Standing by a lone tree at the edge of a grassy field watching the sunrise, Greg Neville felt safe for now. They were probably still hiding in the shadows and some were shielded from the light by the tule fog, but as long as the sun was up and it was warm, they’d remain stuporous and wouldn’t give him a problem. In an hour or so, the fog would burn off. He had been too terrified to sleep last night and desperately wanted a nap, but he didn’t have much time. He had to find his way back to Travis and stop them before they spread the plague.
He’d been waiting at the airfield at Travis Air Force Base yesterday when the C5-Galaxy arrived from Udorn Royal Thai AFB in northern Thailand. Greg wasn’t told if it was the CIA or some other intelligence agency that had procured a sample of the Rakshasa virus from the biological weapons laboratory in central China. He’d flown out from the CDC in Atlanta with the rest of the team under secure orders to test the serum on Rakshasa and determine if it could either vaccinate populations against it or kill the plague outright.
Greg was the only person on the Directive 12 Team who wasn’t a doctor or medical technician. He was assigned in the unlikely event of a worse case scenario. However, instead of this being just another milk run for him, he would become the star player in preventing national if not world-wide Armageddon. That was the purpose of D-12, to handle the most dangerous biological threats. The world and even most of the personnel at Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control didn’t know they existed, and they were no doubt happier for it.
The plan had been to remove the sealed transport container from the aircraft, load it in a special Humvee with an isolation vault, and then drive it to the secure lab on base. They got that far, but not much farther.
Dr. Orlando Nunez was the team lead and was directly supervising the container’s removal from the C5. Medical technicians Margaret Cohen and Eugene Pope were assisting the Air Force team in slowly rolling the container on a cart down the ramp to the tarmac. Drs. Ronni Cole and Vernon Lloyd were already at the lab setting up the containment vault which would have to be ready in less than an hour.
Greg was with them but for an entirely different reason, checking his equipment which had arrived three days before. It was just about ready and only needed to be armed. Of course, no one expected that would happen. After all, in the thirty-six previous covert transfers of deadly biological substances he had been assigned over the past twenty years, he had never gotten past this point. The medical team did their work, reached some sort of resolution and then closed up shop, either safely storing the contaminant or irrevocably destroying it.
This wasn’t going to be Greg Neville’s “lucky thirty-seven.”
The most dangerous part of this sort of operation was removing the transport container from one secure vault so it could be carried into another. The Humvee arrived in the lab’s garage which was then closed and sealed. Cohen and Pope, along with the pair of Air Force technicians (Neville had never gotten their names) unlocked and opened the back of the Humvee and then the sealed vault section. One of the other Air Force people assigned to the garage brought a cart over so the container could be loaded onto it for a smooth ride into the lab and then into the testing vault.
What happened next was what Greg had heard referred to as a “perfect storm.”
Ideally, once the garage was locked behind the Humvee, the air circulation system for the lab complex would be isolated from the outside so that in the unlikely event of a container breach, Rakshasa would be restricted to the lab. Even if the CDC and Air Force personnel were exposed, no one else would be. Loss of life would be limited to about a dozen people or less.
Greg had already been introduced to the other “sanitation” officer, Lt. Andrew (call me “Andy”) Turner, a really nice guy from DeWitt, Arkansas who was looking forward to celebrating his twenty-eighth birthday with his expectant wife Cindy (due next March) and his eighteen-month-old daughter Madeline.
The perfect storm was first manifested by three independent alarm failures. The lab’s ventilation system was still open to the outside, even though Lloyd had set his console to close off the building. Normally with such a failure, a warming siren would sound, along with a flashing orange light on his console, and then the laptop he had hooked into the lab’s network should have sent a warning to his monitor screen.
Unfortunately, the lab had been designed during the Cold War nearly forty years ago, and that design had all three emergency signals routed through a single solenoid which had shorted out just after it was tested a week ago. With this kind of fault, the door between the garage and the lab proper should have automatically locked, but failing to receive the error signal, the lock remained unsecured and Cohen opened the door. Pope and the two Airmen wheeled the cart inside with Dr. Nunez trailing a few feet behind. The Air Force personnel returned to the garage just as things were getting interesting.
“Wait a second.” Lloyd had just noticed that the air vent “Green” signal hadn’t shown up on his panel or on the laptop’s monitor. However by the time he saw it, Nunez was just walking in from the garage and the door was closing behind him.
“What’s wrong, Vern?”
When dealing with a virus that could potentially wipe out a small city overnight and decimate the population of America’s West Coast in a week, anyone saying “uh-oh” got serious attention.
“No warnings, but I can’t get a confirmation of vent closure.”
The second and most disastrous part of Neville’s perfect storm had been in progress for quite some time, but it would only become apparent in the next few seconds.
The Chinese biochemists had been alerted to the possibility that a sample of their creation might be hijacked by foreign operatives. A mole inside the U.S. intelligence community, in this case a civilian contractor at Langley, had leaked an operations schedule to the Chinese Embassy in D.C. The Chinese scientists had quickly developed the next generation of their virus with the additional feature of being able to consume the plastic-based seals on standard hazardous materials containers, which was exactly what Rakshasa had been doing for the past eighteen hours.
The Chinese hoped that the timing would result in a containment breach while the C5 was over American air space. The plan was for the virus to be released on board the transport killing the crew, and when the aircraft crashed, it would release Rakshasa somewhere near San Francisco or Sacramento. Millions would die and the U.S. would be crucified in the global news media for continuing to develop biological weapons. All the Chinese had to do was sit back and enjoy the opportunity they had been afforded to watch the world’s largest laboratory experiment of Rakshasa.
However, the containment module seal was thicker and more resistant than Rakshasa’s designers had anticipated, plus the “appetite” of the virus for polymers wasn’t quite as aggressive as they had hoped. Thus it took an additional sixty to ninety minutes for the desired effect to occur, and it occurred just after the door between the garage and the main lab had closed and was manually locked by Dr. Nunez.
Cohen was the first to notice that the seal was bubbling and to hear a faint hissing sound as the pressure started to equalize between the interior of the container and the outside air. “Doctor, we have…” The seal abruptly dissolved and the pressurized interior caused the top to shoot up like a projectile, striking Margaret in the face, killing her instantly.
The breach alarm, which went through a different system than the vent failure alarms, rang and the red danger lights flashed throughout the laboratory suites. A thin mist filled the lab, but that was just the cryogenic gas used to preserve the virus. Everyone began to cough and rub their eyes. Pope fell beside the nearly decapitated Cohen. Lloyd collapsed still trying to reset the ventilation system. Cole was running forward trying to help Nunez wheel the open container into the testing vault in the vain hope of preventing a catastrophic breach when they both fell. Greg turned to see Andy drop to his knees while grasping the edge of the console with is left hand. With his right, he was pulling the key, which was on a chain around his neck, out of his shirt.
An hour ago, Ronni Pope had carried a small, steel briefcase into the lab and set it down on a table by the only other exit from the lab. She had opened the case and removed the first of six metal boxes from inside. Three days ago, Dr. Nunez had briefed the team, including Neville, on the contents of those boxes, the experimental inoculate which they were going to test against Rakshasa.
By now, the virus had escaped outside and was being carried by the prevailing breeze across the Air Force Base. Everyone except Turner and Neville was unconscious. Turner was on his hands and knees helplessly watching the arming key swing back and forth on the chain dangling below his chest. Neville realized the two of them would never be able to arm and detonate the tactical nuke that was the last resort of their failsafe program should a runaway containment breach occur. Even if they both could insert and simultaneously turn their keys, the rest of the detonation procedure could take between thirty seconds to two minutes and they would both be dead by then.
But maybe they both didn’t have to die.
As a member of CDC, Greg had taken basic medical training which included how to load a syringe, find a vein, and inject it with whatever the syringe contained. He didn’t know the proper dose, but in a few seconds it wouldn’t matter. He pulled as much of the XA-695 serum (that’s what the handwritten label taped to the bottle said) he could into the syringe, attached a needle, tied the rubber tube around his upper left arm, thanked his parents and their genes for giving him large veins, inserted the needle, and then pressed the plunger.
His vision dimmed and he remained conscious just long enough to watch Andy Turner collapse onto the floor like the rest of his team. He passed out believing he was the only survivor.
Neville woke up to the incessant sound of the emergency communications link buzzing along with the blare of the breach alarm.
He was alive. His head was buzzing. No it wasn’t. It was the alarms. The communications alert. When the breach alarm was set off here, the signal was transmitted over a secure internet link to Atlanta so the CDC instantly knew the worst had happened.
Greg tried to stand, fell back on his butt, and managed to bend to one side in time to vomit on the floor instead of his lap. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and looked around. Everyone was in exactly the same position as before, still dead.
He grabbed the edge of the table and pulled himself up. Five packets of the inoculate left. It worked. He was alive but Rakshasa was out in the open. He looked at the wall clock. 16:02 hours. He’d been unconscious for over three hours. He had to get on the comm. There still might be time to stop the virus from spreading too far.
Staggering over to the communications console, he nearly fell against the switch opening a channel. “Travis here, uh…Neville, Greg Neville. I’m on Dr. Nunez’s team. There was an accident. They’re all dead.”
“Neville, this is Grant at Incident Response. What is your status? What is the status of Rakshasa.”
Colonel Dyson Grant was in command of the CDC Incident Response unit, a combined force of CDC personnel and military forces with expansive legal authority in emergency situations such as this one. Why was it so hard to think? Grant. Grant’s on the comm.
“I say again…”
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry. I think my head’s clearing. We got the transport container into the lab. Vent system malfunctioned, it wouldn’t seal. Something went wrong with the container, lid blew off. Rakshasa is in the open. Nunez and the rest of the team are dead. I managed to inject myself with serum, you know…XA whatever. Must have saved my life. Air Force nuke officer’s dead. I can’t arm the device, can’t sanitize.”
“Roger that, Neville. An Army Division has been deployed with Hazmat gear. They’re sealing off Travis, Fairfield and the surrounding area.”
“I say again, Grant. Rakshasa is out in the open, in the open. How are the fucking soldiers going to put a parameter around the wind? Rakshaha is instantly lethal. You can’t let it reach a major population center.”
“Have you checked any of the team for life signs, Neville?”
When he saw the container lid explode and then everyone fall unconscious within seconds, he just assumed…
“Stand by, Grant.”
Ronni Cole was the nearest. He rolled her over and noticed she was hot to the touch, like she had a fever. Her skin was red and when he pressed his fingers against the vein in her neck, he felt a strong, fast pulse. She wasn’t moving at all. Ronni could have been dead, but she definitely wasn’t.
It was exactly the same for Nunez and Pope. Cohen didn’t have a face left and her head was hanging on to the rest of her body only by a few scrapes of skin and muscle and part of her spine.
Andy Turner displayed the same symptoms as the others but he was moaning and twitching. A partial immunity? He’d hung on longer than the others. Both of them had. Maybe he should get another syringe. No. Grant’s waiting. He’d better make the call. Neville wasn’t a doctor. He could end up killing Turner.
“Neville here. They’re alive. Cohen was in the way when the lid blew off the container unit. Practically took off her head. Everyone else is alive, hot to the touch, red skin, rapid, strong pulse. They’re all unconscious, but the Air Force nuke guy…Turner, he’s moving a little and moaning. Look, the serum works. I injected myself. I feel a little loopy but I’m alive. What if I use it on…”
“Negative, Neville. Jesus, you’re describing the symptoms of sunstroke. We didn’t expect…”
“Look, I could save their lives. We don’t know how long they’ll last, Grant.”
“We’ve got a team flying out to you. They should land in just a little over an hour from now. Sit tight. Help’s on the way. Grant out.”
What? He thought Grant, or at least someone, would keep talking to him until the CDC clean up team arrived. Neville knew that in case of a Class One breach, The IR unit was authorized to take any measures to contain the contamination and preserve public safety. The Directive 12 team existed to test only the most potentially lethal threats and were sanctioned to sterilize using a nuclear device if necessary. If the situation with the Chinese virus hadn’t come up so suddenly and the timing to covertly acquire a sample hadn’t had such a short window, they would have chosen a much more remote testing site, but under the circumstances, the best they could manage was Travis just outside of Fairfield. Now that D-12 has failed, it was up to IR to mop up anyway they could.
They were only forty miles from Oakland and less than nineteen miles from the Napa Valley. If the Army and the CDC couldn’t contain Rakshasa, it could kill countless millions.
The D-12 Team wasn’t dead (except for Cohen) so the virus wasn’t immediately lethal. On the other hand, it was immediately incapacitating. Except for Turner and him, the rest had gone down in seconds.
Sit tight until help arrives, he said. At least Neville was only alone in a sealed room with one corpse instead of six. Wait. What about the guys in the garage? There were two assigned there and another two who had been with the Humvee. The door to the garage was one inch thick solid steel, but there was a window with equally thick and wire mesh safety glass he could look though.
Greg walked slowly over and peered inside. The main lights were off. Only the battery driven emergency lamps were operating. There hadn’t been a power outage so why…?
A face slammed against the glass from the other side. Neville yelled and jumped back. He was alive and conscious. If he could get the door open. Wait! What? Drooling, eyes vacant and oozing, he could hear what sounded like fingernails scraping the metal door.
“Can you hear me? Are you okay?” Neville eyed the manual release for the door but was hesitant to use it. The man was still trying to get through the door and Greg could just see three other shadows moving toward him..
A shriek from behind him and hands around his throat. Greg elbowed whoever it was in the ribs but the hands kept tightening. Then he got one foot against the door and shoved hard.
They both flew backward and Neville heard a thud. Whoever attacked him had been rammed against the edge of a counter. The hands released him and Greg spun around to see Andy Turner, but not really Andy. Like the person in the garage, his eyes looked pale and vacant, he was drooling, mucus was dripping from his tear ducts.
Andy screamed and lunged at him again. He was fast but Greg managed to dodge. He looked around for a weapon and saw that the other team members were beginning to stand up. The lights flickered and went out and the emergency lanterns came on. The breaker switches to the lab were in the garage. Why did they cut the power?
It was dark outside and at this time of year, it was getting colder fast. He had to get out. If they all attacked at once, Greg would have no chance.
Pope was the only one between him and the door. The emergency release to the outside was still active. Greg suddenly broke into a run and knocked Ronni aside before she could get a solid grip on him. He hit the release. It took a second for the lock to disengage but when it did he was out and running. He was surprised that they didn’t run after him. They were aggressive and fast, but seemed confused or dazed. They couldn’t or wouldn’t talk. It was like one of those zombie movies except they didn’t stumble and shuffle around moaning for brains.
Others. Seemingly random figures moving around. One pointed at him and wailed while others ignored him. The lab was situated at one end of the base away from other structures, but a security detail that must have arrived right before the accident left the keys in the ignition of a Jeep. Neville hopped in before anyone could stop him or realize his intentions and drove out of the immediate area.
When was the CDC plane supposed to arrive? He glanced at his watch. Thirty or thirty-five minutes. What could they do? In fact, what was their intention? They were flying into a base where they supposed everyone but Neville was incapacitated. When they landed, would the base personnel ignore them as they had him, or would they attack like Turner and the others in the lab? He had to warn them. The control tower? Maybe he could radio their aircraft and warn them off.
He realized he hadn’t turned on the headlights and pulled the switch. Suddenly two running figures were right in front of him. Greg hit the brakes but too late. He smashed into both at nearly forty miles an hour. He had put on his seatbelt by habit but was still slammed against the restraint. He hit his head against the steering wheel. Greg was dazed but still conscious. His forehead was wet. He felt it. Bleeding but not bad.
The Jeep’s headlights were still on but the engine had died. He looked. One man was still half draped over the front of the hood and bumper and the other was thrown back by the impact. They weren’t breathing. He felt for a pulse on the closest one. Nothing. He was dead. So was the other.
The Jeep wouldn’t start again and the one stuck to the hood made it impossible for Greg to check the engine. He found a flashlight in the glove box but no weapons. No time to waste hanging around. He had to get off the base and away from people. Twice he had heard small groups of people growling and moaning. There were sounds of fighting as if their aggression was totally undirected. They’d attack anything or anyone including each other.
Neville couldn’t remember where the tower was. The plane must have landed by now. He started toward the airfield and though he could see lights of a small aircraft, there were too many of “them” between where he was and the plane. His best bet was to escape and survive which meant heading away from the runway.
He’s spent the night that way. Neville managed to get off the base through an auxiliary gate. Whoever had been guarding it must have wandered away. Unfortunately, he didn’t find any firearms at the guard shack, so he ran into the night.
That’s how he had come to be standing by a lone tree on the edge of the field at dawn. All night long he could hear them out there in the distance and darkness. The fog had rolled in by early morning. He was freezing. He hadn’t eaten or had any water in hours. He had to get back to Travis and find out what happened to the CDC team that came in last night.
He had to…
“Wha?” He was on the ground, his back against the tree trunk. He’d meant to sit and rest for just a few minutes. “Son of a bitch, I fell asleep!” He looked at his watch. It was just after 1200 hours. High noon, or as high as it gets in Northern California in early December.
On the way back to base, he chanced upon a delivery truck abandoned on the side of the road. The driver must have been working the night shift. There was a full thermos of coffee, still pretty hot, some sandwiches, chips, and an apple. Greg gorged himself thinking his was the best breakfast, or lunch as it turned out, he could possibly imagine.
He tried to get the truck started, but all he got when he turned the ignition key was “click”. Greg checked under the hood. When the driver was infected by the virus, he must have lost control of his rig and hit a tree. The damage didn’t look bad, but it was enough to crack the battery. No getting this thing started.
Neville took off again on foot.
It was after 1300 when he got back to Travis. He hadn’t seen anyone out in the open. No bodies lying anywhere. Sometimes though, in the shade of trees, or down in ditches and gullies, he found a few. Most were inert, just like the team was yesterday before sundown. One or two were twitching and moaning the way Turner had. Whatever the virus did to them, they couldn’t function in the daylight, or maybe it had to do with the air temperature. Daytime was too warm but when it cooled at night, they came around.
Grant had said something about sunstroke. When a person suffers from sunstroke, they feel warm and their internal body temperature is usually around 103 degrees. The idea is to help cool them off, give them liquids, bring down their body temp. Maybe that’s what was happening here too, except Rakshasa somehow reset everyone’s internal thermostat. Now normal daytime temperatures, even just past 40 degrees or so was enough to cause them to fall into a stupor. He remembered the highs for the next few days were supposed to be in the low 60s. That should do it, until sundown anyway.
The plane. It was still on the runway. There were bodies. Greg got closer and didn’t think he could take what he saw. But then, what choice did he have?
The CDC people, Hazmat suits ripped to shreds, soaked in blood, bodies littered around the short steps descending from the open hatchway of the light jet, four of them. He managed to make himself go inside. One more CDC person and two flight crew, all dead and all in the same way, victims of horrible violence.
No equipment, no container of serum like he’d expected. Five CDC people dead. Clean up teams had a standard complement of six. He tried the radio but no power. The engines had been turned off, but he bet the lights had been left on and drained the battery. Neville left the cockpit and that’s when he saw something at the back of the plane. Another body except it wasn’t a passenger or crew. It was one of them. He was an Air Force Staff Sgt. Name tag said McKinney. He looked about thirty years old. Would have been handsome except for the effects of the virus. He must have been caught out in the open when sunrise came and the fog started to burn off, so he hid out here.
“What do I do, drive a wooden stake through your heart, McKinney? Yeah, I watched too many of those old horror movies when I was a kid.”
No response to his lame humor, but he hadn’t expected any.
Where was the sixth CDC person? Maybe they’d been caught off guard, were shorthanded and could only gather five. Or maybe someone got away.
He tried various buildings. Phones were out. The entrance to the control tower had been set on fire and burnt rubble blocked his way in. He found plenty of cell phones but for some reason he couldn’t get a signal. It was like fate was deliberately preventing him from communicating with the outside.
Grant said there were soldiers creating a parameter around Travis. How far away were they? Could he reach them before the sun set again?
He decided to try one more place, the lab. When he got there, all of the doors were open but the place was deserted. Where had his team gone? Where were the four Airmen who had been trapped in the garage?
They’d left Cohen’s body, but much worse for wear, like they needed to take out their rage or whatever it was on anything, even the dead. Poor Cohen. Neville never got much of a chance to get to know the other team members. He only saw them during their semi-annual training sessions or whenever there was a D-12 alert. She mentioned this was going to be her new baby’s first Hanukkah. That’s right. She was married and the four-month old was the first girl in the family.
“What a stupid way to die, Cohen. Damn, I’m so sorry.”
Neville spun around at a noise behind him. A woman hiding in the corner behind a console, a very familiar Hazmat suit tucked next her. She looked perfectly fine besides being terrified.
“It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not one of them.”
She stood. “I figured that when I saw you and heard you talking. Neville, right?”
“Yeah. And you?” He held out his hand as if social amenities were still important.
“Natasha Weber and why don’t we skip the handshake for now. We’re in a pretty unusual situation and while we may have forestalled airborne transmission, maybe skin-to-skin isn’t such a good idea.”
He lowered his arm. “Is that Dr. Natasha Weber?”
“Yes, but I feel more like Dr. Frankenstein.”
It took him a minute to figure out what she was talking about and then he saw a second serum box was missing from Ronni’s carrying case.
“I managed to hide in the plane while they were…” She shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold.
“I waited until dawn and when I didn’t hear any activity, I came here hoping to find you, or to find something helpful.”
“Communications still out?”
“Yeah, and from what I can tell, the power systems were wrecked deliberately. Maybe they don’t like lights or are even sensitive to the frequencies given off by electrical equipment.”
“That make sense. I haven’t been able to get anything to work, even cell phones. Well, the phones work, but…”
“That’s us, actually. There’s a communications black out over this area except for military frequencies.”
“You mean they don’t want someone giving out unauthorized information.”
Weber waved her arms around. “Can you blame them?”
“Look. The sun will set in a few hours and then they’ll all wake up again. We’ve got to get out of here or…” He looked at the nuclear console. He was still wearing his key around his neck.
“Turner. He has the other key and without it…”
“You mean that key? You want to nuke Travis Air Force Base, kill thousands, hundreds of thousands of people if you include Fairfield? Are you insane?”
“Is it crazy to want to stop the spread of this thing?”
“We have a plan, Neville. Grant told you to sit tight and wait.”
“And I would have except these infected people woke up and kept trying to kill me.”
They both stopped talking realizing how stupid it was to argue.
“Okay, okay, Weber. We’ve got to get out of here. Let’s find a car that works and drive to the military parameter. At least we’ll be safe but I still don’t know how the hell you’re going to contain this thing.”
“It’s like this…”
“Explain on the way. I’m not spending another night around here.”
“Look, you can come with me or stay here with the zombies. Your choice. I plan to save my own skin first and then hope and pray CDC has a plan to save everyone else’s.”
He didn’t wait for her to answer, just stormed out the door. Then he remembered the garage and the Humvee. No good. The hood was up and someone had taken a hammer to the distributor cap. He walked outside again. It was past 1500 already. The sun would go down in less than ninety minutes.
He didn’t listen, he just kept going, trying car after car. He found most of them locked and even the ones that weren’t didn’t have the keys. They must still be in a hundred pockets of a hundred infection victims hiding in buildings or other cool, shaded places. He just had to keep walking, this time out the main gates.
He couldn’t go in this direction last night, but right out the front was Fairfield. He might be able to get a car off base or maybe the Army was patrolling this close during the day.
As he walked past the commissary, he could hear Weber running behind him.
“Stop walking so fast.”
He stopped and turned, “Then try to keep up.”
She scowled at him.
Neville turned again and kept going. They walked past the elementary school, past the visitor center, and past the medical center. They both kept walking west along Air Base Parkway as the sun continued to dip toward the horizon ahead of them.
Past 1400 hours. The sun was on the verge of setting. They had walked past something called “Pick-N-Pull” which looked like a used car parts place. Then off to the left, a Jehovah’s Witness Assembly Hall and next to that…an Arco Station. There had to be at least one car there with the keys. Greg started running. They’d never make it on foot at this rate.
She yelled after him as he picked up speed. If she couldn’t keep up, he’d drive back for her.
As the dying rays of the sun disappeared in the west, he found a pickup that had just been filling up yesterday. No one was around, but the black Ford F-250 had a full tank of gas and the keys in the ignition.
He had just started it up when Weber ran into the station. She made it to the passenger door and opened it.
“You’re a real bastard, Neville.”
“Get in. We need to leave.”
She started to move and screamed as she was pulled backward by three of them.
Neville killed the engine, quickly slid across the seat and out the passenger door. He found a tire iron under the driver’s side seat when he first got in and grabbed it. He broke the neck of the first attacker getting the attention of the other two. As the second turned, he crushed in the side of his face. He staggered backward as if trying to decide whether or not to die.
Weber had just kneed the third in the crotch which had a lesser effect than you’d think, but while he was distracted, Neville brought his bloody weapon down onto the back of his head, smashing through the skull and into the brain.
The one with half a face was still stumbling around but away from them and the truck.
“Come on!” Weber didn’t need any coaxing. She got in the passenger side and slammed the door while Greg ran around the front of the truck and jumped in on the driver’s side. In seconds, they were racing away from the gas station.
Neville turned on the headlights and saw that in the past few minutes, the tule fog had returned.
“Wait. This kind of fog only happens in the early morning, not right after the sun goes down.”
“Look out!” Weber screamed as she saw them, twelve of fifteen just ahead on the road. Neville managed to swerve around almost all of them only side swiping one or two and kept going.
He turned left onto the Parkway and raced toward a deserted Fairfield.
“Where the hell is everyone? The town should be packed.”
“Stop the truck, Neville.”
“What?” He took a quick glance in her direction. “Why?”
“It’s okay. Stop the truck.”
He slammed on the brakes. They’d just passed an animal hospital on their right.
When he stopped suddenly, the engine stalled. Greg turned the key off but kept it in the ignition. “Now Dr. Weber, do you mind telling me what’s going on here? Where’s the Army and for that matter, where are all the zombies? Fairfield should be loaded with them.”
“It’s what I was trying to tell you before, Neville. We have a plan.”
“How? Dr. Nunez never had a chance to analyze Rakshasa. In the mission briefing, we were told that our black ops infiltrators had provided enough intel for us to engineer what we thought of as an inoculation or a cure, but without the actual virus to work on, it was a shot in the dark.”
“When you told Grant you injected yourself with the serum and it worked, that was more than a shot in the dark, Neville.” She kept looking at her lap, as if she were too afraid or too embarrassed to face him.
“You’re right about the fog. It’s artificially generated. They sprayed it first on all the roads in and out of the area to prevent the spread. My team was supposed to fly in, quickly assess the situation at the lab and get you out to a quarantine facility. Tonight, the rest of the area, the city, everything within a five-mile radius will be treated. Then we’ll know for sure if we stopped it.”
“What are you…?”
He looked out the windshield. Figures coming out of the mist, shadows becoming clearer. Human figures but not human. Something had gone wrong and now it could be too late.
Greg turned the key but the engine refused to ignite. He tried again. They were getting closer. There must be dozens. A tire iron wasn’t going to do it. He turned the key a third time and the engine roared.
“Turn it off, Neville,” a voice shouted from outside. “You’ve nowhere to go except with us.”
Greg turned off the truck again. “Grant?”
“It’s Grant. Get out. You too, Dr. Weber.”
They both complied, Weber doing so obediently and Neville out of defiance. He charged up to Grant. They were all in Hazmat suits. That’s why they’d looked so strange in the fog.
“What the hell…?”
“The short version is that Rakshasa is only active for about ten to twelve hours after it’s released into the atmosphere. Then it goes inert. I suppose it was how the Chinese planned to kill the population of a specific area without causing a runaway plague.”
“So now you tell me.”
“We wouldn’t have had to if containment on the virus hadn’t breached.”
“So if this mist is the cure, why the suits?”
“It may be the cure, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for those of us who were never infected. Everything has nasty side effects, Neville. The victims will be unconscious for a day or two. That’s why the streets are empty.”
“Can I go home now?”
“We’ll run some tests, but if Dr. Weber being out of her Hazmat suit means what I think it means…”
“It does. I tore my suit on the edge of a console when I first got inside the lab. I had minutes to inject myself with the serum. I couldn’t take the chance the virus was still active.”
“So what’s going on, Grant?”
“I hope I’m wrong, Neville. I hope we’re all wrong. We probably aren’t, though.” Grant looked down and chuckled but it wasn’t because he found anything funny. “The irony is if you and Dr. Weber had been exposed to the virus and then to the antidote in gaseous form, you’d wake up just fine in a few days. Of course, we’ll have to keep this whole area sealed until we know more, but best guess is that in a few months or so, after we think of some suitable lie to feed to the press, life will go back to normal here.”
“But not for us.”
“No, Neville. Not for us. We took the serum by injection.”
“And that means what, Weber?”
“It means that while the inhabitants of Fairfield and the surrounding area will be free of the virus, you and I have become carriers. We will never be affected by Rakshasa, but anyone exposed to us will. Unless an answer is found…”
“Let me guess.”
“That’s right, Neville.” Greg turned back to Grant. “You and Dr. Weber will have to spend the rest of your lives in quarantine. I’m very sorry about this.”
“So am I, Grant. So am I.”
Greg Neville looked toward Natasha Weber with the realization that they now had a great deal more in common than they did just a few minutes ago. They might very well wait months or years together for a medical miracle, or they might spend the rest of their lives in a gilded cage, cut off from the rest of humanity so that the world would be safe from them and from Rakshasa.
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt – Mists – #writephoto hosted by Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. The idea is to craft a piece of fiction or other creative work based on one of Sue’s photos such as the one at the top of the page.
Whenever I see a lonely landscape covered in fog, I naturally think of the opening scenes of the 1968 horror classic “Night of the Walking Dead.” Two teens are paying their respects in a cemetery when they see a figure in the distance approaching them. Then they see another and another and that is how their zombie apocalypse begins.
Rest assured that I don’t think the CDC carries nukes around to every place they plan to test a deadly virus and in fact, they probably don’t come across human-engineered deadly viruses all too often. Of those they do, I can only imagine they’re shipped directly to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta (poor Atlanta).
The photo reminded me of the area around Fairfield, California so that’s where I decided to set my tale. Also, Travis Air Force Base really is an interwoven part of that community and was the perfect setting for my own biological disaster.
I very, very loosely based certain story elements on the 1971 movie The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, Rosalind Cash, and Anthony Zerbe (the film was taken from the 1954 Richard Matheson horror novel I am Legend which was also adapted into two other movies, the 1964 film “The Last Man on Earth” starring Vincent Price and the 2007 movie “I Am Legend” starring Will Smith).
By the way, in “The Omega Man,” Heston plays a character named “Neville.”
I had to confirm that Tule Fog really does occur in the Fairfield area (it does) and the weather conditions in that area this time of year.
Yes, my virus victims do suffer from “sunstroke” at much lower temperatures than normal, which is why they are generally inactive during the day but can move around by night. The virus affects the reasoning and language centers of the brain, making victims behave with irrational violence. Neville had to kill several of the victims who were actually innocent human beings. I suppose once the shock of the experience wears off, he’ll have to deal with that.
Rakshasa are beings from Hindu mythology that were created from the breath of Brahma when he was asleep, and these entities became so filled with blood lust, they started eating the Brahman himself. Seems a fitting name for this virus given its effects.
To read other stories based on the prompt, go to Thursday photo prompt – Mists – #writephoto