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.”

Rings of Saturn: Part 8 – Aug. 15, 79

Rings of SaturnIt was official: Evie preferred sleeping in villages or even temples. Sleeping outside on the ground wasn’t just uncomfortable, but without an app to tell her the forecast or wondering whether they’d be attacked in the middle of the night, Evie had trouble falling asleep in the wildnerness. After the ordeal in the cave, it was nice to find a barn with a pile of hay. Hay was scratchy and soft at the same time.

Marcus woke her with the sun and said they should get moving because they didn’t exactly have permission to sleep in the barn.

“Relax,” she told him, stretching and yawning, “let’s enjoy the village for a little while. We have the map. Finding Hercules will be simple now.” Had she just said those words? Evie still wasn’t sure if she’d had some kind of psychotic break. 

Marcus wasn’t having it. There were no lazy mornings on a quest, it seemed. Reluctantly, Evie left the barn and they walked through the village, seeking an opportunity to either buy or take breakfast. Evie stopped in the middle of the main road and Marcus didn’t realize it until a few steps later. 

“What? Why’d you stop?” he asked.

Evie let her mouth hang open and pointed to a small hut across the street.

“By Jupiter…” Marcus whispered.

Tatius wasn’t facing them, but he wasn’t turned away either. He held the door open while someone talked to him from inside. Evie couldn’t hear the other person but she saw Tatius nod and walk around the building toward the back. Evie crossed the road.

“Leave him, Evie,” Marcus said.

She ignored him. He continued to protest that Tatius would only slow them down. Rounding the building, she saw Tatius poking at a haystack. 

“What’re you doing here?” Evie didn’t mean to sound accusing, but she saw his shoulders tense.

Tatius turned from the hay. “Evie. I’m glad to see you’re still alive.”

She repeated her question. Tatius told her the mule was stolen from him, and so he never returned to Publius Sepunius Columella’s farm, afraid the old man would fire him anyway—or worse. 

“But he was so kind to me.”

“He wanted you to leave without causing him any trouble with the guards.” 

“Who stole the mule?” 

Tatius shrugged. “I didn’t stop the bandits to introduce myself.” 

A smile twitched on Evie’s face and then she broke into laughter. She laughed until her stomach and sides ached. Tatius didn’t laugh, but the fact that he’d made a sarcastic comment was so out of place, so unexpected, that she couldn’t help but laugh. Her laughter drew Marcus, who glowered at Tatius. 

“He’s not joining us,” Marcus announced.

Evie’s laughter ebbed and she caught her breath. “Who said anything about joining you?” 

Tatius leaned on his pitchfork. “Join you where?”

“Oh, get this,” Evie said. “A priestess sent us to find Hercules. Apparently he alone can stop Mount Vesuvius from blowing its lid and killing everyone in Pompeii. We’re supposed to find a third—” Evie paused and recited the first line of the prophesy. “Rings of Saturn and companions three…” She turned toward Marcus. “Tatius is the third!”

“What? No,” Marcus said.

“I can’t leave,” Tatius protested.

Evie grabbed Tatius’s hand and dragged him away from the haystack. “You have to come with us. We’re supposed to find a third companion and Hercules and stop the volcano in just ten days. If it’s not you, then who are we supposed to find?”

“Anyone else,” Tatius said. “I let you lead me away from my last home. It’s not happening again.” 

“I don’t think he has what it takes,” Marcus piped up.

“Tatius, if you come with us, don’t you think the gods will reward you?” 

“Erm…having a home and work and food in my belly is reward enough.” 

“We need you,” Evie said.

“No we don’t,” Marcus added. Evie glared at him and mouthed the words be quiet. 

“This is my quest. I need you, Tatius, like I need Marcus. Like we need the map and Hercules and these,” she held up her wrist. Evie looked around and then dragged Tatius to the village bathhouse. Marcus followed. Except she didn’t lead them into the public part, but to the small structure behind it, where a fire burned to heat the water. Evie stuck her hand and wrist in.

“No!” Tatius yanked her away from the fire. 

Evie held up her wrist to show the glowing runes wrapped around it. “The gods need you, Tatius. Look. This isn’t some…some dream or vision, or some crazy, imaginary thing.” Well, maybe it is, she thought. “We need you.” 

It took some more convincing, the promise of coin upon completion of the quest as well as her word as the mortal chosen by the gods that his life would be markedly improved in exchange for his participation. Tatius told his new employer that he was leaving. The man wasn’t as kind about it as Publius Sepunius in that he didn’t give them money but rather chased them out of the village with a knife. When they were several hundred yards’ out, Marcus said he would have fought back, except it was funny to be chased so by a man who’d obviously never killed anyone.

Once out of the village, Marcus went to gather or hunt for some food since they were chased out before they could get any. Evie sat down with Tatius and the map. “Do you know where this is?” she asked, holding it out to him. There weren’t any place names labeled—just a zigzagging line through mountains and valleys. 

Tatius examined the map. “I have a good guess,” he said. Turning the map in his hands a few times, he looked around them in a circle. “I think we have to go to Positano.”

“How long will that take?”

Tatius rolled a shoulder. “Three days?”

Evie nodded. “Giving us just over a week to get Hercules back to Mount Vesuvius. I think it’s doable. When Marcus comes back, we’ll start walking.” Evie put the map away and ran her fingers over the runes, no longer glowing, on her wrist. “Why’d you really stay near Campania, Tatius?” 

“I told you already. Mule was stolen and I didn’t want to return without it.” 

“I think Publius Sepunius would have accepted an apology. You’re not a fighter.”

“He would not have. I have seen his anger before.”

“What’d he do?”

According to Tatius, it was three years ago. One of the Publius Sepunius’s slaves was sent out to get the goats. Two of them escaped and could not be recovered. Publius Sepunius had two of the slave’s fingers removed. Both pinkies. The story made Evie gasp and cover her mouth with both hands. 

“That’s horrid. And you saw this?”

Tatius nodded. 

“But…you are a freeman. Surely, he wouldn’t do that to you…” 

“I don’t know. Probably not but that wouldn’t stop him hurting one of his slaves.”

Evie hesitated. “I’m just…I’m surprised. He was so kind to me and he didn’t have to be.” 

“Publius Sepunius fears and honors the gods, as we all do. Showing you kindness was his way of preserving himself and his home.” 

Evie wrapped her arms around her legs. “Oh.” She rested her chin on her knees and said, “Well, then I guess it’s good you didn’t go back there.”

Tatius nodded. “What did the priestess tell you about this prophesy?”

“All I know besides the fact that the three of us have to find Hercules is that he’s trapped somewhere.” 

“Trapped?”

She nodded.

“He must have angered Jupiter. Or Juno. Juno hates Hercules.” 

“I bet she does.”

Evie and Tatius fell into companiable silence until Marcus returned. He couldn’t find any meat but he’d gotten his hands on some bread, milk, and olives. Evie thought he must have skirted around the village to sneak in and steal from people. She secretly hoped he took the food from the villager who chased Tatius and them out with a knife, but she didn’t ask. While they ate, they told Marcus where they had to go and he agreed it would be best not to linger too long. If she hadn’t been convinced before that he stole the food, she would be now. 

With the whole afternoon ahead of them to walk toward Positano, Evie hoped they could put some distance behind them. The sooner they found Hercules, and released him from wherever he was trapped, the sooner they could go to Mount Vesuvius. The sooner she could go home.

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.

Rings of Saturn: Part 7 — Aug. 14, 79, continued

Rings of SaturnThe tunnel grew brighter, the voices louder, until it dropped out from under their feet. Evie bounced onto her tailbone and winced, then tumbled over Marcus. The pair of them somersaulted like the twins of Gemini into a brightened cavern. When Evie opened her eyes, about two dozen men surrounded them. Some carried torches, some spears. 

“Are they alive?”

Evie didn’t budge, but watched through her eyes, open just a crack, just enough to see one of the men jab Marcus with the butt of his weapon. A puff of air escaped Marcus, who was trapped under Evie’s legs.

“He is. Check the girl.” 

Evie waited to be jabbed at. The spear never came. Instead, hands wrapped around her upper arms and lifted. She went limp, let her head loll to the side. 

“I don’t think she is. Must have snapped her neck.” The man who spoke this time was one of the one’s holding her. She held her breath.

“Search her for money or jewels. Then dump her off the cliff.”

Evie lifted her head then. She wasn’t going to let anyone dump her off a cliff. “I’m alive.”

Spears clattered to point at her and Marcus. She tried to pull her arms free but the meaty hands wouldn’t relent. Evie stood now, supporting her own weight at least. One of the men told two others to get Marcus up, and then he was standing beside her. Marcus refused to look at her and she could tell from the set of his jaw that he was angry. He wanted to sneak up on these men, not roll right into their midst. It wasn’t her fault though—the tunnel had been dark, the rocks slick.

Evie took a quick glance around. Beyond the circle of men there was an opening wide enough for one person to shimmy through. That must be how they got here. She guessed they were on the other side of the mountain, and that the caves connected one valley to another. 

“We’re not here to start trouble,” she said. Marcus hissed at her to be quiet. Evie stood straighter. “You don’t have to dump us off any cliffs.”

Now Marcus did look at her, ferocity in his gaze. “Be quiet,” he ordered through clenched teeth.

The apparent leader of this band of bandits walked through the circle, the men parting like the Red Sea for Moses. “If you don’t want any trouble,” he asked, looking Evie up and down, “then why are you here?”

“We were lost,” Marcus said.

At the same time, Evie answered, “We’re looking for a map.” 

A ripple of laughter echoed around them, bouncing off the cavern walls. “Maps are useful when you’re lost. Why do you think we’d have a map?”

“I—” Marcus started, but leader held his hand up, palm facing Marcus, as though he could create a wall to hide him from view. He commanded Evie to answer.

“We were told the map would be here.”

“Who told you that?” 

Would these men be frightened of the gods? Would they bow before them if they knew they were on a so-called sacred quest to fulfill some ancient prophesy? Or would they kill them? Evie performed a quick catalogue search of what mythology she knew. The gods were famous for getting humans to fight amongst themselves. They were entertained by it. What if these men were sent to work against them? Blabbing about the prophesy could get them killed. Then again, any answer could get them killed. The leader came closer so that he was a breath away from Evie. His buried his fist in her hair and tugged her head back. She whimpered. He repeated his question.

“One of our companions. Gone now.” It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t really the truth, either.

The man released her head, shoving her backward so the men holding her arms had to shuffle to keep from dropping her or being knocked over. “Tie them up. We’ll see if we can’t get a more…complete answer from one of them in the morning.”

The bandits fetched some rope and tied their wrists and ankles between two stalagmites, so that Marcus and Evie were back to back. Two of them were posted guard at the back of the cave wtih them while the others went back to their celebrations. Eventually, they fell asleep. Evie’s own eyelids were starting to droop when she heard a whisper rasp behind her.

“We’ve got to get out of this before morning,” Marcus warned. “They’ll kill one of us then, maybe torture first.”

Evie felt like she’d swallowed a stone. “What do we do?” 

“I don’t know yet.”

Evie nodded and chewed her bottom lip. If she died here, in this cave, would someone thousands of years in the future find her remains and think she was an Ancient Roman? They’d have no reason not to except for one: a filling she got in one of her molars when she jumped backward into a pool and cracked it. She was just old enough to have gotten her adult teeth, and her parents had vascillated between worry and anger that it wasn’t her first set of teeth she damaged. Thankfully, the tooth was able to be filled and she’d forgotten about it until now. 

People now could have fake teeth, if they had the wealth for it, but they didn’t have amalgam fillings. Evie ran the tip of her tongue over the tooth. She couldn’t die here. It would spark too many unanswerable questions. Her thoughts shifted next to the bracelet that brought her here. Was Pete searching the museum for it? Did he wonder where she went? Did he think she stole the bracelet? Her purse and coffee were there—would those be evidence enough to clear her name of any theft charges if she returned without the bracelet?

Evie felt heat radiating from her wrist. She looked and saw all the symbols lighting up. The rope tied around her wrist began to smolder. It never erupted in flames but it burned away to nothing, and she had a hand free. Evie eyed the two men guarding them. One of them was seated, his head resting back against the cave wall. Was he asleep? The other man stood looking out, his back to her and Marcus. Evie slowly crossed her free arm over her body and worked the knot on her other wrist loose. Then she untied her ankles. She turned and untied Marcus’s bindings next. 

What now? She mouthed the words, afraid even a whisper would catch their guards’ attentions. 

Darkness settled in Marcus’s eyes. He didn’t have to say it; Evie knew what was coming. Marcus turned from her, walked over to the standing guard, and snapped his neck. Evie lunged forward and took his spear, holding it while Marcus lowered the man’s body to the ground and dispatched the other guard. He opened his hand for the spear, and she was all too relieved to give it to him.

Marcus motioned for her to follow into the depth of the cave, where the bandits stockpiled their stolen goods. As Evie drew near one of the crates, the symbols on her wrist lit up. She rifled around until she found a wax tablet, a map carved in it. Evie studied the map and then tucked it under her arm. 

“How do we get out?” she whispered. 

Marcus pointed the sphere toward the opening on the other side of the sleeping bandits. He mimed drinking and gestured to them. Evie hoped he was right, that they’d gotten too drunk to wake easily. They creeped along the wall, toward the opening. When they were almost there, Marcus accidentally knocked over a jug, but Evie managed to catch it before it shattered on the ground. Mead glubbed out of it to run all over the map and toward the sleeping men. Her eyes widened. Marcus grabbed her shoulder and urged her ahead of him.

She reached the exit and slid through. She heard Marcus grunt behind her as he squeezed through the tight space between the rocks. There was a narrow goat path that Evie could just make out, and she followed it. The path zigzagged down the mountain. About halfway down, she heard shouts from the cave. The bandits were awake. 

“We need to get down to the valley and hide. Go faster. Run.” 

Running on the goat path was impossible. Evie stumbled down it, her feet catching up just fast enough to keep her from faceplanting onto sharp rocks below. She looked over her shoulder. Torchlights bobbed behind and above them. Her heart thudded, heavy in her chest. Marcus prodded her from behind and told her not to stop. 

Rock turned into soil and grass. Marcus clasped her hand and broke into a sprint, leading her toward a thicket at the base of the mountain. There was a small farm with a house close by and Evie asked why they didn’t go there instead. Marcus shushed her.

The bandits spilled into the valley and ran straight for the farm house. Marcus took Evie’s hand and led her back the way they came, but not up the mountain. They ran until her legs ached and throbbed, and then ran some more. 

“Enough!” she finally said, the word forced from her lungs on a panted breath. She yanked her hand free from his. “That,” she gulped, “has to be enough distance between us and them.” 

Marcus studied the landscape past Evie, and harumphed. “I suppose it’s far enough. What does the map say?” 

“It’s too dark. I can’t read it.”

“Well, didn’t you look at it before?” 

“Yes, but then we had to run for our lives. I’m sorry if I don’t have a photographic memory.”

“A what?”

She waved her hand back and forth. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get somewhere with enough light. A village, maybe? Or we could stop and make a fire.” 

“Village is safer. Come on.” Marcus turned and led the way at a brisk pace—but at least they weren’t running anymore.

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.