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Authors: Scott Sigler

Pandemic (3 page)

BOOK: Pandemic
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The crawler method of contagion worked on a one-to-one basis, something a blond-haired little girl named Chelsea Jewel had once referred to as “smoochies.” Smoochies created the capacity for an ever-expanding army of infected, but the method was slow. It didn’t allow for continued, mass infections to occur.

It was Chelsea — not the Orbital — who solved that problem.

She created a third mode of transmission: turning her own mother into an obscenely bloated gas-filled bag containing millions of spores. At some point this swollen host would burst, scattering spores onto the wind like dandelion seeds carried by a summer breeze. The method was similar to the Orbital’s original infection strategy, but the swelling host was already on the ground — that meant better odds for a higher rate of transmission. Each spore could infect a host with triangles, or with crawlers, or it could turn that host into yet another gasbag that would burst and continue the cycle.

Before the Orbital was shot down, its logic processes determined it needed yet another mode of transmission, something that allowed for infection by touch alone, or — more important — by a vector that lingered in areas of high contact where multiple potential hosts could be exposed. As part of that strategy, the Orbital also wanted one additional key element: that this new vector could continue to infect long after the host died …

The swirling, churning, angry
water spun Wicked Charlie like an insect dropped into a boiling pot, sucked him out of the submarine and into the cold, silent black.

His body seemed to hang for a moment, motionless, as if he were that
same insect trapped in dark amber. Then, the life vest began to rise, bringing Charlie along with it.

His body floated toward the surface.

Charlie’s flame of life finally flickered out. His systems shut down, a cascading effect that should have ended all activity in his body.

Should
have.

His stem cells had been hijacked to produce crawlers. These microorganisms had instinctively followed his nervous system, using it as a pathway to reach his brain. There they had collected, altered their shape and
changed
him.

A very specific type of his stem cells, however, had been reprogrammed to make something never seen before the infection that overwhelmed the
Los Angeles
.

That special type:
hematopoietic stem cells
, also known as
HSCs
.

HSCs have the ability to produce any type of blood cell. Charlie’s HSCs had been hacked to produce one specific creation, a modification of something common throughout the human body:
neutrophils
, more commonly called
white blood cells
.

White blood cells are a critical part of the immune system. They hunt down bacteria and other foreign matter, engulf and destroy the things that could hurt us. Neutrophils are
amorphous
, meaning they are without form. They move like amoebae: reaching out pseudopods, finding their path, then the rest of their shapeless bodies follow along.

When Charlie’s mutated neutrophils detected a severe lack of oxygen in his blood, the microorganisms reacted as they were programmed to react. They weren’t sentient, at least not by themselves, but the lack of oxygen told them that their host was dead — time to prepare to abandon ship.

The Orbital had watched humans respond to its infection iterations. It had measured humanity’s reactions, its processes and equipment, and it had prepared a new strategy to deal with both.

Charlie’s neutrophils secreted chemicals that would harden into cysts, cysts to help protect them from the decomposition chain reaction that would soon turn Charlie’s body to mush. Protect them for a little while, at least — hopefully long enough for a new host to come along.

That done, the neutrophils “turned off,” entering a static state beyond
even hibernation. From that moment on, only specific physical cues would cause the microscopic organisms to reactivate, to shed their cysts and seek out a new host.

Those cues? Vibrations. Movement.
Regular
movement, the kind only exhibited by living beings. Until they detected such signals, the neutrophils would remain motionless, almost as dead as the tissue that surrounded them.

DAY TWO
THE END

REPUBOTHUGGY:
Like anyone would ever believe Gutierrez’s “little green men” bullshit and the work of his “scientist whore” Montoya. they should find those spics and shoot them liek the traitor that he is.

JAMES U:
(in reply to REPUBOTHUGGY) A republican would say something like that, which shows your lack of education. Thanks for trying, though. Maybe you should read a book.

J-C-DOOMTROOPER:
(in reply to JAMES U) I bet I read twice as many books as you, lib-tard, and the ones you read are full of pictures. I read philosophy, stratgy, history and the most importan book of all THE BIBLE!!!!!!!! Detroit got nukes because it was a soddham and gamhora and it was God’s will.

CAROL B:
(in reply to J-C-DOOMTROOPER) Stupidtrooper, you can’t even spell, which is so typical of people who think the Bible (a.k.a., the “storybook”) is real. Your words show how stupid you actually are, so good job on that.

“Margo?”

Margaret Montoya reflexively closed the laptop. It shut with a sharp
click
. She felt instantly foolish; caught in the act, she’d reacted without thinking when simply closing the web browser window would have done the job.

Clarence Otto stood in the doorway of their home office. He glanced down at the laptop in front of her.

He frowned. “Torturing yourself again?”

“No,” she said. “It was just some research.”

His eyes narrowed. “Really?”

Margaret felt her face flush. She knew better than to try to lie to him, especially about that.

She glanced at the clock next to the computer — he’d left work a bit early.

His black suit still looked pristine on his tall, thick frame, as sharp as when he’d left that morning. To anyone else, he probably looked all buttoned up, the kind of man who didn’t have to get off a bar stool to leave the place with three new phone numbers. But Margaret had known him for six years — four of those as his wife — and she saw the telltale signs of a long day: the tie just a bit askew; lines at the corners of his eyes because when he got tired, he started to squint; the slight discoloration on the collar of his white shirt, because he always sweated a little even in air-conditioning; the slight, damp gleam on his forehead that made his black skin glow.

Clarence walked into the office to stand next to her. She stared at the closed laptop. He reached a hand down to her chin, gently tilted it up until their eyes met.

“We talked about this,” he said. “We’ve been to therapy.”

She snapped her chin away. “And that was a waste of time, just like I told you it would be.”

Margaret searched his eyes, searched for the love that used to be there. She didn’t find it. Truth was she hadn’t seen that for a long time, hadn’t felt his warmth. Its absence made her feel far colder than if she’d never known it at all. Now when he looked at her, it was with pity. Sometimes, even contempt.

He tapped the closed laptop. “This is what you do all day,” he said. “You read the comments of uneducated idiots who have no idea that they’re only alive because of what you did.” He looked her up and down. “And I see that you also followed the therapist’s advice about waking up, getting showered and dressed?”

She’d forgotten she was still wearing the same ratty blue sweatpants and long-sleeved University of Oregon T-shirt she’d slept in. She’d meant to shower, but that thought had slipped away sometime during the second or third blog post she’d read. Was she angry at Clarence for calling her out on that, or at herself for not doing something so utterly basic?

“What I wear is none of your business. And I have to do
something
with my time — It’s not like you’re ever around.”

He tapped a fingertip against his sternum. “I
work
. You know, that thing that keeps a roof over our heads?”

She laughed. Even as she did she heard how hateful and dismissive it sounded. He was supposed to be on her side, not riding her ass.

“You think your job keeps a roof over our heads, Clarence? Oh
please
. We
never have to work another day in our lives. We
saved the world
, remember? Uncle Sam will give us a check anytime we ask, just to keep us quiet.”

Margaret stood, stared at his face. He was a full foot taller than she was. Once upon a time, she’d loved that — now it was just annoying to always have to look up.

“You don’t work because you
have
to,” she said. “You work because you’re so goddamn naive you actually think you still make a difference.”

He said nothing. She saw the veins pulsing in his temples. They popped out like that when he clenched his jaw. He clenched his jaw when he was trying to control his temper.

“I
do
make a difference,” he said softly. “And so did you, before you decided to hide from the world. Before you decided to quit life.”

He controlled his anger, as always; his discipline enraged her. The world threw hate at her day in, day out, yet off to work he went, leaving her to face everything alone. She felt a thick rage bubbling in her stomach and chest, a physical,
tangible
thing with a life of its own. She had to dial that back, or once again she would feel like a helpless participant who could only watch as someone else used her mouth to say awful things.


Quit
? Is that what you call it? Well, fuck you, Clarence.”

He nodded, a tired gesture that said,
And there it is, right on cue
.

The same argument as always, flaring up faster each time.

Margaret pointed her finger, her weapon of choice. She pointed it right in his face because he hated that, because if a man did that to him he’d probably hit that man but he couldn’t hit her, would
never
hit her. She shook the finger as she talked, almost daring him to lose control, a part of her hoping that for once, just for
once
, he’d show real emotion.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” she said.

Margaret looked to her desk, to the framed pictures of the people she’d lost. A picture of Dew Phillips in a jacket and tie just like Clarence’s, although Dew’s looked like he’d been wearing it for days. Dew’s crescent of red hair looked similarly disheveled; he stared at the camera as if he was just waiting for an excuse to beat the shit out of the photographer.

Next to Dew’s frame, a picture of Margaret sitting at a table with the short, pale-skinned Amos Braun, warm smiles on both of their faces, arms around each other, half-empty glasses of beer in front of them. Five years on and the photo didn’t make her think of the good times: she could only see his
expression of panic, the life fading from his eyes as his blood sprayed against the inside of a biohazard suit visor.

And the final picture: a framed cover of
Sports Illustrated
. A massive football player dressed in the maize-and-blue uniform of the University of Michigan, tackling a white-jerseyed player wearing a silver helmet with crimson dots. Dirt and grass streaked the Michigan player’s oversized arms. The block letters at the bottom of the cover read: “So good it’s SCARY: Perry Dawsey and the Wolverine D lead Michigan to the Rose Bowl.”

Perry. Tough, brave, tortured both physically and emotionally. Every night she dreamed of his last moments on Earth — those final few seconds before she’d killed him.

Those three men had died on her watch. So had Anthony Gitsham, Marcus Thompson, Officer Carmen Sanchez and a dozen other people she’d met, along with an entire city of people she had not.

“You
can’t
know what it’s like,” Margaret said.

He rolled his eyes. “You going to tell me again how you
killed a million people
? You didn’t kill them, Margaret.”

She felt the scream tear at her throat, felt her face screw into a nasty, lip-curling mask.

“I’m the one who told them to drop that bomb! I’m the one who made those people die!
Me!
But you wouldn’t know what that kind of responsibility is like because you’re just a goddamn
grunt
.”

This was the part of the dance where he’d say something like
just a grunt? I’m not as smart as you, so I don’t matter?
and then she would tell him he was exactly right, because that would hurt him and she
wanted
to hurt him. She didn’t have anyone else to lash out against.

His eyes narrowed to black slits. His skin gleamed brighter, because the arguments always made him sweat. He took in a nostril-flaring breath.
There
it was, the anger she wanted to see.

She waited for his usual response.

He didn’t deliver it.

The big, held breath slowly slid out of his lungs — not as a yell, but a sigh of defeat. And he didn’t even look angry anymore. He didn’t look hurt, either.

He looked … 
spent
.

Clarence stared at the floor.

Margaret felt a pang of alarm; something was wrong, more wrong than
normal — Clarence Otto
always
looked people in the eye, as if he was a lighthouse perpetually flashing confidence, forever broadcasting a constant message of Alpha male.

Margaret felt hot. Her left hand pulled at the leg of her sweatpants:
tug and release, tug and release, tug and release
.

“Margo,” he said, his voice barely a whisper. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Her hand speeded up:
tug and release, tug and release, tug and release
. He was going to say the words she constantly hoped he would say, the same words she never wanted to hear.

He cleared his throat, an oddly soft noise from a man of his size.

“Us,” he said, the single syllable loud, definitive. “I can’t do
us
anymore.”

She took a step back, a step so weak she almost fell. And still, he stared down.

BOOK: Pandemic
6.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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