Humanity’s Last Plague

Normally packed classrooms bring a college professor joy. Except when those classrooms are packed with people who want to burn every book they can get their hands on. The mob had stormed the premises, broke through the doors, and occupied the campus. My college was one of the last universities in the country still standing after a horrible plague that had killed billions. The remaining educational institutions had been reduced to rubble with their libraries burned in protest of what some had called state-sponsored indoctrination. After the plague, the sunset on intellectualism. The few that escaped the deadly pestilence soon gave into suspicion. A movement arose out of the societal chaos that only blamed the government for the virus but believed that the state used the plague to control the surviving population.  

 Academia felt much of the brunt of their wrath being seen as the machine propagating the state’s “lies”. This machine must be dismantled and obliterated. Their mission was nearly complete. The halls echoed with shouts of revelry and rioting. Outside, the smell of burnt paper from the few books the occupiers found filled the air. A flood of ignorance and fear had swept over the globe, and my library was the Ark attempting to preserve civilization. They have taken nearly every inch of the campus. They may take the university but will not take this library and snuff out humanity’s last light with a blaze of hatred and ignorance. So, I wait, sealed in one of the last libraries in the country behind old heavy metal doors which used to seem quite unorthodox for a library and more fitting of a dungeon. Now, seemed built by someone who prophetically saw that they would be this library’s only defense on this dark day.

It has been said that those who forget history, are doomed to repeat it. That is my greatest fear as I wait isolated in this dungeon of a library. I used to be a professor at this university. My colleagues never regarded me as anything more than a less than an average lecturer at this college, let alone a fellow professor. Now I may be academia’s only defender. The plague that wiped out most of humanity has come and gone. Now a new plague arises. Not one of disease but of ignorance. It has spread as rapidly as the virus and its devastation has been even more consequential. Mankind may be able to recover from an infectious plague. What it cannot recover from, however, is refusing to listen to each other and learning from our mistakes.

My college stood as one of the last burning lamps of hope for humanity. If the library was reduced to ash, humanity would have forgotten what happened after the plague and repeated the same atrocities. No matter the cost, my mission was to ensure that the library did not fall. I was not sure what I could hope to have done to stop the mob. I was one old man against dozens of rioters. I tried not to think about what happened to the professors who remained in their posts while the other universities were sacked and burned to the ground. I wish I could say that they merely burned to death in the fire. Their fate, I’m afraid was much worse. Something happens to people when they are part of an angry mob. They lose all sense of humanity. Carried along by the riptide of hate, they are capable of atrocities as a collective hoard that few would even dream of committing on their own.

I distracted myself from the thought by walking away from the door and back to the lone desk in the room. Our library was small, with only a few shelves and one lonely desk. I examined the old items still left on the desk hoping I could drown out my fears and the cries of the angry mob echoing in the halls of the rest of the campus. Perhaps, I thought to myself, our old library was too small and insignificant to find. Maybe they did not even want to burn the library, but just destroy the campus. It was a foolish fantasy, but I was out of options for calming my mind.

I was startled by a rumbling sound coming from one of the bookshelves behind the librarian’s desk. It was more for aesthetics than anything else. The books it held were decades even a century old. They were never used and were covered with cobwebs. As the rumbling grew louder, I recoiled against the wall as the bookcase slowly moved to the side revealing a hidden opening to the library.

“Hello Benjamin.” came a voice I recognized.

It was the voice of John Attaway. Here was a man who was no stranger to the movement nor to the few keeping the torch of learning burning. John was not so much a leader of the movement but a voice. He did not command the mob, but his influence over them was not to be underestimated.

He was a tall man, older with unkept white hair on his head and face. He wore a long black coat and carried himself as one who associated with a rebellion but who could also be rational and reasonable when he needed to be.

“It’s been a long time.” He said emerging from the darkness of the hidden entrance. “How did you get here?” I asked completely ignoring the secret door I knew nothing about until only seconds ago.

“Ben, you and I are one of the few people old enough to remember the plague.” He said examining the old books on the shelves. “Yet, you look at me as though I am a stranger. You know how I know about this door…”

He stopped his examination of the room spun around and stared me in the eye.

“You dare to stand there as though you’ve always been a professor here staring at me as though I’ve always been an enemy of academia. I was a student here, just like you… I guess like the rest of your kind, you have managed to convince yourself to forget the past”

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t frozen by the words echoing off the brick walls. John was a student, same as I. He never graduated. When the plague hit and the university was forced to take creative and quite unorthodox measures to ensure classes continued while reducing infection, he became critical of the school leadership. Eventually, his contempt for the university got him expelled. I chose not to bring up those details.

I could only muster, “Yes. I remember…” Taking a breath, I continued, “I remember you left.”

“I was expelled!” He snapped beginning to pace. “All because I decided to be a voice of reason. While others, like you, blindly followed the herd like cattle, I was the only voice in our school with the courage to speak the truth. What the university did had nothing to do with saving lives, it was about holding onto power, and exerting that power over the masses.” 

I decided I was not going to reason with him. The mob was getting closer to the library. I did not have the time to convince John to see the error in his scholastic career.     

“John, I can’t change the past. We must face what is happening right here, right now.” I said emphatically.

“You say that, as though what happened then, and what happened during the plague was, just the cards we had been dealt.” He replied. “Ben, we didn’t just lose billions of lives in the plague, we lost our country. We lost our freedom. We lost it because men like you and the ones that ran this university, for decades propagated the lies of the state!”

“What? You think that this is all an accident?” He asked. Casually, John walked across to the room stopping in front of the old globe sitting on the desk. He lightly gave it a spin with his finger. “Do you know what the secret to controlling the masses is Benjamin?” He asked gazing at the globe as it slowly spun to a stop. “You see, you can’t control people so long as they believe they are self-sufficient. Convince them, however, of their dependency on, their need for someone else to take care of them, and they’ll do whatever you want. Bring them to a place where they believe that the state has the solution to all of life’s problems, and they will be your slaves forever.” Taking his eyes off the globe, John started walking to my desk. My pulse raced, and my breath shortened.

I would rather have faced a mob bent on burning the university to the ground rather than the one lone soldier of the cause of the ignorant masses. A mob doesn’t think. They just act, destroying everything like a hoard of locusts. They do not discriminate or strategize their efforts; they just keep moving to leave a path of devastation in their wake. John, however, while overtaken by ignorance and fear, was thoughtful, intentional, and precise in his mission of destruction. That made him more dangerous.

He stopped a few feet away from my desk. “That’s what the plague was all about.” He continued. “Now I am a reasonable man, Benjamin. I am not like some on the fringes of my movement who say the plague wasn’t real. But the response to it, now that was planned. It-

“Don’t be ridiculous John!” I interpreted, partly because I was outraged partly because I could not stand to hear that talking point one more time. This had been the movement’s main talking point for years now. Grief fueled their movement. With over three-fourths of the earth’s population dead, there wasn’t a soul who had not lost someone to the plague. That collective grief fueled the fire of suspicion and mistrust in the governments that remained after the plague. I continued, “The governments acted to protect the public the best way they could, with what they had!”

“No.” John interjected wagging his finger at me. “No. Not the best way they could, the way they had been longing to for decades. The governments always wanted to control us. They longed for the opportunity to finally strip our society of independence, self-determination, and freedom.”

John was indeed an intelligent man. He was capable of reason, but grief and anger had clouded all of that. His expulsion plus the loss of his wife to the plague had caused the trauma of the tragedy to eat at his capacity for rational thought like cancer.

“And your library Benjamin,” He continued. “is not a vault of knowledge, it is a reservoir of propaganda for controlling the masses. Colleges like this one used to be halls of education where minds were expanded and potential was harnessed. But using the plague as their opportunity, the powers that be turned academia into halls of indoctrination, where minds were forced to conform to the will of the state, and potential was either stipend or drained for the government’s purposes! That’s why your library cannot stand, that’s why these books must be burned!”

Perhaps I was taking the wrong approach in dealing with John. Us exchanging the familiar overused talking points and the classical arguments of each side was going to get us nowhere. They had been stated over and over for decades now. I did not have decades. This library, and me along with it, was going to be burned to the ground in a matter of minutes if I did not reason with this man. My priority now was not to win this argument but to persuade John to call off the mob. I do not know if humanity will ever learn this lesson. For centuries we have focused on winning debates instead of winning each other. We spent a lot of energy developing arguments to support our positions when we should have been developing relationships to save our society. I could not be another one like the rest of society who allowed history to repeat itself.

“Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that I agree with you. Tell me, John… When all the books of academia are burned and the remaining universities are rubble, how will you prevent this tragedy from happening again?” John gave me a look half puzzled half annoyed. “You mean the plague!?” He quipped.

“No, I don’t mean the plague! You know exactly what I mean John. You say the government used the plague to implement its long-planned dominance on the masses. Well, there’s always going to be a plague, a natural disaster, an economic collapse, a war, or an invasion from outer space for all we know… Don’t…” I said interrupting myself seeing from the look on John’s face that my last example made the wheels in that conspiracy theorist’s mind turn. “John, disaster will come again. How will you prevent the state from rising to control people again?

“Well, that’s easy Benjamin.” He said laughing as though I made a silly remark. “We stop it, with-” He paused sighing with his head down as though he knew where I was going. “We stop it” He continued, “with education” saying with a smile.

“Exactly!” I half whispered shouted. We were sitting now on opposite sides of the old desk.

“This place was never about control, John. Quite the opposite, actually. Don’t you remember why you came to this college in the first place?” I asked. John leaned back, looking at the books on the wall.

“Oh, I remember.” He said. “Before the plague, I remember hearing the townspeople talk about the crazy things being taught here. Free thought, questioning ingrained cultural assumptions, expanding the mind.” He was right. The university was never content to just disseminate information to students. They wanted them to think for themselves. Students should be able to do more than just recall previously taught ideas, they should graduate by being able to form new ideas on their own.

I started to laugh. “I still remember the first time you were nearly expelled for questioning the curriculum in professor Fordman’s philosophy class.” I managed a smile out of John.

“Well, you have to admit, what philosophy professor doesn’t want their students to question, well, everything!?” John pondered.

“Well John, there is a difference between questioning everything and telling a professor that he, how did you put it, obviously missed his calling to waste-“ John interrupted, “Waste management seeing how he had concocted the best piece of trash for a syllabus I had I ever read.”

We both sat quietly for a minute reminiscing the past. “He took your departure hard. I think he was quite fond of you, as a student.” I said looking down. There was a melancholy feel in the room.

“Well, Ben. I would never say this except that he’s dead. He made an impact on me. It’s all his fault actually. He inspired me to, think outside the box, so to speak.”

“John, history will repeat itself again if you let that mob out there burn this place to the ground.” The lightheartedness and melancholy came abruptly to an end. “Hear me out,” I said trying to reason with him. “This place can be what you and that mob out there want. A place where ideas are not only discussed, but even questioned. Not a place for indoctrination, but a place for discourse. We must listen to each other and learn from each other. That is what education is, John!” He simply shook his head and stood walking toward the heavy metal door to the library.

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that Benjamin,” John said staring almost through the library’s last defense. “I may be a voice for the mob, but I can’t stop it. The fire has already been lit, and it will not be quenched until it has consumed everything in its path.”

Outside that heavy dungeon-like door could be heard the roaring of rioting voices and the rumbling of buildings being destroyed. The mob was getting closer. John paused to take a deep breath. Realizing that finally, all of this was about to come to an end. Seeing the look of inevitable defeat on my face he gave me a grin.

“Well, Ben. I’ll give you this. You reminded me of my greatest strength…”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“I question everything.” John walked over to the dark entrance and stood at its opening. “Let’s go, Benjamin.” He said.

“John, I cannot let this library be burned to the ground.”  I protested.

“You think that this is the school library? Ben, they really didn’t trust you, did they? Come on. If you want to save this institution, you will come with me.”

I apprehensively followed him into the darkness. I do not know exactly why I descended with him into that dark passage after protesting seconds later. Perhaps it was his comment on how the school leadership never trusted me. I never was their favorite. I never did fit in with the rest of the college professors. My style was traditional, predictable, some would even say, rigid. Not at all like the leadership of this university. They were idealistic, open-minded, and some would even say, radical. Like John. We started down a couple of stairs. I stopped when the door closed behind us. Seeing how it was dark, and I did not know where I was going, I decided it was best that I stay close to John. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and flipped on a light.

I gasped at the sight before me. We descended into what I thought was just a basement with perhaps some hidden tunnels. Before me, however, to my surprise, was a vast room full of bookshelves holding countless books. For years, I believed that our college’s library was one of the smallest in the country. John had led me to one of the university’s greatest secrets. Like the heart of the pyramids, the school kept a treasury deep in its bowels. Only it was not a treasury of gold or jewels. It was a treasury of knowledge, an archive of ideas and thought. If the small library above was a vault of knowledge, the vast one below was an Ark of civilization, built to preserve humanity’s greatest accomplishments against the flood of ignorance and fear.

This is the library, Ben. In this tomb, lie some of the most influential books in history. They may burn your little book collection upstairs Ben. Here, the light of civilization will continue to burn.”

Plagues come in many forms. Some are very literal; a virus that spreads threatening to wipe out entire communities. Others are not as easy to detect. They cannot be examined under a microscope or tested in a laboratory. That is because they are a plague not of the human cell but the human heart. Ignorance, fear, suspicion, and hatred had wrecked more havoc in my world than the plague ever could. All the virus did was kill human beings.

The plague that came after however, the plague of ignorance and fear, threatened to kill the human soul. Perhaps, we are doomed to meet this end. Maybe one day, despite our best efforts, human civilization will be destroyed by its ignorant divisions and animosity toward one another. For today, however, in humanity’s last “Ark”, John and I will wait out the flood and keep the light burning.


Joseph Reeder is a new writer, veteran, husband, and father of four. He writes short stories, science fiction, and flash fiction. He and his family are from North Carolina and are currently residing in Georgia.