Shashi Warrier | Viruses & nukes: Will we wake up in time or stew?

A green humanoid figure about two feet high stepped on to the ladder and descended to the ground

The other day I woke up at three in the morning to a green light pulsing in our garden. When I went out, I saw a shining green disk sixteen feet in diameter and seven feet high floating three feet off the ground by the mango tree. A ladder extended to the ground from a hatch in the bottom. A green humanoid figure about two feet high stepped on to the ladder and descended to the ground. It seemed to look at me. I felt a tingle in my head, and heard a voice speaking accented English. “I am Zbleep, from a planet 350 parsecs from here. I have come to bring social justice to your planet.”

I was too surprised to be scared, and simply asked, “Social justice? How?”

Zbleep spoke in a voice and an accent like mine, “Justice is when every living being has a voice in making decisions.” Clearly, it was learning my mannerisms. “We have ways to communicate with all lifeforms.”

“Right,” I said, wondering what Zbleep meant by that.

It seemed to read my mind. “Every living being, plant or animal, that’s what it means. Justice must be all inclusive.”

“Ah!” I said. “Of course! But how do we find out what each other thinks?”

“I have set it up so that all of you will be able to hear what each other thinks,” said Zbleep. “There’s a representative of every species.”

“Why me?” I asked.

“I selected you the same way I selected the others,” replied Zbleep. “You’re the most average member of your species that I could find. Average intelligence, average ability, average knowledge, average everything…” Zbleep took a closer look at me through what seemed to be narrowed eyes. “Much fatter around the middle than the average, and a little older, and a little less intelligent, but I don’t think that matters. In any case, it’s too late to change.”

“What about women?” I asked.

“Not a problem,” said Zbleep. “Many of the species on your planet aren’t divided into males and females, so I decided we’ll make do with one representative – male or female, at random – from each species that has this division.”

“Silly thing to do,” said a new voice. Thanks to Zbleep, I knew it was a black widow spider. “Males don’t count except as snacks. History is just a long list of which girl ate which boys.”

“Nonsense!” said the Covid-19 virus. “I caused the human world to shut down, for a couple of years, and got space for every other species to thrive! That’s more important than eating your mate!”

“Enough!” said Zbleep. “We are here to determine the most significant species on the planet and make sure it follows just ways.”

“Most significant?” said a new voice, hemlock. “It’s us. We killed lots of humans long ago, like Socrates, and changed the course of philosophy.”

“That’s nothing,” said a new voice, a bacterium, “we’ve been following human armies all over the world and have caused more upsets than any human general could imagine! I cause syphilis, and, if left untreated, drive people mad.”

“What about us?” said a rat. “We pass on diseases to humans. How can you ignore us?”

“You all work through humans,” said Zbleep. “That gives them the feeling that they’re the most significant beings on the planet.”

“Yes,” said a virus. It hadn’t yet been discovered by humans, and so I couldn’t discern its full name, but it seemed to start with something that sounded like ‘Stew’. “I’ve been working on a lot of human beings for millennia, but they don’t even know about me.”

“Whom have you infected lately?” asked Zbleep. “And what have they done?”

“Oh, I’ve been busy,” said Stew. “I’ve infected all these leaders who think the wrong way. There are the Pakistanis, who think they must maintain a huge army and a nuclear arsenal even though they’re too broke to eat. There are the Chinese, who think their plan to create a new international supply chain will work. There are bankers who think they can make irresponsible loans and immediate profits and have taxpayers take care of the consequences. There are leaders who think they can ignore environmental problems.

“And there’s Putin thinking he can get away with attacking Ukraine. Against him are Americans thinking that they can sell weapons to Ukraine, sure that they can defeat Putin, who has more than 1500 nuclear weapons... ”

“We’re heading for disaster!” I said. “If Putin goes nuclear, that could be the end of all of us! Zbleep, you said you were out for justice. Do something! Save the planet!”

“Not if the majority doesn’t care,” said Zbleep. “That’s all I’m concerned with.”

It was clearly no use talking to Zbleep, so I turned to Stew. “You’ve got to back off,” I said, “Just for the next half-century. Let the biosphere recover, and then you can get back to work.”

“Why should us viruses care?” asked Stew. “Some lifeforms might survive nuclear war, and, even if they don’t, new ones will evolve in the next few million years. I’m not concerned.”

I thought I’d use flattery. “What’s your name, dear virus?” I asked.

“Stew,” came the reply. “Short for Stupidity. But if you’re so concerned, if you want to avoid my effects, all you have to do is…”

A bomb warning went off. “Putin’s nuking the world!” I screamed. I felt someone tugging on my arm and sat up, wide awake.

It was my wife. “You were having a nightmare,” she said. “About Putin’s nukes.”

And I kept silent, regretting that perhaps I’d missed a chance to save the world.

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