Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 6

Memory Lane

I-74 West

March 08, 2007

1423 hrs_

“YOU DO KNOW WHERE WE’RE GOING, RIGHT?!” Gregory Mason shouted over the sound of whipping wind. He had poked his head into the cab of Trevor Westscott’s pickup truck from his designated spot in the bed.

“Hell yes,” Trev said back, barely glancing at the intruder in the cab. “Interstate 74 will take us most of the way. Then what, Juni?”

Junko, sitting next to Trev with crossed legs, looking very at ease, reached under her seat and pulled out a faded, folded map of the nation that looked to be nearly as old as the truck itself.

“We’ll be getting onto Interstate 80 West,” Junko announced, nodding once to herself. “Relax. Enjoy the ride.”

“Uh-huh,” Mason said, raising his eyebrows. He pulled himself free of the window and collapsed back into the bed of the truck, wincing a bit. “I swear, my ass couldn’t be sorer if I was riding a goddamn horse to Omaha.”

“I don’t care,” Julie said, shaking her head as she rested against the side rail of the bed, eyes closed. “I’m just glad I’m not walking anymore.”

Anna was busily studying her PDA. She’d struck gold when she realized the truck had a cigarette lighter; in the pack she’d taken from the safe-house in Washington was a power adapter for just such an outlet. She’d plugged the PDA in and was even now recharging the batteries, going over what fragments of research Julie had managed to download at the safe-house, and was working hard at keeping the adapter’s cord from getting into anyone’s face. The three shared the truckbed with Matt, who still didn’t seem all that enthralled at the idea of having new companions. He’d barely said a word all day.

“So, Matt,” Mason said, trying to spark up conversation. “What did you do before all this?”

“Student,” came the terse, one-word reply.

“What were you studying?” Mason pressed, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees.

“Engineering,” Matt said. “I wanted to be an engineer.”

“What, and you can’t be one now?” Mason asked, smiling in a friendly manner.

“Look around, asshole. World’s gone. No need for engineers out here,” Matt said.

“Actually, that’s not so,” Anna said suddenly. She didn’t even look up from her PDA as she continued, “The bell curve—as it pertains to intelligence and aptitude—applies in this case to fatalities as it would in any other situation. There are few enough educated people in this world and, if we assume that deaths have been taking place regardless of economic situation or geographic location, then there will be barely anyone left with any kind of real education.”

Matt simply stared at the woman with raised eyebrows. She didn’t even glance at him, but, in her unnervingly astute way, guessed at what he was thinking.

“What I’m saying is that most of the smart people are dead and you’re still alive. Whether or not you have a degree, that makes you one of the world’s best engineers,” Anna said, nodding once and tapping the screen of her PDA to bring up another page of data. “Just a matter of the process of elimination.”

Julie, still leaning back with her eyes closed, shrugged at the thought. “Never did think of it like that. I guess that makes me prime material for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for broadcast journalism.”

Mason grinned and shook his head despite himself. “I can’t believe you’re making yourselves feel better by using the deaths of all these people.”

“Oh, don’t try and play Mister High-and-Mighty over there, Mason,” Julie said, opening one eye and staring accusingly at him. “I see that grin of yours.”

The truth was Mason was happy because the rest of the people in the bed of the truck were happy. He was a natural morale- evaluator, always feeling what the group felt. When they were down, he was down. When they were happy, he was happy. And now that they had a truck and were putting miles between themselves and Sawyer’s last known position, they all felt a load lift off their backs—or at least, Anna, Julie and Mason did. Their new companions still didn’t know about their pursuers.

“What about you, Julie?” Matt asked, looking over at the journalist. He seemed to be taking an interest in her—not just because there were so few people to talk to, but because he was a young man and she was an attractive woman. “What all did you do before this?”

“Haven’t you been listening?” Julie asked. “I was in journalism.”

“What, like Clark Kent journalism?” Matt retorted.

“No, broadcast—” Julie cut herself off, heaved a sigh, and sat up straight, looking over at Matt. “I was a news anchor. Other people go out and find the news, bring it to me, then they turn on the cameras and I read it to the world.”

“Oh, that kind of journalist,” Matt said, nodding. “Sounds cool. Kind of like being a movie star.”

“Not really,” Julie said, shaking her head. “You want to hear about something you’ll think sounds cool, ask Mason about what he did before all this.”

Matt looked over at Mason, who met his gaze with a look that said, ‘Don’t bother.’ Matt returned his attention to the journalist.

“I don’t know, journalism sounds cool, too. I mean, it’s your job to tell the world what’s happening in the world. Or it was. It’s like you’re the entire intelligence agency for the citizens of a country. It’s a big responsibility.”

“Stop trying to butter me up, bucko,” Julie said, grinning lopsidedly at Matt. “You need to work on your flirting technique.”

Matt stopped trying to talk to her and faced forward, cheeks flushing. “Sorry.”

————————

In the cab of the truck, a more serious discussion was taking place.

“So what do you think of them?” Trev asked Junko, glancing askance at her profile.

The Japanese girl quirked the corner of her mouth upward as she thought, considering the question from every angle.

“I think that if they were nothing more than thieves, they would have killed us and taken the truck by now,” she said, but ended her sentence in such a way that made Trev think she had something more to say. He was right. After a moment, she continued. “At the same time, I don’t know about their whole vaccine story. It just seems to be so convenient.”

“I think so, too,” Trev said. “But we’re both in agreement about them not being with the demons, at least.”

Juni turned in her seat to face Trev, a serious expression creasing her pleasant features. “Trev, we’ve talked about this. You can’t—”

“I know, I know, I’ve heard it,” he said, furrowing his brow. “Why can’t I call them that? Why can’t I call them what they are?”

“Trev,” Juni said gently, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe they are demons. Maybe they’re not. But most people aren’t ready for that idea. They can barely handle the idea of them being victims of a virus. You can’t tell them what you think. Not yet. Keep it to yourself, please?”

Trev murmured something under his breath that Junko didn’t quite catch.

“What was that?” Juni asked.

“I said ‘What’s the goddamn point of ever leaving that hospital if I’m back to pretending it’s all a fantasty again?’ ” Trev said, a little too loudly. Mason glanced in the direction of the cab from the bed, but otherwise seemed unconcerned.

“You’re not pretending,” Junko hurried to explain to him. “You’re not pretending at all. You’re humoring them. It’s not about you. I’ve seen you fight the infec—the demons. You’re amazing. You just let that rage take you over and there’s no coming back for the demons once they meet you.”

Trev sighed and shook his head. “I just don’t like calling them ‘infected’ or ‘victims’ when they’re just so clearly demons.”

“It’s semantics,” Juni said. “Whenever you meet one, call it what it is. Call it a demon. When you’re with others, call it an infected. What is that expression you Americans have—it’s about pronunciation. Something about vegetables.”

Trev grinned despite himself and chuckled. “You mean po-TAY-to and po-TAH-to. All right, all right, I get it. I’ll call the damned things infected if it’ll make the others feel better.”

“Thank you,” Juni said, clasping the man on the shoulder again and breathing a deep inner sigh of relief.

She’d come upon Trev months earlier, wandering the streets of a dead town wielding nothing more than a nightstick and wearing little more than a patient’s gown, stained with the blood of infected. At first, Juni had thought to shoot him down as one of the enemy, but then he had spoken to her.

“Your eyes,” he’d said. “They’re not bloody. You’re not a demon, are you?”

“No,” Juni had replied. “I’m not a demon.”

That had been the dubious beginning of their alliance. What had begun as convenience had blossomed into friendship and friendship had blossomed into true camaraderie. The pair trusted one another and relied on one another, though Trev had never once tried to move on Junko. She suspected it was out of respect, and didn’t mind the fact that sex wasn’t there to get in the way of staying alive on the move. It also helped when she reminded herself that Trevor Westscott was a mental patient.

The man truly believed that the infected were demons, sent by the Devil to ravage the Earth pre-apocalypse, just as Revelation had promised. He was a strange blend of a man. Junko never saw him pray, nor did she ever hear him reference God. He was wholly concerned with God’s antithesis, and never went much into his motivations for it. Junko suspected it had something to do with the reason why he was a mental patient in the first place.

She did find it very odd that Westscott chose to call the infected demons and somewhere, in some laboratory in some other part of the world, a researcher had decided to call the virus that created the infected “Morningstar,” which was just another name in Western society for the Devil. Secretly she wondered if there might have been something to Trev’s ramblings, but just as quickly she cut herself off from that train of thought. The virus was perfectly natural. There was no supernatural force driving it, no shadowy government agency responsible for it—Trev’s choice of words was a mere coincidence, though an unnerving one.

Aside from his odd convictions, Trevor Westscott was a solid companion and a good friend. He was intelligent, thought fast on his feet, and had a penchant for the dramatic. Junko had endeavored to keep his questionable sanity under wraps for as long as possible. After all, she reasoned, he wasn’t out to hurt so much as a fly. He was out to hurt the demons. And who wasn’t, these days?

Trev gunned the motor of the pickup truck, increasing his speed somewhat. Junko looked over from the passenger seat at the speedometer and frowned.

“If there were still cops you’d be getting a ticket right now,” Junko scolded. “You’re pushing ninety.”

“Ha ha!” Trev said, grinning widely. “But once I reach 88 miles per hour, the flux capacitor will take us back to . . .”

He trailed off as he saw that Junko had no idea what he was referencing.

“Never mind,” he said, waving a hand and smiling. He eased his foot off the accelerator some. “We’ll just cruise and conserve some gas, then. You’re no fun, Juni.”

She grinned and punched him in the shoulder by way of reply.

“No, seriously,” Trev pressed. “Here we are, not a car in sight, the entire Interstate Highway System is at our feet—and you want us to go the speed limit.”

Trev blew a raspberry in Juni’s direction. She stuck out her tongue at him in reply.

“Now, maybe we’ll find a nice dealership in one of these little dead towns and get something with some real power,” Trev prattled on. “A V-8. Hell, a V-16. Zero to sixty in point five seconds. Ha! I have to put that on my list of things to do once we clear out the demons from some of these towns down the line.”

————————

In the back of the truck, the conversation had fallen flat. The four occupants lounged around, each engrossed in their own thoughts and activities. Julie dozed in the corner, hair whipping around her face as she rested. Mason was systematically disassembling, cleaning, and reassembling his pistol, repeating the process over and over. It was a trick to keep all the pieces together in the jouncing bed of the truck, but to Mason, it merely added a degree of challenge to an activity he could (literally) do blindfolded.

Anna was still engrossed in her PDA, gratified at the full charge it had acquired from the truck’s cigarette lighter. She checked their position on the GPS feature and smiled to herself. In one day they’d covered more distance than they had in two weeks on foot. She switched back over to her research notes and continued to read. She felt it was her duty to keep the data as fresh as possible in her mind.

July 23, 2004—Log Entry #792

Have assigned Joseph and Virginia to run the RNA sequencer on the Marburg strain samples again to check for possible errors. We’ve been experiencing a lot of employee turnover recently and I really didn’t want to have to give them that order. It’s extremely dull work and you have to do it all in an environment suit, which is hot and stuffy and more than a little claustrophobic. Most of our researchers don’t last long in Level 4. They always request transfers to Levels 2 or 3 after a while of dealing with these organisms.

But the funny thing is, it’s not the organisms themselves that are driving researchers away from my department. It’s the department itself. Isn’t that ironic? The environment designed to keep you safe from the living things you’re working on is what sends you running from those living things. I wax pedantic.

We received and processed tissue samples today from two apes who are suspected victims of hemhorrhagic fever from a zoo in China; I have made running those samples top priority. If they come back positive for anything that’s contagious and deadly in humans we’ll have to issue a quarantine order for the zoo and maybe for the city it’s in.

As far as Morningstar goes, we’ve made little progress. I honestly can’t understand why they’ve assigned this virus to our team, too. We already have enough on our plates. Besides, from what I’ve heard through the grapevine, the Deucalion Co-op and the Centers for Disease Control are already researching the bug.

Probably it’s political. In fact, I virtually guarantee it. They just need to cover their asses if there’s ever an outbreak. They said Ebola would never break out, and it did, several times—they finally got wise and started researching it seriously so they could point and say, “Look, we’ve done all we can.”

I wish I could get the Deucalion Co-op to share what they have on the virus with me. I know next to nothing about it besides it’s a filovirus and a nasty one. The brief I received said, and I’m writing this quoted word for word, that “the Morningstar strain possesses an infectious nature and fatal potential that has not yet been exceeded by any other known virus.”

That makes me damn curious. Even though I resent the extra workload, I can’t wait to see what this little bug can do.

In the bed of the truck, Anna sighed and rolled her eyes after reading her own words. Even though they were only a couple of years past, they seemed like a lifetime ago, and she felt like an entirely different person.

I can’t wait to see what this little bug can do.

She almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of the line.

Matt was facing away from the group, sitting cross-legged at the rear of the bed and staring at the road as it receded behind them, occupied with his own thoughts.

“So what’s on the docket today, Doc?” Mason asked without looking up from his pile of gun parts. “Anything interesting?”

“Not really,” Anna drawled. “Just my daily log entries. I just read an entry dated right after I first was assigned to Morningstar. It’s almost funny how naive I was.”

“Well, you got a lot better fast, if it’s any consolation,” Mason said.

“A little,” Anna grinned. “Still, I just don’t know where to begin when it comes to this vaccine. My data’s incomplete. Maybe if I had the hard drives from the CDC, USAMRIID, and the Deucalion Co-op all together, along with a team of skilled researchers and proper facilities—maybe then I’d be able to get something real done.”

“Give it time, Doc. Right now your only lab is that little gizmo of yours. You’ll find a way,” Mason said.

“Wait a minute,” Matt said, looking over at Anna with a quizzical expression on his face. “What’s a Deucalion Co-op?”

“The third facility,” Anna said.

Matt stared at her blankly a moment. “What?”

“The third facility,” Anna repeated. “Remember that whole conversation we had back in town when we met? About there only being two Biosafety Level 4 labs in the US and I said there were three, and the third was a joint operation?”

“Oh, yeah,” Matt said, nodding. “Yeah, I remember that. So the third one calls itself the Deucalion Co-op. What’s the significance of that?”

“They were feeling a little ambitious in their naming,” Anna said wryly. “The staff there is made up of private-sector employees, military doctors, and representatives from the CDC. They called themselves Deucalion because they were focusing on ways to use the viruses to, ah, improve humanity. Or at least, that was their foremost stated goal.”

Matt shook his head, still confused. “I still don’t get it. Deucalion?”

Anna lowered her PDA to her knees, sighed, and launched into her explanation. “Deucalion was a man in Greek legend who was sort of like Noah. The gods decided that the human race was too weak to survive. It had been crafted out of the living clay of the earth, but was vice-riddled and crime-torn.”

“Sounds like pretty much any city today,” Mason murmured.

“The gods decide that they’re going to kill all of the human race, but they save Deucalion and his wife, who had remained above temptation and were, you know, worthy of being saved. Problem was, once the extermination was complete, Deucalion and his wife were pretty lonely, what with being the only human beings left on the planet.”

“Sometimes I feel like that, at least these past few months,” Mason interjected once more.

Anna went on as if Mason hadn’t spoken.

“The gods took pity on Deucalion and his wife and they said, ‘Pick up the bones of your mother and throw them over your shoulders, and you will have companions.’”

“The bones of their mothers?” Matt interrupted, a scowl crossing his face. “Those old myths sure can be foul, man.”

“Wait, wait,” Anna said, waving a hand. “The gods weren’t being literal. The mother of all humanity is the earth, and the bones of the earth are rocks. They didn’t mean literally throwing the bones of their mothers over their shoulders.”

“Small mercies,” Matt snorted.

“So Deucalion and his wife pick up handfuls of stones, throw them over their shoulders, and sure enough, up springs twenty men behind Deucalion and twenty women behind his wife. Since the old race that was made of clay had been destroyed, this new race was made of stone and was supposed to be able to withstand vice and evil better than, for lack of a better term, Humanity version 101,” Anna explained. “So these people call themselves the Deucalion Co-op because they’re looking for, and this is a stretch of a metaphor, a way to change humanity from clay to stone.”

“Ah,” Matt said, nodding slowly. “So they’re arrogant bastards, is that it?”

That brought a hearty chuckle from Anna, and even Julie grinned as she leaned back against the side rail of the bed again.

Anna tapped the screen of her PDA and brought up a list of her journal entries. She sighed, watching the list scroll by slowly, entry after entry. She had diligently added her thoughts into her files at the end of every day, entertaining the vague notion of perhaps condensing them into a book or research manual for future generations. Now she was simply hoping to milk any last bit of data about the virus out of them.

September 12, 2004—Log Entry #821

I halted the studies on Marburg and Sudan today. Lassa will probably be up next on the chopping block. I’ve been getting a lot of pressure to focus on Morningstar and I can’t keep running my researchers ragged. The more I learn about this virus the less I want to admit it even exists. It multiplies like Ebola, similar initial symptoms, but instead of crashing and bleeding, the victims go feral. We’re guessing the fever has something to do with it, but it’s a really a very effective technique for spreading the virus. The feral hosts attack whatever is nearby. They’ll bite and scratch and spread infected fluid that way.

We’ve got fully half the lab dedicated to Morningstar research now. I’m still keeping myself busied running epidemic simulations and the results are never pretty. We used a colony of mice to simulate an outbreak in a rural village. It was tough getting a properly controlled environment for the project since we couldn’t exactly build a miniature replica of the Congo River basin in the BSL4 lab, but we made do with some large clear plastic cages and some tubing.

We put one infected mouse in with fifteen others and observed the results. At first, the mice accepted the infected newcomer as one of their own but as symptoms began to develop the healthy mice reacted unexpectedly. As far as we as humans know, animals are ignorant of the knowledge of disease and how to react to it. Despite this, the healthy mice forced the infected one into a kind of “quarantine.” It was something worth a National Geographic article, I’m sure. They ostracized the mouse, kept it away from their food and water sources and generally refused to play nicely with it. They seemed to want it out.

The data suggested by this reaction indicates that the healthy mice had some recognition of the infected mouse’s illness. We wondered what might happen in the wild: whether if, when one animal is infected, the rest put enough distance between themselves that the infected creature dies without being able to spread the disease. That might explain why we haven’t seen a major outbreak of it yet.

Of course, humans are another story. As far as I know we don’t possess any kind of sixth sense that lets us know when a fellow human is infected. And we’re just dumb enough to get close to the poor bastard when he goes feral, too.

Anyway, the infected mouse’s harassment by his peers lasted three days before the virus had replicated enough to cause the feral reaction I was speaking of. When that happened, that poor, tormented little rodent got his revenge: by the end of the day all fifteen healthy mice had been infected with Morningstar. No matter where they went in the cage and its tubes, the infected mouse found them, one by one, and systematically infected them all.

It was disturbing to watch. It’s as if the little bugger developed one hell of a predatory instinct, as if the virus erased all that was that made him a mouse and turned him into a killer.

I’m really not liking this assignment right now. It’s keeping me up at night.

Anna swallowed. Her throat felt dry and scratchy, and she lowered the PDA to her lap to retrieve a canteen of water from one of the bags in the bed of the truck. She unscrewed the cap and took a long, satisfying gulp, a small rivulet of water running down her neck. She sighed, replaced the canteen, and looked around the truck.

The occupants were all still busily doing plenty of nothing. Mason was on his umpteenth repetition of disassembling and reassembling his pistol. Julie looked as if she was completely asleep, her head lolling back and forth gently and her mouth hanging open slightly. Matt sat cross-legged in the rear of the bed where he had always been, still staring at the road behind them.

Anna suddenly felt a tremendous rush of responsibility fall over her. It was heavy and smothering as a blanket soaked in cold kerosene. The lives of billions had ended over the past few months and she, one of the chief researchers into the problem, hadn’t been able to do a damn thing about it.

Then again, she thought to herself, I did warn them. Several times.

Just as suddenly, the heavy weight lifted, and Anna felt as if she could breathe again. It was wrong of her to blame herself for the outbreak. She’d had nothing to do with it, and even the governments she’d tried to warn had done their best once they’d begun to take her seriously. This was nature’s way, and nothing one small species could do could stop it.

Unless I find the vaccine.

And that was the ringer, Anna thought. The big If. From an epidemiologist’s point of view, she figured the human race had two options.

First, they could hole up wherever they could stay alive and bolt the doors, wait out the pandemic. It would, as with all pandemics, burn itself out after enough time had passed. The problem with this idea is that even once all of the carriers had died, including the shamblers, whether it be from violence or pure decay, infectious material would be scattered all across the globe.

A spot of blood from an infected man might have landed in a warm, shaded puddle or some other natural petri dish and the virus would continue to exist. Outbreaks of Morningstar would be never-ending for the human race. Generations down the line, men and women would have to fight off the virus over and over as Anna and her friends were attempting to do now.

The second option was for her to create a vaccine. The pressure of that Herculean task was not lost on her and weighed down on her just as much as the guilt she’d felt when she’d momentarily blamed herself for the pandemic. If she succeeded, she would be responsible for immunizing the human race to the Morningstar strain. Never again would a carrier be able to infect a human being. The only worries the survivors would have would be the physical threat of feral infected biting, clawing, or otherwise mauling them to death—not pleasant, but no less so than the thought of infection.

The pressure was doubled by the fact that Anna Demilio had never focused her research on finding a vaccine. That responsibility had rested with the Deucalion Co-op and their plethora of experiments. They had certainly not succeeded, Anna rationalized, given the current infected state of the world, but they might have made progress.

Anna was banking on them having made boatloads of progress. She was hoping that most of the work had been done—the RNA sequencing, genome investigations, blood and serum tests. In order to make a vaccine work, she had to figure out how to disable the Morningstar strain’s virulent properties. She knew from reading the regular updates that circulated between USAMRIID, the CDC, and Deucalion that the first attempt at a vaccine using killed cells of the Morningstar strain—much the same as a flu shot might—had no effect whatsoever. The human immune system attacked the dead viruses, of course, but no immunity was built up from the injections.

Her better shot was to try and create a vaccine that used a live virus. It was riskier, but it had a better shot of success. The problem there lay in the human immune system itself. Billions of cases worldwide had proved better than any laboratory could that the human immune system couldn’t fight off Morningstar and therefore couldn’t build up an immunity to it.

Either she needed to find a way to reinforce the immune system or find someone whose body made them naturally immune, and use their blood to culture the antibodies she’d need. The former was the option she was considering chasing once they arrived in Omaha, as she’d never heard of so much as a single infected person who didn’t succumb to the disease.

Anna picked up her PDA once more and scrolled through the entries, looking for ones that dealt with immunization and their experiments.

October 09, 2004—Log Entry #869

Today was a busy day. Joseph didn’t come in, complaining of a fever and nausea. I believe him. ’Tis the season for influenza, or getting there, anyway. I joked that he should come in anyway and offer himself as a test subject to the guys in BL2. Virginia and I were the only two researchers on duty so we thought we’d take a light day and try out a few experiments on the Morningstar strain. Our funding for Lassa research was cut off last week and handed over to another department anyway, so we figured, why not?

We’d just received a new shipment of mice. We’re not mean or, what’s the word I’m looking for here, sadistic, that’s it, but we were extremely intrigued with the responses of healthy mice to hosts. We can reasonably hypothesize that a human reaction would be different, so we changed tactics a bit and focused on the behaviors of the infected rodents.

We set up the following variables:

Heat/cold were set in the cage, light/darkness were set up, healthy mice were kept on hand as bait, and we started to brainstorm some obstacles. We were trying to categorize the behavior of the infected mice besides a simple “feral.”

We left the modified cage with our infected mouse sitting next to a cage with the healthy mice. A simple curtain device was placed between the two cages so we could cut off the infected rodent’s line of sight of its prey at will.

Here is what happened as we tinkered with our variables:

WHEN PREY WAS VISIBLE:

The infected mouse was unaffected by extremes in either heat or cold. If we darkened the cages, the hostile reactions increased. We speculate that the virus, using whatever mechanism it has within it to turn a rational rodent feral, also turns them nocturnal. When we increased the brightness of light past levels of natural sunlight the reaction was opposite: the feral rodent seemed more subdued. It was still openly hostile, but seemed slower, more cautious. It spent more time looking down at the floor of the cage and less time trying to climb the sides. It seems that carriers of Morningstar are photosensitive.

WHEN PREY WAS NOT VISIBLE:

The infected mouse’s behavior was still unaffected by extremes in either heat or cold. However, there seemed to be slightly more activity in periods of warmth. In total darkness, activity increased significantly. When we turned up the lighting, the host retreated to a small burrow and refused to emerge.

Generally, the feral hosts don’t seem to wander around all that much, at least when you compare them to a healthy specimen. They don’t use their exercise wheel and don’t explore their cage. Most of the time they just sit, and wait. It’s creepy—reminds me of trapdoor spiders. Patient little predators that dig a hole and just sit inside, waiting for an insect to come by to be grabbed and dragged down to be eaten.

And that’ll about do it for me tonight; I’ll have to check the sheets in my bed for spiders again. I hate the little things.

We’re learning bit by bit how the symptoms of this disease affect the host. I’m guessing today’s experiments won’t be all that important in the scheme of things but, hey, I needed a light day.

Anna grinned as the she read over the log entry. The real-world laboratory they had all been a part of over the past several months had certainly vivified that particular theory. The carriers were indeed reclusive in the day, active at night, and single-minded about pursuit of their prey. She wished she hadn’t had to have seen it in action on the streets of Washington, but then again, she had a lot of wishes for her life and, like nearly all wishes made worldwide, it hadn’t been granted.

Her grin faded into a thin-lipped frown. For all the days, weeks, even years she’d spent working on the virus, all she’d seemed to come up with was data that any surviving human being was well aware of. She scrolled through entry after entry, reading excerpts from experiments on more of their ill-fated lab mice, bits and pieces of RNA sequencing, and epidemiological simulations. Her dark-humored mood took a turn for the worse when she came upon one of her later entries, after she’d spent every day for two months working on an epidemic projection.

May 21, 2005—Log Entry #978

I’ve concluded my work on the epidemiological projections for the three strains that are remaining within our department’s authority—Hanta, Zaire, and Morningstar. The simulations look grim, for the most part.

The Hantavirus, being native to our shores here on the US, isn’t an unfamiliar disease. We ran worst-case scenarios and they were not particularly disturbing. The virus is hard to detect as the symptoms resemble the flu at first, but once Hanta has been identified, quick action can stop the outbreak in its tracks. Assuming the mass media was informed, simple instructions such as wearing facemasks or avoiding contact with contaminated areas showed the virus outbreak burning itself out in a minimum of three months with a maximum of eight months. Fatalities can be rated as “insignificant.”

Ebola Zaire presented a trickier situation since it’s hard to predict rates of infection. It is a fast killer, which means that there is a significant chance of it burning itself out before expanding from an outbreak to a full-fledged pandemic. It’s native to Africa (hence the river it is named after), unlike Hanta, so we have a geographic buffer between us and the disease. Further, villages in this area of Africa are not unfamiliar with the virus and will take steps to quarantine themselves, which adds an additional buffer.

However, we ran the worst-case scenario as requested and the results were not pretty. Assuming worldwide infection and factoring in the fatality rate of the virus (90% +/- 5%) we estimated that one in three people would be killed. Fatalities can be rated as “catastrophic.” Projections indicated just over two billion dead.

Finally, we ran the Morningstar simulation, complete with the data we’ve acquired on the predatory nature of infected hosts, and we scared the shit out of ourselves. We ran the worst-case scenario (Morningstar escaping its natural habitat, infecting major cities and travel routes, etcetera) and I felt like tendering my resignation right there and moving to the middle of the mountains somewhere, far, far away from any other people. The projection showed Morningstar jumping from the level of an outbreak to pandemic within one week. From that point, casualties increase exponentially. The fatality rate of the virus was tricky: since the virus seems to leave its host alive, is it really a fatality? We decided that, in the case of these simulations, we would count a live, infected host as a fatality.

Factoring in the rate of infection and fatality rate (100% +/- 0%), we projected a nearly total obliteration of the human species. We estimated that approximately thirty-five million people would survive the pandemic. In other words, for every one survivor, one thousand seven hundred and fourteen people would die. Most of the survivors would be relegated to rural areas, cut off by natural distance or geography from population centers.

Cities and towns that are infected give the survivors worse odds. We ran those numbers as well, using Philadelphia as a model, and found that for every one survivor, there would be five thousand nine hundred and eighteen dead.

May God have mercy on us if this son of a bitch jumps its banks.

————————

Anna sighed, blinked slowly, and lowered the PDA to her lap.

“Why the long face, doc?” Mason asked, looking over from his pile of weapon parts.

“Nothing much,” Anna replied, still staring down at the journal entry. “I’m just feeling a little bit like a prophet of doom.”

“What’re you reading over there?” Mason pressed.

“Daily logs,” Anna said. “It was a kind of diary for me. I kept hard data in separate files but made entries into a log every day to describe what we’d accomplished. Reading over it now is making me feel like a latter-day Nostradamus.”

Anna held up the PDA so the screen faced Mason. “See right here? Predicted the pandemic. Scroll up a little bit and I’ve got the behavioral characteristics of the carriers all spelled out. It’s eerie.”

“Well, that’s what they paid you for,” Mason said, snapping the last piece of his pistol back together and checking chamber. “You’re the world’s Morningstar expert.”

“Yes, that’s what everyone keeps reminding me,” Anna drawled, shaking her head.

“What kind of hard data do you have on that thing?” Matt asked, looking over from his spot at the rear of the bed. “I mean, is it useful stuff? Things you can turn against the virus? Like, maybe instead of a vaccine, we could make something that destroys the virus so it doesn’t matter where you shoot them, they go down.”

Anna grinned and Mason actually chuckled out loud. Matt looked hurt for a moment, but Mason jumped in to explain their reaction.

“We’ve thought of it,” he said. “And, actually, it’s a great idea. I mean, if we can’t find a way to keep the virus from hurting people, maybe we can hurt the virus, right? Thinking of that option just shows you’re brighter than average.”

Matt looked pleased at the compliment.

“Then again,” Mason went on, “Anyone left alive by now had better be brighter than average.”

“So, where are we, Doc?” came Julie’s voice. The journalist was still reclining in the corner of the bed, eyes closed, but apparently had been following the entire conversation. “Take a break from those notes and load up the GPS.”

“We’re well on our way, Julie,” Anna said, frowning. “Relax.”

“Come on, humor me,” Julie pressed. “Humor me or I’ll start repeating, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we—’”

“All right, all right!” Anna snapped. “Give me a second.”

She busied herself with loading up the requested program on the PDA, taking care to save her notes as they were. Matt seemed to have lost interest in the conversation and was back to staring at the road behind the truck, resting his chin on closed fists.

Mason noticed the intense look in the young man’s eye, but thought nothing of it.

“Here we go,” Anna said, squinting at the PDA. “Well, damn. I can’t get a connection. Maybe that satellite’s finally moved out of its proper orbit. We might have to rely on old-fashioned maps again if it doesn’t come back up.”

Matt leaned forward against the tailgate, staring back down the road, eyes half-closed against the sunlight.

“Smack it a couple times,” Julie said, smiling widely. “That’s how I used to get my cellphone to pick up a signal.”

“It should be working just fine without resorting to physical violence,” Anna retorted.

“What’s so interesting, Matt?” Mason asked, ending the banter. Both women looked over at the young man, intently studying the road behind them.

Matt looked over his shoulder at the trio and shrugged. “Not sure. I thought I saw a flash of light back there. Maybe it was just a heat wave. There aren’t any other cars out on this road but us and the junkers.”

Matt nodded toward one of the abandoned cars they’d dubbed the ‘junkers’ as they passed it by, a bright blue flash of a battered sedan turned up on its side off the edge of the interstate.

Mason moved to sit next to Matt and began rooting around in his backpack.

“What’re you doing?” Matt asked.

“Hunches are a good thing to follow up on,” Mason said, locating the binoculars he’d been searching for in his pack and pulling them free. The strap caught on the zipper and he impatiently yanked it loose, holding the lenses up to his face and studying the road as it led off into the distance behind them.

“See anything?” Matt asked after a moment of silence.

“Road,” Mason quipped from behind the binoculars, a grin appearing on what was visible of his face. Suddenly, the grin was gone, replaced by a look of apprehension. “Uh-oh.”

Far in the distance, just cresting a hill that sloped so gently it was nearly unnoticeable, came a glint of sunlight off of a windshield.

“Is that a car?” Matt asked, pointing.

Anna and Julie had abandoned their respective projects and were now crowded around Matt and Mason, looking over their shoulders with anxiety written on their features.

“No, it’s not a car,” Mason said. His teeth ground together. “It’s a Land Rover. Black.”

Anna and Julie looked at one another silently, eyes wide with fear.

“Does that mean what I think it means?” Julie whispered.

Mason let the binoculars drop to his lap and turned to face the two women. He drew his pistol, so recently cleaned and oiled, slapped in a magazine, and racked a round into the chamber. “Yep. Sawyer’s back.”


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