We stared at Jon curled up on the bed, then looked at each other in horror. Every one of us had seen that body position hundreds of times before. In the dried-out husks lying curled up in every building in the valley.
“Maybe he just had a heart attack,” said Aldo. But I knew that was wishful thinking.
Sal finally said the word we were avoiding. “It’s F-Fixer, isn’t it?”
“How can it be Fixer?” asked Ed. “I thought Fixer was gone.”
“Let’s see,” said Tan. He pulled off one of Jon’s shoes and took off his sock.
In place of the big toe on his left foot, Jon has an ugly white scar. But as we gathered around, pushing to see, tiny threads of black began to form in the damaged area of Jon’s foot. The black rippled and pulsed just under the skin, breaking into spots, then re-forming into spidery lines. I shuddered. I’d never seen Fixer before. It was like watching pure evil up close. But then the black retreated. The toe was still missing, but the skin was smooth and pink, like new skin after a scab falls off.
“It’s Fixer,” said Tan. “Vega, get that ventilator over here! We’ve got to make sure Jon doesn’t stop breathing! Everybody else, out! We need space to work!”
Reluctantly, we filed out of the room and left Tan and Vega to take care of Jon. Without even talking about it, everyone automatically headed for the lunchroom. Sal curled up in a corner and cried quietly. Grace tried to comfort her. Conner didn’t talk; he stood staring straight ahead, no expression on his face at all.
Ort talked too much. “I’ve never seen anyone die before! I’ve had pets die, but I didn’t think any of us would ever die!”
“Shut up!” I said, wiping away an angry tear. “Jon’s not going to die! Tan will cure him!”
“But what if he does die?” asked Tuck. “What will we do without Jon?”
Nobody spoke. Suddenly I felt like we were all alone in the world. I mean, we’ve always been alone in the world but it never felt like it before.
Finally Fahina spoke up. “I think Jon would want us to keep going. Maybe while we’re waiting for Tan and Vega to tell us how Jon is, we should all go do our jobs.”
Fahina was right. But nobody got up to do their job, not even Fahina. She just sat and shredded a napkin. Outside in the dark, the wind began to blow, and rain pelted the windows. I still had my backpack, so I pulled out my notebook and pen. I needed something, anything to take my mind off the image of Jon lying curled up in sickbay. I didn’t really want to think about Zero Day, but that’s where the story of the clan really starts. And the story of Zero Day starts with a guy who decided he never wanted any children.
Once there was a guy named Jon. When he was a teenager, he planned his whole life out on an index card. I know this because he kept the card in his wallet, and I’ve seen it. It says:
Start a rock band.
Climb Mount Everest.
Read one book a week.
Make a difference in the world.
No kids, ever.
Jon never made it to Everest, and his band broke up over creative differences after three hours. But he still reads one book a week, and he made more of a difference in the world than he ever could have imagined.
The world was a lot different back then; for one thing there were seven billion people in it. The past people built huge cities, sang wonderful songs, and wrote fantastic stories, but best of all, they made beautiful machines. Some of the best and the brightest of the past people got together and designed the most ambitious machine of all: a tiny mechanical bug, smaller than a human cell. This little machine would recognize and destroy viruses, bacteria, and cancer. It would be the cure for all disease on earth. They called it Fixer.
Out of all the people on earth, the scientists who created Fixer chose Jon to be the first test subject. They injected him with millions of the tiny Fixer machines. First the machines put him into a deep sleep. Then they raced through his body, destroying viruses, harmful bacteria, and damaged cells. But then something went wrong. Fixer was supposed to put Jon into a deep enough sleep that he wouldn’t feel any pain, but it got so deep that he stopped breathing. Quickly, the scientists hooked him up to a machine that breathed for him. After a few hours, the scientists injected Jon with a special chemical compound called “shut-off factor” that switched Fixer off.
Jon woke up, completely free of disease. He was too weak to walk at first, but in a few days he was healthier than he’d ever been in his life. Fixer was a success! But when the scientists told Jon how close he had come to dying, he insisted on carrying a syringe of the shut-off factor with him, just in case he needed it again.
As soon as Jon could walk, the scientists flew him to a medical conference in a far away city where Fixer would be announced to the world. They also took a sample of Fixer, sealed in a special container. Hundreds of doctors and scientists gathered in a big auditorium. Fixer was brought on stage, and a powerful microscope projected a live image of it onto a big screen. The lights were turned off, and in front of everyone, Fixer went to work, destroying diseases.
Jon waited backstage. He was supposed to walk out when the lights came back up, to be introduced as the first test subject for Fixer. When the presentation was over, he waited for the applause, but it never came. The auditorium was dark and silent. Jon grew nervous, then worried, then he stumbled through the dark to the switches and turned the lights back on. The scientist in charge of the demonstration lay in the middle of the stage, curled into a little ball. Jon ran to his side. The man was still alive, but barely breathing. Jon looked around for help, but everyone in the audience lay slumped over in their seats or curled up in the aisles. Jon was the only person in the auditorium still conscious.
He ran out into the lobby, but everyone in the building was lying on the floor. Outside, he found people collapsed on the sidewalks, and cars smashed into each other, the drivers passed out over the steering wheels. Desperately, he pulled out his mobile phone and dialed the police. No one answered. He dialed phone numbers of people in other cities, other countries, other continents, but the phones just rang and rang.
The awful truth finally hit Jon. Fixer had escaped. It was supposed to be a cure for all disease, but it had become the worst disease that ever existed. It wasn’t supposed to be able to jump from one person to another, but somehow it had spread across the entire earth. All over the world, everyone had just curled up and gone to sleep. Except nobody was going to wake up ever again. With no doctors awake to take care of them, in a few hours they would all stop breathing and die. Jon sat down on the curb, with his head in his hands, and waited to die too.
But even in this moment of despair, something inside Jon wouldn’t let him give up. “I’m not dead yet,” he said out loud. “While there’s still life, there’s still hope.”
But how could he save the human race? Jon was protected from Fixer because he had been given the shut-off factor. There was more shut-off factor back in the lab where Fixer had been created, but the lab was in another city, too far away to get to in time. Jon had the syringe of shut-off factor with him, but it was only a single dose. He could save one other person, and that was it. Even if he revived a woman, Jon knew that two people were not enough to keep the human race going. His children would have to marry each other, which would lead to genetic weakness, and the entire population would die after a few generations. Jon knew that some endangered animal species had come back from the edge of extinction with only twenty individuals, but he couldn’t save that many humans.
Or could he?
The shut-off factor was administered according to body weight. The smaller the person was, the less shut-off you had to use. If you carried that to the extreme, what you really needed was a group of newborn babies.
Jon got into his rental car and drove through the streets of the sleeping city, following signs that led him to a hospital. Inside, doctors and nurses and patients lay in the hallways. In the nursery he found seventeen newborns, deep asleep in their little plastic beds. Carefully measuring the dose according to the weight of a newborn, he injected each one with the shut-off. When he was done with the last baby, he still had half an infant dose left. He had passed one more baby in the hall in a portable incubator with an oxygen tank. The baby was very small, and very sick looking. Jon didn’t think there was much hope it would survive, but he did have half a dose left over, and if somehow the tiny baby did live, that would make it an even number of boys and girls. So he brought the incubator into the nursery and injected the sick baby too.
In a few minutes, all the babies woke up and began to cry. Jon had done the impossible. He had found the only solution, and he had saved the human race from extinction. Now came the really hard part. He had to keep eighteen children alive until they could care for themselves. And he had to do it all alone.
The first few weeks after Zero Day were terrible. During the day, the sun was covered by a rust-colored haze. At sunset, the sky turned blood red, with streaks that glowed for hours after the sun went down. Jon struggled to keep the last flame of humanity from flickering out. When we were asleep, Jon would go out on finding expeditions and grab supplies like food, water, and fuel for the hospital’s emergency generator. Then winter came, with snowstorms that sometimes lasted for a week. When the generator died, Jon kept the nursery warm with kerosene heaters. Spring never came that year. Jon called it the Neverending Winter. Once Jon had to go out in a storm to get baby formula for us. His car got stuck in the snow, and he had to hike back to the hospital. He made it back with the formula, but his toes got frostbitten. When summer finally came, it was a weak, sickly summer that didn’t even have the strength to melt all the snow before winter returned.
There’s a lot I don’t know about the end of the world. I don’t know what would have made the sky turn red, or why there was a year with no summer. I don’t know how Fixer could escape and spread around the world almost instantly. Tan says that no disease he’s read about could do that, but Fixer was not an ordinary disease. Also I don’t know how anyone could take care of that many babies without going crazy.
Gradually, things got better. Summer came back the next year. The sky turned blue again. Jon learned to change eighteen diapers in two minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Even the tiny, sick baby got better and grew. A lot. We call him “Conner” now. When Jon first found us, we each had a wristband with our mother’s last name on it. Since the last names were all unique, Jon never saw the need to give us first names, although some of our names got shortened in later years.
The hospital generator had died, so Jon found a school that had a backup generator in the basement and a water well with a pump and moved us there. Jon taught us to feed ourselves, taught us to talk and dress ourselves, and most importantly, he taught us to read. He couldn’t teach us everything, but as long as we could read, we had the key to learning everything else. Jon knew that as long as we could teach ourselves, humanity would survive.
Even if something happened to him.