Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
06: A New Day Dawns

Copyright© 2016 by Vincent Berg

“How’s Liz doing?” Mattie asked as she entered the van, closing the door behind her.

Alice halted her singing, turning to answer her friend while clutching Liz’s hand to maintain the physical connection. “She’s showing symptoms of the other plagues and is in pain, but hasn’t started losing consciousness yet. How did your meeting go?”

“Antario doesn’t have any symptoms. He insists he’s careful and Lassie gave him the all-clear. He and Sandra are out collecting supplies at different locations. How’s Thomas?”

“Thomas isn’t feeling great, but he’s holding on,” Thomas offered, smiling wanly at her. “I’m showing pox mark symptoms and I keep getting chills despite the warmth in here.”

“He’s running a fever and has symptoms of both Sinclarium and Floraosis, or GD3 and 4. He’ll start to worsen rapidly, but for now he’s still in strong spirits.”

“He’s also enjoying the stories she’s singing to Liz. I can see why this technique is so effective.” Despite his teasing tone, it was clear he thought their speaking about him in the third person was annoying. Mattie blushed at the mild rebuke, but was undeterred.

“Man, it crowded in here. I have no idea how we’ll both work in this cramped space.”

“Hell, it is what it is. I didn’t pick this location or the timetable. It was forced on me. But as always, we’ll do what we need to. You can scrape by scampering around the bed, but we’ll spend most of our time either kneeling or in the bed with them.”

“OK, I can see that. What do you want me to do?”

“As we discussed, I’ll handle Liz while you deal with Thomas. Since there’s so little room, it’ll be hard separating them and I’m afraid we’ll trip over each other. Frankly, we’d do better lying out on the grass, but it’s too late to move Liz now. This is why jumping into the middle of a crisis is so difficult, you can’t properly prepare for it. Now we’re constrained by choices we didn’t make.”

“Buck up, sailor. It’s either sink or swim,” Mattie teased as she checked Thomas’s vitals. “By the way, where did you put the defibrillator?”

“It’s out of the way: overhead at the edge of the storage area. That way we won’t trip over it, but can access it by standing on the bed.”

“Which might prove problematic if someone is thrashing about,” Mattie pointed out.

“Not much we can do about that. I selected the best option from limited choices. As always, we’ll deal with things as they arise.” Turning back to her patient, Alice resumed her soft song which calmed the shaking girl, her relief reflected in her eyes. At this stage in the game, you couldn’t ease off for long before the patients worsen.

“You know, as crowded as it is, I could treat Thomas in our vehicle while you remain here with Liz.”

“I considered that, but this is one of the few times we have the luxury of having two people working together. I think the benefits of two people monitoring the patients and relieving each other outweighs the complications of overcrowding. But I swear, this is the last time I get forced into a situation like this!”

Shrugging, Mattie turned to Thomas. “How far has she gotten in the story?”

“Well, she’s been telling it piecemeal, so I’ve heard some parts several times while others only once. She’s at the sheriff station shootings.”

“Oh, then I’d better shut up.” Mattie zipped her mouth with her fingers as a promise she’d quit interrupting. She wiped Thomas down, straightening up as Alice resumed her story. “You don’t want to miss this, it’s very emotional.”

Alice continued to sing and Liz and Thomas listened intently, despite the distractions of their shivering and increasing pain. Mattie knew the story by heart and could recite the entire thing in her sleep, but was still comforted by it. There were so many comforting and reassuring memories which always made her feel good. Since she knew it so well, she continued to work. Their two patients had to concentrate so their continuing pain wouldn’t make them miss key elements.

The song Alice sung was encouraging because it reminded them of the strength of having reliable friends. The type who’d come through in difficult times. Both Thomas and Liz were on their own for months. Liz only connected with Antario a short time ago, and it was a reluctant joining, even then.

The songs reinforced everything they remembered and idealized about the strengths of friendship, as well as emphasizing the importance of their struggle. It stressed how only by struggling long after hope was gone could they expect to continue. Hope, like pain, was passing. You’d either move beyond it or you’d die. Struggle was a constant and you struggled, not for yourself, but for everyone else who depended on you.


“Clear!”

Mattie stepped back, banging into a cabinet, raising her hands as Alice applied the charge to Liz’s chest. Liz’s body arched up, her arms flailing as she collapsed back upon the bed.

“How ... long?” Thomas struggled to ask.

“Huh?” Mattie had to turn before she could reorient her thoughts. “Uh, this time or all of them?”

“Both,” he gasped through parched lips.

“Well, she stopped breathing, so I performed compressions. Alice took over and got her breathing again, but then her heart stopped. We jumped it, only to have her breathing halt. She resumed breathing, but her heart failed again. That makes two jumpstarts and three compressions now, and about six and eight all together.”

Mattie glanced back as Alice tied once again.

“Clear!” she yelled, even though no one was nearby. This time Liz’s head snapped back and she took a huge gasp and Alice knelt over her to monitor her breathing.

“How long ... you continue?” Thomas pressed.

“As long as we have to, I guess,” Mattie shrugged.

“Damn right. I’m not giving up,” Alice snarled, not glancing back. Lifting her head off Liz’s chest, Alice resumed singing as she gave Liz several small sips of water. “We knew going in this was risky, and I won’t allow anyone to suggest I voluntarily let her go.”

“No one ... know,” Thomas argued in a voice much too low to carry.

“She’d know,” Mattie said. “None of us will slack off if there’s a chance, but Alice is obsessive about this case.”

“She’s not responding like we’d hoped,” Alice said, curling up around Liz, encouraging her to struggle on. “She’s suffering, but she isn’t showing signs the plasma is succeeding. What’s more, she’s not sick enough to lapse into the wakeful coma everyone else falls into. That’s when the body shuts down in order to conserve its strength. Without that, she’s just exhausting her resources.”

“The semi-comatose state is evidence the treatment is working, but not in Liz’s case. In yours, you’re suffering, but from each of the different plagues. In her case, she has symptoms of the others, but she’s currently only suffering from the one. The others plagues haven’t advanced much yet. Thus the treatment hasn’t reached the same level with her it has with you.”

“Damn it!” Alice snapped, banging her elbow while working on Liz.

Thomas made a vague motion, pointing out the line of blood trickling out of Liz’s mouth. “Is that ... bad sign?”

“Hard to tell,” Mattie answered with a shrug. “Chances are she just bit her lip, but she might be bleeding internally. Alice is checking her stomach to see if it’s hardening, as that’s a sign of internal bleeding.” Alice shook her head, so Mattie continued. “Widespread bleeding is a sign her organs are failing. At that point, it’s just a matter of time. The problem is; if too much damage occurs before the treatment takes effect, it’s too late once it does.”

Alice’s gentle singing filled the small enclosed vehicle as Mattie turned her attention back to Thomas. Though tempting to ignore the other patient when one is in distress, Mattie knew it was essential to closely monitor both. Although Thomas was still far from the crisis phase, problems developed on their own timetable. As she wiped Thomas down, removing the accumulated sweat and flaking skin, she noted he was once again concentrating on the words of Alice’s song.


“Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Alice yelled, pumping Liz’s chest.

“Alice,” Mattie cautioned, grasping her shoulder.

“No!” Alice brushed the consoling hand away. “I’m not letting go. She worked too hard for this. We can’t stop. She can’t surrender!”

Mattie carefully shifted around the bed, trying to afford Alice a bit more room to perform her chest compressions. “I don’t think it’s up to her anymore.” Mattie gestured to her face, the multiple bleeding sores, the glassy, bloodshot eyes and blood oozing from her mouth, nose, eyes and ears. “Her organs are damaged. Keeping her alive now is just prolonging her agony. There’s no physical way to repair the damage. Even if we could transplant all her organs, the connecting tissue is probably destroyed. She’s lost the battle. She’s gone.”

“Damn it!” Alice’s face was a mask of sheer determination with tears streaming down her face as she pumped Liz’s heart even more. “There’s too much riding on this.”

“The future’s not so grim,” Mattie consoled her. “Thomas is still holding on. If we double down on him, he can carry on without her.”

Mattie’s comforting words proved meaningless when Alice’s hand slipped and broke through the skin on Liz’s abdomen. Pausing, Alice surveyed what she’d done as Liz’s body lay sprawled under her. Cocking her head, she extracted her combat army knife and slit open Liz’s flesh.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mattie demanded.

“I’m checking something,” she responded as she peeled the skin back, slicing the skin and muscle from Liz’s stomach with an experienced hand. It was clear her father taught her how to perform field dressings, but it’s disconcerting watching your friend field-dress someone you personally knew.

“Look, I was all for halting the compressions, but this—”

“Shh!” Alice insisted. “Give me a second.”

Thomas tried to sit up to see what was occurring, but Mattie thought it best he not witness Alice’s odd behavior. She pressed his shoulder down to restrain him.

“Come look at this.” Alice motioned Mattie closer. Curious, she got up, at which point Thomas struggled to sit up again, leaning on his elbow.

“What do you see?” Alice asked her friend.

“I see the bloody remains of the person you were trying to save,” Mattie responded, scrunching up her face.

“No, you were right, she’s definitely gone. The fact she’s not bleeding demonstrates that. But examine it closer. She was bleeding internally. The large amount of blackened blood demonstrates that. But the blood isn’t liquid.”

“Huh?” Mattie dipped her finger into the dark blood inside the wound, discovering it parted around her finger. She could actually push it around and dig inside of it. “What the hell?”

“Take a look at the veins,” Alice instructed as she slit and stretched Liz’s remains to prove her point. “See, the veins split. They decomposed internally. They just ... shredded, causing the blood to flow freely inside her. Only, it didn’t.”

Mattie lifted her hand and examined the flecks of blood remaining on her finger. “This is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Apparently the plague is doing things inside the body we never considered. We knew that some variants caused the organs to burst and produce internal bleeding. We also knew that other variants caused discolored bleeding under the skin. Now we’re seeing what caused those responses.” Alice once more, slit open even more of Liz’s flesh to expose more of her abdomen.

“While she bled once her veins collapsed, the blood solidified, turning into a jelly. It wasn’t flowing in her veins any more, which is probably why the organs failed. They couldn’t withstand the pressure of the expanding blood with the pressure of the blood still being pumped behind it.”

“You’re right. The blood looks more like caviar in a thick sauce. There are actually dark, soft beads within it.”

Wiping her hands on her shirt, smearing Liz’s blood even further, Alice replaced her gloves before scrambling into the front to grab something from the center console. Her grief over the loss of the patient was replaced by a bubbling curiosity. Thomas continued trying to peer past the two girls. Glancing out the window, Mattie saw the makeshift camp the others set up nearby. Two solitaire tents, set apart, were lit as the occupants awoke and got their bearings, awakened by the disturbances in the van.

“What ... she see?” Thomas asked.

“I’m not sure. I’m not even sure what she’s doing,” Mattie admitted. Noting his trembling as he leaned on his elbow, Mattie eased him back down. Though he kept glancing over, Thomas accepted her restraint. Such a minor effort was almost more than he had available as he continued to be lashed by constant waves of pain. He was out of breath and gasping. Mattie wiped him down, gently stroking his skin and humming the now-familiar refrain.

Mattie watched as Alice returned, bent over Liz’s body and began snapping pictures with one of their spare cell phones.

“A little grisly, isn’t it? Taking souvenir shots of people we’ve lost?”

“Huh?” Alice asked, too distracted by what she was doing to grasp Mattie’s accusation. “No, it’s nothing like that. We’ve never done an autopsy on anyone who’s died from the plagues before. We were always too worried about the threat of contamination. This is the closest we’ve ever gotten.” She proceeded to take another couple of close-up shots. “Tom needs to see what happens to plague victims. These photos will help him learn what actually occurs. Hopefully, they’ll allow us to develop better treatment options when we can’t treat them with plasma.”

“And how do you propose to get them to him? You can’t email them.”

“That’s easy,” Alice responded, going through the shots she’d already taken, smiling at the results. “We’ll leave them here. When Ayana delivers additional plasma supplies, they can give them to her and she can take them back. It’ll take longer, but he’ll be able to examine the details in a way he can’t do in person.”

“Unless your father does it,” Mattie suggested.

“That would be messy and require a separate facility. As it is, we’ll have to junk Antario’s van. I’m not sure we can clean it. But unless Dad treats Tom, he’d never be able to witness this himself.”

Alice looked up, noticing Thomas studying her and Antario and Sandra standing outside, shivering in the chilly air, their concern etched on their faces. Antario seemed stricken, but both showed their guilt for forcing an issue which not only failed, but which produced the very results Alice feared.

Putting the smartphone back, Alice grabbed a spare glove and passed it to Mattie. “I wish we had some specimen jars, but these will have to do. Collect some of the blood. We’ll leave it for Ayana to take back to Tom.” Alice then extracted a large plastic tarp they’d previously stored there.

Mattie turned to the still suffering man in her arms. “Looks like you’re on your own for a little while, Thomas. If you need us, be sure to make a ruckus. Here’s a bell you can ring. We should be able to hear it outside. I don’t mean to abandon you, but we can’t leave Liz’s body here. This shouldn’t take long.”

“Undr ... under ... stand,” he got out, even as a bout of shivering overtook him.

Confirming he’d be OK, Mattie stood up and helped Alice spread out the tarp on the floor. They lifted Liz’s lifeless corpse onto the tarp and wrapped it snugly, fastening it with duct tape.

“So what the hell happened?” Mattie looked up as she taped Liz’s legs together. “How does someone’s blood congeal like that?”

Alice made a face. “It wasn’t that it congealed, it changed from blood to sludge. We’ve never examined anyone internally after they died, fearing exposing the pathogens. It makes sense we wouldn’t know what’s happening if we haven’t witnessed it.

“I’m guessing that as the individual cells die, the way the cells combine changes. I don’t know the exact process, but it seems that groups of dead cells bind together rather than sliding against each other. As this occurs, the space the blood takes up expands, causing the veins, arteries and organs to rupture. All we’ve seen from the outside is massive bleeding, but we never saw what produced the bleeding. Even as the body fills with blood, it congeals into a mass. That’s probably why the bodies don’t decompose as they normally do.”

“I thought that was because of the lack of microorganisms?”

“It is, but this probably adds to the microorganisms’ death. What’s more, the blood they and other animals absorb expands the same way, destroying their bodies in the same process.”

“OK, I can see the blood turning thick, but what about those ... nodules?”

“Again, I’m not sure, but there’s apparently something else going on. Either the dead cells adhere to each other, or there’s some other process occurring. But we won’t know until Tom can study it.”

“I thought the Great Death was scary enough before. This ... this is just unreal.”

“Yeah, but it’s something Tom and my father should know about. Maybe they can make sense of it.”

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