Read Machines of the Dead 3 Online

Authors: David Bernstein

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic

Machines of the Dead 3 (11 page)

BOOK: Machines of the Dead 3
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2

 

 

The next day I call my son after breakfast. Jack tells me his mother’s been bedridden since I left yesterday. She’s not coughing so much today, so she should finally get some rest.

There’s talk of closing the schools until this blows over. He’s staying home, regardless: “We did nothing yesterday, Dad. Nothing. It was a total waste.”

“Same here,” I say. “What can I tell you? Just look in on your Mom from time to time. Try not to get sick.”

“Dad, come on! If we were going to get sick don’t you think we would have by now? I took a regular snot-shower from all the people sneezing and coughing yesterday! I’m not going back until this crap’s over with!” He pauses. “Sorry, Dad. It just…I don’t even wanna think about it. It’s weird.”

“To say the least. What’s Sibyl up to?”

“She’s going into work today. Thanks for reminding me. I need to tell her to pick up some stuff on the way home.”

I tell him to do what he has to do, keep me posted, etc., and hang up.

 

“You’re lucky you’ve got your kids to take care of your wife,” Giselle tells me later at the office. “I’m all my mother has, and I have to come into work.”

“I’d be home too if I could help it,” I say. “So how’s Rob doing?”

“I don’t think he has the bad kind. You don’t feel like talking on the phone if you’re really sick. He’s sure he’ll have it kicked by Friday. In the meantime, he says enjoy the city on us. How are you liking it so far?”

“I’m ready to start looking at houses.”

“Great! I’ve got some fliers and business cards for some realtors if you want to take the time to do that.”

I do. Hell, I’ve got today and tomorrow to fill until Friday—assuming Rob really does get better by then.

Meanwhile, note to self: Don’t get sick. Wouldn’t it my luck that Rob gets better, then I’m the one too sick to interview?

Yeah. Right. No matter how badly I feel this interview is going to happen.

Meanwhile, I notice there are very few people out. At least they seem more or less okay. Maybe Jack was right—if we’re not sick by now, we never will be.

 

In the evening I return to the steakhouse in the Power and Light District. There’s so few people there the manager comes out and talks to the customers. He hands out coupons for free desserts the sick people back home can use when they get better. Based on the conversations I’m overhearing, most people are here because it’s a break from listening to their significant others coughing and sniffling, and not being able to do a damn thing about it.

Looking at the couples scattered about the restaurant I think of the old joke: they’re married, but not to each other. I’m not judging. After the last four years of waking to the terror of the same day it’s not just a new city I want. Hell, I’ll save the company a bunch of money and they can just keep me here. I’ll find a house and buy my furniture a piece at a time, paycheck by paycheck. Sibyl’s eighteen; Jack will likely move out here with me, so I won’t have to sweat child support.

It’s not that I hate Claire or that I’m going middle-age stupid for young women or anything like that. Our you-and-me-against-the-world groove has run its course. That’s all. After bumping past each other in the house nearly every day since I got laid off, we’re done. After 22 years I expect she’ll be grateful to see me gone, too. She just doesn’t know it yet.

I put away a few more tall drafts than I should. Driving back to the hotel is like driving through a deserted city. Not even a cop. Of course, it’s a Wednesday night, on top of everyone being sick.

I’m riding the elevator to my room when she calls.

“You’re sounding better,” I say.

“It’s like being in the eye of a hurricane,” Claire says. “I’ve got a feeling I don’t have long.”

My wife, the drama queen. “You need me to come home?”

“No, no! We need this job! What’s going on? Have you interviewed yet?”

“No. It turns out the boss is sick, too.”

“Oh, no!”

“He wasn’t as bad off as you were, from what I heard. Maybe he’ll have his ‘eye of the hurricane’ episode. Frankly, I think you’re just depressed and freaked out from being sick. Drink lots of water, get something to eat. For all you know you’ve beaten this thing already.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“I know I’m right. Just take it easy. We’ll get through this.”

“I know. We always have.” A pause. “I love you, honey.”

“I love you, Claire.”

And so the scales of the evening are balanced, and I settle into my room feeling like the asshole I really am.

 

“Honestly, sir, I’m not sure what to do with you,” Giselle says the next day. “I tried booking you a flight out but nothing’s going to Colorado Springs.”

“So how about Denver?”

“First thing I thought of when I couldn’t get the Springs. The earliest flight I can get into Denver is Monday. Even that’s not guaranteed. A lot of people are either sick or taking off to look after their sick. No telling what it’ll look like then.”

“Fine,” I say. “I’ll take it.”

“Oh, no worries, I’ve got you booked! I’m just saying there are no guarantees. Rob sounded really bad over the phone. I know my mother is suffering. How long has your wife been sick?”

“Since Tuesday,” I say. “She woke up with it.”

“Just like my mother yesterday. God, it’s like she’s at death’s door! And they say the hospitals are already strained past capacity, what with their own people sick!”

“I could get back to Colorado Springs in the rental car.”

“My God, that’s an all-day drive!”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I’ll need to check if I can get away with letting you do that. I’m sorry. Most people here are out, too. I’ll give you a call by five, all right?”

I tell her to do what she has to do, keep me posted, etc. There’s not much to do after heading out, though. The Kansas City Museum is closed. I spend the day driving around, listening to local commercial radio stations. According to the DJs, everybody’s sick. Drink plenty of fluids, sleep it off! Here’s a little “Peace of Mind” by Boston….

I end up eating at the bar at the steakhouse. Everyone is pleasant and chatty but I’m the only customer they have and they no doubt feel obliged. I get a growler of draft to go. I’m walking out the door when I realize Giselle was supposed to call me. I check my phone. No messages. No missed calls.

Shit.

I call Claire. It rings for a while before kicking over to voicemail so I know her phone is charged. I leave a message telling her I love her, I’ll be home soon.


3

 

 

I’m not supposed to hear anything outside the windows of this state-of-the-art executive suite, and I’m sure that’s what wakes me up. At 6:30 on a Friday morning in early May not one school bus chuffs down the street. Not one street sweeper, not one garbage truck hissing and banging along the curb. No commuters on their way to their 7 a.m. shift start. No cabs. No downtown joggers or dog-walkers.

I switch on the TV. Stefani Dunham of Cable Morning News talks of the unusual quiet in the Middle East, mostly due to the flu that’s taken the world by storm.

She narrates the latest video of a deer wandering through the automatic doors of a supermarket, but her voice is weirdly uninflected. Her head cheerleader swagger died sometime in the night. Her hair-and-makeup crew apparently didn’t show either. She actually looks beautiful. Her just-brushed-into-place hair, the dark crescents beneath her eyes betray a humanity I never expected a woman of her position to possess.

My phone chirps. Finally:

 

We took Mom to the hospital but it was full. She’s very sick. Don’t know what else to do. I have to go into work. Hope you feel okay and that you come home soon.

 

The time stamp indicates this was sent hours ago. I’m only now getting it.

According to Stefani Dunham of Cable Morning News the top story is the strain on services nationwide due to the Mayday Malaise. Hospitals are full of patients, but the hospitals can’t provide adequate care because one-third to one-half of the hospital staff is sick, too. Without techs to maintain the servers and towers, cell phone service has crashed in some areas. There were storms in Georgia and the Carolinas that knocked out power two nights ago. That power is likely to stay out because too few people feel well enough to fix things. And then the unaffected people have to take off from work to take care of their sick relatives.

“And while we wait for this thing to run its course,” Stefani says, “it turns out that for some people the illness is just getting worse. This is just for some people, though, the numbers are inconclusive. We’re not in the business of spreading rumors. Count on our team to keep you updated with the latest.” She coughs primly into a handkerchief just as they cut to commercials.

Normally you’d hear an exclamation point after that last sentence. That’s because—normally—Stefani! Dunham! of Cable! Morning! News! is fully invested in what she’s selling.

I power up my laptop. We still have Internet service, but the pages are slow to load. From the UK’s Guardian to the Kremlin’s own Russia Today, the columnists are mocking “the ‘Mayday Malaise,’ as the American news outlets so frivolously and dismissively label it” (the Germans seem particularly pissed about “the U.S.’s non-response to the crisis”).

According to the foreign press the infection isn’t viral, it’s bacterial—and resistant to antibiotics. Russia Today and Politiken DK report rumors that a pharmaceutical company brewed this up to contain it with its specially targeted (and patented) regime of medications. Of course, nothing can be proved.

Oh, and one more thing they’re not mentioning in the U.S. information bubble:

You can go fast.

You can go slow.

You can go easy, the way our Ms. Dunham seems to be going—then all-of-a-sudden hard. Or just go hard and die hard all the way.

Some have been known to go into remission. Like Claire. This article even uses the eye-of-the-hurricane metaphor. “And like the far side of the hurricane eyewall, Round Two of the disease comes on even fiercer than the first.”

However it plays out, no one gets better from this. That’s why the English, those masters of gallows humor, dubbed it the Final Flu. It’s the last thing you’re ever sick of.

I pull out my phone and dial her cell. Nothing. Whatever connectivity delivered Sibyl’s message to me late is down again. I dial the land line. Ring, click. I do this again, three, maybe four more times on both.

“As brief as the remissions are, the relapses are brutally—some say ‘mercifully’ short-lived. As are the patients.”

I think of Sybil’s text. Claire.

Claire....

I’m flashing on our first Thanksgiving, eating on the quilt she spread on the floor of our unfurnished apartment. The Christmases with her parents. The Christmases we did on our own, accompanied by bright and happy Sibyl, then Jack.

I think of the greeting cards Claire would leave for me to find in the morning, for no special occasion at all. Just to tell me how “grateful” she was for me. For what? I always meant to write her a long letter for Mother’s Day, letting her know all the things I noticed that I thought made us so much richer than most people with actual “disposable” income.

We know how these stories always end, don’t we?

I clap my laptop shut, look up at the TV. Stefani Dunham is still reading from her teleprompter. She doesn’t sniffle or cough. I’m guessing she’s in her remission stage.

What’s really intriguing are the implications raised by the logical follow-up: What makes a multi-million dollar diva like Stefani Dunham, Queen of All Cable News, go on television, read straight-faced from the teleprompter, and pretend she hasn’t heard her own personal two-minute warning?

Something is going down. The kind of something no mere citizen can do anything about but get home to the children as fast as humanly possible and brace for what’s next.

I couldn’t afford to kiss Claire goodbye before I left. I can’t afford to mourn her now that she’s gone. Sibyl and Jack are counting on me to know what to do—and to be there to do it. If I could drive out of here this instant I could make Colorado Springs before nightfall. I’d have to push it on the speed limit. Which might not be a problem. Then again, if I wreck, that’s it. Better hope I die instantly….

So I won’t wreck. I’ve got to get home! But I can’t leave without checking in one last time with the company, at least see who’s paying for what, if anything. The office opens at eight.

I shower, dress, and pack out quickly. I take the stairs on the north end of the hall. It’s fifteen flights down but the effort tempers my anxiety. More to the point, it lets me out by the back door to the parking garage. I don’t want the desk people to see me carrying my luggage out.

It’s just another job interview! I can do this!

I walk around the hotel. It’s so quiet I can all but hear the damp, hot sunlight pressing down upon the concrete. I’m so relieved to feel the air conditioning as I come in through the front door.

The dining area off the lobby is pitch-dark to my sun-adjusted eyes. “Sorry,” says the girl behind the front desk. “The entire kitchen staff is out.”

“That bad, huh?”

“I know they’re not all sick, either! Only one out of three got this, right?”

“I suppose the rest are home taking care of their people,” I say.

“Must be nice. The way I see it, I don’t work, I don’t get paid! God knows where those people are getting their money!”

“Well, did someone at least pick up some doughnuts and brew some coffee?”

“As a matter of fact, I did, thank you very much! Would you like some?”

“If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Oh, not at all! You have no idea how good it is to have someone to talk to!”

From Angie I learn there are a dozen or so flu patients booked here in the hotel because the airlines—on orders from Homeland Security, via the TSA—are refusing to transport obviously sick people. “Talk about closing the barn door when the horses are already out!” says Angie.

A very pale and irritable-looking woman wearing a prominent MANAGER tag comes in. “I don’t like leaving my little boy at home the way he is but the show must go on, right?”

“Don’t put yourself out on my account.”

“Oh! Sorry! Sorry! I didn’t mean it like that! This is just going to be a really hard day. We don’t have a kitchen staff and now there’s no one here to clean the rooms! It might be a couple of days on that, and for that we do apologize!”

“It’s all right. Look, I’m going out to find some breakfast. Good meeting you all—and good luck!”

“Let us know what you find open,” says Angie.

I nod, wave, and set off into the quiet city.

 

THE SAGA OF THE DEAD SILENCER Book 1: Bleeding Kansas is available from Amazon
here.

 

 

 

 

 

BOOK: Machines of the Dead 3
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