he’d happily showed up at the local clinic along with his colleagues for the jab that was meant to return life to normal.
“Party like it’s 2019, mate!” Allan, the store’s head butcher had exulted outside the clinic.
“We’ve sure got some catching up to do,” Bruce had replied, returning Allan’s enthusiastic high-five.
Now Bruce couldn’t recall when Allan had died. Sometime in early 2027, he thought, when the Infinity Bug raged unabated and people took to bury their loved ones in their own backyards.
But in September 2026, that was all still unthinkable.
For the next few months, brandishing the smartphone app that showed he’d been smRNA immunized, Bruce could go places and do things his family and most of his neighbors could not. But he took little pleasure in that. Mostly he just went to work and came straight home to help Maddie with the kids.
Pete and Sally had been home schooled since 2024. That was when the Upsilon variant arose, a mutation that proved just as deadly for the young as its earlier incarnations had been for the old. Not that Upsilon spared the old either. It was an equal opportunity slayer, with a mortality rate near 20%. And it saw most of the globe lockdown like never before.
In the third week of December, 2026, though, all those horrors seemed to finally be behind them. Bruce came back from work one afternoon to find his wife and kids joyfully brandishing their smartphones proving their vaccinated status. They’d be able to do away with those soon, once the entire population had been vaccinated. Which, according to the Australian government, was only a month away.
The family had gone out to celebrate that night, eating dinner inside a restaurant. And without masks! They’d also taken in a movie for the first time in five years, marveling over the fact that represented almost half of Sally’s lifetime. She’d only been five the last time they’d taken her to see a film in late 2021.
In December 2026, they went to see Frozen III. Animated and CGI films were in vogue, as they could be produced without bringing human actors into close contact. Peter had protested against seeing what he’d called “a kids’ movie about magic princesses”. Then he’d enjoyed every minute of their night out.
They all had.
* * *
A few days after Bruce took the Christmas photo now hanging on his office wall, India reported a disturbing rash of new illnesses. At first it was unclear if any of the sick had received the novel vaccine. Then cases began to appear in the US and Europe.
By 29 December the first new infections were reported in Australia.
“Turn off the news, honey. It’s upsetting the kids,” Maddie had admonished Bruce, who remained glued to the TV set.
Pete and Sally stood behind her, faces pale. “Is it true Daddy?” his little girl had asked. “Will we have to go back into lockdown?”
Bruce turned off the TV and hugged her, then drew Pete and Maddie in for a big family hug. “I don’t know sweetie. But no matter what happens, we’ll always have each other,” he promised.
By then it was verified that many of those falling ill had indeed been vaccinated with smRNA. But the source of the new virus remained a mystery.
Early reports indicated multiple sources from multiple new mutations. Even Western Australia, which had managed to remain largely virus free since the outbreak of the pandemic six years earlier, was reporting a surge in cases.
On 31 December, when Australians were meant to be ringing in the New Year celebrating in large groups for the first time in five years, the nation went into total lockdown once more.
The Monroe family was as disappointed as everyone else. They’d been planning a trip to Tasmania to celebrate before the school year kicked off in February. Now that trip was off. And it looked likely that the schools would remain shut, meaning another year of remote learning.
But, also like most everyone else, they’d become experts at living under lockdown restrictions. There were movies, books, boardgames and puzzles. And their house sat on 12 acres, offering plenty of space to run and play without leaving the grounds. Rufus, the family’s Labrador, couldn’t have been more pleased with the extended stay at home orders.
And Bruce went right on working. Though he was again reduced to managing the store’s supply chain from home, organizing VR meetings and sometimes manipulating machines inside the store with sensory gloves.
Only employees who physically needed to be in store or in the warehouse worked on site. And they observed careful social distancing and hygiene protocols, alongside wearing face shields and N95 masks.
They were the same stringent protocols that had kept Australia’s death rate from the pandemic among the lowest in the world. The same precautions that had enabled Woolworths to keep its doors open, if only to a limited number of customers at a time, for six years running.
There was no reason to suspect the same extreme safety measures wouldn’t be sufficient this time.
* * *
On 8 January, 2027, Bruce came down with mild cold symptoms. No fever. No scratchy throat even. Just a bit congested…an affliction that had continued plague him ever since.
He’d driven to the local clinic, but the line of patients — all wearing masks and widely spaced —snaked halfway around the block. Most were waiting to be tested or treated. A few, who hadn’t yet been vaccinated with smRNA, had rushed out to finally get their jab.
Bruce turned the car around and headed back home.
For the next three days he self-isolated in the master bedroom. It had an ensuite so he didn’t need to set foot in the rest of the house. Maddie slept on the queen-sized bed in the guest room and left his meals outside the door. Sally and Peter dutifully talked to him from the hallway, speaking loudly to be heard through the heavy door.
Bruce braced himself for the worst. He was no stranger to death. He’d lost his father to Upsilon and his mother to Psi. And he hadn’t been allowed to attend to either of them during their final days.
Now that he had it himself, he awoke each day expecting his throat to feel like it was lined with broken glass and his lungs to feel like they were filled with acidic molasses. Each morning he figured he’d be whisked off to an overworked emergency ward, never to see his family again. But all he woke with was the sniffles.
The Monroe family was beginning to think they’d dodged a very nasty bullet when Peter came down with a fever. It was 11 January, the day before they’d originally planned to head to Tasmania on holiday.
This time Bruce endured the three–hour wait outside the local clinic with Pete at his side. It was 30 degrees in the shade but the poor boy was shivering. Yet Pete and his dad both tested negative for all the COVID variants which were still lurking.
A nurse in full biohazard gear took additional blood samples from them both for further analysis at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He said it could just be something the boy had eaten. But he didn’t sound like he believed it.
Pete was sent home with instructions to get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. Over the next few days his fever came and went. On 14 January he felt well enough to go for a bike ride down their gravel driveway with Sally. That evening the relief in the Monroe household was palpable.
But it didn’t last.
The next morning, Pete awoke vomiting, too weak to join his family at the kitchen table. Maddie gave him paracetamol with orange juice and dry toast in bed. He couldn’t keep it down.
She called the clinic and was told they were doing the right thing. Paracetamol for the fever. Keep him comfortable. And if his temperature spikes, break out the icepacks.
No! Don’t come into the clinic or hospital. They were being overwhelmed. There was something new going around. Something they didn’t understand. Again, the idea of food poisoning was thrown around. Perhaps some kind of bacteria. Pete was better off at home, they insisted.
And for that part, at least, they were correct. Had they taken Pete to the hospital he would have died alone.
* * *
By lunchtime that same day Sally began feeling lethargic. Maddie and Bruce hadn’t been to church since they were kids themselves. But they got on their knees and prayed that day. Prayed Peter would recover. And prayed Sally was just tired out from worrying about her brother.
That evening Sally was in her own Princess Ariel canopy bed with a fever. And the next morning Maddie had it.
Bruce’s repeated calls to the local clinic went straight to voicemail. None of his frantic messages were returned. His calls to the Mt Barker hospital were greeted with a jarring busy signal.
Eventually he’d given up on the phone and bundled his family into Maddie’s Range Rover. Maddie and Sally mostly just felt tired and a bit nauseous. But Pete was delirious that morning.
“Why can’t we just take the horses, daddy?” he rasped. “Let’s take the horses.”
“The car’s faster, Pete,” Bruce told him, not bothering to explain that they didn’t own any horses. And never had.
Half an hour later Bruce understood why he’d been getting a busy signal from the hospital. The parking lot and adjoining street were jampacked with cars. Hundreds more people had arrived on foot. Most of them looked sick. Very sick.
Pete left his family in the idling SUV, donned a mask, and went to see if there was anyone who might be able to help them.
Tents had been erected outside the main entrance. Each held scores of hospital cots already overflowing with miserably coughing patients. He tried to flag down a doctor hurrying from one of the tents, But the doctor wasn’t hurrying to another patient. She was hurrying to a nearby bush where she stripped off her respirator mask and threw up.
Seeing that she was flushed with fever herself, Bruce returned to the Range Rover and took his family home.
* * *
Bruce was never sure what day his smRNA vaccine morphed into COVID–∞.
He suspected it was 8 January 2027, the day he’d woken up congested. That was three days before Pete fell ill. Six days before Sally and Maddie got it. Right in the normal incubation range for the Infinity Bug. Though when it came to COVID–∞, nothing was normal.
On a global scale he knew he wasn’t the first spreader. Among the first Aussies, yes. Because his goddamned essential services job classification meant he’d been among the earliest to get the jab. But the very first carriers of the Infinity Bug had emerged a few months earlier.
Even a superbug like COVID–∞ needed some time to build momentum. Time to let the rolling snowball explode into an avalanche.
But it didn’t really matter to Bruce when he became a chronic carrier of his own unique, constantly mutating virus. A self-tailored bug that he was wholly immune to but made his proximity potentially lethal to every other person on Earth. Whenever it happened, the end result was the same.
He sighed now and pushed back from his desk.
Misery threatened to overwhelm the jubilance he’d been feeling all morning. He slammed his mental doors on it. He’d endured enough misery to fill lifetimes.
Bruce paced back down the tiled central corridor in socked feet. He paused at two closed doors, the kids’ rooms, briefly resting his palm against each one before moving on.
Continuing down the hall he passed the dining room, with its long mahogany table and views of the horseless stables and back paddocks, the tall grass still green from the spring rains.
Then the vid screen on the table rang.
* * *
Maddie’s face greeted him from the dining room table’s big flat screen. She was blond, like Sally had been. While Pete had inherited Bruce’s dark brown hair.
Maddie was alone, of course, in a small room with sterile, pale blue walls. She smiled out at Bruce. A real smile for once, showing off her straight white teeth.
“Good morning, sunshine,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“Nervous. Excited. Nervous… How are you holding out, big guy?” she asked.
“Just willing time to pass, at the moment.”
“How many times have you lapped around the house?”
Bruce grinned. She still knew him inside and out.
They hadn’t lived together since her own smRNA vaccine morphed into COVID–∞ and infected him. Even though her strain (COVID–Maddie) was less lethal than average at that time, he almost didn’t survive.
That happened only a few weeks after she’d recovered from his virus (COVID–Bruce) in February 2027. That short period they’d been together in between, both in relatively good health, was dominated by grief. Without Pete and Sally, the big house had practically rung with silence.
And neither one of them could have guessed those would be the last few weeks either of them would enjoy any physical touch.
What I’d give to hug her now, Bruce thought. Or just hold hands!
But even with their relationship down to video calls, Maddie knew her husband like the back of her hand. “About six times,” he said. “I was just going for a seventh lap.”
“You look good,” she told him. But he knew that was a formality…and a lie. He’d aged 10 years in the last two. They both had.
“So do you, Mads.”
She smiled again. But this time it was her tight-lipped smile, the one that showed no teeth. “We were never very good at deceiving each other. But to hell with how we look, Bruce. We’re alive. And we’re really going through with this. Today!”
“I know. I’m over the moon,” Bruce said, wiping his nose with a tissue.
He was lucky the sniffles were the only chronic symptom he had from his personal bug. He could have been luckier. More than half of its carriers — by then some 98% of the surviving population — suffered no chronic symptoms at all. But others faced a lifetime of migraines, or chronic fatigue syndrome, or constant low-grade fevers, or…
Maddie was on the lucky end the scale too, able to keep her headaches in check with regular doses of rizatriptan.
“Are we really ready?” she asked, leaning in, her face filling the screen.
“I’ve been abstaining all week. I haven’t been this ready since I hit puberty.”
But Maddie wasn’t in a joking mood. “It could go wrong, you know. Right away. Or nine months from now. Or…” she trailed off.
“Yeah.” Bruce was all too aware of how things could go wrong. He leaned in himself and ran one hand along the side of the screen, as if he could touch her. “I know, Mads. But if we don’t try…”
“We’ll already have failed,” she filled in for him. It was a mantra they’d often trotted out with their kids.
“What’s Dr. Sundstrom saying?”
“What he always says. Think positive. Stay calm. Everything’s gone exactly as he’d hoped over the last three days. And he told me the success rate in Germany and Japan is over 85% so far.” She paused, chewing on her lower lip. “Of course, they’re only four months ahead of us. Now it’s up to providence. Or it will be by tonight after we three do our part.”
Bruce grimaced. “Providence hasn’t been any kinder to us than medical miracles. Now we’re depending on both.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Maddie’s face crumbled.
“Ah, shit. I’m sorry Mads. It’s just… It’s just that…”
“You don’t want to pin too much hope on success,” she finished for him.
“I don’t want to, no. But goddamn it, I’ve sunk every shred of hope I have left into this. And like you said, it could all still go wrong in nine months.”
“I’m sorry I said that, big guy. I take it back. It won’t go wrong. I know it. Trust me. Hope all you want.”
She’d always been the stronger one. If not for his wife, Bruce never would have survived the terrible losses that first month of 2027 delivered. Even if COVID–Maddie had almost killed him in the second month.
“I miss you,” he said, fighting back the annoying lump rising in his throat.
“Just two more hours and we’ll be together. Virtually in the same room.” Her blue eyes sparkled with moisture.
Bruce looked at the clock on the vid screen. “Yep, only another 30 minutes to kill before I drive out of here.”
“Enjoy the drive,” she said, knowing he would. “And take it slow,” she added, knowing he wouldn’t.
* * *
25 minutes later Bruce stepped out the front door. He didn’t bother locking it. Anyone entering his house without a biohazard suit would be deathly ill within days. The same fate awaited him if he ventured into any of his surviving neighbors’ homes.
COVID-∞ mutated constantly. Only its host was immune. But that host was highly contagious to every other soul on the planet. And all those other souls were contagious to everyone else. Some people’s virus had a mortality rate of over 80%. With others it was less than 20%. But the bug morphed so often you never really knew how lethal yours was at any particular time.
At the end of the day, the miracle cure that was meant to end social distancing and relegate the pandemic to history instead forced everyone into permanent self isolation.
It was the hardest for young children. The kids who’d survived their first bout of COVID-∞ often caught it a second time from someone else. Or they could catch it from the same person again only weeks later, after that person’s virus mutated into something they no longer had immunity to.
Most young kids who survived the early months of 2027 — and even in Australia that was less than half of them — were eventually placed in special isolated facilities. They were well cared for by professionals. But their carers could never physically handle their charges without donning full biohazard gear.
The kids who still had parents only got to see them on visitors’ days. Either through a viewing window, or each bundled in their own protective suits. It was a harsh policy. But any greater leniency came with unacceptably high cross infection risks.
Once the Infinity Bug had been identified in March 2027, ushering in strict new isolation policies, the staggering death rates began to decline. By June, with billions of recorded fatalities, the world turned its attention back to the future. To how the human race could endure.
The human touch had become shunned. Normal reproductive methods were now potentially deadly to both partners. Artificial insemination seemed a potential solution. Though with both parents highly contagious to each other and to the medical staff — who were in turn contagious to their fellow doctors and nurses — the process was both arduous and perilous.
Nonetheless, in the following months, millions of hopeful parents underwent the procedure around the world. And every one of them was bitterly disappointed. The Infinity Bug didn’t affect the genetics of sperm or eggs. But it did live inside the womb. And despite every anti-viral drug thrown at it, not a single baby made it past the embryonic stage.
Globally, less than 3,000 healthy babies had been born in the 22 months since COVID–∞ emerged. All of those were delivered by a handful of women who were never vaccinated and had miraculously managed to avoid cross infection.
Until four months ago these carefully guarded babies and their mums were the only feeble hope that the human race wasn’t destined for extinction. Then a team of German and Japanese scientists provided a sliver of fresh hope.
Hope, Maddie had told Bruce, to grab onto.
Bruce let the screen door slam behind him and glanced at the aluminum delivery shed ten meters away. Everyone had one now. The days of doing your own shopping ended with COVID-∞. Now everything was delivered to your shed by solo drivers in protective gear. Drivers who never shared their vehicles…or homes…with anyone else.
Deliveries were sprayed with disinfectant and left in the shed. And there they sat for six weeks before you touched them. Enough time to kill any remnants of the Infinity Bug that might be clinging to the packaging.
That meant all food and drink was of the long life and often dehydrated variety. It also meant most people, like Bruce, tended their own small gardens for the little treasures of fresh fruit and vegetables they provided. Most of his neighbors had chickens, too. But to date Bruce had been making do with powdered eggs.
He clicked the remote that rolled up the garage door.
Maddie’s Range Rover no longer occupied its spot. She’d taken it with her to the small house in Mt Barker that she’d moved into after she became contagious. There were plenty of empty homes in Bruce’s neighborhood she could have chosen. But she couldn’t bear to be so close to the house where they’d raised Pete and Sally.
Sally’s pink LOL bicycle and Peter’s black mountain bike were still in the garage, neatly leaning against the back wall. Right where they’d left them almost two years earlier.
Bruce’s car was there too. Black, like Pete’s bike. Sitting on four fat, low-profile tires. Sprouting four chrome exhaust pipes. The 2017 Commodore looked like a family sedan overdosed on steroids.
“Last of the V8s,” Bruce said, voice sounding hollow in the half empty garage. And, unlike Mad Max’s model in the movie he was quoting, it was true. Well, almost. 2017 had been the last year Holden produced the 6.2-liter behemoth. His hadn’t been the very last off the line. But it would have been among the final hundred.
In the pre-pandemic days, it had been his pride and joy. He’d taken it to the Tailem Bend race track a few times. And in the summer of 2020, weeks before the first coronavirus lockdown came into place, the whole family had joined him at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit in Victoria. Maddie had been nervous about the high speeds, especially since he was sharing the track with other amateur racers. But Pete and Sally had cheered him in on with no doubts their dad would win every race. Of course, he didn’t. But he didn’t crash either.
Over the past seven years the car had spent more and more time just sitting in the garage, like some giant paper weight. He still started it up twice a month and drove the half kilometer to the end of his country lane and back. Sometimes gunning it to get the back end fishtailing. Sometimes burbling along in first gear at little more than walking speed.
But that was all.
Any further and he risked running into a roadblock with no good reason to be out and about. With all of his work conducted virtually, the last time he’d had a valid reason to drive beyond his property was seven months ago, when an infected tooth required urgent dental surgery.
Now he slid in behind the wheel and hit the pushbutton starter. The big motor turned over lazily a few times before catching and roaring to life.
“Got to be the battery,” he muttered, hoping it was true.
If it was the starter or the alternator it could be a problem. Parts and mechanics were hard to come by. The government was trying to phase out machines that could drive long distances at high speeds. They were spruiking short range, low speed EVs instead. Little more than glorified golf carts, really.
He drove down the long gravel driveway, past the unused horse stables and past the sapling he’d planted to mark Rufus’s grave. The old Labrador had remained his faithful companion through most of 2027, before dying of cancer just before Christmas. Another emotional memory Bruce kept locked away.
He knew he should get another dog. Maybe a cat too. Almost everyone had pets now for the companionship they offered. But he hadn’t been able to bring himself to start the process yet.
Fifty meters beyond the dog’s sapling, a single gravestone jutting out of the paddock soil marked a far larger tragedy. Bruce lifted one hand as the car idled past. Sally had always wanted a younger sibling, though Peter claimed he already had his hands full with one sister.
When he hit the pavement, Bruce gunned the gas. The car surged forward, 408 horses pressing him into the driver’s seat. He grinned like a teenager out for their first solo drive.
It was a warm spring day. In earlier years he would have rolled down the windows and opened the sunroof. But even out on the road that wasn’t such a good idea. Best to keep the windows up and the aircon on recycle.
Richard Flagg was in his big front yard three houses down, cutting neat parallel rows on his riding mower. Even with each house now home to only one person, his was the nearest occupied home.
70 years old, Rich had somehow survived two bouts with COVID–∞. Now he raised a hand as Bruce sped by. Bruce honked in return. The two men never got closer than 10 meters of each other. But they both found that personal conversations, even ones with someone wearing a respirator mask 10 strides away, still offered a welcome respite from video calls and VR visits.
Bruce took the right turn from his country lane onto the main road fast enough to send the car into a slide. He steered into it, keeping his foot on the gas, rear wheels spinning, tires smoking as the car lined itself back up with the road.
A pack of Marlboros fell from the dashboard into the passenger seat. He eyed them hungrily but wasn’t about to light up. He’d quit cold turkey six weeks ago when he and Maddie learned they’d made it onto Dr. Sundstrom’s finalist list. With everything on the line, Bruce had no wish to hamper his swimmers.
He’d started smoking young. Whether despite the risks or because of them he was never sure. He’d been born well after the days when cigarettes were considered harmless. The days when parents would fill their car with smoke on the morning school run. And smokers would freely light up on airplanes and in theaters.
Bruce found it hard to believe people had ever been that ignorant. His favorite story was the advice English authorities gave to children when London was hit by an outbreak of the plague in 1665. Figuring the disinfectant nature of tobacco would help fight off the disease, kids were told to smoke cigarettes.
Though, Bruce supposed, shifting into fourth gear and winding the car over 140 kilometers per hour, that was pure genius compared to early Egyptian doctors, who’d made liberal use of donkey poo as a cure-all.
If only we’d stuck with donkey poo rather than messing with smart messenger RNA, he thought. Then the Commodore crested a hill, doing 160, and the police car came into view.
* * *
The police car, a newer model Ford sedan, was parked horizontally across the road. It was just the one car, leaving room to squeeze by on the shoulder on both sides. But the cop standing beside the cruiser clearly wouldn’t have liked that.
Despite doing over 160, Bruce brought the Commodore to a controlled stop. The big motor rumbling, its front bumper stood 10 meters from the side of the cruiser. He thumbed the starter button and the motor died.
Bruce and the cop examined each other. Bruce through the tinted windscreen. The cop through the visor of his biohazard suit. Then the cop approached his car, stopping three paces away. He was young, no more than 25. His name badge said Hudson. Bruce didn’t know him.
There was a time when Bruce knew all the local police officers. With a force of only three, that hadn’t been too difficult. But they were all gone now. Whether to the next life or another jurisdiction, Bruce wasn’t sure.
“There a fire somewhere?” the young cop asked, voice muffled by his full-face shield and the Commodore’s windows.
“Well, there’s got to be…somewhere,” Bruce quipped.
“My radar’s on the fritz. Not much need for it these days. Hell, you’re only the third car I’ve seen all day. But I reckon you were doing something like 150 coming over that hill.”
“You reckon?” Bruce asked noncommittally.
“Yeah. But don’t worry. I’m not going to get tied up with speeding tickets. You got a permit to be out today?”
“No, but I’ve got a hell of a good reason.”
“Do tell,” Anderson said when Bruce failed to elaborate.
“I’m heading to Mt. Barker to knock up my wife.”
The cop actually took a half step back at that. The shock on his face gave way to an uncertain grin. “That’s a new one, mate. I’ll give you that. But I’m going to have to ask you to turn around and go back home.”
“How do you know I live back that way?”
“Because you’re Bruce Monroe, and I know your address.” He patted the tablet clipped next to his holstered Glock. “Got it from your plates while you were still moving.” He angled the tablet so Bruce could see his own face on the screen, the image taken from his driver’s license.
“Fancy. That thing doesn’t tell you where I’m off to though?”
“Nothing about…ahem…meeting up with your wife. No.”
“Well check again, mate. I’m expected at the hospital in 40 minutes.”
The young cop began tapping on the tablet’s touchscreen. “So, what’s at the hospital?”
“I told you. My wife. And, well, our fertility doctor.”
That got Anderson’s attention. “Fertility?”
“Yeah, mate,” Bruce said. He suddenly found himself choking back emotion.
“Yeah. No. Fuck, are any of us okay?”
Anderson considered that for a moment before shaking his head. “I reckon not.” His eyes looked haunted when he glanced up from the tablet. “I didn’t think anyone could have babies anymore.”
“They can’t. At least not natural ones.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the geniuses who concocted the smRNA jab saw to it that natural babies are a thing of the past. And now some other group of geniuses believe that genetically engineered eggs are the key to our future.”
A hint of understanding passed over Anderson’s young face. “Oh, you mean the trials they’re doing in Japan and Germany.”
“Yeah,” Bruce said, wishing the cop hadn’t referred to the procedures as ‘trials’. Trials were just experiments, stabs in the dark. They went wrong all the time. Surely trials weren’t something you pinned the last of your hopes on. Surely the scientists were onto something when they discovered that editing a single strand of DNA inside the egg should leave babies non-reactive to COVID-∞.
Should, Bruce reflected. No one knew yet. Four months into the first trials, all they knew was that most of the fetuses were alive and healthy. 85 percent, Maddie had told him earlier. The real proof wouldn’t come for five more months. By then he hoped Maddie would be five months along herself. But what if the news coming out of Germany and Japan then was bad. What if…
He slammed the door on that thought before it could burrow any deeper.
It was going to work. It had to.
They would have a baby boy or girl to dote on. One that was immune to COVID–Maddie, COVID-Bruce and every other mutation of the Infinity Bug. They would be able to cuddle it and simply be with it in a normal way. As much as the new world enabled anything resembling normalcy.
Of course, Maddie would get the lion’s share of the time with the baby in the early months. But as it grew older Bruce could care for it for long weekends. Eventually for weeks or months. There’d still be an onerous process of decontamination to ensure no trace of the virus passed between their two homes. Or from outside, for that matter, when the kid got older and was out and about on their own. But that was nothing they couldn’t overcome.
“My wife, Madalyn and I, we’re in the first group in Australia to get the green light,” he told the waiting cop.
Anderson’s eyes lit up behind his face shield. “Well congratulations Mr. Monroe. And best of luck. Do you need me to pull aside, or can you get by on the shoulder?”
“Did you find me listed in your system then?”
“No. Screw that. You’re good to go. But slow it down some, mate. Way too big of a day for you to end up wrapped around some gum tree.”
“Yeah. The big day. Thanks, Officer Anderson. I can get by on the shoulder just fine.”
Bruce pushed the starter and the big motor turned over once lazily before catching.
It’s got to be the battery, Bruce thought and drove sedately past the roadblock.
I took my first notes for this story in early February 2020, my muse sparked by the Orwellian scenes coming out of Wuhan, China. That was several months before the coronavirus, aka COVID-19, gained a solid toehold in Australia. And several months before the police roadblocks I imagined Down Under became a stark reality.
Importantly, it was also nine months before pharmaceutical companies came out with the first vaccines. When I wrote Infinity Bug in full in April 2020, I’d never heard of mRNA. The vaccine in the original story was, therefore, based on more traditional flu vaccines.
I updated a few small parts of the story in January 2022, shortly before publication, to reflect the nature of the vaccines that did come out. Since I wrote the original draft, I’ve also rolled up my sleeve to get my own jabs. And likely will be doing so again.
While the outcome of the modified vaccine rollout in Infinity Bug is, well, less than ideal, please keep in mind that this is pure speculative fiction. And if it keeps you up at night, then I’ve done my job well.