Harbinger

By Allen Stroud

 

I’m sitting in a dark canvas tent by the door, listening to the rain. It’s absolutely hammering down, but I’m still considering waiting out in the street. That way I could avoid the resentful looks and whispers.
She shouldn’t be here, they say.
Maybe they’re right.
There’s a soldier standing just outside. He’s wearing a waterproof and holding a rifle, while he stares out into the street. If I wasn’t dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, I’d join him.
The sullen faces around me are thin and pale. I can see signs of the virus here and there. Others are struggling with life-ending conditions. Most people wouldn’t be visiting the emergency health centre on a day like this if they had a choice.
I look away and stare into the world we’re sheltering from. Black clouds piss on the smouldering remains of the old doctor’s surgery across the road. Rioters torched it a week ago. That was when they had to call in the National Guard. How much difference three hundred teenagers and twenty-somethings in army fatigues will make is anyone’s guess, but for now, Greenville isn’t tearing itself apart.
“Ms Owen? The doctor will see you now.”
I get up and walk into the depths of the tent, feeling those angry eyes judging me with every move I make. I know what they’re thinking – she’s not ill – and they’re right. I’m not.
Not anymore.
“This way, Ms Owen.” The girl escorting me is in beige army camo. She can’t be more than nineteen. She’s wearing an ID badge that says ‘Miller’. That could be her name or just the jacket she pulled on this morning.
I’m taken through a flap of canvas into an empty space and through there into a temporary office. There’s a man sat behind a desk. He’s also dressed in army gear with a hazmat suit over the top. His hood is pulled back to reveal his balding, sweaty head and face. The breathing mask is on the table. The man looks up at me and smiles as I enter.
“Hello Ms Owen, I’m Doctor—”
I hold my hand up, cutting him off. “I don’t care. Where’s Doctor Grant?”
“We’ve taken him out of town. The situation out here is… a little too demanding for a civilian, general practitioner.”
“Okay.” 
The doctor picks up an envelope from the table. “I have your final blood test results for you.” He holds it out. I take it and tear it open. The letter inside is short and sweet, with numbers, percentages and technical details. Doctor Grant would have sat me down and gone through this, but I doubt I’ll get the same treatment from the military. The words “remission” and “all clear” should make me feel happy, but instead I’m numb. I know what this cure cost.
“Congratulations, Ms Owen,” the doctor says. His eyes flick to the entrance. “It’s nice to be able to give someone good news these days.”
I don’t reply.
He bites his lip, as if he wants to say something else, but reconsiders and waves me out.
I leave as swiftly as possible, keeping my head down as I walk back through the tent. It’s mid-afternoon. The rain has eased off, but the clouds remain dark and angry. Its foggy on the street. It’s always foggy these days and there’s a stale smell to everything. The authorities say we shouldn’t panic. The media points to falling temperature averages and every channel takes turns to slag off climate scientists who preach Armageddon from the sea.
Whatever man. Deal with your world, I have my own issues.
My house is three blocks from the National Guard encampment. The windows are boarded up, but we got off lightly. My parents left three weeks ago. I decided to stay.  I’m thirty-three years old and four months ago I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so  they couldn’t really argue about how I wanted to spend my last days.
I shouldn’t be alive and in a way, I’m not.
The old sofa is where I’ve always sat to watch television. Dad used to kick the arm when he thought I was being lazy or he wanted something. After they found the tumour he let me be. We had an argument about it where I told him I didn’t want his pity.
He cried. I’d never seen him cry before.
I’m sat in the chair again now, staring at the blank screen. There’s no point in turning it on. The stories will all be the same. Variations on, ‘this is the end of times’. It’s funny how people get religious when they contemplate death.
There’s a knock at my door. I sigh and get up to answer it. A man is standing outside. I recognise him from the medical tent – one of the sullen faces. He’s carrying his son in his arms. The boy looks thin and weak. There are lesions on his face.
I know the signs.
“Are you Lisa Owen?” the man says.
I stare at him. “Please go away,” I reply.
The man shakes his head. “I can’t… my son needs you.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” I say.
“I need you to heal my boy.”
“What I do for him won’t heal him.”
“It will. I have faith. I’ve seen it.”
“You’ve seen what you wanted to see. Please, don’t ask me to do this.”
“What other choice do I have?”
I stare at the man, but his desperate question can’t be denied. I open the door and step aside. He enters the house and carries his dying child into the living room, laying him down on the couch.
I retake my seat. I can hear the boy’s rattling breath. It's six-thirty in the afternoon. He’ll die before morning unless someone intervenes. “What’s your name?” I ask the father.
“Roger,” he replies.
“Well, Roger, there’s beer in the fridge. Best you bring two for you and two for me. We’ll be needing them.”

---

When you have cancer, they suggest all sorts of expensive therapy. The whole healthcare system in this country is shot to shit when it comes to incurable diseases. That ‘buy now pay later’ philosophy you see in car show rooms is basically how it works these days. Only difference is, you’ve only got one body, so you can’t shop around.
Medical insurance isn’t worth crap, unless you’ve been identified as a ‘priority citizen of the New American Republic’. They say things are better over the border in Independent California, but I doubt it. We still get their news channels and nothing looks better. In fact, it all looks worse, closer to the sea.
I got diagnosed four months ago. Like most people who get cancer, I went on chemo. I started losing my hair two weeks in. For some people it grows back when the body adjusts, or afterwards. For me, I know it’s never coming back.  
All part of the ‘cure’.
Roger comes back with the beers. He cracks one open and offers it to me. I take a swig and ease back in my chair. Roger sits on the end of the couch, stroking his son’s hair. “What’s his name?” I ask.
“Matthew.”
“How long since he got infected?”
“A few days I guess,” Roger says. He’s blinking hard, trying to keep back the tears. I guess it’s taken a lot for him to come here and beg me for help. “We probably tried to deny what it was.”
I nod and we sit in silence for a while, sipping from the bottle. I need to give him the speech. I’m working up to it. The alcohol should help, but it doesn’t. I just feel even more dislocated from who I was.
“You need to understand what you’re asking, before I’ll agree to do anything,” I say at last. “You have to let me explain what I know and accept what’ll happen to Matthew.”
“Okay,” Roger says. “Anything you want.”
I sigh. They’re always like this, fixated about what’s in front of them rather than what’ll happen after that, but I have to try. “A month ago, I was a terminal cancer patient. I contracted the Pandoravirus, collapsed and was taken into intensive care. My body’s immune system was shot to shit, so the medical diagnosis was that I’d last about forty-eight hours.
“No-one expected me to get better.”
I take another swig of beer and lean forward in my seat. “They flew some of the top doctors in the country to my bedside and took every sample they could from me. Even bone marrow, which, trust me, is not something you ever want people doing. I was cat scanned, x-rayed, the works. Once they had every piece of data they could get, they discharged me and sent me home. I’ve had regular blood tests ever since. The tumour in my gut literally got eaten by the new bacteria, but after it was done, it didn’t stop.” I point at Matthew. “Only difference between me and him right now is that for some reason, my body accepted the changes and let it all happen.”
Roger is looking at me and nodding, but I can see all this is washing right past him. He can’t think further than his son right now. but I still need to tell him, otherwise it’ll come on me back later. “I heard you healed a little girl called Rebecca,” he says.
I shake my head. “That’s what I’m trying to explain, she isn’t better.”
“I spoke to her mother, she said she is.”
“What’s walking around now isn’t Rebecca, it’s something else in her skin.”
Roger doesn’t reply to that. Instead, he flinches away from my stare, swallows and looks at his son. Maybe I’ve got through to him?
I continue my story to fill the silence. “They found a new strain of the virus in my body. According to the scientists, it’s like the stuff Jenner found when he was looking for a smallpox vaccine. Only difference is, they don’t know what it does. They tried injecting samples of my blood and bone marrow into other patients with the virus and other patients with terminal diseases. None of it worked, people were dying overnight. After that, they discharged me. A day later, people like you started showing up. Seems somebody in the CDC decided to blab about me and what happened. I’m a freak, nothing more.”
I can hear Roger quietly weeping. His tears run down his face and onto his son’s. “I have to believe you can help us,” he says in between shuddering sobs. “We’ve nothing else to try.”
I sigh. “You have to understand what you’re asking. Rebecca’s mother Jacqueline came here with her three days ago. She put her on that couch just the same as Matthew. I went to the kitchen, got a syringe and took a sample of my blood. We injected it into Rebecca. In less than an hour, she was awake and could sit up and talk to us. After three hours, the lesions had begun to fade. Jacqueline and Rebecca left soon after. I don’t know why she survived, but she did. I’ve seen them since and I’ve looked into her eyes. You might think she’s recovered, but she hasn’t. She’s changing, just like I am. She’s not Rebecca anymore.”
Roger raises his head. “You healed her. You can heal Matthew.”
I shake my head. “No, you’re not listening. I didn’t heal Rebecca, I—”
Abruptly Roger stands up, looming over me. “I heard every word you said. I just don’t draw the same conclusion as you. My son means everything to me. I want him to live. Are you going to help us or…” he leaves the sentence hanging between us.
I look at his hands. They’re clenched into fists.
Damn.
“The syringe is in the kitchen,” I say. “There’s needles in a sealed packet in the fridge. You’ll need to put the kettle on and properly sterilise both, then bring them in here with some tissues.”
“You do it,” Roger says. “I’ll watch you.”
For a moment, I consider resisting. I’ve a half empty beer bottle in my hand. I could finish it, get up and use it as a weapon. Knock him out and get away.
Where would I go? How could I do that to a man who is just about to lose his son?
Right now he has hope. Maybe I’m being a coward by fanning the flames in his heart, but I’ve tried to explain.
I’m in the kitchen. The kettle has boiled and I’m washing what we need. He’s right behind me. The sobbing has stopped. He’s committed to do whatever’s necessary. I’ve seen that look. It’s the moment where civilisation ends.
“There’s a box of tissues on top of the fridge,” I say.
I turn around and silently, he hands them to me.
“Thank you.” I take one from the top and jab the clean needle into the crook of my arm. The pain is familiar. I pump my fist and the vein quickly yields a syringe full of blood. I wipe the wound with the tissue and hand him what he wants. “Make sure you hit a vein,” I say.
“Thank you,” he says. His hard expression crumbles. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Yes you did,” I say. “What’s done is done. Just remember, if he survives and you tell anyone, the army will take Matthew away from you.”
“Okay.”
He leaves the kitchen, going back to his son. I’m feeling light headed, but I can’t stay here. First Rebecca, then Matthew. I’ve been lucky that it’s only been two of them, but that won’t last. Roger will talk, Jacqueline will talk. They’ll all come now and I’ll end up dead.
I need to leave.
Roger doesn’t hear me slip out the kitchen door and walk away down the drive.

---

Twenty minutes later and it’s getting dark. I’m on the highway just outside of town, walking south.
I haven’t prepared for this, but in that moment when I handed Roger the syringe, I knew what would happen if I stayed. I remember those looks in the tent. Once it gets out, no matter what I tell them they’ll come for me. I’ll be bled dry as a martyr to false hope, creating new horrors out of the diseased decaying flesh of those who should be left to die.
This world is going to hell. The only option we have is choosing how we meet our end.
The road is quiet. It used to be busy, but no-one’s moving around anymore. The mercantile wheels of society are grinding to a halt. The panicky exodus further inland happened weeks ago, all that’s left are the army and the people who haven’t given up and accepted their fate.
Is that me? Am I still fighting to survive? No. I just don’t want to accept what’s planned for me.
There will be a checkpoint up ahead. They’ve been trying to establish a quarantine zone around the town. Helicopters go up every day, shooting animals in the woods, while barbed wire fences go up either side of the roads. If I want to get through, I’ll have to get off the road and think of some way to avoid all the security.
I think back over what’s happened. I haven’t really recovered. I don’t feel the same as I did before the cancer. Something changed after I got the virus. There’s something cold about how I see the world now. I’m disconnected and not me. I know what I should care about, the miracle I should be grateful for, but instead, I feel empty and hollow.
I know I’ve passed this curse on to those children. If Matthew survives, he won’t be the same. Rebecca’s already gone. All three of us are changing into whatever comes next. Nature has to evolve to survive, perhaps we’re what’s to come?
I hear an explosion in the distance and turn around. It came from back down the road, near Greenville. Another explosion, then another. There’s an orange glow on the horizon. I don’t know what that means.
The rain starts again, soaking through my t-shirt, but I’m not cold anymore. The water feels like silk against my skin, the despair and exhaustion washes away. I remember being a child, splashing through puddles, swimming in the sea, holding my breath and diving down and into the murky black. I loved all that. How could I forget? How could I—    
Headlights cut through the evening mist. I hear the throaty growl of a large engine. Truck or SUV I guess, or maybe an army APC? Doesn’t matter. I stick out a thumb. There’s a change in the engine tone as driver passes me and brake lights confirm that whoever it is has decided to stop.
It’s a big eighteen-wheeler with a canvas-covered trailer. As I get close, the back opens up and three people jump out. They are wearing long coats that reach down to their ankles. Light from inside the back makes them dark shadows in the fainting sun. They are walking towards me.
I stop and hold up my hands. “Hey,” I call out. “I just wanted a lift through the checkpoint. You can drop me off at the next gas station. You mind your business and I’ll mind mine, that okay?”
 “Are you Lisa Owen?” A woman’s voice, one of the three.
She knows my name. Not a good sign. I take a step back, trying to keep some distance between us. “Look, forget it, I’ll walk or wait for the next car. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“We cannot leave you,” the woman says. She stops, about a yard away. She’s wearing gloves and a hooded coat, almost like a robe, She carries some kind of long walking stick and her face is covered by a decorated steel mask. Her companions are similarly dressed and wait behind her.
“Sure you can,” I reply. “You just get back in your truck and carry on driving.”
“You must come with us.”
I take another step back. “Please, just let me go,” I say.
“Ms Owen,” the woman says. “Our people have been searching the country for you. There were two cars on the road, following you. We have dealt with them, but more will come. The checkpoint ahead will not let you pass. The only way you will escape is if you accept our help.”
She kneels in front of me. Her companions do the same.
There’s a flash of lightning and a moment later, thunder booms from above. I’m tempted to run whilst their kneeling on the wet tarmac, but where would I go? How would I live?
“Where do you want to take me?” I ask.
The woman looks up and gazes into my eyes. She reaches a hand to her chin and removes the mask. Now, I can see her face. Her skin is wet and shining and she’s breathing hard. There are marks on her – a strange whorl of tattoos and fresh scarring. I recognise the signs: she’s been infected.
The robe she wears is bloodstained and torn. There’s an open wound along her right shoulder and down her arm. 
“We will deliver you to a sacred place,” she says in answer to my question. “You will find nowhere safer in this world.”
“What’s the catch? You want me to cure you?”
“No. I need no cure. The worthy survive the blessing of Anu.”
I swallow past the lump in my throat. “I don’t know what that means,” I say.
The woman stands up and reaches out her hand. “You must learn to accept what you have become,” she says. “You can guide us all to salvation.”
“You’re insane.”
“What is insanity? Is it insane to cling to a decaying world without hope? Humanity has put its faith in all sorts of answers to our doom. We offer you a haven from all that you fear. All we ask is that you join us and learn to belong.”
Thunder rumbles again. The rain is glorious, but I can’t stay out here alone without food or shelter. “Take me as far as the gas station, like I asked,” I say. “I promise I’ll listen to whatever you're selling, but if I want out when we get there, you have to let me go.”
In response, the two other figures stand up and join the woman. They are men, similarly clothed and masked. “We agree to your terms,” the woman says. All three of them hold out their hands to me. “Now, will you come with us?”
“I will,” I reply. Before they can react, I march straight past them, ignoring their strange welcome and make for the cab of the truck.  I yank the passenger door handle and clamber up. The bearded driver looks around at me in surprise. “You’re not supposed to—”
“No-one said I had to ride in back,” I say, waving my hand dismissively. “You people want to recruit me, fine, but do it here. Be honest about what you want.”
The driver shrugs and laughs. “Sure, okay,” he says. He has the same whorl tattoo on his neck as the woman, but he’s dressed like me. His white shirt is also stained with blood.“I ain’t a pretty talker anyway. I just do what I’m told.”
“Suits me,” I reply. I glance around the cab. The windscreen is cracked and there’s broken glass everywhere. I brush some away and sit down. “Let’s start at the beginning. My name’s Lisa Owen.”
“I’m Jed Ganns.”
“Good to meet you, Jed.”
“Likewise.”