It had been three days since the nine-year-old James had fallen with fever. By the end of the first day, the boy's family was resigning themselves to the inevitable but oft-repeated tragedy of losing a child.
The sick child was being tended to by his mother and two older sisters. His mother's care was comforting if detached. She soothed the boy's fever, baked flesh with cold water and the soothing touch of her hand, and did so without a word. Even when Jame's would call for her. His glazed-over eyes now too distant to see her there. She didn't answer. Her sole responsibility to James at this point was to try and mitigate the physical agony of death.
James was too weak to stand, and he couldn't move much. Still, his burning body was frequently ravaged by tremors that resembled grand-mal seizures often accompanied by vague and mystifying rambles. For some of Jame's, more lived family members recognized the terrified disordered speech of the dying.
It is probably better for James that he didn't have the wherewithal to perceive his father standing over him, his sleeves rolled up, and his boots covered in dirt.
"Is he ready?" His father whispered.
His mother quietly shook her head.
The world James lived in was a small one. A self-contained agrarian bastion of community that had no inclination and no conceivable incentive to venture off in any direction. Visitors were welcome but never encouraged to stay long. They brought with them stories about bandit brigades roaming between deserted and crumbling cities. One bought with him a drawing he did of an inferno he said stretched on for miles in all directions, a fire he thought would burn eternally.
"It was sent by God. And it won't stop burning until this world is gone," warned the traveler.
Those forked flames that stabbed at the sky itself growing and spreading were something James always had in the back of his mind. Would the fire reach his home? If so, when? When James awoke in the morning, his imagination would tease him with the sound of crackling flames.
This specter of apocalypse and oblivion haunting this child's mind wasn't going to be what the end looked like for Jame's home. The sudden, mysterious, but relatively innocuous illness that had invaded his body had already infiltrated every home and family in town.
Observing the unfolding pandemic from beyond the clouds was the electronic eyes of a hovering drone. The mechanical avian creature was a roaming eye wirelessly bonded to a master in a place no one in Jame's sphere of life could ever even hope to imagine.
At the top of a mega monolith of glass and steel rising above a perpetually storm tormented sky was the 26-year-old Kyle and his wife, Anne.
The tower was a world of its own. Automated systems regulated and optimized everything aspect of life housed inside the steel skeleton. Smart technology predicted the desires of the inhabitants and manifested them into reality. The generations of people born into the confines of the tower were fortunate and secure far beyond any standards. Despite the size of the leviathan structure, it was still the smallest place anyone could live.
Kyle was peering down on Jame's isolated little community like a god from the sky. He watched with growing excitement as small graves began to dot the landscape.
"It's working," he said with a satisfied smile.
"Anne, check this out!"
Anne was busy tending to her small hydroponic garden consisting mostly of herbs and some vegetables. Plants that much like he had never known the touch of Sunlite.
"Anne!" she heard Kyle call again.
Anne set down the water bottle she was using to gently spray the leaves of some mint and went over to see what kyle was shouting about. She found him sitting in front of a monitor. He was leaning back in his chair with a wide grin spread across his face.
"What's up?" asked Anne.
"The virus is working," kyle said triumphantly.
Anne's eyes lit up. "It is?!"
"Check it out," Kyle said, pointing at a cluster of graves.
"The computers are estimating the virus has an effectiveness rate of over 98%," kyle said proudly.
"Well, look at you," Anne said with mock praise.
"I am pretty good," Kyle said with a smile.
"So, when can we go and start cleaning it up?" Anne asked.
"Shouldn't be any longer than about 3 weeks," Kyle replied.
Anne bounced on her feet. "I'm so excited about this!"
"Me too," Kyle said as he pulled her into his lap.
"It'll be nice to get out of here and finally live an honest," Kyle said.
"I'm excited to have a whole field for my vegetables," Anne said before planting a kiss on Kyle's cheek.
Kyle's eyes became distant, and his voice lowered to a whisper. "Just think you and me living off the land. No more getting our food from robots or stupid themed cocktail parties."
Around the time that the young lovers Kyle and Anne, were celebrating their new life from their palace in the sky, James was emerging from his illness.
He woke up alone. His mother's water bucket sat next to him on the floor empty. James rubbed his tired eyes and, with some effort, pulled himself to his feet.
"Hello?" he called out. No one answered.
Wearily James walked through the house but couldn't find his parents or any of his siblings. James made his way outside. The morning sun burned his tired eyes. He shielded himself from the light with his hand and looked around.
There was no one around.
"Hello?!" James shouted.
He was answered only by a whistling bird and the low howl of the wind. James looked around more and noticed an older boy quietly sitting on the ground.
James walked over. When he got closer, he recognized the boy as Evan. He lived close by and was just a few years older than James. Evan didn't seem to notice James approaching. He stared with unblinking eyes at nothing in particular and mindlessly tore the grass from the dirt around him.
"Evan, where is everyone?" James asked.
Evan quietly turned his head and looked up at James. They stared at each other for a moment before James cut the silence.
"Evan, are you alright?"
"Are you fuckin stupid or just been living under a rock?" He finally asked in a flat, emotionless tone.
James was stunned. "I've been sick," he finally answered.
"And you lived?" Evan replied. "Well, don't go thinking you were lucky. Everyones dead. Your family, my family, everyone's dead. That flu killed them all."
James's underdeveloped mind had no reaction it could conjure to this news. Instead, he froze and just stood there quietly.
"Look," Evan finally huffed. "I'm just gonna wait here to starve. You can do that too if you want. just do it away from me."
"But I don't want to die," James said in a quivering voice.
"I guess you can try your luck out there then," Evan said with apathy.
James and Evan were the only two that survived the mysterious and virulent sickness that descended upon them as suddenly as a bolt of lightning. While the plague was ravaging their town, many people resorted to the age-old tonic of prayer. They frantically begged God for forgiveness for whatever transgression they might have made. Their only mortal sin, though, had been living on land coveted by humans more powerful than they. After Evan and James died, Kyle and Anne were free to move in and start their new lives as homesteaders.