Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
05: Sickening the Soon to Die
Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg
Alice and Mattie described their process while Thomas explained what happened in Washington.
“We’d heard a sub surfaced in the Potomac, fired a single shot to demonstrate their nuclear subs were functional and President Daniels folded.”
Thomas smiled at the simplicity of Mattie’s scenario. “Alas, it wasn’t nearly so smooth.” He glanced skyward at the scarred visage of the Washington Memorial overhead as the memories of the day came rolling back. “I wasn’t near enough to witness the actual events. As you know, they restricted travel, public gatherings were forbidden and any protests provoked sharp reprisals. I was risking my life helping others clean up their shattered homes.
“I heard a missile launch and watched it arc across the sky. Missiles were launching for some time as they shelled Richmond, so we reacted whenever we heard them, expecting Richmond to retaliate. I couldn’t tell where it was headed, but it was clear it originated near the Pentagon, on the Potomac. It certainly wasn’t a declarative shot, as I heard it explode in the distance. It was quiet for a while, but about a half an hour later, the submarine—which I never saw—started a full-out attack on the Pentagon, bombarding it for some time. I have no idea what provoked it, but the response was clear. It signaled the lockdown on the city by the Pentagon was over.”
“The Pentagon probably called in some tanks and the submarine defended itself,” Alice suggested. “Once they were being attacked, those Generals wouldn’t willingly surrender.”
“The bombing continued all night, although it diminished late in the evening. When it quieted down I decided to ride over and see what I could a couple days later. By then the entire battle was over. The sub which had started everything was long gone and there were bodies everywhere.”
“Yeah, we saw it. The bodies are all still there.” Mattie, who’d been listening in rapt fascination, described what they’d found at the site. “They didn’t take any prisoners, stringing the military leaders up as a sign for any reinforcements who arrived.”
“People were pretty upset.” Thomas took a moment to spit into the distance, which Mattie didn’t appreciate but Alice didn’t seem fazed by. “Once everything was over, everyone claimed to have been a part of it, but I never believed most of them. People were hurting, and instead of marshaling resources the military arrested or shot anyone out trying to save lives. Anyone venturing out to aid the sick and dying were beaten until they couldn’t walk. When people started dying in large numbers, they didn’t even attempt to clean up the bodies to prevent the spread of diseases.”
A faint call sounded in the distance. “Yoo-hoo!”
They turned, glancing north along the Mall. A woman was standing in the clearing waving a white shirt draped over a broomstick.
Alice stood, holding Lassie who was watching the new arrival, and shouted back. “Come on in, you’re safe here.” Turning, she glanced at Mattie, who rushed to her defensive position by the car, situating her M16 so it was readily accessible.
Thomas noted the 9mm hidden in the small of Alice’s back. “I’m glad you decided I didn’t pose a threat.”
Alice shrugged, turning her back on the approaching woman and sat down. “Hey, we’re glad to welcome anyone, but we’re still alive, so we’re not stupid.”
Thomas waved at their guns. “I notice you’re pretty comfortable with those. I carry a couple, but I never had much practice. You’ll have to show me how to defend myself.”
“Not here,” Alice answered. “The sound of gunfire in an urban environment wouldn’t encourage people to trust us. However, an indoor gun range, say either a nearby gun shop or at the FBI headquarters would be a good idea.”
Thomas shook his head. “Gun ownership wasn’t allowed here until recently, so the few gun shops aren’t equipped with anything so developed. I’ll have to break into the Hoover building or one of the Police stations.”
“The gun ranges will be in the basements, which shouldn’t be as damaged—if you can access them. Otherwise, you could try Quantico.” Mattie gave Alice a look, so she shrugged. “Hey, I prepared before we set out. I wanted to know where to find necessary supplies.”
“Are you the girls with the plague cure?” the woman asked, causing everyone to turn.
“Yeah, that’s us.” Alice waved the woman in. “Come, join us and we’ll discuss it.”
The woman approached, glancing at everyone warily. “I’m Sandra. I’ve survived the last month by shifting from one abandoned office building to another. They don’t have many bodies and it’s easy to identify where they are, so they’re easy to avoid. But I’m terrified of what’ll happen if I reveal myself, so I’ve avoided everyone. You’re the first people I’ve spoken to since my entire family died.”
Alice introduced everyone, inviting Sandra to sit. Lassie approached but stood back and sniffed her before returning, satisfied she wasn’t infected. “I think you’ll be safe here. Everyone is terrified of everyone else, so there isn’t much actual conflict. You’re safer avoiding people, but you really don’t need to worry about being attacked. Hell, I’ve been shot at multiple times, but it rarely comes down to someone having to die.”
“Says the girl who’s killed more people than anyone I know,” Mattie muttered, causing Thomas and Sandra to stare.
“Hey, as I said, there’s being accepting and there’s being prepared. If someone’s intent on hurting me—and they’ve tried—I’m not going to wait around for them to shoot me.”
Sandra turned to Thomas, motioned at Alice. “Now you see why I’ve avoided people for the past month.”
“Have the two of you collected any resources?” Mattie asked, trying to ease the growing tension. “Once word gets out that you can treat the Great Death, people will flock here. They may come one or two at a time, but you need to prepare for them.”
“I never heard what’s needed,” Sandra admitted. “All I saw was a flier someone put up about you arriving.”
Thomas turned, facing her and ignoring both Alice and Mattie. “They broadcast a daily radio program describing what people need to do in order to survive. They’ve researched how to avoid contamination, how the plagues are transmitted and what we need to survive. One of the first is finding a fuel pump so you can generate electricity using abandoned vehicles. Actually, if you can find an inverter, you can run whatever household appliance you need from your car.”
“Yeah, those would be helpful.” Sandra turned back to Alice, who she recognized as the leader, and regarded her nervously. “What’s this treatment and what does it require?”
That broke the ice and Mattie and Alice detailed the information for her, repeating much of what they’d told Thomas, but providing extra information as they continued. Two volunteers wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for them to proceed.
Mattie yawned. They’d had a long day and then spent the last hour and a half sitting around talking.
Alice turned to Thomas and Sandra. “OK, if we’re settled here, Mattie or I should check the nearby hospitals for supplies you’ll need in the future. We’ve got our own, but we want to ensure you’re properly equipped when we leave. We’d rather test the equipment in a real world environment. Ideally, we’d search the hospital together since we could get in and out faster, but I think one of us shou—”
“Hey, there’s a van pulling up.” Mattie pointed up one of the roads surrounding the Mall. A small business van, obscured by the abandoned cars, edged along the stationary vehicles.
Thomas leaned forward, squinting to get a better look. “Someone’s checking the site out. They must be stopping by every so often to see if you ever showed up. I think they’re paranoid about leaving their van unguarded.”
Sandra snickered. “Can you blame ‘em? Shit, if I knew where to find a fully equipped van complete with gas and working electricity, I’d sure as hell grab it, especially if it was secure and big enough to sleep in.”
Alice sat back, ignoring the disruption. “Forget them. They’re edgy. They’ll want to watch us before deciding to venture over. Give them time to make up their minds. Gathering people nowadays is like fishing, you have to be patient and wait for them to come to you. If you cast about too much, you’ll spook them.”
The others agreed, but Sandra and Thomas were less circumspect about glancing back. Despite Alice’s efforts to keep the conversation focused on what they needed to begin the treatments, it kept drifting to the newcomers.
“He’s parked the van and is heading towards us,” Mattie informed them. Since she was facing the others, she was the only one able to observe the new arrival without calling attention to her actions. “There’s only one guy. He’s cautious, but he’s not trying to hide.”
“Well, neither did Sandra,” Thomas pointed out.
“The hell I didn’t. I was lying flat on my stomach under a car watching you for a couple of hours. I wasn’t about to risk exposing myself unless I was sure it wasn’t a trap.”
Mattie nodded. “Now he’s given up lurking and is heading directly towards us. He’s either very confident or foolhardy.”
Alice shrugged. “If he has a working vehicle, I doubt he’s foolhardy. Otherwise, someone would have either siphoned the gas or taken it by now. As much as people don’t want to expose themselves, electricity and transportation are both very valuable commodities now.”
Thomas stole another look, so Alice motioned for Mattie to set up a defensive position. “Before you go, what does he look like? Who are we dealing with?”
“He’s an older man; short white beard, shorts if you can believe it, wearing a purple shirt and a baseball cap. Dressed like he is, he’s got to have electricity in his van, but I can’t imagine he’s likely to stay for long without anything warmer.”
“OK, grab some extra clothes while you’re setting up,” Alice suggested. “He probably won’t be interested in food, but a cold drink always helps and the recordings are valuable even if he already has music.”
“What’s she supposed to do?” Sandra asked as Mattie got up and strolled back to their van.
“She’s taking up a defensive position,” Thomas informed her.
“She’s getting into a position where we’re not both exposed. That way, if someone takes a shot at me, they can’t get her and she can return fire. We want to encourage people to join us, but there’s no sense taking unnecessary risks. My father was shot in the chest by someone who sought us out to negotiate a peace offer after we offered to help them.”
“Damn. Thanks for reinforcing my fears. Was he... ?”
“No, luckily he was paranoid enough to wear a vest. We want to encourage people while still being prepared for anything.”
“Are you wearing one too?”
“I won’t go anywhere without both protection and armaments,” Alice assured her.
Sandra tilted her head, studying her. “That’s both encouraging and depressing.”
Alice shrugged. “These are depressing times. We’re trying to import some hope, but we have a long way to go until that hope reaches the rest of the country.”
“Yo’! You the people with the cure?”
Alice stood up, acknowledging the man for the first time. “We are. You’re welcome to join us. We’ve got cold drinks and food.”
“I got food, and chillin’ drinks is a damn waste of limited ‘lectricity,” the man muttered, though still a ways off. “No need showin’ off. You ain’t impressin’ nobody.”
Alice waited for him to get closer, figuring it didn’t help shouting back and forth. Thomas and Sandra remained seated, finally understanding the girls’ approach. When he drew nearer, Alice introduced everyone, hoping to get the cagey man to open up.
“Me name be Antario Fontini. I tain’t interested in no talking. I want to know ‘bout tis cure.”
“There’s a lot to explain. It’s not a simple process. We’ll do the first treatments, but you need to learn the process so you can handle the rest on your own.”
“Eh,” Antario grunted, telling her to continue, though not actively encouraging it.
Alice had the others tell their own stories to build their trust in each other. Thomas went first, and then Sandra. Antario, though, wasn’t nearly as forthcoming, at least not initially.
“Me immigrate from Greece. Never welcome here, never treated well. But people ‘spect me work. I work hard and people no choice but ‘cept me.”
He sat down hard on the ground, as if he couldn’t be bothered lowering himself, but once he started speaking, he didn’t seem ready to stop.
“When the meteors start, eveyt’in fall apart. Workers stop, schools close, g’mit quit. Few like me work, but when death come, no one help, so the workers die when everyone else hide at home.
“Then the fake president walks up and say no one go outside. No one seek aid. No one work. No one help others. I spit at that,” he announced, illustrating his comment with action.
Mattie came out and supplied their usual gifts, though Antario wasn’t terribly interested. The temporary disruption effectively silenced his diatribe. He refused them all, but when the girls argued the phones contained information about avoiding infections and preparing for the coming winter, he relented.
He shoved the smartphone in his pocket without giving it a cursory glance. “I tain’t heard o’ yo’ broadcasts. I saw a note and figgered I’d see what this tis about.” He openly glared at Alice, ignoring the others. “What’s the deal? What you need?”
Sighing, Alice tried to maintain an even temperament. “As I said, you’ll need to be able to take over for us once we move on. We’ll test each of you to determine who can treat more people. Plasma transfers, which the treatment is based on, are different than blood transfusions. Thus we’re looking for type AB individuals rather than type O. We can treat an A and a B, but if we can’t do that much, you’ll have trouble treating whoever comes to you in the future.”
“Wait, so you only treat who you feel be worthy?” Antario challenged. “Little miss privileged white girl with no ‘speriece with the world? Who put you in charge of deciding who lives and dies?”
This direct challenge to Alice’s character set Mattie off. She sprang up, her hand planted on her thin hips and snapped to Alice’s defense. “Hey, Alice has more experience with this than anyone. We’ve been dealing with it head-on for a long time and we know what works and what doesn’t.”
However, Alice realized there was more going on than someone challenging her authority and was eager to hear him out. Waving Mattie off, she gave it another try.
“It’s not a matter of choosing who lives; it’s how to save the most people. If we treat someone unable to treat others, we kill more people than if we only treat those capable of helping everyone.”
Antario was having none of it. “So ye’ says. That’s what the g’ment say. ‘We know what ye’ need. Everyone stay home and don’t bug us. We in charge and no one help no one else.’ ‘Cept they don’t do squat! Well, I say this: I went to that Pentagon thingie and tore it down. I stood up to those crooks, I ripped the ribbons from them chests and I shove them in them faces. They kill us, but we kill them. They no longer here. Now no one else tell us who live and who die!”
“We aren’t dictating who lives; we’re only applying our limited supplies where they’re most effective.” Alice already knew she was losing this argument. The glare in Antario’s eyes reflected he wasn’t buying it and she was only digging herself a deeper hole the more she said. “If we attempt to heal whoever shows up, rather than who could help heal the most people, we’re guaranteeing our failure. And failing here means humanity dies. We aren’t discussing not giving people a chance, we’re arguing whether anyone survives. Mattie and I can only remain here long enough to treat a couple of people, and we can’t supply you with many supplies. If we pick someone who won’t survive, or who can’t treat anyone else, then we’re condemning everyone else. In short, by not choosing who we treat, we could effectively condemn everyone.”
“You say this treatment be dangerous?”
“Yes, very.” Alice stopped, running her hand through her hair as she struggled with how best to convey this vital information. “Although we can make people immune to the plagues, we have to inflict all the plagues at once. Any one of them can kill, and it’s only by the sheerest of luck they’ll survive.”
“But you can allow them to survive?” Antario pressed.
“Yes, our success rate is quite high, but each treatment is deadly serious.”
“But if sick die anyway, why not help those soon to die?”
“It’s complicated,” Alice stressed. “If someone is already sick, the disease has already damaged the body in ways we can’t counter. In order for this treatment to be effective, someone needs to be healthy. The plasma needs time to work its magic on the body, turning off the body’s defenses. Without enough time to prevent the destruction, both the plagues and what the body itself does, the chances of survival drop significantly.”
“With only two candidates, treating the wrong person means there are hundreds we can’t treat,” Mattie added. “But if we treat the right individuals, they can then treat dozens, each of whom can treat dozens more.”
“You no know who live and who not,” Antario countered. “That lie with God, not you.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve been through this enough to know what happens. When someone gets the plague, they die. The handful who survive will likely catch another variant, and if the first plague didn’t kill them, the second one will. The only hope for anyone to survive is for us to selectively treat the best candidates.”
“No. You only want treat white blond like you.” Antario pointed at both Alice and Mattie, before turning to Thomas—who was also blond—and Sandra, who at least had darker hair. “You no treat who not like you.”
“No, that’s just not true.” Alice remained calm, not letting herself be pulled into a fight there was no point in waging. “If you can treat others, then we’ll treat you. The whole purpose here is to prepare you to treat others. Each person is responsible for treating at least two, and then leaving the community to their care while aiding new cities. If someone isn’t likely to survive, the entire process breaks down. If you have AB blood, you’ll be on the top of our list. If you have either A or B blood types, you can’t treat as many people, but it would still put you near the top of our selection list. However, if you have type O blood, which means you can’t treat any other blood type, then saving you wouldn’t help as many people.”
“Ha! You admit it. You only save some people, letting others die simply ‘cause you no care ‘bout ‘dem.”
Alice turned to Thomas and Sandra, looking for support. “Look, could you back me up on this? I’m not sure he’s seeing what I’m trying to express.”
Sandra frowned, shrugging as she shook her head. “Sorry, but I’m not sure I agree with you. I say save who you can. If this treatment is as dangerous as you suggest, then why risk treating someone who’s healthy? If someone is already going to die, then there’s less risk in trying to save those who need it.”