A work of fiction … we hope. Standard disclaimers.
The summons came, not from a crier in rags, ringing a bell and preceding a human-drawn cart with corpses in it, but from loudspeakers mounted on an ambulance, which crawled down the deserted suburban street, stopping at every house and punctuating its monotonous message with an occasionalÂ whoop whoop from its sirens.
Andrew peered – carefully, he did not want to be seen – out from between the shutter slats of a second-story window as the aid car went by. He remembered when they first started appearing regularly in the neighborhood, about three weeks ago … three weeks, he realized with a start. He’d lived a lifetime in that three weeks – and that was more than most, perhaps now all, of his neighbors had gotten out of the deal.
In those first few days, the ambulances had not called for the dead. And they had been thronged. The scenes had reminded Andrew of crowds of greedy children chasing after the ice cream truck. Hey mister, I have a nickel, wait for me!
Until the fights broke out. When the EMTs in their full-body-armor hazmat garb ran out of whatever pills or shots or stuff they were dispensing that day, or couldn’t dispense them fast enough to suit the mob. Several med-tech teams died in riots. It only took two days for the authorities to respond by sending out, with every ambulance, a squad of troops, wearing similar head-to-toe hazmat protection and licensed to use the full-automatic force with which they were equipped.
Indeed, the first corpses that the ambulances hauled were those created by crowd-control procedures. But this source quickly disappeared, as did the crowds. There was, however, to be no rest for the EMTs, as the dead from bullets were quickly replaced by the dead from disease. Ugly bodies, contorted with the memories of pain and terror, and putrid with the sight and stench of piss, shit, puke, and blood. Especially blood, which gushed from every pore and orifice and stained everything that the bodies touched. For a week and more they came, first a stream, then a raging torrent, finally a tsunami. Often they were borne to the ambulances by persons scarcely less bloody than the dead they carried. Many of these asked to be thrown onto the piles, and if they were refused, they would settle the argument by shooting themselves in the head.
Then, abruptly, as if someone had turned off a tap, the bodies stopped coming. For the past two days, the ambulances had rolled through the neighborhood to solitude, and to no sound but those made by themselves and by the weather.
Andrew had taken part in none of this. He lived alone in his house, kept aloof from his neighbors, did not encourage visitors. He had had survivalist training, and took its principles and practices seriously. When he heard of the bioterrorist threat, that Someone had combined the deadly virulence of the hemorrhagic fever viruses with the ease of transmission and the environmental persistence of the noroviruses, was holding the world for ransom for ‘protection’ against this plague, and was promising a demonstration Somewhere, he paid attention. While his social media contacts were screaming ‘fake news!’ and ‘tin hat conspiracy theories!’ at each other, he was acting.
He had laid in canned and dried food, and water. He had dug a dunny hole in his basement, so that there would be no connection to his neighbors or his town through water or sewer. He had procured warm clothing and bedding, so that, when the power went out (as it did), his person would be protected against the oncoming winter. He had an entire room devoted to books, to keep his mind, perforce rid of electronics, occupied until it was safe to reenter the outside world – which he thought would take a year. When he had completed his provisioning, he shuttered and barricaded all possible entryways, through door, window, or vent, and then deliberately ransacked the inside, wherever it might be possible for someone outside to peer in; “See, the place has already been looted, there’s nothing here for you to bother with.” He fashioned a tent-like structure of dark-colored fabrics such as blankets and sheets, such that the inside had a rich, black, almost velvety feel, lit by a single gabled window high on the roofline of the house, through which no neighbor could, with any convenience, see inside.
And then, with all his preparations in place, Andrew ‘took a vacation’ and disappeared, for all his neighbors knew or cared. Just in time; for the threat was a promise, and the ‘demonstration’ – perhaps not fully at the will of its author – was far more widespread and devastating than even the most despairing pundits had imagined. His castle might not have been gaudy, but Andrew reckoned it secure, and from its keep he watched the obliteration of his community.
The aid car had finally left the street, taking its bring out your dead and whoop whoops with it. Sunset of another day was perhaps two hours away. Andrew went to the basement to visit the dunny and then select the items for his evening meal.
While he was seated on the long drop, the ground started to rumble under his buttocks. Surprised and concerned, Andrew focused on the rumbling, which was more of a noise than a shaking. After a few moments, he realized that he was experiencing the idling of a truck engine. Evidently, some vehicle, larger and heavier than an aid car, had come down the street and stopped just in front of his house. Just as Andrew was wrapping his composure around this new information, the bark of amplified voices shattered it.
“Status, Chicken Little?”
“All quiet in sector NR, Mother Goose.”
“Did we ever account for all the residents in that sector?”
“Negative, Mother, nor did we expect to. No one left alive to carry them out these last few days. We can smell them rotting in some of the houses.”
“No bomb-shelter types?”
“If there are any, they’ve got a whole bunch of nasty surprises coming. Unless they’re making their own sterile air, the plague will win through to them sooner or later. If they leave their holes, they’re dead within hours, either from the plague or from our perimeter guards. And if they stay put, they fry.”
“Well, they can go to Hell, where fire’s their only friend. Just like it is ours, it being the only thing that will touch this damned pestilence. And the sooner we cauterize sector NR and the other sectors like it, the better our already-slim chances for saving what’s left of humanity on this planet. T -5 for Operation FireTornado, Chicken Little. Suggest you clear out.”
“On our way, Mother Goose.”
The rumblings briefly increased in volume and frequency, then gradually died away as the truck pulled away from its parking spot and towards wherever the perimeter of sector NR was, presumably directly downwind from the starting point of the burn. A rumbling remained: it was Andrew’s knees. With panic barely under control, he returned to his second-floor room, threw open the shutters, gazed out the window. For a moment, the horizon was near-sunset serene. Then, it erupted in a series of explosive flashes. Instinctively, automatically, Andrew gasped, raised his arm, pointed.
The finger was covered in blood.
Andrew screamed, then collapsed, and knew no more. His body lay in a puddle of fluids on the floor of his rich, black, velvety sanctuary, which the setting sun, augmented by the glare of the coming inferno, lit with a garish red light.