Excerpt taken from a recording stored in the archives of the Maximegalon Institute, c.o./ZB.
Funny things, aren’t they? Little buggers, not really alive. Just a protein coat as a shell, wrapped around the most distilled and basic instruction of life.
Heck, some don’t even have a protein coat at all. Naked DNA, floating through the void in search of a host. Eternally patient, willing to wait forever. And when that host comes, the virus exults in a brief flurry of wild, carefree activity, growing and spreading and conquering all in its path, before once again returning back to dormancy.
Most races try not to think about viruses much.
Oh, sure, there’s sanitary protocols. Wash your appendages, don’t mix fecal deposits (a breeding ground for viruses, among their bacterial carriers and victims) with nutrient intake, avoid contact with those who are contaminated. Well established protocols, all built around containment.
Why not eradication?
Well, it turns out that one of the many things viruses aren’t great at accomplishing is dying. There are so few moving parts on a virus, you see – nothing’s there to break.
So, for most of existence, life has learned to adapt to viruses. Contain them, avoid them, try to slow, maybe even stop their spread.
This leads to some… interesting outcomes.
Take the Wheelers, for example. Quite a unique species – they adapted to the long, flat lava flows on their planets by developing the biological appendage for which we named them. They quickly criss-crossed their planet, thanks to their high rate of speed.
The virus that brought down the Wheelers struck at this advantage. A hijacked nervous system driven to crave speed, coupled with aerial dispersion through gas venting, rushed around the planet just as rapidly. In the end, the Wheelers even bombed their own roads, trying to halt their infected kin.
We’ve had to work this all out from fossil records, of course. Fortunately, the wheel was made from a biosilicon compound that endured for many millennia, long after the Wheelers themselves all perished.
The Spindle Kings, there’s another example. That race seemed like one of the most likely to survive a virus – as far as we can tell, they were telepaths, and couldn’t stand crowding. And for a Spindle King, a thousand members of their species per planet was far too overpopulated.
Naturally enough, the virus that got them traveled over those very same telepathic brain waves. Like a meme, the message altered and shifted the underlying brain structure, reverberating and building to an overwhelming pitch inside their minds. The Spindle Kings couldn’t help but broadcast it out.
This time, as well as fossil records, we had the actual records, left by the dying members of the Kings themselves. Most of the records are incomprehensible gibberish, but some are still barely lucid enough for us to understand.
Perhaps the most dramatic response to a virus we’ve found have been the Kung. “Bloodthirstiest race in the galaxy,” we call them, and they’re a staple villain of the most popular holotoons. They conquered every other race they encountered – why not viruses?
Viruses, unfortunately, don’t form impressive lines on the battlefield. They don’t surrender when surrounded. They aren’t held back by blockades.
Towards the end, the Kung started slagging their own planets. That’s the only explanation we can imagine, at least. How else can we explain the apparently intact skeletons of their civilizations, buried under half a mile of perfectly smooth igneous rock?
How did a virus bring down the Kung? We’re not sure, of course. So much of history is unknown, lost to the ravages of time. And perhaps there’s still a band of Kung out there, roaming, hoping to stay one step ahead of the virus that finally succeeded in conquering their unconquerable civilization, decimating their unstoppable army.
Viruses are a sobering realization of our own mortality. We’ve tangled with them, of course. Smallpox nearly wiped out our species before we even left the planet. HIV followed us up from the surface as we spread, as did rabies. Influenza still haunts us, and one particularly malevolent strain had us ejecting anyone who sneezed out the nearest airlock.
Even now, we can’t cure viruses. Not quite.
But we’ve come a long way. Antivirals block many targets of these viruses, and we can learn from weakened, attenuated strains how to combat their deadlier cousins. Even when the ancient terror once called Dengue Fever re-emerged, threatening over a dozen star systems, we were able to synthesize enough of the receptor-blocking antidote to contain its wildfire spread.
We thought it normal, of course. Until we met the Ehft, on the brink of collapse, and learned of humanity’s curse – and our greatest treasure.
As it turns out, we’ve been cursed by many viruses, far more than any other species. On our ancestral world, well over a hundred thousand viruses still exist, and probably many more lay dormant and hidden. When the Ehft learned of this fact, they considered this comparable to spending every second of life with a poisoned Sword of Damocles perched inches above one’s head.
Many viruses, all rotating through their own cycles of contagion and regression. They ravaged our species, slaying us by the millions.
But we endured. And in survival, we learned to fight them.
We found the Ehft ship drifting, most of its crew already victims of their Feathermoult virus. We ascertained the totally alien structure of the viral attacker, but not before the last of the Ehft had succumbed.
They did leave us a message, however – the coordinates of their homeworld.
Another dozen solar cycles, and we would have been too late. Over and over, scholars point to this as our greatest stroke of luck. The first intelligence not long extinct, and we barely managed to save them! Even as our ships touched down, the last Ehftians struggled to bury their millions of dead comrades.
It wasn’t until after we had treated them that we realized just how alien the concept of pandemic assistance truly was.
Resistance! At first, the Ehftians didn’t understand. And indeed, we soon found a disquieting lack of immune response within their huddled bodies. Feathermoult didn’t need to overcome their defenses. They had none to overcome.
When the Ehftians learned of our world, of how we fought off viral invasions almost every solar cycle, they were aghast, nearly to the point of shock. That we survived even short visits back to our ancestral homeland, much less for long enough to evolve space travel, seemed truly impossible.
When we took to the stars, we brought our most powerful weapons, our most enduring defenses. We imagined death rays, gamma bursts, entire star systems deployed as annihilation weapons. Instead, we found ourselves already gifted with incredible immunity to the worst of the universe.
We imagined ourselves humbled before a tribunal of ancient and wise alien races, but we found them destroyed. We imagined fighting for our lives, but found ourselves instead fighting to save the fragile lives of those we encountered.
Before we left our star system, we tried to build up our best physical defenses, even attempting to warp the very fabric of the universe about ourselves in stasis shields.
Who would have thought that our best defense against the horrors that utterly obliterated the other races would be a handful of specialized white blood cells?