Authors: Edward W. Robertson
Tags: #influenza, #sci-fi, #novels, #eotwawki, #post apocalyptic, #postapocalyptic, #Fiction, #virus, #books, #post-apocalyptic, #post-apocalypse, #post apocalypse, #plague, #Meltdown, #Breakers, #science fiction series, #postapocalypse, #Thriller, #Melt Down
Edward W. Robertson
Across the table, Ellie Colson's bosses laughed what might be the last big laugh of their lives. She forgave them. They didn't know they were joking about the end of the world.
She smiled thinly. Rawlings, her direct superior, chuckled and swabbed his puffy hand across the table, as if he were working at an imaginary water spot. Dr. Armen laughed and clutched his gut, as if he were afraid it might bounce away. Jesper Mason just smiled. Like Ellie, he hadn't been introduced by rank—Rawlings hadn't even mentioned which org he belonged to, which meant he was a field hand, and a useful one. She recognized him vaguely. Might have seen him around the stacks once or twice. Mason had told the joke, something about Spanish flu. Ellie hadn't been listening. She'd been thinking about the transmission rate in Rawlings' printout.
The laughter stopped. Conversation resumed. The room was bare and windowless but their voices carried no echo, dying in the small space like lost moths. It wasn't that these men weren't smart; they had enough degrees between them to paper a den. It wasn't that they lacked dedication; she would soon prove herself least dedicated of any of them.
It was that they lacked imagination.
"Ellie?" Rawlings said. "You're awfully quiet."
"I think," she said, fairly certain it would do no good, "this is going to wind up more serious than Spanish flu."
The old man frowned, hiding the disappointment in his eyes with parental skill. "That was a joke."
She tapped the printout. "Did you see the numbers?"
"The ones I hunt-and-pecked into the report?" Rawlings leaned forward, tie wrinkling. "Hey. What's in your head?"
She met his eyes. "We need to consider closing up shop."
His eyes crinkled, pained. "Ellie."
"Not for good. For the weekend."
"Lock everything down for two weeks. Flights. Highways. Schools. Everything. Arrest and quarantine anyone who leaves their homes."
Rawlings drew back his chin, flesh wattling his neck. "You're talking about the M-word."
"I'm talking about containment."
"The United States hasn't declared martial law since the Civil War." Rawlings glanced at his assistant, Gills. "Is that right? The Civil War, yes?"
Gills nodded, light reflecting from his glasses. "Pretty sure, sir."
Rawlings turned back to her. "The Civil War, Ellie."
"Two weeks," she said. "This thing is aggressive. Aggressive like a poked grizzly. If this thing is what it looks like, it needs civilization to spread—otherwise, it will kill its hosts before they have the chance to pass it along. If you keep all the current hosts isolated for two weeks, it might kill itself off."
"And then what? Reevaluation?"
Ellie stared at the table. "Well, yes."
"If you were right, of course, this thing would take a lot longer than two weeks to clear out." Rawlings tapped his thumbs against the table. "Realistically, you're talking months before we begin to get back to normal. You lock the whole country in their houses for three months, six, you usher in a brand-new Great Depression."
"The cure is worse than the disease," Armen said, low.
Rawlings raised a brow at the doctor, apologetic. His head was turned from her, but Ellie had seen him make the gesture too many times to miss it. The old man tapped the table some more.
"We're trying to
disaster," he said at last. "Got anything along those lines?"
She shrugged. "I'll give it another think."
He smiled. "Do."
They picked up the talk where they'd left off. Small-scale stuff. Likelihood of riots, a vaccine distribution schedule. Automatically, Ellie voiced support for starting in mass transit-oriented urban centers. Anything to decrease the rate of fresh infections. It wouldn't matter. There would be no time for a vaccine. Even if they had months—and she was thinking weeks were more likely—that was no guarantee. They still didn't have a vaccine for herpes.
During a pause, Rawlings mused idly where the illness had come from. Mason leapt on the topical fumble like a lineman and for twenty minutes they discussed the potential signs of whether it had been inflicted from outside, who were the most likely suspects, and what were the implications of such an attack. Ellie found the entire topic academic, masturbatory. It didn't matter
. All that mattered was
In the end, Rawlings and Dr. Armen decided to recommend a standard-aggressive outbreak protocol modified by a suite of draconian transportation restrictions to reflect the reality that the flu had already vectored well beyond its Northern Idaho ground zero. (And had done so with such efficacy Ellie had doubts there
been a true zero-point—which certainly suggested it was no accident. But enough of that.)
Rawlings reached across the table to consolidate his spread of printouts and tablets.
"I'd like to be relocated to New York," she said.
The old man squinted at her with one eye. "Hold your horses. You think this is a potential blank-slate event."
"And you would prefer to hide from the end of the world in remote ol' New York City."
She'd had ample time to prepare her lie. "It will be worst there. If I can see it firsthand, I may be able to convince you to get serious."
Rawlings leaned back, his tight frown settling in for a lengthy stay. "Let me ask you something. Say you're heading up New York. Say you had a whole lot less resources than you'd like and a directive to keep any and all panic gruesomely squashed under your heel. What would you do to stop it?"
"Get it off the streets," Ellie said. "Offer free clinics to bring in the poor and spread a low-level scare about dying children to bring in the rich. Identify the incubators and nullify them—schools, hospitals, airports. Everyone in the subways may as well be kissing. You see someone sick, you pull them off the train. You sequester everyone you pick up until they reach an outcome."
"You mean until they die."
She shrugged. "Or don't."
Armen snorted. "That's not going to stop the sort of outbreak you imagine. The city's too
"He said limited resources," Ellie said. "This is about slowing the rate of transmission. Buying time for a vaccine. Worst-case, the uninfected have time to see what's happening and isolate themselves. A fraction survives."
"You're going to yank everyone with the sniffles off the C train?" Mason said. "Where do you plan to hold them all? The Meadowlands?"
Ellie shrugged again. "That's what I'd start with."
Rawlings nodded, still frowning. "Request denied. I need you here. And safe. Not coughing into your falafel in the East Village."
Before she left, she returned to the observation room. Behind the glass, Timothy Rogers, 24, lay face-up on the exam table. They'd cleaned him up very nicely. Pale, sure, and the lividity on the left side of his chest and face wasn't classically attractive, but the blood had been scrubbed away from his mouth and neck. On the next table, Marilyn "Mimi" Rogers, 49, hadn't held up quite as well as her son. She'd been found in the tub. Patches of her skin were stained pink, and now that she'd dried out, her whole body had a shriveled quality that did her middle-aged figure no favors.
In the adjoining room, fifteen others were waiting for or presently in the process of examination. Ellie didn't need to see them again. Mimi Rogers, middle-aged but otherwise healthy. Her son, at the peak of his youth. It was a small sample size, but the fifteen in the next room was a little less small. The still-warm sample waiting in the hospital basement—and the next batch, currently occupying the quarantined hospital's beds, coughing and bleeding—was rather less small yet.
Ellie went home, got her getaway bag and a couple of extra passports, and booked the first flight to New York. She figured she had less than 48 hours to find Chip before he got sick.
Some 2300 miles east, and a handful to the south, Chip Billips' phone rang, startling him so badly he knocked his coffee onto the grimy hardwood. Amazingly, the mug didn't break. A pool of coffee spread across the floor. He stripped off his socks and flung them on the puddle—if he didn't get it soon, the milk would soak right into the grain—and checked his phone, expecting it would be Hernandez calling him in for an early day in the bus. The number was an almost-familiar local 212.
"Mr. Billips?" a woman said, youngish and not particularly enthused.
"This is Terry Blum at White Peaks," she said. "I'm calling about Dee."
Chip gazed glumly at the creamy brown liquid soaking through his peeled-off socks. "Another fight?"
"Something like that."
"In that yes, Dee's been fighting again? Or are you calling to let me know it was
she'd been in another fight, but happily, upon investigation, it turned out to be a
Terry Blum hesitated. "She got in another fight, Mr. Billips."
"Tell Principal Higgins I'm on my way." He bent down for the coffee-soaked socks. "It'll be a few. I'm taking the train."
"I'll let her know that, Mr. Billips."
He hung up and picked up his socks. Coffee dribbled onto the hardwood. He carried them to his laundry bag, but he hadn't intended to go to the laundromat for another week. They couldn't sit in the bag all that time. Staining his other clothes. Growing sour. Well, whatever. They were
. He threw them in the trash, swabbed up the mess by his desk, grabbed fresh socks and shoes, and jogged down the musty-smelling stairwell.
Outside, the street smelled like the usual blend of exhaust, springtime marine chill, and sewer-steam, which itself mostly smelled like dryer-steam with just the slightest hint of processed feces. He reached 2nd Ave, crossing at the first break in the late morning traffic, and jogged toward Astor Place. Girls in knit hats and bearded boys sat around the black cube at the tiny plaza, college kids or possibly the young homeless. Their presence bothered him in a deep-down way, needling him with a subdermal splinter of resentment that these useless, sneering people—people who most certainly could not afford even the Manhattan-reasonable rents over in Alphabet City—shared his neighborhood anyway.
He didn't like that Dee walked past them every morning (and good lord, the fight they'd had when she finally convinced him she could make that walk by herself). He didn't like that they could just
at her. And in a smaller, more selfish way, he didn't like that he'd grown old and stodgy enough to be threatened by—which also meant he was afraid of—these unshaven, unmotivated losers who so very closely resembled the friends he'd kept a little more than a decade ago.
He dropped down the gum-spotted steps to the uptown 4-5-6 platform and waited for the 4 to take him express to 86th and Lex. By the time the train squealed to his stop, he no longer felt mad at Dee. The first time he'd been summoned uptown, he'd been skeptical, defensive, aggressive toward the principal. Not his little angel. The second and third times, that was when he'd been been mad with Dee. Now, he was exasperated, disappointed. Well, okay. If she'd just gotten herself expelled back to public school, maybe he could at least afford to move them out of Alphabet City next year.
White Peaks was a converted brownstone on 88th. Spitting distance of the park. The sort of $3-a-slice neighborhood that
made him feel out of place no matter how long he lived in the city or how much the moms fawned over him—wow, an EMT, in this city? Isn't that
? Doesn't that make you just want to
? Touching his arm, offering to bring him food. Meanwhile he was fighting not to ask them for stock tips.
On his way in, the security guard eyed him hard. Behind the front desk, Terry Blum glanced up and gave him a pinched, apologetic look. Excellent. So she knew him by face now.