Independence Day

united states of america flag

Photo by Gerritt Tisdale on

I hope you’re having a pleasant celebration with your family and friends. Today, in light of what’s happening in our nation and all over the world, and as I think about my novel which takes place before (maybe during) the French and Indian War, which was a precursor in many ways to the American Revolution, I can’t help but think it would be helpful if everyone meditated on what it means to have to fight for your independence.

Maybe you’re already fighting that fight. If so, keep at it. Don’t give up. Maybe it’s just a history lesson for you at this point, but amid fireworks and hamburgers, I want to remember what this day really commemorates.

I did the whole hamburger thing already today, so I’m going to take this evening to think about the holiday and connect with loved ones I couldn’t see in person today. Serialized fiction will return next week with the next installment of Rings of Saturn, with the next Pathogen the week after that.

Happy writing, happy celebrating, and happy meditating if you choose to do so.

Pathogen: Jana – 8

PathogenJana sputtered and coughed as water doused her face, rousing her from sleep. Shaking off the excess droplets, she wiped her eyes and sat up. “What the hell did you do that for?”

“Time to wake up, sunshine,” Reggie kicked at her feet lightly. “We’re burning daylight.”

“Why aren’t we doing this at night?”

“Easy. We’d be expected at night. No, you’ve got to look just the part. Suit and everything. I think we have one on hand for ya. You can pretend you want to be an intern, right?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jana agreed, standing and reaching for the towel in Reggie’s other hand. The bleach-spotted towel was scratchy, but it soaked up water well enough. “You don’t need to throw water at me to get me to wake up, you know.”

“I know. It’s more fun this way though. Besides, I have to find some ways to pay you back for breaking my brother’s nose.”

“Reg, it’s been over a month. I think I’ve paid back that crime by now.”

He grinned, displaying several crooked teeth. One was missing altogether. They’d gotten into a scrap with another group of people, who tried to claim that they owned midtown, a couple of months back and he lost it–the man who hit him was no longer alive. Jana didn’t mind Reggie so much as she used to. He’d saved her skin more than once, and she his. His brother still seemed to despise her though, so now when she was given missions, she went with Reggie and no one else. “I was thinking–if you tried introducing yourself to people when you meet them instead of trying to intimidate them right off the bat, you might still have all of your teeth.”

“Easy there. I’m plenty friendly. Just because you and I squabbled…”

“You wanted me dead. I’d hardly call that a squabble.”

“Eh, quit wasting time. Go put on your interview suit. We can do a mock interview on the way.”

Laughter bubbled up until Jana could suppress it no longer. “Sorry–it’s hard to picture you working in a human resources department.”

“That’s because I didn’t. But I interviewed a lot of people when I worked for the CIA.”

“Interviewed…as in tortured? I’m not sure you’re the best person to coach me.”

“That’s classified information. I could tell you, but then I’d have to utterly destroy you. Enough stalling–go and get ready or I’ll come back with two buckets of water.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re all talk.” Except Reggie wasn’t and she didn’t want to get two buckets of ice cold water dumped over her head. Jana bustled out of the room and down the maze of corridors to wash up. The water was a good start but she needed soap. One of the women who had bathed her when she first came was in the bathing chamber. Jana offered a smile, which the woman did not return. “You probably think I’m a coward or something.”

The woman just stared at her.

“You lost your tongue rather than willingly give in to their demands. But what do you have for it? You don’t ever get to leave here and you’re treated like a servant.”

This time, the woman’s lips stretched into a grin.

Jana’s smile vanished. Why would that make her happy? She might still be, in a way, a prisoner of this place, only allowed to leave with Reggie’s supervision, but at least she could speak and get out of the dark rooms and hallways. While Jana bathed, the woman’s ill-timed smile bothered her more and more. She knew asking was useless though, and so took out her frustration on her body. She scrubbed until her skin felt raw.

The suit provided for her “interview” seemed tailored to fit her perfectly. “Not bad,” she remarked to the silent woman, “I haven’t looked this good since before the outbreak. Of course, my hair was a lot longer then too.” She’d chopped it after living on the streets for a week or so. The summer air was too hot to abide her long mane. Jana ruffled her hair with her fingers to add some volume.

She found Reggie waiting in her shoe box of a room. “You’re going like that?”

“I’m going to wait outside for you. But don’t worry; I’m ready.” He patted the gun holstered at his hip.

“For what, the event that they don’t hire me?”

“I don’t care if they hire you. You just need to get what we need and then we’re out of there. This is for you in case you try to escape.”

Jana rolled her eyes. “Aren’t we past that yet?”

“We’re not. Look, I’d rather not kill you. At least I don’t want to anymore. You’re useful–“

“Thanks,” Jana interjected.

“Don’t interrupt,” he held up a finger like a parent scolding a child. “As I was saying, I’d rather keep you alive. But I’ve not let you go off on your own yet and I don’t want you getting any ideas. There’ll only be one entrance and exit and your theft will have to be flawless because they’re going to scan you before you leave.”

“I’ve been to quarantine centers before.”

“But we haven’t gone into Q1. If they used a standard network we could go into Q4, but the security is going to be tight. Not to mention you could actually catch the Sweats.”

“I’m not going to get sick, Reg. I would have already if that was going to happen.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’ve told me about Ryan. Alright, let’s go.”

Pathogen: Ryan – 7

PathogenRyan slept fitfully that night, waking in a jumbled mess of blankets and sheets. He had to down a cup of coffee before he could open his eyes all the way. Breakfast was a simple affair; a bowl of cereal and an under-ripe banana. He brushed his teeth, washed his face, and got dressed. He didn’t bother shaving–Ryan did so only once every other day or so. There was no point in going through the ritual daily; no one in Q4 cared. He stared at himself in the wall-length mirror in his bedroom. Ryan didn’t consider himself a vain man, but the apartments came furnished and he couldn’t help but notice that for the first time in his life, he was actually building muscle. Must be all the time spent in the gym trying to overhear the news, he thought. He straightened his shirt and left his apartment.

John Neil was sitting outside at one of the tables, sipping a coffee and reading a book. Each apartment came stocked with several bookcases full of books, and there were new deliveries every couple of weeks. The inmates and guards swapped books as well, so that there was enough reading material to keep everyone occupied. “What’s that one?” Ryan dropped into one of the two empty chairs at the table.

“Farenheit 451. I haven’t read it since high school. I’m enjoying it more this time around.” John Neil was short and thin, so that if weren’t for his lined face and balding head, Ryan might have thought he was a teenager. He didn’t work out here, so unlike Ryan, he wasn’t getting stronger, but rather carried his bout with the Sweats like a badge.

“Good book.” Ryan wasn’t sure how to segue into the topic of Gene Dockery. “Do you remember when that reporter came around?” Direct and to the point–though lacking any amount of finesse.

John frowned, closing his book though he kept his finger on his page. “Why do you ask?”

“Because he talked to four of us. You, Blanchard, myself, and some guy named Sullivan.”

John shrugged. “We just talked about having the disease, being here.”

Ryan leaned closer, pretending to look over the cover of John’s book. “I overheard the guards last night. Dockery is reporting on some of the stuff I told him. I’m curious what else he learned while he was here. Maybe there’s more we can do than just…sit around.”

“Don’t go looking for trouble. We’re lucky just to be alive and no matter what it may seem like, we’re not the guards’ friends. They’ll kill us if we try to escape.”

“Who said anything about escape?”

“You didn’t have to. What will you get from talking to all of us about this? Are you hoping to contact Dockery again? If so…how would you even do that? We have no contact with the outside world.”

Ryan sat back and folded his hands on the table. “I don’t need to escape. I just need information and a bit of luck. I have someone on the outside, if she’s still alive. The guards will execute me if I try to escape, true, but not for trying to get in touch with an old friend. They might even help me with that.”

John opened his book again. “Well, I don’t want any part of it. I didn’t even want to talk to Dockery. They’ll clear all this up and then we’ll be able to go home. I don’t want to make any waves. I don’t want to be that guy who gets killed two weeks before everything is opened up again, you know?”

“Yeah, I understand. But how will you be causing trouble if you tell me what you talked about with the reporter?”

“I just want to read and wait this whole thing out.”

“Fine.” Ryan shook his head and pushed himself to his feet, leaning on the table. “But I want you to think about it. You can still help people, without taking on much risk at all. Think about it, John.” He’d have to go and talk to Blanchard. John Neil, he decided, was a coward.

After wandering the common areas for a half hour, Ryan saw no sign of Marcus Blanchard, and he wasn’t exactly hard to find. He wore his hair in gelled spikes and a gold ring hung from his septum. Ryan trudged toward the elevator, intent on going up to Blanchard’s apartment. When the doors slid apart, there he stood.

“Hey man,” Ryan greeted. “How’s it going?” He blocked Marcus’ path. They rarely saw eye to eye and while they weren’t enemies, nor were they friends. Ryan had really hoped that John would have known who Sullivan was, but he wasn’t going to give up just because the person he agreed with more readily wasn’t willing to help him.

“It goes. Same shit, different day, you know?” Marcus looked past Ryan. “Are you just going to stand there?”

“That depends. I need to talk to you.”

“Then talk, but move out the way.”

Ryan stepped outside and waited for Marcus to leave the elevator, falling into step alongside him. “You spoke to that reporter when he came here, right?”

“Yeah. So did you. What does it matter?”

“John Neil and someone whose last name is Sullivan did too.”

“I know Sullivan.” Marcus sneered. “Real sneaky guy.”

“But you do know him. So you can introduce him. Look, I want to talk–the four of us, tonight. Can you get him to come to my apartment?”

“Why? What do you want to talk about?”

Ryan pushed his hand through his hair. “I want to get out on the table what each of us told Dockery. The guards were talking about his reports and–“

“Obviously. He’s the reporter for this whole thing, isn’t he?”

“He is, but that’s not what I meant. I think there’s something going on–something bigger than us, and I think Dockery is the key. I can get to him, get a message to him, I mean, but I need to know what he knows first.”

Marcus shrugged one shoulder. “Whatever man, I’ll be there. I’ll see if I can drag Sullivan along too.”

“Thanks. See you.” He turned away from Marcus, not eager to share the man’s company any longer than he had to. Ryan went to find John again, who was still outside reading Farenheit 451, and invited him to come and watch a game after dinner. Of course, they weren’t going to watch a game, but Ryan suspected that if he got John Neil, Marcus Blanchard, and Sullivan into one space, he could figure out what was going on beyond the concrete walls of Q4.

Pathogen: Ryan – 6

PathogenRyan Barry stared out the rain-slicked window at the streets below. Quarantine 4 was the only one without bars on the windows, because everyone in Quarantine 4 had fallen ill and recovered. Everyone in Quarantine 4 was supposedly immune. Escape seemed all too easy. He could throw a chair through the glass and climb down the fire escape. The only problem was that Quarantine 4 was heavily guarded. No one got out alive.

In his first week here, he’d planned an escape with another inmate. The guards never called them inmates but that’s what they were, prisoners held against their own will. They’d almost cleared the fences when Ryan heard the pop of a gun and saw the man fall limp onto the sidewalk beyond the fence. He’d surrendered. Better a prisoner than a dead man.

That was weeks ago, or perhaps months. He lost track of time. Within Quarantine 4, or Q4 as the inmates called it, they could do whatever they liked. They weren’t restricted to certain rooms or activities. Everyone was given an apartment to sleep in, and there was a gym on the lower level, as well as an indoor pool. The building was erected only a year before the outbreak struck–everything was new. Before the Sweats, a one bedroom apartment would have cost upwards of two thousand dollars a month. Food was delivered daily. Sometimes inmates gathered together to cook a large meal and dine in company. Other times, Ryan and the others elected to stay in their own apartments.

Every need was provided for, save their freedom to leave, so no one needed to work. Some of the inmates enjoyed that, but Ryan liked to stay busy. The guards brought him books and a tablet loaded with information–though it had no internet connection–musical instruments, anything he asked for, really. He could tell that some items were used. His violin was scuffed on one side and he’d had to fix one of the tuning keys on the acoustic guitar they’d given him. Who owned these gifts beforehand? Were they acquired legally? At first, Ryan felt bad about using them but he had to ward off boredom somehow.

Initially there’d been a blood drive every couple of weeks. Local authorities believed the blood of survivors might contain antibodies that could help cure others. Ryan eagerly donated. Initially, it was reported that the donations did nothing to help others…and then they started making people sick. Ryan knew that meant the disease wasn’t viral. Viruses just didn’t work that way. He didn’t think it was bacterial either, since he healed with time and fluids, but no antibiotics. He explained this to that reporter, Gene Dockery, who managed to get access to Q4 about a month ago, but he’d heard nothing about it from the guards. The inmates weren’t allowed to watch the news–it was the only show they couldn’t watch. Sometimes though, if he was careful and snuck around, he could hear the guards discussing what was happening in the city and beyond.

Tonight, Ryan itched for an update. He left his apartment and walked downstairs to the gym. This was usually the best place to overhear the guards when they were off-duty, since they lived in the building as well. Ryan lifted weights long enough to break a sweat, then plucked up a warm towel from the freshly laundered pile and walked into the locker room for a shower. After his shower, he went into a changing room and waited. No one else was in here yet but he’d seen two guards working out. Ryan settled on the bench in his changing room and propped his feet up on the opposite wall. There was some risk in getting caught, since locking the door would be a dead giveaway, but in the past, he’d hidden in this very changing stall and the guards were none the wiser to his presence.

Silence settled in the locker room. Sitting this way on a wooden-slatted bench had a numbing affect, and Ryan shifted to let the blood flow to his legs. Voices filled the room beyond the door and he stilled, trying to catch everything they said, though the guards’ conversation echoed in the damp air.

“It was only one of seven explosions in midtown. Things are getting worse out there.”

“We’re really lucky though; did you hear about Davidson in Q3? He got sick–from someone they were going to transition here. If they had, we’d have caught it.”

“What happened to him?”

The other guard didn’t answer, and after a moment, the first one said, “Oh.”

Ryan could feel the silence that followed. Both men were thinking that they’d come close to sharing Davidson’s fate, whoever he was. If Ryan had to guard prisoners during a quarantine, he’d rather guard those who were immune, he supposed. Although Ryan wasn’t sure how immune he was when the disease was neither viral nor bacterial.

“Did you hear about that reporter?”

Ryan pulled himself out of his own thoughts about survival and leaned his head to the side to listen harder.

“Which one?”

“The one that came here that time. Dockery. Anyway, he’s published this interview with someone from the CDC. Some recording because they wouldn’t let him film it.”

“Who wouldn’t let him?”

“The CDC. But you can hear the doubt in her voice. They don’t know what causes it or how to stop it. She doesn’t know where it came from.”

“Well that was predictable. I mean, the government can’t even manage the healthy. When was Dockery here?”

“I don’t remember exactly. But he spoke to some of the residents.”

“Like who?”

“Neil, Barry, Blanchard, and Sullivan, at least.”

“I wonder what they talked to him about.”

“I don’t know. Anyway, I’m beat. I’m going to grab a shower and then get some sleep. My next shift is in seven hours.”

Ryan waited until he heard neither man in the locker room, and then he waited what felt like another thirty minutes or so, before leaving the changing stall. Neil, Blanchard, and Sullivan…he knew the first two already, and decided then and there to make an effort to get to know Sullivan. He was curious what they told Dockery. From what he heard, the reporter took him seriously, and things were getting worse in the city.

Pathogen: Gene – 5

PathogenBy the time Gene actually left his office, it was well past nine. At least he didn’t have to sit in traffic, he thought, and maybe Barbara would still be out with her friends so that he could just go to sleep to rest for tomorrow. When he pulled into his driveway and saw the whole house lit up, he knew she was home and awake. Like a teenager still hoping not to get caught for breaking curfew, Gene eased his car door shut after stepping out onto the stamped concrete driveway. Unlocking the door, he slipped inside and lowered his computer case to the floor. Voices floated from the living room; he hoped it was just the television.

Barbara bustled out into the foyer in a dress and heels, wearing flawless makeup and her hair pulled back into something she called a French twist. He didn’t know what was so French about it, but he knew better than to argue with his wife about hair or fashion. “Welcome home,” she greeted him with a plastic smile and a peck on his cheek. Letting her voice carry, she added, “I knew how disappointed you were that you couldn’t come to dinner, so I invited everyone over here. We’re having hors d’oeuvres; dinner is warming in the dining room. You must be famished dear.”

The way she squeezed his hand was enough to confirm he was in for another lecture later, but Gene knew he could lessen the blow by playing the friendly host now. “Oh, good. Let me just straighten my tie.” He shifted the knot back into place and adjusted his collar before following her into the next room. “Good evening, everyone. You didn’t need to wait for me to eat.”

“Nonsense,” Barbara cooed. “I know how hard you work, and how hungry you are when you get home. Let me put the finishing touches on dinner and you can sit with our guests.”

Barbara’s friends didn’t leave until after midnight. Then she scolded him for at least another half hour so that by the time he fell asleep, it was nearly one in the morning. His four-thirty alarm rang all too soon for Gene’s liking, and he rose from bed like a zombie from the grave, shuffling his way toward the bathroom for a shower. By eight-thirty, he was waiting outside the office of the Deputy Director in the Washington, DC office of the CDC. Gene rested his computer case against the foot of his chair and forced down the burnt black coffee some intern brought him a few minutes ago. He stifled a yawn; when he looked up, Hannah Mercer smiled down at him.

“You know, the best way to ward off disease is to be well-rested,” she lilted in her Southern accent.

“I thought it was washing your hands,” he remarked wryly. They’d spoken over the phone a few times and always seemed to get along. Hannah was probably a good fifteen years younger than he was–he guessed in her late thirties–and way too young for her job. This report was going to cause a lot of trouble for her and she might end up hating him. He stood and lifted his computer case onto his shoulder. “Lead the way, Miss Mercer.” He followed to her office. The room was bright with floor-to-ceiling windows on two walls. “Very nice,” he remarked.

“Thanks. I like it here. The weather is better than Atlanta, at least.”

“I’m not sure that’s much of a comparison. So…where do you want to do this? At your desk? On the couch?”

“Let’s use the desk; that way you can comfortably type.” She walked around to sit in her chair after indicating one of the two chairs opposite. Hannah cleared off one half of her desk to make room for his computer.

“Thank you.” As he booted his laptop, Gene asked, “how about the added work? Settling in okay?”

“I don’t mind it. Later hours but I’ve never been a social butterfly. There are changes I want to make in the CDC and the only way to do that is to move up the ladder. That’s off the record, Mr. Dockery.”

She had a toothy smile, Gene thought. Her teeth were straight and white, but they seemed too large for her face. “Of course. I wouldn’t do anything intentionally to hurt your career. Not when you’ve been so helpful to me over the last six months, especially.” No sense in putting her ill at ease, he figured. His questions were going to do that soon enough. “Are you ready to begin?”

“I am. Fire away.”

“Can I record our conversation?”


“Great. My first question is this. Why did the CDC hide the fact that this disease–the Sweats–is not viral or bacterial in nature?” He saw the color drain from her face and wished this interview was on camera. Even so, the soundbites would have to do. He’d not been given permission to film the interview, though he never got a straight answer as to why that was. Being that he was interviewing the second in command in the Washington office, Gene hadn’t argued beyond being told three times that he wouldn’t get the interview on video. He figured this was why.

“At first,” she began, hedging her answer, “we didn’t really know what we were looking at. The disease sprang up so fast in the Middle East, and by the time we were able to run significant tests, it was already on its way here.”

“So you knew who Patient Zero was here in the US?” It wasn’t uncommon to stray from his planned questions; he’d get back to them.

“Not exactly, no.”

“Was the CDC working with Homeland Security or the FBI to track this disease? Some have speculated that its outbreak on American soil was an act of terrorism.”

“The CDC has worked with the World Health Organization, but as far as I know, we did not believe its appearance in the United States to be an act of terrorism. Just an unfortunate accident.”

“An accident? Is transmission of a disease ever intentional?”

“Of course not.” Hannah’s face flushed. “Of course it’s never intentional. Who would want anyone to get sick like this?”

“Well there are some theories about that.”

“Conspiracy theories at best, Mr. Dockery. I should have thought you’d be above giving credence to them.”

“So you dismiss any and all theories that the disease was created on purpose.”

She sighed and gripped the arms of her chair. “To the best of my knowledge, the disease was not created on purpose, nor brought to the United States on purpose.”

Gene smiled slowly. “Is there a possibility then that someone else might know something different? Someone higher up?”

“I can only answer for the information I have, Mr. Dockery.”

He was silent a moment. “Very well. Let’s move on to the next part of the interview.” The rest of the questions were about her speculations on what the future might bring. That’s all she offered him–speculations–but none of those mattered. Gene got what he came for in the first ten minutes. If she was lying, he’d find out–and if Hannah Mercer spoke truthfully, then he’d go above her to find out what was really going on. Besides, now he had an ally. He’d planted a seed of doubt. Gene wouldn’t nurture it just yet, but if there was one thing he knew from working in the media, it was that doubt was one of the most powerful feelings a person could have. Hannah Mercer would either go down in flames, or help him light the fire.