Chapter Thirty Four

Posted: October 5, 2014 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Nineteen

     In the middle of the night, while the living slept or prayed for salvation, the storm that would ruin everything unleashed its fury upon the city.

     Maddie sat in the dark, listening as the first gusts of wind threw rain against the windows. In another time, the patter of water against the glass would have served to soothe her nerves; she’d always loved storms, and found the rumble of thunder as comforting as a familiar lullaby. Tonight, however, she remained on edge, unable to quiet the racing thoughts that crowded her mind.

     She’d slipped out of bed as soon as Vinnie had rolled away from her, creeping first into the bathroom, to clean up and re-dress, and then down the stairs. The unfamiliar creaks and groans of the house had sounded impossibly loud as she’d moved through the hallway and down the steps; she was certain the others would throw open their doors and demand to know what she was doing, skulking around in the dark. To her immense relief, no one had.

     Vinnie had not followed her down the stairs either. She told herself that that was also a relief. Most of her believed it.

     Guilt, she knew, was a misplaced emotion; Jack was gone, and he hadn’t exactly earned the right to loyalty, anyway. She owed him nothing, least of all posthumous fidelity.

     Why, then, did she feel so terrible?

     Anyone would have slept with him, she thought, continuing an argument she’d been having with herself for the last hour. I didn’t do anything wrong. She’d had sex with the man who had saved her life; regardless of the decisions he’d made since then, many of which she’d disagreed with, his role in her survival was an undeniable fact. He’d saved her ass. He’d cared for her, in the aftermath of the horrible situation with Summer. He’d gone back to rescue an ungrateful teenager, and a neighbor with whom he had only a passing acquaintance. He was hot, and capable – all things that justified her attraction to him, and her tumble into his bed.

     He was also a man who still bore the passion-fueled scratches from the last woman he’d fucked – a woman, she noted, he had not mentioned, nor expressed concern for, in the week that they’d spent together. Had he treated her the same way? Whispered in her ear, murmured sweet words, been as attentive and concerned with her pleasure? Maddie suspected the answer was yes. Men said what they needed to say to get what they wanted – she’d learned that lesson.

     He’s not Jack. And he’s not a monk, either. Whoever he slept with before doesn’t matter.

     She wanted to believe that. But she knew herself too well; she was already too involved. The sex had been great, no argument there, but she couldn’t allow herself to fall for another man who didn’t share her feelings. And if they slept together again, she knew, she would fall. Hard. She’d come out on the other end looking like a fool – again.

     Jessie has the right idea. The admission was bitter. She can fuck whoever she wants and not worry about any of it later. For the first time in her life, she wished she was more like her sister.

     Frustrated, she reached for the remote, hoping to find something that would distract her from her brooding. Wind screamed around the eaves, shaking the windows in their frames, and she found herself wondering how the dead would fare in the storm. Would the rain confuse them? Force them to seek shelter? Perhaps a storm was exactly what they needed; it could provide them with cover, when they decided to set out for their next destination. Maybe the tunnels will flood. The prospect filled her with a savage joy. Let Mother Nature sort out the problem, wash away the corpses and leave the city to those who deserved it.

     She tried to find a weather report, a task that proved more difficult than she’d anticipated. Most of the local stations had gone off the air; on the one that remained, the anchorwoman looked exhausted and terrified. Maddie was pretty sure she was the same woman who’d been on the last time they’d checked the news – it was hard to tell, they all had the same overly plucked, frozen look to them, but her face looked familiar. Certainly the way she sagged behind the desk gave the impression that she’d been there for far longer than she was used to. Watching her filled Maddie with sadness, and fear; she flipped the channel away quickly, unable to bear the woman’s desperate expression.

     The national channels were in better shape. One of the twenty-four hour news stations was in the middle of a weather report when she found it, and the forecast was delightful – four full days of wind and rain, with a flood warning to boot. Maddie grinned. People still able to think would know enough to seek higher ground and stay away from the rivers; the dead, she hoped, wouldn’t do the same.

     She was about to click away again, in search of a mindless comedy to lull her to sleep, when the camera switched back to the studio. “Is Z4N2 The Government’s Fault?” the chyron at the bottom asked. Her hand stilled on the remote.

     What followed was a basic rehash of the onslaught of the virus, from the first “flu” cases that had come into hospitals on through the uprising that had occurred at Bayer Stadium. Maddie was horrified to hear that the death toll had risen from 100,000 to 500,000, with no sign of stopping. A good portion of the city, she calculated, had died or been infected already – before the fatalities had climbed off of their cots and taken to the streets. The rate of transmission was beyond anything the CDC had ever seen before; though the newscaster tried to be optimistic, it was clear that no one in charge had any idea how to handle the current situation.

     “The question on everyone’s mind now is, how much did the government know, and when did they know it? And did they have a hand in the outbreak of this terrible disease? One scientist believes the answer to that question is ‘yes’. Joining us now is Professor Hutchins. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Professor.”

     “Yes, well, thank you for having me.” The small man whose face now filled the screen fidgeted, darting his eyes between the camera and his hands, which clenched and unclenched convulsively on the desk top. The satellite connection was imperfect, an issue that combined with Hutchins’s nervousness to give the interview the overall feel of a conspiracy theorist broadcasting dispatches from his closet.

     Hutchins’s accusation was, at its heart, a basic one: he believed that the United States government, in concert with the military and intelligence groups of a handful of other countries, had decided to test a new biological weapon on the American public – a weapon, Hutchins claimed, that they had disguised in an otherwise innocuous influenza vaccine.

     “What would be the purpose of such a weapon?” the anchor asked. Maddie couldn’t tell if he was shocked by the accusation, or by the sheer insanity of his interview subject.

     “Think about it,” Professor Hutchins huffed. He swiped a hand across his sweaty face and back into his hair, a move that left him looking more unhinged than he had before. “What better way to infiltrate a hostile population than to send them vaccines? The government accepts them as a sign of good faith and assistance, only to have their citizens decimated by the sleeper virus. And then – THEN! Those same citizens come back, a virtually unstoppable force that kills without discrimination! We wouldn’t have to lift a finger!”

     “Um.” The anchor shifted in his seat, darting a glance at whoever stood behind the camera. Maddie suspected he’d taken on more than he’d expected in agreeing to have Professor Hutchins on as his guest. “Such a virus, though….could they really create something like that? It seems….fantastical.”

     “That’s the real beauty of it!” Hutchins leaned forward, an expression of total triumph on his face. “There already exists in nature, a parasite that compels the host that it infects to act in ways that are contrary to the host’s natural tendencies. We see it in wasps that have been infected. We see it in certain types of beetles. It’s entirely possible that such a parasite has been the subject of experiments – tweaked, we could say – such that it would serve the purpose nicely. We don’t even have to make it; Mother Nature has made it for us. A few adjustments here, adjustments there, and BOOM!” He slapped his palms down on the table, shaking the camera. Maddie jumped. “The perfect biological weapon.”

     “Has anyone gone on the record as having done this kind of experimenting with these…parasites?”

     The light went out of Hutchins’s eyes. “Well, no. Not officially, anyway. But then, your government also insists that it doesn’t have alien life in stasis at Area 51.”

     Maddie rolled her eyes. The anchor did a better job of restraining his impatience, but the subtle shift in his expression made it clear that he was officially done with the interview, and his crackpot interviewee. Maddie wondered how on earth the guy had even scored the air-time.

     “Regardless of its origins,” the anchor said now, “One thing is clear: Z4N2 has gained a strong foothold among the population, and eradicating it is proving more difficult than originally anticipated. Despite quarantine efforts, new cases have been reported in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles; the Federal Aviation Administration is currently in talks to determine which, if any, airports should be placed under service suspension. Pharmaceutical company Merck released a statement late last night, stating that they are working closely with the CDC to develop a vaccine, which they hope to have available within the next few weeks. In the meantime, citizens are still being encouraged to get their flu vaccines – a decree that may be difficult to follow, given the recall statement issued by up-and-coming pharmaceutical company Lark. Lark, which recently produced and distributed an estimated 200,000 influenza vaccinations, recalled all lot numbers related to that production, citing contam-”

     The rest was lost in the boom of thunder that echoed directly overhead, so close that the windows rattled in earnest and Maddie felt the reverberation deep in her gut. A flash of lightning, blindingly bright, lit up the kitchen, throwing white light through the archway between the rooms and cutting through the shadows. The television’s power cut off in the same instant, a quiet thunk followed by yet another thunderous crack.

     Maddie leaned back into the sofa, listening to the increasing intensity of the storm, and wondered if her fervent wish for Mother Nature’s wrath had been a good idea after all.

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Comments
  1. deltajuliet74 says:

    Excellent!!! Thank you and keep them coming 🙂

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