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Authors: Edward Ashton

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BOOK: Three Days in April
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“House. Return to live newsfeed.”

There's a new caster now, a very serious-­looking blonde woman, and the crawl across the bottom reads “HORROR IN HAGERSTOWN” over and over.

“ . . . repeat, nothing is yet known about the nature of the outbreak in Hagerstown. Government spokespersons have stated unequivocally that no disease research centers are located in Hagerstown, and that they have no knowledge of any terrorist threats that may have been made against the region. We now go live to the White House, where Press Secretary Darryl Browning is scheduled to make a statement.”

Okay, now we're getting somewhere. The scene cuts to a podium in front of a plain blue background. A tall man with a gray crew cut steps into frame and looks directly into the camera.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press,” he says. “At approximately sixteen thirty, there was a massive outbreak of an unknown, highly contagious, and highly lethal disease in Hagerstown, Maryland. We know nothing at this point regarding the exact nature of the disease, but video from surveillance cameras and drones in the area indicates that it is most likely hemorrhagic in nature. Containment checkpoints have been set up on all access points to central Hagerstown, but no survivors have yet been observed. Likewise, surveillance indicates no movement whatsoever within the Hagerstown city limits. Our belief at this time is that the fatality rate within the affected area is one hundred percent.”

That gets a few gasps from the audience, and I can hear some muttering in the background.

“I can now take questions, but please understand that we are still working with severely limited information.”

I can't see the reporters in the audience, but from the long silence I assume they're all sitting with their jaws hanging open, possibly wetting themselves. Finally, Darryl Browning says, “Yes, Ms. Barringer.”

The viewpoint pans to the gallery, where the bloggers and press hags look pretty much exactly the way I pictured them. An older woman is standing in the center of the front row.

“So . . .” she says. “What . . . what do we do now?”

Darryl Browning looks down at the podium for a long moment, then back up at the camera.

“Well,” he says finally. “Considering the existential threat that this outbreak poses to our nation, it seems clear that our only option is the most thorough possible sterilization of the entire Hagerstown area.”

He goes on, but I've stopped listening. Sterilization. I'm not sure what exactly he means by that, but I'm pretty sure it can't be good. How do you sterilize things? Boiling water? Iodine? Fire?

Fire.

I need to get to one of those checkpoints.

B
efore I go, I swap my skirt for shorts, and my sandals for sneakers. I pull my road bike down from the rack on the entryway wall, drag it out the front door and into the street. There's a boy out on the sidewalk a few houses down. He's looking up, waving his hands in the air and yelling. He's maybe ten years old, barefoot and dirty, with a too-­big Orioles cap turned backward over a mop of brown hair. Based on what I've seen so far today, I'm guessing his parents are dead. I catch myself wondering if I can adopt him when this is over.

“Hey,” I yell as I climb into the saddle. “What are you doing?”

He pauses, turns and focuses on me.

“Oh, hey,” he says. “That guy on the news vid says they don't think anybody's alive here. We need to get somebody out there to figure out that it's not true. I'm thinking maybe I can trigger the motion seeker on one of the news drones, get them to home in on me and push the feed out to one of the big outlets.”

I start pedaling toward him.

“He also said they've got checkpoints around town,” I say. “I'm gonna try to find one. You should come with me.”

He looks down at his feet. I pull up to the curb beside him.

“Nah,” he says. “I'd better stay here. Mom left me here when she went into work this morning. This is where she'll come looking for me.”

I almost start to tell him that his mom's not coming back, but no, this is not the time for dropping truth bombs.

“You really should come with me,” I say instead. “It sounds like they're planning on doing bad things here, and I don't know if your mom's going to be able to get back home before they do.”

“Bad things, huh?” He looks up at me. “Do you know what an FAE is?”

I shake my head.

“I do,” he says. “It's a fuel-­air explosive, dumbass. It's the bad thing they're gonna do here. And if they decide to do it, there's no way your stupid bike is gonna get you out from under it.”

I stare at him. He's much less adorable up close.

“I kinda doubt you're gonna find friendly doctors at your checkpoint, either,” he says. “Probably army killbots. The guy on the vid said they think this is a hot zone. They're not gonna want anybody walking out of it.”

“But . . .”

“The only way we don't get cooked is if we trigger a civilian drone. They won't let NatSec pull the trigger if they have vids of cute kids and pretty ladies still alive here. Or even you, I guess. So find a nice open spot, and start waving your arms.”

I make a conscious effort to close my mouth. He turns his back on me, and starts jumping up and down again. I shake my head and pedal away.

“Or, you could ride up the pike and get your boobs shot off,” he yells after me. “That's good too.”

T
here are definitely more ­people out and around now than there were when I walked home. Most of them are little kids, with just a few adults mixed in. None of this makes sense. Nobody's sick. They're either totally fine or totally dead. And anyway, aren't children supposed to have crappy immune systems? How could you make a virus or a poison or whatever that kills more adults than kids? Maybe Reverend Blakesly was onto something. Maybe the kids are still alive because they haven't had time to commit enough sins yet.

Of course, that doesn't explain why I'm still here.

I ride east along Jefferson. I pass a woman running, and a few minutes later a man in a car speeds past and almost runs me off the road. On and off, I hear a dull banging in the distance. The kids I see are mostly just wandering around and crying. I think about trying to help some of them, but I can't stop thinking about what that little shit said about the killbots.

The banging stops for a bit after I cross Eastern, and I hear what sounds like a voice coming through a loudspeaker. Then I see a sharp flash of light up ahead, and a second later there's a boom and a wash of heat that startles me into slamming on my brakes. I swerve back and forth twice, lose my balance, and go down in a heap. My head hits the pavement and I see another bright white flash, this time behind my eyelids.

I sit up. My hands are both scraped raw, and my mouth tastes like blood. I untangle myself from the bike. The handlebars are turned sideways. The front wheel is bent. I stand. My eyes unfocus, and I feel like I'm about to be sick. I double over, and have a moment of panic wondering if this is how the plague starts. But then my stomach settles, and I decide that maybe I'm just a little concussed. I straighten up again. I can still hear the loudspeaker voice, but I can't make out what it's saying. The sun is almost touching the horizon, and my shadow stretches out to infinity in front of me. I start walking.

After a hundred yards, I can see what made me crash. It's the car that passed me earlier. It's torn almost in half, rolled over on its roof in the middle of the road and burning. A little ways beyond it, just short of where Little Antietam splits off, something wide and squatty and green is blocking the road. Apparently it sees me, because it rises up on four splayed legs, and the turret on top turns to face me. There are a half dozen bodies in the road between the bot and the burning car.

“This area is under quarantine,” it says. “You cannot pass this checkpoint. Return to your home, please, and await instructions.”

It's the loudspeaker voice I heard earlier.

“I'm not sick!” I yell. I keep walking forward, slowly. “I'm not infected! I wasn't in town!”

“I'm sorry, miss,” it says. “I can't let you pass. You need to turn around now, and go back home.”

I stop just short of the car. I'm assuming that's its no-­go radius.

“Are you a person?” I ask. “Can you talk to me?”

“I am a fully interactive avatar,” it says. “I can talk to you, but I do not have discretion to let you past this checkpoint.”

There's a thick stand of trees on the right side of the road. I take a tentative step in that direction. A bullet zings off the pavement in front of me.

“Sorry,” the bot says. “I can't let you go that way either. If you don't head directly back the way you came, I'm going to have to shoot you.”

Son of a bitch. That little bastard knew exactly what was going on. Why didn't I?

“Look,” I say. “There are lots of ­people still alive here. They're mostly little kids. You can't just kill a bunch of little kids, can you?”

“I don't have any discretion in the matter,” it says. It sounds genuinely apologetic. Off to the right, I can see another like it moving along the edge of the woods. As I watch, it fires twice. A high-­pitched scream follows, then a third shot, then silence. I turn back to the bot blocking the road.

“They're going to burn us, aren't they?”

It hesitates, and shuffles its feet uncomfortably.

“I don't know.”

I can feel tears welling up. I squeeze my eyes shut, and will them back down. I'm not going to die bawling in front of a killbot.

“Can you let me talk to a person?” I ask. “I mean an actual human?”

Its carapace shimmies in what might almost be a shrug.

“I'm sorry, miss. I can't.”

I look back over my shoulder. The sun is a fat red ball on the horizon, with pink and purple streamers stretching out as far as I can see to the north and south. It's kind of stunning, and I catch myself thinking that if this is my last sunset, at least it's a good one.

Tariq must have seen the feeds. He must think I'm already dead. I wonder if he's watching this sunset too.

After what feels like a long time, I turn back to the bot.

“Which will hurt more?” I ask.

It had settled back down onto its belly, but it perks up again now.

“Please rephrase the question.”

I take a deep breath in, then let it out.

“Will it hurt more to let you shoot me, or to wait for the bomb?”

It hesitates.

“I don't know, miss. I would shoot you in the head with a .50 caliber armor-­piercing round. I doubt you would feel much. On the other hand, a fuel-­air explosive is extremely powerful. Your subjective experience would likely be the same.”

I turn my back on the bot. The sunset is like an oil painting. This would be a perfect evening if it weren't for the bot and the bombs and the stench of shit coming from the bodies in the road.

“If it makes you feel better,” it says, “when the bomb comes, I'll be destroyed as well.”

That really doesn't make me feel better at all.

“I don't understand,” I say. “Why is that supposed to help?”

“Well,” it says. “At least we're not dying alone.”

I turn back to look at it. The anti-­tank weapon on the turret is locked in on me.

“Does your offer still stand?” I ask.

“Yes,” it says, “but I think you should decide soon.”

Far off to the west, I hear a low, droning buzz. I shade my eyes and squint into the sunset. A black dot rises in front of the bloated red sun. Closer, a helmeted man on a three-­wheeled cycle comes crashing out of the trees not far from the second bot. For some reason, it ignores him. He skids onto the road and speeds toward us. Behind me, the first bot comes two clanking steps closer, but it doesn't address him, doesn't even seem to notice that he's there. I imagine I can feel the warm spot of its targeting laser on the back of my neck. The man on the cycle is close now. He flips up his visor and screams, “Down! Elise, get down!”

Tariq?

The bot shuffles another step forward.

 

4. GARY

T
erry drops her phone and says, “Get me a newsfeed.”

I don't like the news. I've been drinking a mix of BrainBump and rum for the last two hours. The nanos are tickling my implants nicely, and I'm really kinda jonesing for a little more stupid.

“Hey,” I say. “What about some more
SpaceLab
? There's an episode from last summer—­”

She wings her empty glass at me. I flinch, and it whizzes past my head and explodes against the wall.

“Get me a newsfeed, you weedy little fuck! I don't have time for your burnout bullshit!”

I guess we're not bantering anymore.

“House,” I say. “News. Local. Live. Liberal.”

The screen cuts to what looks like a puff piece on Senator Nguyen. She's wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, and walking with a smiling younger woman through a soybean field.

“These are my roots,” says the senator. “When Washington gets to be too much, when I need to ground myself, this is where I come. My family has been working this land for fifty years, and God willing we'll be here for a hundred and fifty more.”

“Not this,” says Terry. “Get me a local feed from Hagerstown.”

“Gary?” says House.

“Authorized,” I say. “She can watch whatever she wants, as long as she quits throwing my stuff at me.”

The screen goes blank.

“No feeds available from Hagerstown at this time,” says House.

“Frederick,” Terry says. “Get me a feed from Frederick.”

That gets us a pretty young caster wearing a gold tech shirt and shorts, standing beside a line of stopped cars on a highway on-­ramp.

“ . . . apparently stopping all traffic westbound on 70, which as you can see is creating a pretty nasty backup. There's been a steady stream of military copters passing overhead, heading northwest toward Hagerstown. Mickey Liu in Martinsburg tells me he's seeing the same thing on 81 North. I've tried pinging several colleagues in Hagerstown, but have gotten no replies. I have also tried to contact both local and national government agencies, so far without success.”

The feed cuts to an older man in a suit. He's sitting on a porch in a glider chair.

“Strange goings-­on in Hagerstown,” he says. “I've tried to patch to a number of civilian drones that should be in the area, but they all appear to have been taken offline between one and two hours ago. So have the local ground-­based cameras and security systems. Whatever is happening there, someone with a very long reach does not want us to know—­”

He pauses, and his left eye starts twitching. He's downloading something through an ocular. After a dozen seconds, his eyes refocus. “We're going to patch through to a national feed. Those with weak stomachs may want to drop off now.”

The screen cuts to a static view of the interior of a McDonald's. There are probably fifteen ­people in the frame—­in booths, on the floor, slumped over tables. None of them are moving, and most of them look like they've been puking up blood.

“Scenes like this are repeated throughout Hagerstown at this hour,” says the voice-­over. The POV jumps to a traffic cam at a downtown intersection showing a four-­car pileup. The driver of one of the cars is hanging halfway out of his open door, a puddle of something vile on the pavement under his open mouth. It jumps again to what looks like an office, and again to a park, where eighteen or twenty guys apparently dropped dead in the middle of a soccer game.

“Authorities continue to review all available data sources,” says the voice-­over, “but as of this time, no evidence of survivors has been found.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Terry whispers.

“Have you got ­people there?” I ask.

“My sister,” she says. She's crying now. I need to get Anders.

By the time I get to the top of the stairs, I've got feeds coming into my ocular—­from my peeps, not the sheeple on the wallscreen downstairs. I get a twenty-­second loop from what looks like low earth orbit that shows cars on a city street moving normally, then swerving out of control and smashing into each other. Nobody gets out to exchange insurance cards. That switches to a view from an air breather of the soccer field I saw in the living room, except that the players are still alive. Then one slows to a stop, clutches his belly, and drops to his knees. It's not more than five seconds before they're all down. A few are still thrashing when the POV spins crazily and cuts out.

“Gary?” Anders is standing in front of me. He snaps his fingers in my face. “You there, man? For shit's sake, it's Sunday afternoon. What are you on?”

I cut the feed and shake my head.

“Nothing. Well, not much. I had a ­couple of Bump-­n-­Dumps, but I'm fine. You need to come downstairs.”

“That's where I was headed. What's going on?”

“You've got a visitor. Also, it looks like Hagerstown just got whacked. Also, your visitor's sister lives in Hagerstown, so she's not too happy. Also, something weird is going on with my feeds . . .”

“Stop.” He holds up one hand. “What do you mean, ‘Hagerstown just got whacked'? You mean bombed? Like a terrorist thing? What kind of a dipshit terrorist would go after freaking Hagerstown?”

“No,” I say. “Not bombed. Just whacked. Killed. Looks like everybody in town just keeled over dead.”

He blinks, slowly.

“You mean, all at once?”

I shrug.

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“How do you do that?”

“Fuck if I know. I was just starting to get some feeds from my boys when you got all snappy with me.”

He rubs his face with both hands.

“Okay. You said I had a visitor?”

“Yeah. It's your friend from last night. She's pretty upset.”

“And she's got a sister there?”

“That's what she said.”

“Shit. Okay.”

He starts down the stairs. I tap back into my feeds. They're pretty much the same thing over and over again, from different vantages: ­people alive and doing ­people things, then ­people thrashing around and spewing shit and blood and puke out of every orifice, then ­people dead. They all cut out about ten or fifteen seconds after things start going crazy. The ends of the drone feeds all look like they lost flight control right before the cutout. The satellite and fixed-­camera feeds just end. I pull up a chat frame next to the vid.

Sir Munchalot:

Drew P. Wiener:

Sir Munchalot:

Drew P. Wiener:

The fact that Drew was able to pull the clips before Sauron's Eye redacted them means the NatSec bots are about ten seconds slower than Drew's. That's good to know. The fact that the feeds got redacted at all, on the other hand, means that NatSec has invoked terror-­response protocols. This is also good to know, because it means that possession of these clips could probably get all of us tossed down the memory hole.

Hayley 9000:

Argyle Dragon:

Fenrir:

Argyle Dragon:

Fenrir:

Argyle Dragon:

Fenrir:

Hayley 9000:

Fenrir:

Argyle Dragon:

Fenrir:

Sir Munchalot:

Fenrir:

Sir Munchalot:

Fenrir:

Angry Irish Inch:

Inch drops a link to an audio file. I stream it.

“ . . . need to know what we're dealing with here. What's the kill rate?”

“Estimated at eighty-­eight percent currently. Survivors appear completely unaffected. No deaths observed since the initial strike.”

“Do we have containment?”

“Affirmative. Eighty-­plus percent of survivors are children. They're mostly staying put. We've had a few takedowns on the perimeter. Expect more in the next two hours.”

“Are we a go on the burn?”

“Affirmative. Getting assets into position now.”

“Do we have consensus on that? With twelve percent survivors?”

“Best estimate is that if this breaks out, a fifty percent death rate would be sufficient for a national soft kill.”

“We don't even know that this is contagious.”

“We don't know that it's not.”

Fenrir:

Angry Irish Inch:

Argyle Dragon:

Hayley 9000:

Sir Munchalot:

I blink my windows closed, and start down the stairs.

A
nders looks up when I step into the room. He's on the sofa with Terry, arms around her shoulders. Her face is buried in his chest. Huh. Would not have called that.

“Well?” he says.

“Pretty grim,” I reply, and drop into a recliner. “Survivorship is under fifteen percent, mostly kids.”

Terry looks up at that. Her face is still screwed up in a half sob, which when you throw in the brow ridge and the gob of snot coming out of her left nostril, is pretty much a horror show in and of itself.

“Survivors?” Terry says. “The wallscreen said there were no survivors.”

I shrug.

“Well, I'm guessing that'll be true pretty soon. Sounds like they're planning on a burn-­down.”

She wipes her nose with her arm, which just smears things around. I toss her a screen rag from the cargo slot in the recliner's arm. She catches it, wipes down her face and arm, and winds up to throw it back. I hold up one hand.

“Keep it,” I say. “Please.”

She half smiles her thanks.

“I don't understand,” she says. “What's a burn-­down?”

She looks weirdly hopeful now. Maybe ‘burn' didn't mean what it does now, before she got frozen in a glacier or whatever.

“I'm not exactly sure,” I say. I glance over at Anders. He's glaring at me for some reason. “I guess they could use a nuke, but considering we're basically downwind, I hope not. More likely an FAE.”

“That's enough,” says Anders. His head looks like it's about to explode.

“An FAE?” Terry says.

“Right,” I say. “Fuel-­air explosive. The poor-­man's nuke. Most of the boom, with none of the fallout.”

“Shut up,” says Anders.

“You said there were survivors,” says Terry. “They wouldn't do that if there were ­people still alive in there, would they?”


Au contraire
—­”

“I said shut up,” Anders growls.

“No, Anders,” says Terry. “You shut up. I'm not your fucking damsel in distress. I want to hear what he has to say.”

I'm about to go on, but just then some administration tool comes on the wallscreen and starts talking about sterilization. We all listen to his spiel in silence.

“You see?” I say when he's done, and they cut back to the studio mannequin. “Burn-­down. They're gonna turn that entire place into a smoking hole in the ground. Only way to guarantee containment.”

Terry's crying again.

“My sister is in there,” she sobs.

I shake my head.

“Probably not. The estimate I heard, which came from an unnamed but reliable source, was twelve percent survivors with eighty percent of those, children. That puts the adult survival rate at two-­point-­four percent.”

I stop and think for a minute.

“Wait. No, it doesn't. That's not factoring in the preexisting demographics. Say kids under 18 make up thirty percent of the original population. If your overall survival is twelve percent, and eighty percent of those are children, that makes the survival rate for children . . . thirty percent . . . and for adults about four-­point-­three.”

That gets us a solid ten seconds of awkward silence.

“It doesn't matter,” says Terry finally. “If what you're saying is right, there must be over five thousand ­people still alive. They can't just burn them, can they?”

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