After she’s separated from her team, Dr. Joanna Thaxton finds herself rescued by the leader of a protected compound. Impressed by their preserved knowledge from the pre-collapse, she agrees to help him try to develop a cure for the deadly parasite z-germ.
Will they ever discover a cure? And can she ever find her way home to her husband and young son?
Joanna tugged at her backpack straps, watching Major Cooper scan the surroundings, his air-rifle poised against his shoulder. She snuck a look at John Radcliff and smiled.
“Clear,” announced the major, nodding his head.
“Does that mean we can talk, now?” asked John.
“Of course, Doctor,” grunted Maj. Cooper. “Just quietly, please.”
Joanna smiled again and left the shelter of the building wall, venturing into the exposed street.
She still couldn’t get over how beautiful everything was. Greenery was everywhere, spring being in full bloom, and it seemed she could hardly find a surface that didn’t have something growing on it, even if it was only moss. Creepers and ferns flourished in the shaded crevices of unstable buildings and the puddles in sidewalks, while flowers and weeds sprouted from every crack in the pavement underfoot. It was impressive how large the trees – both the ones planted in cages in the sidewalk, and the naturally-seeded ones – had grown in the few short decades since the collapse.
“What was that?” demanded John.
She snapped her attention to the rustle of bushes. Major Cooper dilligently stepped forward, weapon at the ready – but the rabbit was already fleeing down the sidewalk, zig-zagging through bushes and undergrowth to evade pursuit.
“Not a dog, unfortunately,” said Joanna. “I’ve never seen a rabbit afflicted.”
“Affected, my dear,” coughed John Radcliff. “The word is affected.”
“Affected by z-germ, afflicted by z-germ – English isn’t your subject any more than it’s mine,” laughed Joanna.
“Well, shall we continue?” asked Captain Harris, another member of the militia responsible to protect them.
Joanna swept her gaze over the five other members of their team: three militia officers, and Sergeant Walsh, whose range score had allowed him to accompany them as a guard, but whose work with identifying feral creatures without requiring the use of a blood scan had caught the attention of both Dr. Radcliff and herself.
“I’m sorry it’s been so uninteresting,” began Capt. Harris, falling into step beside her as they followed Maj. Cooper. “We usually see at least one feral after three days on the hunt.”
They’d spent two nights in the city already – last night sheltering in a legacy house while rain fell past and through the open windows and they huddled around their camp stove, watching the shadows.
“It’s not the finding it that worries me,” answered Joanna. “It’s the capturing it – or him, or her. If any of you get exposed while trying to cure this thing, that would be counter productive.”
“Much as I would appreciate the additional subjects for study,” began John Radcliff, rubbing his hands together. “Kindly refrain from endangering yourselves overmuch.”
The major grunted. “All due respect, doctors, but you’ll be in as much danger as anyone if a feral shows up. They’re unpredictable like that.”
“I was reading up about that feral dog encounter you had, Greg,” Joanna began, turning to Captain Harris again. “I found it very interesting that it seemed to ignore the pigs who froze in terror, but chased the chicken who started running. Do you think its sense of smell could have been affected, just as its eye sight would have affected by the change in its pupils, and so was attracted to the movement and sound more than by the close smell of the pigs?”
Greg Harris laughed. “I’m afraid I couldn’t say.” He frowned, cocking his head as he went over the events in his mind. “That might explain what happened. I’m afraid it was all over so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to observe it very closely.”
“I had very bizarre results along those lines with the puppies I injected with the sample extracted from that dog –” began John Radcliff.
“You and your injecting puppies!” broke out Joanna.
“Oh, and doing it to mice is any different?” shot back John Radcliff.
“Of course it’s different!”
“Quiet,” snapped Major Cooper, throwing up a hand and darting for a nearby doorway. “Duck and cover.”
Without pausing to question him, Joanna dove after him, sliding past him to wedge herself into the dark space next to the door. Well, what had once been the door – rotten boards were all that remained, while beyond jagged squares of light and dark made the one-time home seem strange and alien.
“The White Socks,” gasped the major, pressing farther back into the shelter of the doorway, gesturing John Radcliff back with him. “What are they doing so far south? Of all days for them to attack the Red Mohawks…”
“Who?” asked John.
Major Cooper shushed him, flapping his hand for him to move farther back into the doorway with Joanna. She side-stepped to make room for him, trying to stay quiet. The militia’s training and equipment made them superior to any gang around. She believed this — if they weren’t, her husband would never have agreed to let her come on this research trip.
She smiled in the darkness of the entryway, feeling the floor creak beneath her feet and smelling the decay and growth of uncounted years filter around her. She’d never thought of Mike as a worrier, but he’d worried about this trip. A year ago, he wouldn’t have stressed about it – he would have come along. But he was still adjusting to his new life and duties with that bad ankle (Dr. Garcia, bless his heart, had done everything he could, but it still wasn’t enough for the security council to let Mike out on missions any more), and he worried when Joanna wasn’t where he could care for her.
And yet, he intellectually knew she was in the best of hands. His colleagues were more than capable of protecting her from the dangers of the city.
The sounds of the White Socks faded down the street, their war chant dying to incomprehesible as they passed out of hearing. The major must be right – they were on their way to fight the Red Mohawks (whoever they were).
A familiar ache coursed through her heart – of compassion and pity. She didn’t let herself think this way often, but there was so much more to life than the gangs could imagine. There was a way of life without killing and scavenging and starving through the winter. White Mesa’s mission – the whole reason for their existence, as she saw it – was to share that better life with others. Why would the security council want them to stay shut inside their own borders, as though the peace of Jesus had come only to them and their children?
Tommy understood her point of view: every human life was precious, for the singular reason that it was human, made in the image of God. That was the whole reason for studying z-germ: to find a cure for this horrible plague that robbed men of their reason, and to encourage human flourishing, to the glory of God.
Well, now that Mike would have more time to devote to the security council, perhaps he would change the minds of the older generation who were still in the “huddle and brace for impact” mindset of the pre-collapse. Things were beginning to change. They’d arranged this research trip; scavenging parties were now traveling to the surrounding cities, looking for physical resources and to establish human contacts for influence. They’d started with the satellite households on the edges of the fenceline, and they would move out from there, reaching, touching, transforming.
But she personally would start by focusing on transforming z-germ. The parasite was a blot on the landscape, and must be driven to extinction, like smallpox in a previous century.
“We’re clear,” grunted Major Cooper through the doorway, and stepped forward into the sunshine.
John Radcliff followed him. Joanna eased forward off the soggy floor, breathing deeper as the air became clearer and drier.
The milita officers were already in a loose formation in the street, spread enough to scan every approach, but close enough together to offer support. She thought it had a special name – that Mike had explained to her once – but she didn’t bother knowing the specifics. Tommy probably knew all about it; he and his friend Ben loved playing militia, pretending to guard the border of their farm against Ricco Dobson, who obligingly played the gangster, most of the time.
She pivoted, eying the surroundings once more, and moved to follow them.
“I say,” called John Radcliff, turning around from his position in the midst of the militiamen. “What’s that? Stop –”
Joanna looked down at her feet, at a crack in the asphalt. She’d stepped in a pot-hole…in a crevice…in something…
“Good gravy,” yelped Captain Harris, as the asphalt of the road warped, tipped, and settled – settled down, down, down…
“It rained quiet a lot last night,” gasped Joanna as she pitched forward along with the pavement.
As she fell, three things occurred to her. The first was that having the earth open up underneath you was just as surreal in real life as it had always sounded in fiction. The second was that the asphalt was very rough and abbrasive, even through the thick leather jacket Mike had insisted she wear. The third was that, for someone with such a masculine propensity to facial hair, John Radcliff had a very girlish squeal.
* * * *
Blinking, Joanna realized she must have been unconscious. Every inch of her body throbbed, but the pain seemed sharpest in her elbows, right knee, and nose. She shifted, forcing her arms and legs under her to lift her face away from the ground.
At least she hadn’t been buried outright, leaving her mouth and lungs free to breath. Through the buzzing in her ears, she caught shouts and scrapings, and, with an effort, flipped herself around to look upward.
Greg Harris’s face stared down at her from the edge of the hole, eyes wide and complexion lightened.
“Are you all right?” he shouted.
“Fine,” Joanna moaned. Clearing her throat, she tried again, “No bones broken, it seems. No worries.”
“No worries, my foot,” shot back the major, leaning over Greg’s shoulder. “We’re digging out some rope, but you look a good fifteen feet down. Can you stand?”
“Of course I can stand,” Joanna grunted. “I just won’t for a few moments, all right?”
Chatter sounded beyond the lip of the hole. Joanna propped herself back against what was probably a sewer pipe and stared up, following the movements of their voices as they puttered around the edge of the hole.
The edge of the hole…the asphalt there seemed to be leaned toward its recently departed mate underneath her.
“Watch it,” she shouted. “The edge is going — there’s not much earth supporting it underneath.”
There were cries, and she watched the slate-grey crust of road surface melt down into the empty space below, finally finding a new equilibrium sitting on the cake of the dirt and mud underneath it.
Actually, very like any time she tried to make angel food cake. Or just plain chocolate cake. Or brownies. She’d happily given up cooking when Mike’s brother married Deborah, who both enjoyed it and was good at it.
“Oh, grumpy sharks,” growled Greg Harris, peering over the edge again. “Stay calm, Jo; we’ll work around the edge to get to you.”
“No problem.” Joanna grunted and shifted upright by degrees, finally bringing her body into its vertical position again. Her fingers were bleeding. Thank goodness her jeans were extra heavy duty!
“Ma’am, if you could get close to that side there, I think we can lower the rope to you,” said Major Cooper.
Joanna laughed. “Good heavens, Major, what did I do to deserve a ‘ma’am’?”
Her team above her started shuffling around the edges, feeling their way to avoid joining her. Squeezing under the sewer pipe, Joanna started climbing toward the same side of the hole, eying her surroundings. Too bad she wasn’t interested in geology, or legacy construction — this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
On one side of the hole, a cement tube or box had been exposed. It sounded like her rescuers were taking their time, so she stepped forward to examine it. One seam had cracked, allowing her to see into the dark hole. At the top, pinpricks of light shown through something on the roof. What…?
Of course! A man-hole shaft! She’d always been intrigued by the sewer systems of the larger cities, ever since her father told her about them, during one especially memorable spelunking trip. Mike was slightly claustrophobic, but she’d gotten him to go to a couple of her favorite caves. If they could get the manhole cover off, she could just climb up that ladder, no rope necessary.
Someone up above shouted. The voices above her were instantly silent.
“We don’t need the rope,” Joanna called up. “Just get the manhole cover off this nearest hole, and I’ll climb up.”
“Don’t let it escape,” John Radcliff squealed.
Major Cooper was barking orders, “Easy, don’t get too close; watch your swing, Harris – Walsh is standing right there…”
A feral! They’d found a feral, without her.
“Don’t get scratched,” hollered Joanna, reaching into her pocket. Gloves. Of course. She’d wondered why Mike had packed gloves for her, given the fine weather, but now she wished she’d been wearing them during her fall. They’d also help protect against a feral bite or scratch, should she encounter one, which would be important since she now had open wounds on her hands.
She jerked the gloves on and jumped into the crack in the manhole. Gasping in pain, she pulled herself forward until she tumbled free into the dark space.
Fumbling in her pocket for a moment, she finally found her flashlight and clicked it on. The space was damp, a shallow pool of water in one corner of the box – but not as deep as it could have been, because of the leaks at the cement seams. Joanna clenched the flashlight in her teeth and headed up the ladder, still hearing shouts and blows above her head. They couldn’t let anyone get hurt!
“Thank goodness,” gasped John Radcliff’s voice.
Reaching up, Joanna blocked out the numb pain of her hands and banged on the underside of the grate. Mercy, it was as solid as the cement it sat next to. It must be rusted to the surrounding materials.
Removing the flashlight from her mouth, she shouted, “Let me out.”
The chatter had resumed, but they still seemed focused on their feral. Had they captured it unharmed, or had they killed it? They already had sample cultures of the parasite — what they didn’t have was a subject to try the antibiotics on.
Straining, Joanna arched her back and shoved against the cover with her shoulder. No use; she wasn’t strong enough or in the right position to make it budge.
Playing her light over the surrounding walls, she spotted a pipe jutting out of the wall into the space. It would be big enough for her – and her pack – to fit through.
“I’ll meet you at the next manhole,” she shouted, banging the cover again. “This one’s stuck.”
“Jo! Where are you?” John Radcliff yelled.
“Just follow the sewers lines! I’m going this way,” Joanna called back, and stretched to the pipe.
Her gloved hands caught the edge…then she heaved her shoulders into the opening. Her backpack slid inside, with her back…then her hips worked their way over the edge and into the passage.
She flicked her light over the circular walls, then down the tube. It was amazing – like her own private secret passageway. Granted, it didn’t smell amazing, but forty years of disuse and rainwater would surely have washed the worst of the germs away.
She wormed forward, following the light. Her team above her would probably move more quickly than she would, and have the manhole cover off by the time she reached the next hole. Perhaps Capt. Harris would like a chance to crawl through here; John wasn’t very athletic.
If only Mike had come along. He would be more cramped in here than she was, but he would enjoy it for her sake. And he would appreciate the secret-tunnel appeal. And who knew…he might end up enjoying the obstacle course for its own sake, too.