A novella set in the universe of the NEWSFLESH TRILOGY is the first, and the longest, of the two stories that make up Mira Grant’s When Will You Rise: Stories to End the World. Anyone who hasn’t read the NEWFLESH TRILOGY is likely to be a touch lost in “Countdown,” but not entirely: it is the story of the beginning of a plague, one inadvertently engineered by scientists and activists intending to do good, who instead wind up killing hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people.
The story is set in the year 2014, with a Denver doctor checking up on his favorite patient, Amanda Amberlee. Amanda had been diagnosed with cancer when she was 13, but now, at age 18, she’s getting ready to attend prom. A cure has been constructed from the Marburg virus, one of the most deadly viruses known to humans. Tailored to attack only the cancer cells in Amanda, Marburg Amberlee is the first effective cancer cure in the world. Meanwhile, in Reston, Virginia, Dr. Alexander Kellis is monitoring his rhesus monkeys and guinea pigs. They’ve been exposed to rhino- and coronaviruses — that is, the flu — and yet don’t seem to be getting sick. Dr. Kellis is dreaming of immortality as the man who cured the common cold.
Not everyone is so impressed with the work these scientists are doing. A journalist in Manhattan, for instance, has put together an explosive article condemning Dr. Kellis as a tool of rapacious pharmaceutical companies. And the effect of that article on a group of activists known as the Mayday Army is predictable. Nature, of course, doesn’t much care what these humans have going on; once the cold cure has gotten loose, it does what viruses do, floating through the lower stratosphere.
While these events are taking place, in Berkeley, California, the Mason family — Philip, a toddler; his mother, Stacy; and his father, Michael, the head of the UC Berkeley Biology Department — is going about its business. For Philip, that means playing with the neighbor’s dog, a friendly golden retriever who likes to squeeze through the fence to administer a thorough face washing for the little boy. For Stacy, that means looking after the boy she expects might be mentally impaired, even though the doctors continue to tell her he’s within the range of normal for his age. Those of us who have read the NEWFLESH TRILOGY recognize these characters, but that’s not necessary to enjoy them. The family is charming; and that charm is the set-up for tragedy.
The days go by, and they are just days for the viruses. When the cancer cure and the cold cure meet up, though, a new virus emerges. Those who have read the NEWSFLESH TRILOGY know what happens next. For those who have not, I won’t spoil the story. Suffice it to say that this prequel to the trilogy appears to be scientifically sound — and utterly terrifying.
The much shorter story that comprises the remainder of this slim volume is “Apocalypse Scenario No. 683: The Box.” This tale features a group of friends who have gathered weekly for 15 years to play the Apocalypse Game – one in which they make up ways for the world to end and then debate how the scenarios would play out. Cole has become much too absent from these get-togethers, and she isn’t there this particular week, either, but she has sent a recording presenting her scenario. After all, it’s her turn. She’s stuck at the lab, doing work she never explains beyond, “I work for the government” and “I still use my medical degree.” This week, though, she might be telling her friends far more about her work than they want to know. Is it just another scenario, part of the game? Or is Cole telling them the truth about the end of the world? Only time — and not much of it — will tell.
Hard science fiction readers and horror readers alike will find much to like in these stories.