On Saturday, 6th January 2035, the frigate George Washington Gibbs was crossing latitude 60° on course for San Diego from the US Antarctic Base at the edge of McMurdo Sound, when a member of the navigation team reported a large object 8.3 nautical miles dead ahead. The charts showed no such island at this location and anyway, the First and Navigation Officers were very familiar with the route. Radar and satellite data confirmed the presence of an island in the frigate’s path.
The first officer issued orders to reduce speed and to maintain their present course in order to check on the object.
“Captain Spencer, this is First Officer Watson. We have located an object that I suspect is a huge iceberg ahead. I’ve reduced speed to half-slow.”
“Is its size abnormal Judy?”
“Yes sir. It’s as big as a politician’s lie.”
“I don’t know any politicians Miss Watson, above all ones who lie, so I’ll come up to the bridge and see this for myself.”
By the time the object came into view over the horizon, the first officer’s suspicion was confirmed: the object was a huge iceberg. Such freak icebergs were not new phenomena; in 2004, the earliest reported had been the size of Long Island and classified as B-15A. It had drifted for more than four years in McMurdo Sound and the Ross Sea and had obstructed shipping and interfered with penguin migration before running aground off Cape Adare, Victoria Land. It broke apart in October 2005. In later years, increasing ocean temperatures caused acceleration in the break up of the Antarctic ice cap and supersized icebergs were reported more often.
USS George Washington Gibbs slowed to a stop about a half-mile from the iceberg, identified for the time being as B-32. Its draft, as measured by sonar, was more than seven hundred feet and its width, based on GPS and radar data, was determined to be about four miles. Watson surveyed the iceberg with her binoculars and saw a brief movement on the almost flat top. A few minutes later she saw more movement but was unable to determine the nature of whatever was moving around. She reported this to the captain.
“There is some kind of animal life on top of the iceberg sir. It could be penguins or seals but I can’t identify which. In either case, the animal up there is doomed. Since there are no aircraft scheduled to come this way for a while, may I suggest we take a closer look sir?”
“It’s likely we will not be able to reach the top, Judy, but go ahead and send a small team to take a look. We’d better call McMurdo Base and let them know what we are doing.”
A crew of six made their way to the iceberg in a rubberized boat and began probing its circumference, seeking a feature that would allow them to climb on to this massive chunk of ice. Its sheer size was staggering. Most crew members were familiar with the blue color that emanated from glaciers and icebergs but a few found it a novelty. The precipitous cliff of ice varied between eighty and one hundred feet in height above them as they traveled along a portion of its perimeter. After thirty minutes spent looking for an access point on the iceberg, without success, Electronics Technician Albert Cummings made a request to sample the pure water streaming down the ice face.
“With permission Coxswain, I happened to bring my water bottle with me and I’d like to taste the water running off that berg. I’ll bet there’s no water more pure anywhere on the planet. Could we move closer?”
The coxswain ordered the rubberized boat to be moved alongside the iceberg. While running his hand across the surface of the iceberg wall, Cummings drew the coxswain’s notice to its smoothness.
“Hey Cox, this ice is as smooth as a baby’s bum, and look at the sparkle of the water running down here.”
He emptied the contents of his water bottle, refilled it from the streaming water, and offered it to other crew members.
“Just taste it for yourselves. Try it Marty… here… it’s great isn’t it? I’m taking this back to the ship for old man Birkins to drink. I wish I had a bigger container.”
The crew returned to the frigate, which continued to circumnavigate B-32. The iceberg’s length was determined to be about eleven miles and a quick calculation suggested the mass to be about twenty-five billion tons. With nothing more to be learned, the first officer reported a sighting of unknown creatures on B-32 and logged the location as 59°33’09″ S, 75°10’12″ W. Satellite observation reported it to be drifting eastward in the Antarctic Current, in confirmation of the first officer’s assessment, and although it was very large, its newsworthiness soon diminished-at least for a while. Shipping in the region was warned of the drifting hazard.
Twelve hours after inspecting the iceberg, Technician Cummings reported to Medical Officer Carson in the sick bay with a high temperature and a bad headache.
“Technician Cummings reporting sick ma’am.”
“What’s wrong with you Technician Cummings? Have you been drinking elicit booze again?”
“No ma’am, I’ve been drinking nothing but water today-pure stuff running off that iceberg. I’ve a real bad headache and feel stuffed up. I can’t breathe right and I think I’m running a temperature.”
“Let’s check that. Hold your head to the left… the other left Cummings. Hmm, your temperature is 101 degrees. All right Cummings, you are relieved of duties for the next four hours. Report here then. In the meantime, I suggest you go to your bunk and rest.”
“Yes ma’am. Thank you ma’am.”
Four hours later, Cummings returned to sick bay with a temperature of 105 degrees, a raging headache and difficulty breathing. He was confined to sick bay by the medical officer and was never to leave it alive. Cummings died of extreme pulmonary congestion at 0500 hours next morning. Carson had run all the tests relevant to such a sudden and aggressive illness and had radioed for advice without making progress toward a diagnosis or a strategy for its cure. In her notes, she recorded Cummings’s death as arising from an unknown virus.
Later that morning, three more crew reported running high temperatures and bronchial problems. By noon, the medical officer had confined a lieutenant and five crewmen to sick bay. She notified the captain that a serious illness was spreading through the ship at an alarming rate and that she had insufficient equipment, such as oxygen tents, for dealing with what might become an epidemic. The captain called San Diego with details of the medical situation, and was promised additional medical assistance by Chinook helicopter when USS George Washington Gibbs was within range. In the meantime, the aircraft carrier Nimitz, also on its way to home port in San Diego, would alter course and intercept the frigate in twenty-eight to thirty hours.
As the day progressed, the number of crew affected by the mysterious infection swelled from a trickle to a flood and by evening three more were dead with the same symptoms as Cummings.
It was First Officer Watson who noticed that a majority of those reporting sick were among those who had surveyed the iceberg B-32 in the rubberized boat. She then questioned those confined to the sick bay and other, still healthy, men who had been in the rubberized craft. They recalled that Technician Cummings had filled his water bottle with ice water and had passed the bottle to one or two others on board to share it. As far as Watson could deduce, water from the iceberg was the single common factor among the sick men besides contact with each other. Sickness on the frigate reached a crisis stage when First Officer Watson became ill with the same symptoms.
The medical officer quarantined all those who had visited the iceberg in the rubberized boat. It was more difficult to determine who had come into contact with the sick crew members and quarantine them as well. She advised the captain to warn the authorities that their ship had on board an epidemic of unusual proportions. It was symptomatic of pneumonic plague but the source of infection did not appear to have any connection with the usual sources, that is to say rats or fleas; nor did it respond to large doses of antibiotic treatment. This supported her original diagnosis that the infection was not bacterial but an unknown virus.
As usual, the media news was an unwelcome mix of disasters great and small around the globe, but on January 15 the item leading the news was a report that a US Navy frigate had been hit by a potent virus and was in distress because a critical number of the crew had fallen ill and could not attend to their duties. Two officers and eighteen crew members had died. By this time, the aircraft carrier Nimitz had intercepted the frigate and placed on board a bare-bones crew, wearing full antiviral protective clothing, to enable the frigate to complete its journey to San Diego. By six p.m., the latest bulletin reported that an alarming number of the frigate’s crew had been taken ill with a pulmonary infection now identified as B-32, after the iceberg that appeared to have been its source.
To quell the usual panic arising from rumor, the governor of California issued an order that all members of the frigate’s crew were to be held on board and not allowed ashore in San Diego. This decision produced the volume of uproar that he should have foreseen. It was anyway overruled by the naval authorities at San Diego and by the relevant Center for Diseases Control. The opinion of the latter two bodies was that the contagion could be contained with moderate risk in the infectious diseases section of the San Diego naval base hospital.
Within forty-eight hours, the CDC had determined that the few drops of water remaining in Technician Cummings’s water bottle were indeed contaminated with an unknown virus. Speculation suggested that the huge iceberg floating in the Antarctic Current had contained the virus for tens of thousands-maybe even hundreds of thousands-of years. The melting Antarctic ice cap had released a deadly virus the world had been keeping in cold storage, perhaps before the era of ice-ages. Global Weather Change activists on the Internet enjoyed a period of unrestrained media activity with this piece of political ammunition. Release of the virus by the melting ice cap was yet another disaster that could be blamed on governmental incompetence in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Twelve days elapsed before the Center for DNA Research announced that it had characterized the structure of the virus’s DNA. Meanwhile, the CDC reported on the mechanism used by the virus to attack the body’s immune system and infect the lungs, causing the alveoli to fill with fluid as with standard pneumonia. The virus could be ingested by food or drink or by inhaling contaminated air. The symptom unique to this new virus was the rapid rate of infection, allowing little or no time for treatment, even if such a strategy had been available. Any satisfaction derived from characterizing the virus’s DNA structure was short-lived as further analysis revealed the virus to be mutating at a high rate.
The precautions taken at the naval base hospital might have been satisfactory if Hospital Corpsman First Class, Jesus Garcia, had not punctured his protective suit when leaning over a cart holding a patient’s oxygen cylinder. At the time, he was arranging the equipment to better suit the patient’s needs when the sharp corner of a damaged cart came into contact with that portion of the suit covering his groin. Corpsman Garcia was unaware of the puncture and of its potentially fatal danger. Garcia finished his hours of duty soon after the incident, and was looking forward to his evening downtown when he would be celebrating his twenty-first birthday. In a time-honored tradition, all his friends were on hand to celebrate his coming of maturity. They treated him and themselves to an excess of alcohol and made their way on unsteady feet to a large dance hall where, between them, they danced with many young women until the place closed around two a.m.
By midnight, Garcia felt unwell and headed back to the naval base to sleep, hoping his headache would be gone by morning. At five a.m., he awoke feeling very ill and, being a medic, he reported his condition to the night duty medical officer on the base. The latter checked Garcia’s temperature. A temperature of one hundred four degrees Fahrenheit, together with shortness of breath and a headache set off alarm bells.
“I think I’ve picked up this new virus. I have, haven’t I sir?”
“It would be criminal of me to mislead you Jesus. I’m sorry to tell you that your symptoms suggest you have become infected. Did you wear your suit while nursing the patients who came off the frigate?”
“Yes, sir. I also used the antiviral douche to be safe. It just isn’t fair.”
“No, Jesus. It isn’t fair and I’m very sorry. I’ll do whatever I can and make you as comfortable as possible. You may wish to use the phone sooner rather than later.”
The MO quarantined Garcia and took a protective shower in an antiviral douche to protect himself as Garcia had done, hoping that it would do more for him than it had done for Garcia.
Personnel in protective clothing interviewed Garcia while he remained conscious to learn who had been in contact with him. His answers were horrifying. Besides a dozen of his naval friends and the large group of girls, he had met and mixed with some Chinese tourists earlier the previous evening and bought drinks for them. CDC staff discovered these tourists had flown back to China and were to die within thirty-six hours of their arrival in Beijing. It was most unfortunate that the Chinese authorities did not receive the warning about the toxic state of these four men until the other passengers on the flight had dispersed. Meanwhile, many of the people drinking and dancing in close proximity to Garcia had paid cash to enter the dancehall and were untraceable. Emergency bulletins issued by the CDC and police failed to attract the attention of several dozen dancers who, without knowing, triggered the spread of infection over a wide swath of the nation.
Scarcity of fish in the world’s oceans had, for some years, caused fishermen to seek fish in areas that once would have been too remote or inhospitable. It was unfortunate that the crew on a fishing trawler well south of Cape Horn decided, like Electronics Technician Albert Cummings before them, to fill their water tank with the sparkling pure water cascading off iceberg B-32. They met this ice monster on the way to their harbor in Ushuaia, Tierra-del-Fuego. By the time news of an epidemic in North America reached this isolated part of the world several days later, the contagion carried ashore by the fishermen had spread through much of Argentina and well beyond.
The spread of the disease round the world and the loss of life became a feature of daily news for many years. Mutation of the virus every few weeks defeated the best efforts of research laboratories to find a cure or preventive therapy for the next fifteen years, after which it died out for reasons no better explained than those for its origin. Scientists speculated that the most probable cause was rapid oxidation of a particular form into which the virus had mutated.
Many considered the pandemic prima-facie evidence supporting the Gaia Hypothesis, which in effect considers planet Earth as a single organism. The whole of Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, soil and biological life, otherwise known as the biosphere, provides an automatic feedback system that stabilizes global conditions. The pandemic, it was argued by supporters of the Gaia Hypothesis, was being used by the Earth organism to remove whatever was causing the toxic effects and instability. In other words, it was reducing the size of human population to correct the toxic effects caused by humanity.
For fifteen years following the appearance of the B-32 iceberg in the Antarctic Current, fear of the virus caused parents in all cultures to suppress procreation for a generation, thus leaving a generational gap, which together with viral deaths, in time shrunk the global population by thirty percent. The gap changed the ratio of mature to young populations in an acute and adverse way. With insufficient employed young people to support social security retirement plans, the western world’s idea of retirement from work became a dream of the past. Whatever the original structure of the B-32 virus, the pandemic proved to be the most significant factor of global climate change in its impact on the human species in the twenty-first century.