Authors: Nora Roberts
By the end of the first week of January, the reported death count topped a million. The World Health Organization declared a pandemic spreading with unprecedented speed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified it as a new strain of avian influenza, one that spread with human-to-human contact.
But no one could explain why the birds tested showed no signs of infection. None of the chickens, turkeys, geese, pheasants, or quailâconfiscated or captured within a hundred-kilometer radius of the MacLeod farmârevealed any infection.
But the peopleâthe MacLeod family in Scotland, their neighbors, the villagersâdied in droves.
That detail the WHO, the CDC, and the NIH kept under tight wraps.
In the scramble for vaccines, distribution ran through complex and maddening loops. Delays incited rioting, looting, violence.
It didn't matter, as the vaccines proved as ineffective as the fraudulent cures selling briskly on the Internet.
Across the globe, heads of state urged calm and called for order, promised assistance, spoke of policies.
Schools closed, countless businesses locked their doors as people were urged to limit contact with others. The sale of surgical masks, gloves, over-the-counter and prescription flu remedies, bleach, and disinfectants soared.
It wouldn't help. Tony Parsoni could've told them, but he died in the same hospital bed as his mother-in-law less than seventy-two hours after her.
Plastic barriers, latex gloves, surgical masks? The Doom scoffed at all and gleefully spread its poisons.
In the second week of the New Year, the death toll topped ten million and showed no sign of abating. Though his illness went unreported, and his death was kept secret for nearly two days, the President of the United States succumbed.
Those heads of state fell like dominoes. Despite extreme precautions, they proved just as susceptible as the homeless, the panicked, the churchgoer, the atheist, the priest, and the sinner.
In its wave through D.C. in the third week of the Doom, more than sixty percent of Congress lay dead or dying, along with more than a billion others worldwide.
With the government in chaos, new fears of terrorist attacks lit fires. But terrorists were as busy dying as the rest.
Urban areas became war zones, with thinning police forces fighting against survivors who looked at the end of humanity as an opportunity for blood and brutality. Or profit.
Rumors abounded about odd dancing lights, about people with strange abilities healing burns without salve, lighting fires in barrels for warmth without fuel. Or lighting them for the thrill of
watching the flames rise. Some claimed to have seen a woman walk through a wall, others swore they'd seen a man lift a car with one hand. And another who had danced a jig a full foot off the ground.
Commercial air travel shut down in week two in the vain hope of stopping or slowing the spread. Most who fled before the travel bans, leaving their homes, their cities, even their countries, died elsewhere.
Others opted to ride it out, stockpiling supplies in homes and apartmentsâeven office buildingsâlocking doors and windows, often posting armed guards.
And had the comfort of dying in their own beds.
Those who locked themselves in and lived clung to the increasingly sporadic news coverage, hoping for a miracle.
By week three, news was as precious as diamonds, and much more rare.
Arlys Reid didn't believe in miracles, but she believed in the public's right to know. She'd worked her way from a predawn newsreader in Ohio, doing mostly farm reports and a few remotes at local fairs and festivals, to a fluff reporter at a local affiliate in New York.
She gained popularity, if not many opportunities for hard news.
At thirty-two, she'd still had her eye on national news. She hadn't expected to get it by default. The star of
The Evening Spotlight
, a steady, sober voice through two decades of world crises, went missing before the end of the first week of the pandemic. One by one, in the pecking order of replacements, came death, flight, or, in the case of her immediate predecessor, a sobbing breakdown on air.
Every morning when Arlys wokeâin her nearly empty low-rise only a few blocks from the studioâshe took stock.
No fever, no nausea, no cramping, no cough, no delusions. Noâthough she didn't actually believe the rumorsâstrange abilities.
She ate from her meager supplies. Usually dry cereal, as milk had
become nearly impossible to find unless you could stomach the powdered stuff. And she couldn't.
She dressed for a run, as she'd discovered running could be necessary, even in broad daylight, even for a handful of blocks. She strapped her briefcase cross-body. Inside, she kept a .32 she'd found on the street. She locked her door and hit the streets.
Along the way, if she felt reasonably safe, she took pictures with her phone. Always something to document. Another body, another burned-out car, another broken shop window. Otherwise, she kept up a steady jog.
She kept in good shapeâalways hadâand could kick into a sprint if needed. Most mornings the streets remained eerily quiet, empty but for abandoned cars, wrecks. Those who roamed the nights looking for blood had crawled back into their holes with the sunlight like vampires.
She used the side door, as Tim in security had given her a full set of keys and swipes before he'd disappeared. She always used the stairs, as they'd had a couple of power outages. The climb up five flights helped make up for missing her five-times-weekly hour at the gym.
She'd stopped letting the echoing silence of the building bother her. The lunchroom and the commissary still had coffee. Before she started a pot, she ground extra beans for the plastic bag in her briefcase. Only a day's supply at a timeâafter all, she wasn't the only one still coming to work who needed that good jolt.
Sometimes Little Fredâthe enthusiastic intern who, like Arlys, continued to report to the TV station every dayârestocked. Arlys never questioned where the bouncy little redhead acquired the coffee beans, the boxes of Snickers, or the Little Debbie snack cakes.
She just enjoyed the largess.
Today, she filled her thermos with coffee and decided on a Swiss Roll.
Taking both, she wound her way to the newsroom. She could've taken an officeâplenty of them available nowâbut preferred the open feel of the newsroom.
She hit the lights, watched them blink on over empty desks, blank screens, silent computers.
She tried not to worry about the day she hit the switches and nothing happened.
As always, she settled down at the desk she'd chosen, crossed her fingers, and booted up the computer. The Wi-Fi in her apartment building had hit the dirt two weeks earlier, but the station still pulled it.
It ran painfully slow, often hiccupped off and on, but it ran. She clicked to connect, poured her coffee, settled back to drink and waitâfingers still crossed.
“And so we live another day,” she said aloud when the screen came up.
She clicked on her e-mail, drank, and waited until it fluttered on-screen. As she did several times a day, she searched for an e-mail from her parents, her brother, the friends she had back in Ohio. She'd had no luck phoning or texting in more than a week. The last time she'd been able to reach her parents, her mother had told her they were fine. But her voice had sounded raw and weak.
Then nothing. Calls didn't go through, texts and e-mails went unanswered.
She sent another group e-mail.
Please contact me. I check my e-mail several times a day. You can phone my cell, it's still working. I need to know how you are. Any information from you and your location. I'm really getting worried.
Melly, if you get this, please, please, go check on my parents. I hope you and yours are well. Arlys.
She hit send and, because there was nothing else she could do, locked it in a corner of her mind and got to work.
She brought up
The New York Times
The Washington Post
. Reports had thinned, but she could still dig out some meat.
The former Secretary of Stateânow president, through the line of successionâspoke by videoconference with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the current head of the CDC (the former had died on day nine of the pandemic), and the newly appointed head of the WHO. Elizabeth Morrelli succeeded Carlson Track, who succumbed to illness. Questions regarding the details of Dr. Track's death had not been answered.
Arlys noted that Morrelli issued a statement claiming that through global efforts, a new vaccine to combat H5N1-X should be ready for distribution within a week.
“Funny, that's what Track said ten days ago. Bullshit in a hermetically sealed bunker is still bullshit.”
She read about a group of people hoarding food, water, and supplies in an elementary school in Queens firing on others who tried to break in.
Five dead, including a woman carrying a ten-month-old baby.
On the other end of the spectrum, a church in the Maryland suburbs was handing out blankets, MREs, candles, batteries, and other basics.
Reports of murders, suicides, rapes, maimings. And a scattering of reports on heroism and simple kindnesses.
Of course, there were the lunacy reports of people claiming to have seen creatures with luminous wings flying around. Or of a man impaling another man with flaming darts shot out of his fingertips.
She read reports of the military transporting volunteers believed
to be immune to secured facilities for testing. Where are they? she wondered. And quarantines of entire communities, mass burials, blockades, a firebomb hurled onto the White House lawn.
The fanatical preacher Reverend Jeremiah White, who claimed the pandemic to be God's wrath on a godless world and proclaimed the virtuous would survive only by vanquishing the wicked.
“They walk among us,” was his latest cry, “but they are not as us. They are as from hell, and must be driven back to the fire!”
Arlys made notes, checked other sites. More going dark every day, she thought as she surfed.
Checking her watch, she brought up Skype to connect with a source she trusted more than any other.
He gave her his rubbery grin when he came on-screen. His hair sprang everywhere at once, a Billy Idol white slick around his pleasantly goofy face.
“Hey, Awesome Arlys! Still five-by-five?”
“Yeah, and you?”
“Healthy, wealthy, and wise. Did you lose any more?”
“I don't know yet. I haven't seen anyone else this morning. Bob Barrett's still not showing up. Lorraine Marsh lost it yesterday.”
“Yeah, saw that.”
“I'll pick up her afternoon report because I don't see her coming back. We've still got some crew. Carol's in the booth, and Jim Clayton's been coming in every day for the last ten or so. It's pretty surreal when the head of broadcasting shows up to pick up as gaffer or whatever needs filling in. And Little Fred's still stocking the commissary, writing some copy, playing gofer, doing some on-air.”
“She's totally cute. Why don't you set me up with her?”
“Happy to. Give me your address and I'll bring her right to you.”
He gave her that grin again. “Wish I could, but the walls have
ears. The fucking air has them. Your friendly neighborhood hacker needs his Batcave.”
“Batman wasn't friendly, he was a brilliant psycho. And Spider-Man didn't have a cave.”
He gave her a cackling chuckle. “Only another reason I'm your biggest fan. You can school me on superheroes. Favorite report you read this morning?”
“The one about the naked woman riding a unicorn in SoHo.”
“Man, I'd love to see a naked woman, with or without unicorn. It's been awhile.”
“I'm not stripping down for you, Chuck. Not even for the buzz you're going to give me.”
“We're pals, Arlys. Pals don't require naked.”
“So, what's the buzz?”
The grin faded away. “You caught today's tally?”
“Yeah.” Both the
ran a daily updated total of reported deaths. “We've topped a billion by five hundred million, three hundred twenty-two thousand, four hundred and sixteen.”
“That's the official count for the media. The real count's more than two.”
Her heart jumped. “More than two billion? Where'd you get that number?”
“I've gotta keep that under the vest. But it's real, Arlys, and it's going up a lot faster than the people in charge of this clusterfuck are saying.”
“ButÂ â¦ Jesus God, Chuck, that's nearly a third of the world population. A third of the world population wiped out in weeks?” Sick, she scribbled the number down. “And that doesn't count the murders, the suicides, the people killed in crashes, fires, stampedes, the ones who've died of exposure.”
“It's going to get worse, Arlys. In the saga of revolving POTUS? Carnegie's out.”
“Dead.” He rubbed his eyes, a pale and cagey blue in a lightly freckled face. “They swore in the new one about two this morning. Secretary of Agricultureâthe ones ahead of her already hit by the Doom. Fucking farm lady is now running what's left of the free world. If you report that, the jackboots are going to come kicking down your door.”
“Yeah. I'll kill the comp like you told me if I decide to go on air with it. Agriculture.” She had to flip back through notes to the list she'd made. “She was eighth in line.”
As she spoke Arlys crossed out those who came between, and saw she'd already crossed out several following.
“If she doesn't make it, we're down to the Secretary of Education, and after him, there's nobody left.”
“Honeypot, the government's finished. Not just here, all over hell and back again. It's a hell of a way to get rid of asshole dictators, but it's a way. North Korea, Russiaâ”