by Cherie Priest
Now let us sing of the apocalypse, brought to you by an alien virus, conniving extraterrestrials, and colossally bad luck.
The good news: it didn’t kill everybody, and a few folks came out the other side with superpowers.
The bad news: everyone else who caught it was well and truly fucked.
Worse yet, some of us have always been self-serving assholes—ready to make things exponentially more terrible in ways that reasonable people could never predict or prepare for. It’s bad enough that planet Earth was used as a guinea pig cage to test the virus, courtesy of our relative genetic uniformity (thanks, Takisians!); but since the interstellar shakeup, we’ve also had to reckon with awful behavior from members of our own species.
We’re going to need a bigger shitlist.
But when you go in search of monsters, don’t seek them among the tragically transformed. Don’t look to the ones who live with the sickness and its aftermath, with their distorted appearances. Don’t accuse the widows and orphans who lost loved ones, the helpers who died waiting for help that never came. Don’t rage at the ubiquitous masks, for in Jokertown (as in other places) they are a lifeline for the vulnerable.
Consider instead the purveyors of human cruelty, selfishness, and greed.
Con Men, Selling Snake Oil
In the earliest days of the Wild Card virus very little was known for certain. Although no two infections were quite the same, general patterns emerged: aces, jokers, deuces, and eventually the latents—with infections hidden in their DNA. There were no known means of avoiding or preventing infection, which in no way prevented con men and women from preying on the terrified masses. Opportunistic sales of worthless medications and products abounded, stuffing the pockets of unscrupulous merchants and investors around the globe, while bankrupting sick people who were at the end of their ropes. If Dr. Tachyon had successfully produced a working vaccine against the virus, he might have mitigated the global damage…but only if he could have persuaded people to receive it. Would a global PR campaign have worked? Maybe… but then again, maybe not.
In an environment where all treatments have become suspect, with legitimate doctors and scientists discredited by scoundrels, confusion (and deliberate sabotage) shortly became standard operating procedure. An overwhelmed media struggled to sort signal from noise, and to present immensely complex narratives in a clear and convincing fashion; but in those early days there was no Jokertown Cry to spread credible, actionable information to the people who needed it most. There was only Tachyon, shouting into the void, updating his findings and pleading for calm and cooperation.
But what could one doctor (or alien) do, when so many forces worked in direct opposition to him? Serve as a beacon of hope, to be sure, and make his recommendations and pray that enough people listen. Strive to save those he can. Continue his research and fight for better treatments. All of these things he did, and more. But it wasn’t enough.
Theocrats, Seizing Souls
Never ones to miss an opportunity to carpe a soul or a wallet, midcentury theocratic warriors took to the airwaves and the revival tents, eager to demonstrate that the Good Lord is the only One who can save them. After all, there’s always money to be made in The End of Days.
Misinformation always sells, and so does exuberant faith that makes big promises. At that time, the word went out: if only God can save us, why bother with treatments of any kind? Give your money to God’s servants and trust them to protect you.
Therefore, we saw a rise in religiously motivated social resistance to treatment, support, and management of infected people—and any measures to prevent further infections—were met with scorn and derision. When there’s nothing you can do, why do anything? Anyone who feared the virus was accused of lacking faith, and merely being worried about their final destination.
Father Squid, founding minister of the Church of Jesus Christ, Joker, disagreed most heartily. He considered it lazy and dishonest to preach that nothing can be done to help, so nothing should be done to help. Father Squid handed out masks and divine love in equal measure, remembering that Christ’s foundational declaration was that his followers should love one another—and reminding the world at large that the commandment includes jokers.
Politicians, Imposing Power
Lowest of all were politicians who used the viral apocalypse to seize and consolidate power at the expense of the vulnerable masses. Initially, the alien virus was released over New York City and rumors of transformations both sublime and terrible spread wide and far; but there was considerable debate over how dire the situation truly might be.
Some leaders took good-faith measures to protect their constituents; they made efforts to fund research, to impose order for the public health, and establish resources for the afflicted. But cynical, power-hungry men and women smelled an opportunity. They called these measures “draconian” and “an overreach of government power,” even as people died by the thousands, then the tens of thousands, then the hundreds of thousands. Even as the virus caused long-term problems down the line for those who survived it, these greedy saboteurs insisted it wasn’t that bad, and would go away on its own. It would have been laughable, if it had not been such a transparent power-grab that ultimately killed so many people.
Today the Blythe Van Rensselaer Memorial Clinic (often called simply, “the Jokertown Clinic”) continues its underappreciated research and treatment of the worst cases the virus had to offer. But consider the lives that could have been saved, and the harm that could have been prevented, if the powers that be had been able to set aside their own ambitions and egos in favor of the public good.
To be sure, this is not a full accounting of the beastly behavior that followed the Takisian virus as it rampaged across the globe. No, a true Field Guide to Monsters of the Viral Apocalypse would include many other headings of infamy. Considerable harm was done by the privileged classes who’d previously experienced little in the way of inconvenience—and interpreted any regulation for the public good as pure tyranny. They lashed out with violence, causing incalculable damage. Likewise, those who held strict ideas about the social order used the calamity to reinforce the bad old ways of tight control and regressive abuse in an effort to create stability (or the illusion thereof) in an unstable time.
Now, all these decades later, you can go to Jokertown and see the famed clinic for yourself, where research has saved and improved the lives of millions at home and abroad. You can stop by Our Lady of Perpetual Misery and gaze upon the transformed savior with your own eyes (however many you may possess).
And while you’re there, you can—and absolutely should—visit the Bowery Wild Card Dime Museum, operated by the renowned Charles Dutton. There, you can find exhibits dedicated to preserving the history, art, and culture of the viral aftermath, including a tremendous exhibit unlike any other in the world: a collection of masks worn by the citizens of Jokertown. Each individual work of practical art was purchased, fashioned, or shared to protect its wearer and their community. What a moving reminder of the people who came together at the end of the world, and worked so hard to build something better on the other side of it.