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!’
‘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.”
“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.”