Monday, April 1, 2019

Query 2.19: Frequencies

The quarantine alarms had saturated the eatery mere moments ago, but with the exodus of the Pie Bird Diner’s few supplemental patrons, and the muting of the remaining devices, the emergency sirens and ancillary crisis alert signals were restricted to a rolling pulse beyond the restaurant’s walls.

Py was waiting as patiently as he could, rocking from heel to toe anxiously as Logan tried and failed to convince the proprietor of the establishment, Marcelles Bird, who Logan simply called Marv, to accompany them to Vergeron. Py wasn’t opposed to the idea, as Logan was obviously attached to the man, but Py was itching to get a move on. He’d called for pickup seconds after the quarantine alerts went live and was expecting to see a Vergeron self-driver pull up any minute now.

“Come on Marv, don’t be obstinate. We’re trying to do you a solid here.” Logan gestured with his thumb between himself and Py, indicating that the two of them were somehow mutually convincing Marv to come along. Py gave a distracted nod of approval towards Marv, thinking to reinforce Logan’s coaxing, before glancing through the windows to the street expectantly.

For his part, Marv just shook his head in stalwart mulishness. “No can do, Logan. You know this was my grandfather’s place. I can’t leave it, especially if the shit you say is true.” Py had been witness to this back-and-forth between Marv and Logan from nearly the instant the alarms had started blaring, like two stubborn goats trying to butt, push, and ram each other into submission, but with a deep sigh Py realized had become commonplace for his friend, Logan conceded, sticking his hand out, palm up, which Marv grabbed forcefully.

“Don’t you fuckin’ die on me Marv.” Logan said shaking Marv’s hand, and Py saw a smile cross Logan’s face. “You’re the only decent pie in town.”

“In the world, my friend.” Marv shot back before releasing Logan’s hand and making a shooing motion. “Now get going. I have to get this place closed up.”

Py was already at the door when Logan came to meet him. They exited to the curb outside the diner and for all of Py’s impatience it felt like another cycle of hurry up and wait, something that had been a constant nuisance to his life the past few months.

“So, we gonna have any trouble getting to Vergeron?” Logan asked, speaking loudly to be heard over the cry of the quarantine alarms. “I admit, I’m out of my depth when it comes to this shit.”

“No, we should be fine.” Py said back, relief taking him as he saw their ride come into view down the street. “I know where WHO will be putting up the blockades. We can maneuver around them.”

The noise that suffused the city cut out sharply, the classic neon sign of the Pie Bird Diner shut off with a sudden and surprising absence of glaring blue light and the Vergeron car down the street careened nose first into the pavement with a thunderous crash, grinding along the road and twisting up and over into a parked car along the other side of the street. This wasn’t the only rumble or thud that greeted Py’s ears, simply the closest one. Other more distant impacts, some punctuated with screams of varying levels of distress could be heard all around them as drones fell from the sky and came to sudden, unfortunate stops.

“What the fuck!” Logan exclaimed as a new, more irregular din gripped the air. Py glanced around into the surrounding buildings and shop windows, which confirmed his suspicions.

“Looks like the power grid shut down completely.”

“Shit! I’ve lived in Delphi my entire life and didn’t see a blackout until a month ago. What the fuck. Alright, so what’s our move.” Logan said, looking expectantly back at the diner. “Do we hole up and wait this thing out?”

Py shook his head. “I don’t think so. Vergeron is only a few miles out and if we wait WHO’s lockdown will be near impenetrable. If we head out now we’ll have a better chance of making the trip without having to deal with any red tape.”

“And you’re sure you can navigate this,” Logan gestured out to Old Town, clearly searching for a word, “clusterfuck without any trouble?”

“Positive.” Py replied without a hint of reservation. “WHO mobilized faster than I expected, but I can’t believe they’d get everything in place so quickly.” Py turned and began walking down the block, feeling this conversation was better on the move. “They’ll start with all major thoroughfares in Delphi, sectioning the city into progressively smaller quarantine zones as time goes on.” Py was at a fast walk now, cutting left down Pine Street with Logan striding behind him. “With a couple strategic detours we’ll circumvent the blockades completely.”

“Alright.” Logan said, with an uncertainty in his voice Py found irksome. “Lead on navigator.”

They fell into what Py found to be a comfortable silence as he guided them with purpose towards Vergeron. Py knew these streets, knew them possibly more intimately than a lifelong inhabitant. He’d pounded this pavement in pursuit of mysteries both vocational and otherwise, spent weeks mapping the alleys and backwaters of Old Town with a singular fixation. Py was unassailable in his confidence…until they hit a barricade.

Py had been deliberate in his wayfinding. His avoidance of persons, infected or otherwise, was expert enough to keep them unaccosted and largely unseen for the first half hour of travel. Py turned a corner out of an alleyway and stopped dead in his tracks. Down the street, scant feet away, was a quarantine barricade. Seeing it there where it categorically shouldn’t be was shocking enough, but Py could see that the guards milling about haphazardly where not in the uniforms of the W.H.O.

“Quack?” Logan said, coming around the corner and seeing the blockade himself. “I thought they’d be busy with Rathford.”

“They should be.” Py said, reversing back into the alleyway and pulling Logan in behind him. “That explains why the time frames are so wonky. This isn’t WHO implementation at all.”

“Py.” Logan said, stopping firm in the alley, which caused Py to stop himself as he still had hold of Logan’s coat. “I think it’s time we phone a friend, here.” Logan gestured, indicating Py’s left jacket pocket where he kept the Alice pen. “I believed you could navigate around WHO, but from what you said earlier Quack doesn’t know what they’re doing, which means we don’t know what they’re doing.”

Py stood silent a moment and then nodded. He couldn’t disagree. It was almost impossible to predict the movements of ignorant entities and if they continued forward without proper mapping Py was little better than the Q.C.B.

Py reached into his pocket and brought the familiar silver pen out into the air. “Alice, can you direct us along a route to Vergeron that circumvents Q.C.B. roadblocks?” There was no response. On reflex Py shook the pen and began repeating the question when he stopped mid sentence, realizing there was no use. Py looked up at Logan sadly and watched as comprehension dawned across his friend’s face.

“The wireless power transmitters are down.” Py said, verbalizing what they were both thinking. “Alice can’t hear us.”

“Fuck!” Logan said, running his hand down his face. “Do we find a place to hole up? Maybe ask these asshats if we can go through?” Logan tilted his head to indicated the Q.C.B. beyond the alleyway.

Py thought through both suggestions and shook his head. “We’re only a few minutes out from Vergeron and not knowing how long the power will be down makes holing up a non-option for me. As for the Q.C.B… we technically broke quarantine in Rathford and depending on how thorough they’ve been we’re also wanted for theft of materials, both bodily and otherwise.”

Logan brought his hand back up and thoughtlessly scratched the back of his neck. “Shit. I’d forgotten about that. You know, if this shit had happened yesterday I’d still have my D.P.D. credentials.”

“If this had happened yesterday we’d likely be in Vergeron with no means of helping the situation.” Py said. “As it stands, I still know these streets in and out. If we’re careful there’s no reason this is anything more than a few minutes detour.”

“Good old guess-and-check, huh.” Logan replied back, sounding to Py’s ears a smidge bitter. “Should’ve known it would be just like any other day.”

Logan’s eyes fixed on Py and a grin crept along one side of his face. “Actually, I’m going to disagree with you here. I think you should try and talk us through the barricade.” Py knew his expression was incredulous, but Logan continued. “Hear me out. I might not have credentials, but you do. This close to Vergeron your employment badge might buy us passage through. I think it’s worth a try.”

Py remained skeptical. Even if that did work the likelihood they’d let Logan through too was near zero, but his protests went unheard as Logan all but pushed Py back into the street towards the barricade. Py scowled at Logan, who was giving the same waving motion to Py that Marv had made at them mere minutes ago.

Py sighed and turned his attention to the barrier in front of him, moving forward to the nearest guard and stealing himself for what he expected to be an unpleasant interaction. The guard put their hand out before Py could get within ten feet of the barricade and called out, “Hault! There’s no passage through at this time. Proceed to your nearest quarantine shelter or residence and await further instructions.” Py ignored the warning and stroud straight up to the man who tensed noticeably at Py’s indifference.

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do.” Py said wearily, holding out his Vergeron employment badge for inspection. “That place just happens to be on the other side of you.”

The man glanced down at Py’s badge and shook his head firmly. “Vergeron is not your nearest designated quarantine shelter. Please step away from the barrier and move along.” Other members of the small Q.C.B. contingent that were holding the one-way street were moving over towards Py to posture with their compatriot. Py ignored them, thinking that if Logan was going to force him to have this conversation he would at least get something out of it.

“You know,” Py began, putting his badge away, “you shouldn’t even be here. Stage 1 quarantine procedure dictates informing the public of the danger through emergency channels while setting up screening checkpoints and enabling mobility within isolated zones.” Py looked at the men with an irritation he now understood was a deep well of aggravation that had been building since earlier this morning. “As far as I can tell you being here is decidedly useless.”

Py knew he was pushing it. The telltale signs of people on the cusp of violence were making themselves apparent in the body language of the Q.C.B. functionaries as the six or so persons holding the line gravitated towards the point of contention like flies to shit.

“Listen, sir,” the man’s voice was strained and the squeak of his gloved hand as he clinched and unclinched his fist was impossibly grating to Py’s ears, “you’re not coming through. Please, make your way to your nearest quarantine shelter or your place of residence. This is your final warning.”

Py sighed heavily. “Fine, good luck in your pointless endeavor.” Py spun on his heels and stomped back along the sidewalk and into the alleyway. He’d known the interaction would be a fruitless venture. He wasn’t even angry at the Q.C.B. officials for doing their jobs. They were just following orders, unproductive as those were, no, Py was upset at Logan for having him try at all and wasting his time.

Py entered the mouth of the alley, intent on giving Logan a piece of his mind, when he saw that Logan was now fiddling with the knobs of a walkie-talkie. Py stood silently stunned for a brief moment before swooping in with an edge to his voice.

“Where the hell did you get that?” The question was answered before Logan even opened his mouth as Py’s eyes locked on the blue shield of the Q.C.B. logo prominent on the back of the device.

“I decided to take a page out of your book and just ‘borrow’,” Logan brought his hands up into air quotes by his head, “what we needed.”

“I...what...why didn’t you just tell me what you were doing?” Py could hear the conflicting emotions battling for supremacy in his question: surprise, annoyance, elation, all of them were tangled up in seeing Logan with their possible salvation so unexpectedly appearing in his hands.

Logan looked at Py with a raised eyebrow. “Py, we just had this conversation. You’re not the best actor in the world. If I’d told you what I was planing you wouldn’t have been half the distraction I know you could be.” Logan gave Py a self satisfied wink and Py hated that he knew Logan was right. That didn’t make him feel any better. Py did his best to put it out of his mind. There were more important things to worry about.

Py held out his hand to Logan. “Give that here. I can set it to broadcast a recursive message on all frequencies.”

Logan looked relieved as he handed over the radio. “Thank god. Everything the D.P.D. had us train on is automatic.”

Py quickly set the device to record a message and handed it back to Logan. “Just press and hold there when you’re ready to record. Once you release it will start repeating the message on all available channels.”

Logan simply nodded and brought the radio up to his mouth. “This is Officer Logan Maxwell, requesting aid from any available party, please respond. Repeat, this is Officer Logan Maxwell, requesting aid from any available party, please respond.”

Logan released the button and looked at the device expectantly. There was no response.

“Hopefully we’ll get a response from someone who can actually help us.” Py said. “In the meantime, we should keep moving.” Py began walking down the alley away from the blockade and Logan fell in step close behind.

They eased into silence after that. Py circled back and maneuvered down the street a few blocks before cutting back towards Vergeron. He found this route blocked by the Q.C.B. as well. He tried again, this time avoiding the roads altogether only to find the alley he’d peeked down to be crawling with infected out the other side. Frustrated, Py tried a different tack. It was possible the Q.C.B. had adopted a herding strategy and were deliberately trying to encourage travel along the main arteries of the city. It was therefore likely that the main roads and thoroughfares were still open. It was a tactic Py thought did more harm than good, but with their already thin resources it was a play that had an obvious effect.

Py swung them wide this time, doing his best to avoid the people that were now more common as they pushed along Old Town’s more trafficked byways. They turned a corner and Py froze holding his hand back to keep Logan from progressing any further.

Out ahead a group of infected people had settled in the wide open space of a four way intersection. Without any obvious prey in sight they seemed to have stopped for a moment to catch their collective breath, spaced in strangely even intervals and swaying gently back and forth. The heads of the group periodically swiveled this way and that as if vigilantly looking for a reason to erupt from their stupor.

Py couldn’t help but stare as he and Logan made their own investigation of the area, looking for a way to slink past the waiting mob. Finding a loose door, they started moving into a nearby storefront, hoping to find the interior clear of the infected. As they prepared to enter something caught Py’s gaze. There was a man on the ledge of a building across the way. His face was desperate as he crawled over the buildings facade with no obvious place to go, a small group of the infected trying their best to find a way out to him, struggling against competing objectives, the need to feed weighed against the impossibly dexterous task of navigating the narrow walkway while in a frenzied rage.

After a moment it was over, the man lost his footing and fell into the mob beneath him. Py looked away with a wince, knowing the man would almost certainly die from the fall, or worse, survive with no hope of escape. Instinctively turning back to witness the aftermath, Py saw something strange.

The infected had parted into an almost perfect circle around the area where the man had fallen, the group stepping away in a sweeping sequence, moving in concentric rings, like ripples in a pond, each responding with shocking consistency to the movement of their neighbors. After a brief moment an infected man started to dive into the void, only to step back when another on the far side attempted the same advance. This dance repeated several times, the infected bounding forward and back, almost as if they were afraid to touch. More remarkably the swarm of infected behind the ring of aggressors followed in almost flawless unison, the strange progression of pushes and pulls causing the crowd to pulse in rhythmic fashion. Py was stupefied. It hardly seemed possible that a group of creatures, which he assumed were bereft of higher communication, should be capable of such a mesmerizing ballet. Even among thinking people Py had rarely seen such a flawless and intricate choreography.

“Py^” Logan whispered urgently, tapping him on the shoulder. “Hurry up^”

Py turned away from the storefront windows and followed Logan through another door. This led back to the exterior, dropping them into a small cramped space between their building and the adjacent structure. They eased their way along the narrow passageway, away from the horde of infected still swirling in their oddly hypnotic kinesics.

Logan’s jacket gave a high pitched whine as a distorted, unintelligible static came blaring from the radio nestled somewhere in its interior. Py winced and locked eyes on the mob who had all, in unison, stopped swaying.

“Run!” Py bellowed as the first of the infected turned and charged for them.

Py and Logan burst from the alley, the throng of infected partially impeded as they struggled to navigate the narrow passage, pausing awkwardly at tight places and stumbling strangely around the deepest areas of detritus.

Upon reaching the main street, Py and Logan turned sharply in the direction of the Vergeron tower. The street was strangely vacant. A few infected had slowly begun to infiltrate from several narrow alleyways running the length of the road, but otherwise the Q.C.B. intervention seemed to have created a small gap in the chaos. In the open space Logan began to pull away, his naturally longer strides driving him out ahead of Py several yards.

In the distance there was one vehicle distinctly out of place, parked in the middle of the street perpendicular to the road. It was a large armored vehicle with D.P.D. emblazoned boldly on its sides. Unlike other vehicles that had collapsed and become useless with the shutdown of the maglev system, this car was stationed securely on six glorious rubber wheels, and better yet, it appeared to be running.

A single man stood on the ground near the drivers side of the vehicle, staring and scratching his head, looking puzzled and kicking one of the hefty tires and swearing in obvious frustration.

“Hey!” Logan called forward in warning. “Watch out, they’re coming!”

The portly man turned at the sound of the panicked voice, squinting hard in their direction before finally responding.

“Logan!?”

“I can't believe it.” Py heard Logan breath as they continued to run forward. “John!? Is that you!”

Logan‘s pace slowed as he neared the armored personnel carrier, courtesy of D.P.D swat. “What are you doing here?”

John gave a shrug. “The chief wanted me to round up a load of officers and bring them back from Rathford. I had to grab this big fucker, since the maglev went nuts, but now the damn thing won’t roll.”

“You realize Rathford’s in the other direction?” Logan panted. Py saw Logan glance over his shoulder and relief cross his face as he saw Py still charging up the street.

“How the fuck would I know! I just put the destination into nav and put my feet on the dash. Next thing I know I’m fuck-all nowhere.”

Py stumbled forward having just caught up with Logan. Halfheartedly he raised his hand to great officer Dalton, his other hand resting heavily on his knee as he struggled to regain his breath. Officer Dalton met the greeting with a sort of sympathetic smirk. Dalton’s face fell as he looked beyond Py to the thrashing swarm of infected scant seconds away.

“Alright little guy, you’d better get inside.”

Officer Dalton turned to the armored vehicle and looked surprised as the doors opened on their own, a staticky voice coming over the radio.

“Hello Py.”

“Alice?” Py responded in amazement.

“Hurry,” Alice replied. “The barricades are nearly in place.”

Py scrambled into the back seat of the tall vehicle as Logan and John piled into the front. The doors closed heavily behind them and the engine roared loudly as they turned and sped down the street, leaving their pursuers to find less nimble quarry.

Py caught his breath as Alice chauffeured them along Delphi’s now frenzied setting. Old Town was a mess. Some cars had gone up in flames, the blackout having sent many vehicles either into buildings or each other. People flooded the streets, infected or otherwise Py wasn’t sure as Alice guided the vehicle in a circuitous way, snaking through Old Town in avoidance of obstacles Py could only guess at.

“I’m surprised Alice has enough bandwidth on the emergency channel to navigate for us.” Py mused, watching buildings fly by, talking to no one in particular.

“I didn’t think Nav was that intensive.” Logan spoke back in what Py thought must be a careworn reflex. “I’m more amazed Alice found us at all.”

“What the fuck are you two on about?” John chimed in, clearly feeling a little left out.

“Nav is easy when the maglev is running.” Py replied to Logan, glossing over John completely. Maybe it was impolite, but Py remembered John hadn’t been the kindest person Py had ever met. “Alice must be driving us manually. It’s probably not easy under the circumstances.”

“The data rate of emergency radio transmissions is low.” Alice’s voice floated from the front of the dashboard. “I am able to compensate by multiplexing across several frequencies. Jamming other emergency communication guarantees me access to the required block of channels.”

“Please don’t do that.” Py replied with a strained patience, squeezing his eyes shut and pinching his nose, imagining all of the emergency responders who were unable to coordinate as a result of Alice’s intervention on their behalf.

The APC shuttered and veered to the right, hurtling over a sidewalk and into the side of a building as control of the vehicle reverted to manual.

“Py!” Logan screamed, bouncing around the driver's seat as they ricocheted off a parked car, smashing through crashed drones and garbage cans on their way to the other side of the road. “What did you do!?”

The momentum of the vehicle finally subsided as they came to a hard stop, rolling over a newspaper stand and smashing nose first into the store front behind it.

“Why would you say that!?” Logan reiterated, turning around in his seat to Py with a glare painting his face.

“I didn’t know she was going to throw us into a building.” Py replied defensively, feeling a little foolish at his lack of foresight. “I just didn’t want her jamming every radio frequency in the city.”

Logan gave a heavy sigh. “Guess we’re in manual.” He said, grabbing the steering wheel and reversing back into the road. “Do you know which way to go?”

“Maybe... “ Py, pushed his head close to the window trying to get his bearings. Looking at the crumpled newspaper stand underneath them he had a fleeting recollection of the fateful day the three occupants of the car had first met, not far from here, as the result of an investigation into the Hearst Communications newspaper. Glancing quickly over the wreckage Py noticed that a bundled stack of papers had flown comically out of the stall during the impact and had landed quite neatly into a recycling bin further down the sidewalk.

Py gave a little chuckle as he was struck by a sudden wave of realization. “Wait^... Oh my god^...”

“Py?” Logan turned again in his seat, staring silently at Py for a moment. “I think I’ll head North.”

“Huh… Oh, good.” Py replied, shaking himself out of his trance. “North for about three blocks, then see if you can turn left down Pine Street. They’ll almost certainly be a barrier, but maybe they’ll let a D.P.D. vehicle through. It should be a straight shot from there.”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………

“I know this is a stupid time to bring this up,” Py spoke sheepishly into his phone, “what with everything that’s happening outside.”

Making a call to anyone beyond Vergeron’s walls was still effectively impossible. Every standard line was occupied with either emergency responders or the handful of people who’d won the cosmic lottery and obtained a brief slice of time to speak with family and friends as everyone in Delphi struggled to make sense of the chaos. However, now nestled safely in the confines of the Alice lab, an internal network had become available and it was possible to call others with access to Vergeron’s private, dedicated block of frequencies, lines which were slightly less busy by virtue of being restricted to interoffice communications.

“No Py, it’s okay.” Cain’s voice came back. His tone was hurried, but somehow still calm. Regardless of what was happening wherever he was, Cain had maintained remarkable composure. Frankly Py was shocked when Cain had answered the phone personally. Py had expected Glados at best, and more likely voice mail.

“Do you remember that first job you gave me when I started at Vergeron? The newspaper job? Well, I finally figured it out. I looked at it from every angle I could think of and in the end it’s the simplest strategy you could possibly imagine. It turns out one of the distributors of the Hearst Communications newspaper is a shell company dealing in the sale of recycled paper. Hearst buys recycled paper for printing, then immediately resells a percentage of the paper through their shell to other recycling companies as pulp, which actually has a higher market value than a newspaper at a stand, but since the sale originated at a news outlet they still collect the government subsidy provided for the distribution of print media. They're basically printing money while simultaneously inflating their sales and I’m not ever sure if it’s technically illegal.”

There was a soft chortle from the other end of the line before Cain responded. “Great work Py. I wish I could extend a more appropriate congratulations.”

“It’s fine. I just needed to get it out of my mind.”

“Say...” Cain replied, sounding somehow unsure of what he was about to say. “Why don’t you come with me? I’m leaving Delphi for a while and I’m sure I could set you up comfortably somewhere. Maybe even break you out of marketing.”

Py paused for a moment, the sudden invitation throwing him completely off guard.

“...I’m sorry sir. I think they need me here.”

“I understand.” Cain responded, sounding a little disappointed, but unsurprised. “You have about fifteen minutes to change your mind. Promise me you’ll consider it.”

“I will.” Py replied humbly, removing his phone from his ear and staring at it absently for a few seconds before terminating the connection.

“What the hell is this?!” Doctor Whitechapel exclaimed the second he saw Py was free.

“So you see it too.” Py said turning to face the large screen at the back of the Alice lab, now looping satellite footage of the bizarre movements of the infected he’d witnessed at the intersection earlier.

The Doctor gestured to the screen. “I've never seen anything like it. They're clearly flocking, but humans don’t move like this. I don’t know anything more intelligent than a fish or bird that shows this complexity of spontaneous behavior.”

“It has to be some aspect of the disease,” Py shot back, “but even pathogens that alter behavior don’t usually cause coordinated group behavior.”

The Doctor rubbed his chin pensively as though a thought was beginning to form in his mind. “I’ve seen something like this before, but I’m not sure it’s relevant.” The Doctor pointed up at the screen. “See how the infected can’t seem to decide who should advance. Sometimes in A.I. if two decisions are effectively equivalent the A.I. may struggle to decide which of two arbitrary strategies to act on. A lot of times we get around these issues with simple tools like random number generators. Human minds being inherently more random than computers I wouldn't expect to see this manifest in a living creature.”

Py watched the looping video over and over, each time hoping for new insight with nothing useful emerging.

“I was going to ask you.” Py said, half engaged with the Doctor and half trapped in the meditation of flocking behavior. “How long has Alice been listening in on emergency frequencies?”

“Actually she isn’t. At least not through her normal input system. She found your request later on while syncing a copy of the D.P.D. server. It’s almost like she remembered the communication more than having heard it. Funny to think on our inherent instinct to anthropomorphize computer processes. Still, it’s a new trick.”

Py pulled himself away from the looping feed and gave his full attention to the Doctor. “Now that we’re talking about it, Alice seems strangely quiet lately. I assumed it was because we agreed earlier to rollback new features, but this makes me think something else is going on.”

The Doctor gave a small shrug. “You’ve never been on the stable development branch of Alice, you work exclusively on Alice Beta, features come and go constantly, bugs get filed, fixed and new bugs pop up in their place. I’m not sure how aware you are of the instability in the system. You aren’t talking to a single Alice, but a rapid succession of Alice systems in constant evolution. Some days I bet she’s changing query to query, so it never really surprises me when you complain that she’s acting ‘weird’. Having said that, I agree, something does seem a little strange. It’s like part of her is somewhere else. Our current benchmarks don’t show any real change, but, I don’t know. I’m struggling to put a finger on it myself.”

“I’m glad you feel it too.” Py replied, getting up from his stool. “It’s not as satisfying as a real answer, but at least I feel less crazy. I’m heading upstairs for a minute. I want to talk to Brian.”

“What are you going to do?” The Doctor asked as Py turned to leave.

“Make a cure.”

“Can we do that?”

Py shook his head. “No.”

The Doctor just smiled, slowing shaking his own head. “Alright Py, I won’t keep you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“The flocking’s important. I just don’t why.”

“I’ll think about it.” The Doctor agreed. “I've been asked for a list of essential personnel, in case they need to ration out supplies. Who should I count?”

“Logan.” Py answered.

“Anyone else?”

Py’s brow furrowed as he thought. “Define essential.”

The Doctor gave a light chuckle. “I’ve vouched for Aster, if that’s what you’re asking, but I’m not vouching for anyone else.”

“Alright.” Py replied turning toward the door. “I’ll be back.”

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Cain stood in the doorway of the helipad, hiding from the thin evening air at the top of the Vergeron tower as he waited for everyone to assemble. “Make a note” he spoke to his tablet “Opportunity for new ‘Asymmetric Accountability Investment’: Hearst Communications.”

Cain waited a moment for the computer to dutifully capture the thought, then with a flick he brought up a new screen displaying the seating chart for the arriving helicopter. With a finger Cain began to cross out one name, a particularly obtuse board member, scribbling Py’s name in his place.

“The man who pays me to make money? Or the man who makes the money? Easy enough.”

Cain tapped his finger on the tablet thoughtfully, remembering his brief conversation with Py earlier. He wasn't coming. Cain could technically order Py to leave Delphi. It was clearly stipulated in his contract. But to what end? Py would be useless anywhere else, at least until he knew that Delphi was safe.

And such is life.

Cain dropped his tablet to his side and walked out into the night air. From here the city looked fractured, split into black and white pieces, places like Vergeron where power flowed bright, and places like Old Town that had been plunged into darkness. The rolling sirens filled the sky, the chaos at the barricades replacing the normal din of everyday life with people scrambling to cross from both sides with no obvious strategy for containment emerging. Most people wouldn’t have the luxury of leaving the city. Even if they did, most of them didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Cain had already been on the phone with the W.H.O. As a government contractor dealing in the manufacture and distribution of vaccines on a global scale Vergeron was on a short list of entities that could be called to help assess damage and participate in containment. Because Cain was a local the assignment was handed down to him. He had exploited that knowledge to arrange his little trip out of Delphi, beating the citywide blockade by only a few hours. If WHO wanted him, they could have him, remotely, from somewhere nice. He would leave the real work to people with the appropriate training and pay. But where did that leave Delphi?

Even during his short tenure as CEO, the Delphi skyline had blossomed. He’d eaten at it’s finest restaurants, probably enough times to keep a few of them in business. He’d heard it’s greatest musicians, rubbed shoulders and shook hands with the rich and powerful, helping to shape the world in which he now dwelled.

So, where did Cain’s loyalties lie? With Vergeron? With Delphi? What were his responsibilities? A nudge this way or that from Vergeron and the city could burn. Would he remain the pragmatist and ride the bottom line, or would he follow the example of his curious charge and fight boldly for the denizens of this remarkable city?

Cain felt strangely torn. It was rare for him to be in such a situation. Not just a situation that could put his job on the line, but a situation that would force him to care. He'd make a bundle if he got fired. He’d almost certainly get an attractive raise at his next post. So, what would Cain lose if he took a chance, made a moral decision when business dictated otherwise? The power to make change... to make a difference... to lose the sentimentality of the people he’d carefully collected and cultivated. One thing for sure, it wouldn’t be a decision he’d make tonight. Cain needed time, and at the moment there wasn’t much to spare.

Cain examined again the seating chart for the helicopter, looking at the seat he’d crossed out, moving to restore its prior occupant, his finger just about to touch the display when he stopped and instead made a call.

“Glados, we have an extra seat on the helicopter. Any ideas? Who is it that tidies up when you’re on vacation?... Married huh, I might be able to free up one more spot…”

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Query 2.18B: Refugees

It was a comparatively mild day for the Sierra Nevadas. Snow still clung to the high places and the breeze was chilling when it managed to weave through the trees and make contact with the skin. One could imagine they were alone with a few wandering steps into the woods. If you were lucky the wind would oblige the fantasy of solitude and carry bird song and the gentle rustling of pine needles to your ears. However, the illusion could not hold forever and just beyond the greenery was a different forest in its own right. This forest was not of trees, but of tents. Hundreds of opaque white domes were lined up in neat rows, many of them connected by arched walkways of semi-translucent plastic, allowing you to see the blurry, often yellowed blobs as WHO officials in their contaminant suits transitioned from one dome to another. Encircling the collection of hemispheres were portable safety barriers, creating a waist high fence where WHO peacekeepers in their infamous red bodysuits stood sentinel over the collected masses, gathered in hopes of finding relief from the sicknesses that plagued them. The W.H.O. had established a secure perimeter around food, medicine, and other critical resources. The area outside this barrier was taken up by regimented rows of white canvas tents, constructed living arrangements for refugees, but they were still being assembled and in the meantime the adjoining space was clogged by additional survivors, crushed together in a disjointed collection of ill used camping gear and cobbled together shelter, many of them having little more than sleeping bags, some far less than that.

Py had been banished to the remote town of Hinton California where a small contingent of WHO officials were evaluating a community of survivalists. They had isolated themselves in the wilderness several years ago, away from civilization in hopes of waiting out the Rapture. There were countless communities scattered across the nation with the same basic plan, all with various levels of success. Some were secretive and hostile. Some congenial, if you were willing to obey the often tragically superstitious rights of protection. Hinton was pleasant enough, if you were the outdoorsy type. The people weren’t excited about the sterile, regimented WHO investigation in their midst, but were otherwise more or less compliant. Hinton was one of many on a long list of communities that had requested aid. When Rapture first began to spiral out of control the W.H.O. was taxed far beyond their means. They couldn’t reach everyone who wanted or needed help. The most efficient thing for them to do at the time was plant a few flags near populous areas and ask any survivors that needed aid to make the pilgrimage from anywhere they could to the rapidly growing camps. The current inhabitants of Hinton had made the deliberate decision to stay, thinking they would be better off on their own, and for a while they may have been right. Now with a steady stream of aftershock viruses crawling lazily through the mountains the population was thinning and supplies were depleted. Any community could apply for aid, but very few received it. Supplies were simply too scarce. Hinton had made its way to the top of the relief list for a few key reasons: it could represent a self sustaining ecosystem, a place that with a push could possibly survive without further assistance, and maybe even foster a few refugees, relieving strain on nearby places like San Francisco. It also provided a foothold to begin a larger census of the area. Much of the Sierra Nevadas were uncharted, at least, in the Lewis and Clark sense. The area was populated, but the extent and nature of that population had become lost to the outside world.

Py was currently stationed at a screening point, covered head-to-toe in the standard issue mustard yellow quarantine suit, his fold out table flanked on both sides by two red suited guards as he explained as articulately as he could through the apparatus of his mask’s filtration system the risks involved in using the sterilized, second hand needles over waiting for the new ones to be shipped in.

“I’m afraid putting you on the waiting list doesn’t guarantee you’ll be serviced with the next shipment.” Py said, doing his best to sound sympathetic through his respirator’s distortion. “We already have over ten thousand on the list. I honestly believe a reclamation needle is your best option.”

“How long is the wait for a new needle? I’m not an antivaxer, but I know about sharing needles.” The woman was in her early twenties with clear signs of having lived rough the last few years. She had a rifle slung over her shoulder and a little brown haired boy clinging to the back of her leg.

Py shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately I don’t know, supplies are very limited, but I assure you the reclamation needles are safe.” Py turned the plastic covered tablet he had in hand around so the woman could read the disclaimer. “With our sterilization technology there’s only a .00002% chance of transmission of any know pathogen, and,” Py said, setting the pad down on the table. “If you sign, I can inoculate you right now.”

The woman glanced down at her boy and Py could see the calculation in her eyes, weighing the risks of waiting. Hesitation was perhaps even more dangerous than she realized. Py had previously been stationed at the San Antonio Relief Camp and had witnessed localized outbreaks resulting from people’s delay in getting vaccinated.

The woman’s lips went to a thin line. She gave a hard nod and pressed her thumb to the biometric scanner, signalling her consent.

“Excellent. For what it’s worth, I think you’ve made the right choice.” Py said, reaching below his table and pulling up his Vbot injection module. “Please, roll up your sleeve and we’ll have this done in a jiffy.” The woman obliged and Py pressed the apparatus to her shoulder and pulled the trigger. Before another word could pass between them it was done and the woman rolled down her sleeve and pushed her son forward. Another click and it was over. The boy didn’t even have a chance to complain.

With that they departed and Py saw the indicator on his injection gun was blinking for a refill. He stood up from his chair, pointing toward the flashing light so the guards knew where he was off too and proceeded into the camp.

As he moved forward Py was very much aware of his own discomfort. Py’s presence in the camp was a mixed blessing. The thin frozen air bit at his skin even through his suit and somehow no matter what he tried his socks always managed to feel cold and wet. However, this came at the benefit of limited supervision. Py’s manager was competent enough, but preferred writing poetry over sprawling mountain vistas than to micromanage every little chore.

Py’s previous supervisor had been a constant nuisance. Hardly more than a med tech he was highly opinionated on everything, and while Py had to confess the man’s practical field experience had been a benefit at first, he soon outgrew his welcome. Py had caught the man mixing used sterilized needles with fresh ones to speed up the delivery of vaccinations, a practice that the man had argued was statistically equivalent, despite being technically illegal. Something Py knew was nearly true, and had even considered himself. Despite this Py decided to confront the man, a conversation that went nowhere. After that the two began to disagree on everything from the milliliters of serum in each does of medicine, to the number of inches between each tent. Py didn’t really know how dangerous the modification to the procedure was. Nobody did. It was the sort of thing that had to be tested and Py found himself in the middle of a constantly evolving experiment. Py had taken to noting everything in a private log, which he discovered later was not so secret, and after a small measles outbreak in the camp resulted in the death of a child, Py had been shipped out the next day and in his packing found that his ‘secret’ diary was missing. Py hoped his data had made it to someone with the means to interpret it, and that his observations would be of use, but beyond that there was little he could do.

Py had found his way into the San Antonio Relief Camp through the execution of a unilateral decision to release the Med Bugs. It hadn’t been his first choice, but after having spent months searching for another institution that would accept him given his prior record he had made the decision to settle into one of the few vocations that remained open to him. A friend's recommendation had gotten him into WHO, but only just, the bottom level post a constant reminder that actions had consequences. At San Antonio he’d accomplished almost nothing. Each day he’d waited for an opportunity to present itself, but it never came. Outside of the lab he felt powerless, a tiny ant battling a flood of suffering and death which vastly overwhelmed the work he, as one man, could ever accomplish with his two small hands. Now Py was in Hinton, as close to the middle of nowhere as was possible, where he had less hope of stemming the crisis than ever before.

Py made his way into one of the supply tents to begin loading Vbots for the next round of vaccinations, armed guards glaring intensely at the photo ID on the front of his hazmat suit. The W.H.O. in this region had become indistinguishable from the military in many capacities. When the organization had requested the unprecedented resources needed to combat the growing global epidemic it had been decided, politically, that the best way to ensure the hard decisions could be made would be to place those decisions in the hands of hard men, that a mature established chain of command was better than rapidly expanding an untested organization. Thus the vast resources of the armed forces were offered up, on the condition that armed force’s commanders had say in how they were employed. The measure passed without much resistance. What else could they do? Only pray that the military would relinquish their stranglehold when the emergency subsided, something that remained to be seen.

As Py worked he could hear the usual chatter through the plastic walls.

‘Hey I saw a deer this morning!’

Who didn’t?

‘Do you hear those lovely birds?’

Try not to.

“Morning Py,” The tent flap opened to admit Py’s supervisor, one Philip Connolly.

“Huh? Ohh, hey.” Py, taking a minute to realize that someone was actually talking to him and not just another random voice floating around the yard.

“How’s my busiest bee?” Philip said, the crinkles next to his eyes making obvious his smile, even through his mask.

“Alright. Another group came out of the woods last night.”

“That’s not good. At this rate I’m not sure how long we can hold out. How is the census coming along?”

“Slowly. The terrain is tricky and a lot of people still won’t grant passage through their territory. I confess I’m worried. We’re still not seeing any real signs of agriculture and there’s a limit to how many people the natural ecosystem can sustain. Once canned goods start drying up it could get ugly.”

Philip seemed to scoff through the barrier of his containment suit. “So much for self sustaining. Looks like we might be wasting our time here.” Philip said, with some remorse. “We have a visitor. An operations officer from back East, a Colonel What’s-in-hymere. He wants to see you right away.”

Py set down the Vbot he was loading and gave Philip his full attention. “What does he want with me?”

“What does anyone want from you Py?” Connolly continued, moving to work on the Vbots so Py could leave. “Unflinching devotion, sparkling personality, blind adherence to rules and regulations...”

Py gave a heavy sigh. While Philip’s humor was appreciated at times, this was not one of them. “That’s enough, I get it. Where is he?”

“In my office. You’d better hurry. He seemed pretty pissed when I walked out of there an hour ago.”

Py wasn’t sure if Philip was joking about having left the Colonel waiting for that long, but he figured he best hurry if for no other reason than to get it over with. Py exited the supply tent and made his way down the dirt trail to Philip’s office. Py went through a decontamination checkpoint, his suit being sprayed and he himself scrubbing down and changing before making his way into the heart of the command center. The entrance to Philip’s office was flanked by two black suited guardsmen who checked Py’s badge before letting him through.

Colonel What’s-in-hymere, as Philip had so politely introduced him, was a man in his early forties, close cropped hair and smooth face the bread and butter staple of many a military man’s style. He was in the middle of a conference call, the video flickering madly as the makeshift communication tower flapped about in the wind that always seemed to bounce around the canopy. The man on the other end was asking questions about a project of some sort, and possible volunteers, pausing mid thought as Py entered the room.

“Mr. Black.” The Colonel belted out. “It’s about time.”

“Sorry sir..”

“Son!” The Colonel continued before Py had a chance to squeak out his excuse, looking him up and down as if taking measurements for a coffin. “Have I got a job for you.”