|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian
Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims
-- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for
short. But while the 'Flu may have been completely unprecedented
in human history, some of the reactions to it were anything but...
Go here for more information on the setting.
by Phil Geusz
©1998 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
It was Shortcake that woke me up, stepping across my stomach to the water bottle for a quick drink. We bunnies do that to each other a lot, of course -- my every movement must be a trial to my smaller companion in the wee hours of the morning. Still, when the dreams are pleasant and you've been up late at the Pig, waking even just a few minutes early becomes a tragedy of sorts...
But there was no point trying to get back to sleep. I could see the sunlight coming in under my door -- it was morning already. Blearily I listened to Shortcake lick her fill, then feed. She'd been asleep when I arrived home the night before, and now seemed wide awake and full of energy...
Well, I told myself, lying there would accomplish nothing at all except to waste time. So I rolled to all fours, gave Shortcake a quick sniff of friendship and farewell, and went to face my day.
Jane Doe ran into me in the hallway outside my room, and I swallowed my morning grumpiness. She had turned into one of the most loving and wonderful human beings I had ever had the pleasure to know, and was always guaranteed to lift my mood. "Morning!" I said as pleasantly as I could manage.
"Good Morning!" she replied cheerfully, stopping to share a moment. Splendor had put her to work on the Shelter staff as soon as our poor hamster had proven able. Jane still didn't remember much of her previous life, nor did she retain a lot in the way of career skills. But a cheery person willing to work is always welcome, and Jane was an excellent cook. I still had hopes that she would remember more about the person she'd been; reading had come back to her on about a sixth-grade level just a few weeks back. But even if there were no more miracles Jane was happy and had friends and "family". Things were far better for her than when I'd first met her. As we exchanged pleasantries, I admired yet again the glass eye and plastic surgery that had given her back her good looks. The Pig medical community had done a wonderful job on Jane -- if you didn't know better you would never guess that she had tortured to within an inch of her life. Only in her mind did the scars still show.
Well, we counselors were doing our best...
Knowing a cook is a smart move when you dine in a communal kitchen -- Jane whipped us both up something quick and delicious before the regular mealtime. We ate together, exchanging little tidbits of gossip and allowing me the chance to work my way into a pleasant mood. Then, it was off to work for both of us, Jane among the crashing of pots and pans and me among the shards of SCABS-ruined lives...
It was still early when I entered my office. The day's first client wasn't due for a couple hours, but there's always something in my business that needs attention. And right off I could see where to begin -- yesterday's mail still sat unread on my desk. Sighing, I began pawing through the envelopes...
Hmm. Bank statement. Bill from Angelo, my groomer. This year's tax form, joy of joys. Various catalogs. And at the very bottom, a letter from Universal Motors, my former employers. That was odd -- what did Universal want with me these days?
Curiosity building, I delicately chewed the end off the envelope and worked the letter out. "Mr. Geus --" it read...
|Mr. Geusz -- This letter is to inform you that it has come to
our attention that you have returned to work on a full-time basis
with another organization. As you are aware, your pension is based
upon your complete and total disability. It is our policy under
these circumstances to re-evaluate your condition and pension
eligibility at the earliest possible date. We therefore request
that you contact us for a complete checkup and thorough physical
on or before January 31. Your cooperation is appreciated.
Beth Farnham Pension Department
Those morons! What in the world were they... How could they possibly... I was so mad even my thoughts were sputtering in rage! Then calm came as old habits reasserted themselves -- I had bearded this lion many times in its own den, and the way to do it was not to get angry but to stay icy cool. Besides, I admitted to myself, I couldn't blame UM for not wanting to pay me forever, and I was working again. They had no way of knowing it was for free. From their point of view, things probably did look kind of questionable. Not that I expected it to be easy to convince them...
My blood pressure was coming down by the time I finally called Personnel. A third assistant flunky answered, and it took me twenty minutes to get to the second assistant, just like always. The second assistant eventually turned me over to the chief flunky, who had actually heard of me and was authorized to sneeze without pre-approval.. "Geusz, Geusz," he murmured. "Seems like I've seen that name somewhere, but you're not in the files..."
"Recheck your spelling, then look under G-u-e-s-z. That usually does the trick."
"Yep, there it is! Misfiled, sure enough. What can I do for you, Bill?"
"Oh, yeah. Sorry!"
"I need to talk to you about my disability pension. It seems that I am to be re-evaluated..."
"Disability pension? It says here you're still an active employee!"
Silently, I banged my head against the desk in frustration. Some things never changed... "Try looking me up from the start again. This time spell it "G-E-U-S-E."
"Isn't that how you spelled it the first time? Wait a minute... Yeah, Bill, gotcha right here! This is the file we're after... Hmm... Yep, you need to come in for a checkup all right. You might be able to come back to work."
"You think maybe my SCABS got better?"
"Look, Bill, I just work here. They want you to come in, you gotta come in. You've been around -- you know how it is."
Didn't I though! But getting a needless checkup in the noisy, chaotic medical facility in the center of my old UM plant would be no picnic for me since I'd found my self wearing white all the time. And it would put a nasty hole in my schedule. "Yeah, I know how it is. Can I talk to anyone else?"
"Not that would do you any good. Policy, and all that."
I knew for a fact that all this guy had to do was reach down and put a little "x" in an electronic box to make my troubles go away. But he would never take the initiative to do so -- Universal Motors frowned on initiative in flunkies. "Yeah, I understand. Policy. Tell me, is the benefits rep around?"
"The benefits rep. Jim Landau. Is he around?"
"You don't want to get him involved, do you Bill? I mean, he's busy and all that..."
"Well, if you don't want to get this all tangled up in Union paperwork then I could just call Coretta Southerland. Or maybe Jake Williams. Jake and I formed the Greencoat caucus together, you know..."
More silence. Then "How do you pronounce your last name again?"
I told him, and he put me on hold. Minutes later, he was back. "Phil, we've got the whole thing ironed out for you. I'm very sorry you were inconvenienced -- SCABS is bad enough without you having to be troubled with silly rules. It's obvious that you can't work in an auto plant in your current state -- we should have never troubled you in the first place."
"I understand. Things never change at the plant, do they?"
The flunky's sardonic grin was almost audible. "Never. No hard feelings?"
"None. Universal Motors sucks."
"Don't it though? Five and a half years and I'm outta here." And with that, he hung up.
It was amazing how the memories came flooding back, as I sat bemused at my desk. "Universal Motors sucks" and "Blankety-blank years and I'm outta here" were almost like code words, phrases exchanged between initiates of some secret order to reassure each other of basic truths. There were other slang terms too, a whole culture in fact devoted to automobile production at a giant company. On a whim, I took a good sniff of the letter. Faintly I could make out traces of conveyor oil, a tiny breath of welding spatter, a light touch of drying paint. Scents from a world I had once moved smoothly through, but never loved. A world of petty power struggles on a daily basis, where making mountains out of molehills was a respected and cherished skill. A world that had been witness to some of my most defining moments, and, like it or not, had helped make me who I was today.
A world where I had encountered the effects of SCABS for the very first time.
I winced -- it had been long since I'd considered those memories...
It was mid November, the highest tension point on the plant's calendar. Our alcoholics, druggies, and absentee cases had used up their quotas of time off for the year, and faced the miserable prospect of actually having to come into work every day until New Years, when they would promptly blow a new allotment of vacation. Parents were thinking about Christmas and facing budgetary realities in the face of a massive reduction in overtime, while demand for the new model was making the foremen sweat every line stoppage. Meanwhile, the perpetually unsuccessful drive to meet year-end budget goals so as to ensure fat bonuses and promotions for the top plant leadership was making the upper crust twitchy towards the year's end. The most boneheaded decisions always came down in November. And this year had been worse than most...
It was 7 PM and already dark as I slammed my truck door and hefted my briefcase for the long walk into the plant. I had worked over the night before dealing with a termination, and had arranged to come in late today rather than collect overtime. Unlike most UAW officials I did this frequently, as I valued my time off far more than a few extra dollars in my pocket. Especially since most of those dollars went to Uncle Sam anyway. The guard greeted me in her little atrium, a carpeted plush world halfway between the plant and the free air outside. "Evenin', Doris!" I replied as I clocked in, and passed on through to the world of the shop floor beyond...
Most folks have never been in an auto plant, yet have strong preconceived notions of what they are like. In fact, a plant has many different faces. In the general assembly area, usually known as "GA" to insiders, the overwhelming image is one of busy people. Folks think that cars are made by machines, but it's just not so. As late as 1998, the most heavily roboticized plant in the USA still figured their product was about 85% hand made. Literally hundreds of people crowd around slowly-moving half-built cars in a carefully choreographed dance that has to be seen to be believed. GA smells of dust and sweat and new cars. In the Body Shop, where sheet metal starts out on big rolls and ends up as sculpted car bodies, the image is one of large machinery. Welding robots fed by gauntleted workers dart busily about shooting sparks as much as thirty feet out into the aisleways, while in the background a dull "thud-thud-thud" accompanies the stamping machines reshaping thick steel like it wasn't there. The scent of metal dust hangs heavily in the air. The engine plant has a different aroma -- that of cutting fluid, which cools tool heads as they grind various gears and such into precision shapes. Machines whir away quietly here, while workers measure the output in ten-thousandths of an inch and assemble a mind-boggling array of parts into a working car motor once a minute. And the paint shop, well, it's a different world still. Solvent odors rule the air there, while people in special coveralls work under clean-room conditions to perform the most difficult, lowest-yield process in the plant. Millions of dollars worth of equipment, scrubbed air, precision fittings -- all of these combined to get a miserable 60% good paint jobs, about the same as all other car plants. The rest were repainted again and if need be, yet again amid a frenzy of inspectors, polishers, sanders and perpetually puzzled engineers who had been called upon to improve this ridiculous process since the days of the Model "T" but who had succeeded only in running up the costs yet further. Paint was up over $100 a gallon, but the yield remained the same...
The main entrance was in GA, and since the plant was running I had to cross the K-line (where completed autos were given last checks before shipment) to begin my trip back to my responsibilities in Paint, where I was the elected night-shift shop floor Committeeman. As I often did, rather than cross the line by the door like most folks I walked alongside it, against the perpetual flow of new automobiles. Each window sticker told it's story, if you knew where to look. $18,729, delivery to Bangor, Maine. $24,962, delivery to Toronto, Canada. $26,443, delivery to Stockholm, Sweden -- there was an oddball! I marveled at this flow of wealth -- it was sobering to realize that once a minute a car rolled off our line, and someone paid real money for it. In five digits. Over two hundred thousand cars a year, in fact...
Many hundreds of thousands of dollars later, I came to the main aisle, crossed the K-line, and headed back to the paint shop. It was a ten-minute walk to work every day, and that was once you got past the front door. A lot of folks recognized me and the green jacket I never took off at work from my hell-raising at the Union hall, and though most were strangers to me I returned various shouted greetings and waves all the way back to my own area. There were folks who wanted me to run for sitewide office instead of just staying in my little safe district in paint. And if I did, I thought I would probably win. But folks couldn't seem to understand that I simply didn't want the job. I had enough trouble with my own 250 constituents, much less 8,000...
Randall was waiting outside my office, of course. I despised Randall and his ilk, though I'd never let him know it. Every single day I had to check in with him, to let him know personally what was going on in the union and plant politics. It was gossip, really, and usually unreliable in content. But if Randall didn't get it straight from me he would feel cheated and presently his gossip would come from somewhere else. Almost certainly, that somewhere would be a member of the Gray Caucus, who held most of the elected positions in the plant. And as surely as night follows day, that gossip would be about my own Green Caucus, and very likely about me personally. Elections only come around once every three years but politics never stops. So even though it took almost a tenth of every working day, as a politician I was obliged to smile and waste my time with trivia of no importance to anyone except gossips.
At least I didn't have to lie...
Finally satisfied that he had enough material to discuss with his cronies for another night, Randall let me unlock my door and get to work. I kept an untidy desk to begin with, partly because the Gray Caucus types knew that I wrote most of the Green handbills they hated so much and from time to time they would get the bright idea of riffling through my paperwork to see if they could sneak a peek at what was coming out. The disarray helped let me know if someone had been having an attack of "busy fingers" again. But today I was just plumb buried with new work -- the phone messages alone were three deep. And the logbook! I groaned -- there were fifteen calls out for me on the floor. I would be three days catching up even if no more came in. Why had I ever taken this job, I wondered...
Prioritizing is the secret to everything. I had just decided which call was most urgent and grabbed my briefcase when there came a knock at my door. "Shave-and-a-Haircut". That was Bruce Madison, Departmental Supervisor on nights and my most frequent opponent in struggles with management. And also a decent man with whom I'd enjoyed working alongside, when circumstances allowed. "C'mon in!" I called -- if he needed to talk to me it was probably the highest priority of all.
"Evening!" he said stepping in and carefully closing the door behind him. I took note of this -- closed doors mean serious business in the auto world. "How's things?" I replied easily. Then I took my best guess and dug right in. Good man or no, he was my major obstacle to success, and in turn I was his. If I could predict Bruce it often threw him off balance. "About that headcount issue on the sealer line -- I thought we had settled this! Do you really want me to write another 36-page Paragraph 78 grievance? I have '78' memorized! You're not one that I'd expect to welch on a done deal..."
He held up his hand tiredly. "No, no, no Phil! You're right, we had an arrangement. My foreman is wrong, and your guy was justified to call him on it. We'll have that settled in no time flat. JoAnne is new at this -- she just made a mistake."
The fire died down in my eyes -- I had figured that straightening out sealer headcount would be my main issue of the night. If he wanted to hand me a victory, who was I to argue? "Have a seat, then. Take a load off." All in all, I preferred being friendly when possible. It made the inevitable conflicts easier to take.
"Thanks" the supervisor said, taking advantage of my offer. He looked at the floor a minute, collecting his thoughts as was his habit. Then he looked me in the eye and began. "Phil, we have a problem. I'm hoping we can work through it together."
I raised my eyebrows. We had worked out some things from time to time, but bottom line was that he issued directives and I grieved them. I was ready to listen, but not to make any concessions until I'd heard him out.
"That new bug that's out -- the funny one that, well, does things to people? You know which one I mean?"
I nodded. It had been all over the papers. Strange, unearthly things happening to folks all over the USA and even in a case in Britain. Analog had devoted a whole issue to the subject. Even known basic laws of physics were being violated, and psuedoscience freaks and cultists and millennialists and religious fanatics of all types were getting fired up. Being an inveterate science reader I was probably more familiar with it than almost anyone not actually working on it.
"Well, Joe Barhhart got it."
My jaw dropped. I knew Joe had been out of work on sick leave, but who'd have thunk it? There had been what, 200 cases to date? I knew in theory that anyone could get this disease, that an epidemic was even theoretically possible. But to actually know someone...
Joe had voted for me, even...
My face must have shown my shock, because Bruce nodded and said "Yeah, I felt the same way."
"What? I mean did..."
"Yeah, he was altered."
"My God!" Poor Joe!
"He's grown himself a pair of goat horns, changed a bit in the face, gotten white body hair according to the folks in medical. His mind's OK, they say, and if anything he's stronger than ever."
That was saying something. Joe had been a fitness freak, lifting weights and working out at breaktimes. But wait a minute... "What do you mean, 'medical says'? What are they..." Then a terrible light went on in my head.
Again my face must have given it away. "Yep, Phil, Joe says he wants to come back to work. Medical says he's able. And I don't think either of us could stop him if we wanted to..."
Holy shit! I leaped up out of my chair and started pacing, something I always did under pressure. "Jesus Christ! Can you imagine the uproar, the naked fear? Bruce, this is out of the question! He'd be killed! People would do him in just out of self-defense -- they don't want to get sick too! Remember when the AIDS scare broke out? They almost wasted people over that! Much less..." I turned on Bruce. "You gotta stop this. You gotta. For his own sake!"
"That's what I wanted to tell you, Phil. His terms of employment are defined by a legally binding contract negotiated by the UAW. He has specific rights, including the right to return from sick leave onto his old job -- you know that."
"Don't 'Yes, but' me. You've quoted the letter of the contract to me dozens of times. These are facts. He could have come back weeks ago, except that no one had isolated the cause of this... disease. It's not been released to the general public just yet, but someone here in town has finally isolated a virus, and proven that in altered patients it is non-communicable. You have less chance of getting it from Joe than me or anyone else, in fact."
"Joe was one of the test subjects. That's how he came to know so early. He showed up at the plant, demanded to be seen, and gave medical a phone number to call. They did, and some Dr. Stein convinced them Joe was telling the truth. Our docs say it'll be in all the papers in two days at most..."
My mind was whirling. It just couldn't be! What would guys like Randall do with something like this? "We gotta do something. Joe can't come back to work."
"No, Phil, you gotta do something. I have been instructed to inform you about this situation -- the higher ups have already spoken to your Shop Chairman, Ray Banowicz. If Joe chooses not to come back of his own free will, then UM will stretch out his sick pay indefinitely. He will not be harassed or subject to having his case reviewed periodically. But if he in fact decides to come back to work, UM's stand will be that it is his legal right."
"The UAW will agree," I said mournfully, "Even if it kills him."
"I see you get the picture. We are aware of the political difficulties between you and Ray, but frankly we hope you can work together on this. The situation is a terrible mess -- it's no one's fault."
I sighed. "No, it's not anyone's fault at all. Seems like it never is."
Bruce smiled. "Don't I know it. This place sucks."
"Twenty-two years and I'm outta here," I replied with a smile.
I wasn't going to call Ray Banowicz till I had more facts. Until more was known any meeting would be both unpleasant and fruitless. After chasing down my most urgent floor calls and putting out fires all over the sealer line with the news about management's capitulation -- yet again -- on the headcount issue there was a little time for me to study up. So I took a few minutes with my ever-present laptop to access some databases from my office. The 'net was jammed with references to the mystery disease, and it wasn't until I added "Stein" to my parameters that I got anywhere. Sure enough, he was a major player in the current research, having found several clues in his obscure low-budget facility that had eluded the CDC and other megabuck outfits. He had believed all along that the whole thing was caused by a virus or virus-like agent. And he had a press conference scheduled tomorrow at noon. All sorts of rumors were leaking about what was to be said...
Bingo. I rang up Ray's office phone and told his answering machine I could see him tomorrow afternoon about a subject of mutual interest, and that he should leave a time on my machine. He would know what I meant.
It takes a lot to get me out of bed before noon when working nights, but Stein's conference was reason enough even had I not had a personal involvement. All night long the rumors had grown and speculation mounted. This was understandable -- Joe had known what was to be announced and not kept quiet, and presumably others had talked too. My guess was that Stein was being introduced to the world of fame and press the hard way, that he had no grasp of the firestorm he was finding himself in the center of. Even the tiniest scent of fear and controversy attracts reporters like a corpse draws flies, and Stein's announcement was of the sort that gets replayed for decades. It was incredible...
You could see the poor man was ill -- sweat was absolutely rolling off his forehead and his eyes had dark circles beneath them. But he gamely pressed on, swaying behind the cheap lectern in the overcrowded little room he had rented while under the false impression that his audience would be small and behave in a civilized fashion. Over and over again the media asked him the same questions, and he gave the same answers. The mystery disease was caused by a virus, one unrelated to any other known contagion. It possessed properties that were time and space irrelevant, and in direct conflict with our previous view of the universe. This virus also could cause flu-like symptoms, with a rather high though still undetermined mortality rate. While much remained to be learned, it was believed that this flu-like version preceded the more bizarre manifestations.
And it spread through the air. Very efficiently.
Reporters generally don't know much science. Again and again they asked the poor sick man the same questions. Is there a vaccine? No. Is there a cure? No. Is there any treatment at all? No. Can the effects be reversed? No. But each "No" seemed to go unheard. They simply could not accept the truth. This was a very bad sign, as was the fact that they hadn't picked up at all the most important things Stein said.
The "Flu", as Stein referred to it, spread through the air just fine. And in numerous cases its flu-like symptoms had been diagnosed and handled as ordinary disease.
There was going to be an epidemic, and the media hadn't figured it out.
Yet. The conference went on and on far beyond it's scheduled ending as I drove over to my meeting at the Union Hall. It was being covered live on radio, so I didn't miss much. The reporters continued to heckle the poor scientist and demand miraculous knowledge from him as he clearly got sicker and sicker before their eyes. Finally over the hubbub he stated that as the discoverer of the virus he had the right to name the mutagenic manifestation, and that heretofore any physical or chronological alteration of the human body by means of this virus would be known as Stein's something-or-other. It came out as SCABS. And finally, he stated that it was his clear belief that this virus had a non-terrestrial origin...
Then he collapsed, burning with fever. Finally the awful truth began to sink in -- three reporters were trampled to death in the rush for the inadequate exits.
The Great Panic was on...
Ray Banowicz was ashen-faced when I was ushered in, but a man in his position has to be used to dealing with emotional shocks. By the time we were done shaking hands he was back to his usual smug and slippery self. "Phil!" he boomed, insincerity evident in every intonation. "How are ya?"
I clammed up, which is my own way of showing disdain. "Good. You?"
"A little shook after that thing that was just on TV! You catch that?"
"Radio in the truck."
"Ah. This puts our problem in an interesting light, doesn't it?"
"Yep." Our Shop Chairman didn't get where he is by being either stupid or by failing to be observant of other people. "Phil. Look. We're not exactly best friends. Frankly, we don't agree about almost anything. We don't even like each other personally."
"But basically we're both in this crazy business to help other people, to try and make things work as well as possible. Right?"
"I am, but I frankly have my doubts about you." If he wanted to try and play lovey-dovey, let him. I had chased one of his Grey Caucus flunkies from my property with a loaded .44 Magnum not too long ago. He had been sneaking around my house carrying a camera and trying to get a photo of me in some kind of compromising position, either to ruin me politically or, more likely given the way Ray did things, to blackmail and use me for his own ends. There were huge sums of money that a man in his position could influence, and I was suspicious as hell of him. I might be standing civilly in the man's office, but this fight ran deep. No sense denying it...
Typically, he smiled more widely at the insult. Another thing I hated about him... "Phil, look. We gotta work together on this, right?"
Reluctantly, I agreed. Most reluctantly.
"All right then. Sit down, untense your muscles and lower your blood pressure before you blow a gasket. Then let's talk."
He was right, of course. I sat and cooled off while we traded barbs about this and that, avoiding issues that we conflicted on in a major way. Finally, I broached our subject du jour. "Look, Ray, you gotta know as well as I do what's going to happen if Joe comes back to work. I don't care what the contract says, you gotta know."
Soberly, he agreed.
"So let's go try and talk him out of it first. You know they've offered indefinite benefits?"
"Yeah. They don't do that very often."
"No, they don't. So what's wrong with you and me going over to his house and telling him how good a deal he's been offered? It's the simple truth, for crying out loud! And when both the Grey and Green people tell someone they're getting a good deal, folks tend to believe it!"
Ray shook his head. "I already tried talking with him. There's more to this than you've heard."
"Joe is in your district, and much to my annoyance he likes you and supports you. But he goes to my church. You don't go to church, do you?"
I mumbled something, not wanting to give him any more ammunition at election time. Politics never goes out of season. But my chief nemesis had not gotten a denial -- I was sure my agnosticism would be an issue next time around...
"Anyway, our preacher worked himself up into a tizzy over these mysterious body alterations that have been happening. SCABS, I guess you call it now. He saw it as evidence of the Devil at work in the world. Once Joe came down with it he backed right off, of course. Reverend Campden said that he knew Joe was a good man, and that now he understood it could happen to anyone. He even helped keep things quiet. But Joe's wife, well, she took it badly. As soon as those horns started growing in, well, all she could see was Satan. When the good Reverend tried to calm her down, Judith loaded up the kids, moved out, and found a new preacher more to her liking. So not only is Joe messed up in the body, but he's all alone now at home.
I pondered a moment, then contributed half-heartedly, "He loves his kids more than his life. His wife, too."
"After talking with him, I'd agree. Joe is convinced that he's had a rough hand dealt to him, but he's determined to win his family back. He figures the best way to do so is to prove that he's still the same person he always was. If he comes back to work and goes to church and leads a normal life, well, he knows that deep down Judith loves him. In his opinion, she'll come back to him."
"You are an elected UAW Committeeman, and I am the elected Chairman of the Shop Committee. In theory, you are supposed to do what I tell you..." I snorted. Ray grinned and went on.
"In theory. But hear this -- you have sworn to carry out the duties of your office, and those duties include giving Joe fair representation. If he wants to come back, you fight for him. It's his decision, Phil. Not ours. Nothing would give me more pleasure than to see you fail to represent Brother Barnhart. It's grounds for impeachment, and you know as well as I do that it would stick."
He was right, I knew. And if Ray failed to represent Joe I could ruin him the same way. Which was the whole point. This was all about ass covering as much as it was about Joe, from Ray Banowicz's point of view. "Want to meet daily?"
"You read my mind."
I snorted again. "Don't look so surprised. How do you think I know what to put in my political letters?"
He grinned again. It would have been pleasant had there been a shred of sincerity in the expression. "Someday I'll find your mole, Phil. Then we'll see how well you write."
It was my turn to smile coldly. There was no mole -- I just outguessed him. Picking out trends ahead of time has always been a talent of mine. But paranoia among the enemy ranks was something to be encouraged, so I gave away nothing. "Same time?"
"Sure thing. And Phil?"
"We'll be watching how you handle this. I've got eyes all over."
"Me too, Ray. Me too. You'd never believe the eyes I've got."
Damn, I hated politics. But winning at that particular game was the only way to replace people like Ray. The difficulty was avoiding becoming like them in the process...
I met with Joe the next day at his house. Things were in a pretty sorry state there -- my friend was clearly depressed about his situation, and he broke down crying twice when he tried to talk about his wife and kids. I explained to him that I understood the justice of his cause, and that UM had no objection to his return to work. But I felt obliged to tell him about my fears for his safety too.
I also tried not to stare. Did I mention that? Do you remember the very first SCAB you ever met? Enough said, then. Everyone stares the first time...
Joe was adamant. It was just like Ray had told me -- he was convinced that this was the only way to get his life back. It was even possible he was right, though I suspected that my friend was underestimating the difficulties. At home I had seen a chart of known Flu cases, something that had been impossible to compile until Dr. Stein had created a definitive test for the Flu. The curve was very close to that of a yeast-growth chart. While the actual numbers were very small to date, I was starting to get a bad feeling deep down, and had stocked up on canned foods, bottled water, and ammunition. The media still hadn't figured it out, but history buffs like me had. We knew what kind of hysteria accompanied the Black Death. When the graph approached the vertical I doubted someone who looked like Joe would have an easy time surviving outside of some kind of institution...
In the end, I got my friend to trust me enough to wait until after Thanksgiving to come back to work. This gave me a little over a week to lay the groundwork as best I was able. It's laughable now -- a week to prepare an auto plant for something that society still hasn't accepted twenty years later. But I gave it my all, throwing myself into the task and formulating a hasty plan. I moved quickly, and got lots of cooperation. The very next day, the plant manager and Ray Banowicz announced the news and made a speech together on the subject of tolerating SCABS over the closed-circuit plant TV system at break time. With the blessing of management, I got my alternate out onto the floor to handle the routine stuff while I circulated, handed out hastily printed pamphlets that I myself had written because there were no others and fielded questions, of which there were thousands. Over and over I explained that the UAW had a proud tradition of being among the first to take a stand against on-the-job discrimination by race, gender, or sexual orientation. SCABS, I tried to explain, was just another barrier.
Joe's friends and team-mates did him proud. He'd been well-liked and a good worker -- everyone knew that. And I made sure they learned how he'd been abandoned by his loved ones. They were all he had left, I explained. Sure, they were scared at first but they trusted that I knew what I was doing in saying they couldn't get the Flu from him. In the end, their willingness to take Joe back was the linchpin of my efforts -- who else could complain if they were willing?
When the big day came, by prearrangement Joe was met at the front door by me, Ray, the plant manager, and the UAW Chaplain. Together we walked him back to his job, greeted by cold glares in some places but by encouraging cheers in others. We took him right back to his job, where he grinned shyly as he greeted his buddies and got everything set up to run. The whistle blew, the line lurched into motion, Brother Barnhart carefully examined a paint job, "bought" it off, and life went on in it's new pattern at Universal Motors.
There were rough spots, of course -- folks coming by at break and openly jeering or wearing surgical masks, others praying en masse just outside the little building provided to every work group for meetings and break times. But there was also a strong display in his favor, something I'd openly begged for from those I knew best. In the face of overwhelming public approval, the nay sayers could not and did not hold out long. Joe was just one of the guys again within a month.
Even some Gray Caucus types helped out.
If only things could have been stopped there. If only the epidemic had been slower paced. If only they hadn't traced the virus' origins to Mars of all places, home of the original Bug-Eyed Monsters.
If only this, if only that. "If only" seems to be Man's eternal lament, the words that will still be on his lips when the last of our species finally goes into the good night.
The epidemic continued it's yeast-curve growth, with nary a sign of a treatment or vaccine. Quietly, canned goods vanished from the supermarkets, making me glad of my foresight. Bottled water began being hard to find, gasoline prices went up, guns became unobtainable. People were dying and changing in real numbers by late January -- even medium-sized towns generally had one or two Martian Flu patients in their hospitals. All sorts of rumors were beginning to fly -- the most preposterous notions were gaining credence as The Panic grew. Common folks were speculating that the Flu was an alien genetic weapon, or that it was the Mark of the Beast, or all sorts of nonsense. Cultists were performing bizarre rituals daily -- it was hardly even news there was so much of it going on. Most alarming of all to me though was our increasing inability to run the plant. We were dependent on literally thousands of suppliers, from foam rubber makers to semiconductor concerns. And every day it seemed that someone else failed to make a delivery, a thing that rarely happened before. Our own absenteeism rate was skyrocketing as well -- no one had ever seen anything like it. It was just as well that cars were no longer selling anyway -- suddenly everyone wanted Jeeps and SUVs with four-wheel drive. Had demand been more than a tiny fraction of its normal value we could not have met it. Society was breaking down in a big way...
The whole economy was going nuts, too. Wall Street was gyrating wildly as investment bankers tried to foresee what would come to pass. Other world markets tried to keep step but the huge oscillations were too much. London crashed, followed by Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Mexico City. These together finally brought down New York, and The Panic deepened as life savings were wiped out worldwide. Gradually the streets began to fill with wild-eyed lunatics. Only these lunatics were normal, average everyday folks...
We hadn't built a car for three days when the expected notice of layoff finally came. The parking lot was already nearly deserted when I fired up my truck for the long ride home. My big faithful beast was already in gear when I noticed a familiar face walking toward another nearby vehicle. It was Joe.
Jeez, I thought to myself. What a time he was in for! It was only now that people were beginning to see that things could get bad, that it could really happen even to them. Rolling down my window, I yelled to him. "Hey, Joe! Over here!"
He broke into a run and loped right over. "Phil! What's happening?"
I smiled. "Shoulda known you'd be here until the end. You can't get the Flu again..."
He grinned back. "Sure enough, that's the truth. One good thing about these horns anyway. That and the fact that my teammates don't seem so eager to butt heads with me over trivial stuff any more..."
The image made me laugh. When I was done I got serious. "You're still alone, right?"
Instantly the smile vanished, to be replaced by a lost look. "Right."
"Look, Joe, things are gonna get real bad. Trust me on this. You don't wanna be out in public looking like that for awhile. I've got a spare room and plenty of food and such -- why not come stay out at my place for awhile? It's in the country, and my neighbors and I sorta understand each other. You'd be welcome to be my guest until this mess blows over -- I'd enjoy the company, in fact."
"No, Phil, I couldn't impose..."
I'd heard that tone of voice from him before. Pointless to argue. "OK then. I don't know if you've heard this or not, but the Hotel Hadesson has been converted to a SCAB treatment center for the duration of the emergency. From what I hear, it's turning into a real mess there but folks like you who can't get the Flu again are in high demand as helpers. I expect they'll keep you safe there, brother."
"Phil, you worry too much. Look at me -- I'm a weight lifter. No one's gonna mess with me, man!"
I sighed. "Joe, does the term 'lynch mob' ring any bells with you?"
"Phil! Come off it! You're getting all worked up over nothin', bro! I'll be fine!"
I sure hoped he was right as I drove away. There was no point in worrying -- I'd done all I could do. He would either make it or he wouldn't. But I feared the worst -- his reception in the plant seemed to have given him a false sense of confidence. He'd never appreciated just how much effort had gone into making the whole thing work even under controlled circumstances. And the world was uncontrolled -- less controlled all the time in fact...
It took about another week for The Panic to mature into The Collapse. I spent the time at my computer mostly, just watching and waiting. My home was about as ready as I could make it, with lots of wood for heating inside, gasoline cached, and the big propane tank filled to the gills. If society fully collapsed for any long period of time I was dead anyway, but based on the yeast-curve I figured that the situation would peak out for about two awful weeks, then reach some kind of stability. My preparations could not help me with the Flu -- in the long run my odds were no better and no worse than anyone else's. But getting through those two weeks alive and whole, that was the difficulty as I saw it. Laying low and staying home would do more to get me past the bad times than anything I could imagine.
I also spent my time worrying about Joe. He answered his phone when I rang him up, telling me each time I was worrying too much. I told him more about my fears, but the goat-man dismissed them out of hand as ridiculous. Like most folks, he was unable to conceive of that which he had never experienced. And no one had experienced what I expected to happen for centuries...
The power went out Tuesday night. It stayed out. My water quit next morning.
Have you ever really considered what living without power is like? No TV or computer to distract you, no lights at night, no easy microwave cooking. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can hear all the young folks saying, those who didn't live through The Collapse. We've all managed with no electricity during storms and such. No big deal, just a little inconvenience...
Try it for 24 days. That's how long the Collapse lasted where I was at.
And 24 nights.
The first night passed quietly almost everywhere -- I followed the news worldwide until dawn on my battery powered short-wave rig, listening to the stations shutting down one by one worldwide as power and personnel gave out. Only the BBC World service, some Voice of America stuff and a handful of foreign-language broadcasts were still with me by dawn. The stories were uniformly bad -- rioting had broken out in LA and other places, while a mob was gathering outside the Vatican on a scale that swamped the services of Rome. Order was breaking down everywhere as irrational fear took over. Armed mobs were wandering city streets and killing anyone with a fever to try and stop the spread of the Flu. Police and fire services, already weakened by Flu outbreaks among their own ranks, were totally ineffectual. It was as bad as I'd feared, and worse. Society had broken down entirely. All I could do was hope that it was temporary, that old habits would reassert themselves when it was over.
The next night, a great red glow rose above our City as fires burned unchecked. The vista was, well, medieval. I can't imagine what it was like down there -- I've heard descriptions since then but they are somehow incomplete, do not make emotional contact. To me The Collapse will always be radio stations blinking out one by one in the darkness, and the orange and crimson stain above a great metropolis as it bled its life into the cold night sky. These experiences were plenty traumatic enough for my tastes. What others went through, mostly those caught in urban areas and unprepared, well, I am glad that it was not me who had to live those particular nightmares. I'll say no more.
The phones worked intermittently throughout The Collapse, as emergency agencies prioritized them above all else. A phone takes little power, and is immensely important in a crisis. It's startling, though, when your telephone suddenly rings after being silent for a week. I answered with a sort of awed reverence. "Hello?"
"Phil? Are you there?"
"Hello! This is Phil! Hello!"
Static. Then "Phil, this is Joe Barnhart! Can you hear me?"
"Yes, I hear you Joe! What's the matter? Are you OK?"
"Hello? Phil?" Then there was another pause, and the line went dead. Joe had hung up -- he couldn't hear me. There had been definite panic in his voice though.
Shit shit shit!
Why hadn't he listened to me, and stayed here? Or even gone to the Hadesson, where sheer numbers might have protected him? Even as I was thinking these thoughts I was collecting gear for my journey...
I had to go get him out of course. What kind of man wouldn't? It wasn't like you could count on 911 for help just then...
My truck was fully fueled and in good repair -- as long as someone didn't recognize how valuable it was under the conditions and try to take it away from me it would serve me well. For gear I packed iron rations, a pack full of medical supplies, another of warm camping equipment in case I did get forced to walk out, and my target revolver, the same stainless steel .44 Magnum I'd last used to scare away a nosy intruder. Being a marksman rather than a hunter I rarely used my shoulder-holster, but it was there and ready when I needed it and pre-adjusted to fit. I guess I was literally loaded for bear and out in less than twenty minutes, though it felt like a lifetime. But to rush any more would have been to invite disaster under the circumstances -- me ending up dead wouldn't help Joe a bit... So I forced myself to think things through, to double-check myself. Then I locked up my place, started my vehicle and headed into town...
I didn't travel a mile before the encountering the roadblock. It wasn't manned, just a pile of logs across a bridge where you couldn't ignore them and just drive around. The creek wasn't much and frankly I was pretty sure the truck would ford it, but the idea made me uneasy somehow. My subconscious talks to me that way sometimes, tells me things I should know without giving the whole rundown on details. Then I figured it out -- my back was itching. Just like it should itch if there was a scope-sighted rifle pointed at it...
Carefully I got out so folks could recognize me -- I lived just down the road after all! Then the voice came faintly. "Phil, what are you doing out here? Get back home!"
I didn't recognize which of my neighbors it was, but the voice relieved me by using my name and sounding friendly. "I gotta get into town! Someone needs my help real bad!"
Whoever it was had hidden themselves well -- I couldn't make out hide or hair of them. My only contact was the disembodied voice. "Moving around spreads the disease! We've got this whole ridge sealed off -- go back home!"
"I can't -- I really think someone's going to die if I don't go. Someone who never did anybody any wrong. And he's not sick -- I'm not going to be around any sick people. I gotta go, folks! You don't think I'd be out in this mess if I could help it do you?"
There was silence for a bit -- most likely they were discussing the matter out of my earshot. Finally the voice came back. "Your winch working?"
"Yeah." I'd had it fixed just in case.
"OK, then. Move enough of the logs to squeeze by, and put 'em back after you pass through. If you come back today and tell us you haven't been around any sick folks we'll let you back in. After nightfall, though, we'll drop you in your tracks -- no warning. We won't be able to recognize you. Understand?"
I gulped. "Yeah. OK."
"Get on with it then."
The winch made the job easy -- in half an hour I was rolling again toward Joe's place. The spectacle was eerie -- no one at all seemed to be on the road but me. It was probably true, if little roadblocks like the one I'd just gone past were the rule. Fortunately it seemed they weren't though -- my guess was that it took too much organization for the practice to become widespread. My neighbors were almost all related, which made them cooperate better than most random groups. Most folks were huddling miserably at home. At any rate, whatever the reason I didn't get stopped again. Though I often had to engage the four-wheel drive to get around obstacles, or use my truck's sheer bulk and power to shoulder dead vehicles from my path...
All in all, it was not a ride I'd care to repeat. Houses were burning here and there, and farm animals wandered all over the place uncontrolled. The radio brought only static, punctuated from time to time by bursts of gunfire. It took me two and a half hours to travel twenty miles to Joe's subdivision, a ride that normally took one fifth that time.
Of course, by now you have probably figured out that I could have saved myself the bother. The crowd was still gathered around the improvised altar when I came roaring up, but a .44 Magnum makes one hell of an impressive noise when you fire a few of the big slugs into the air. The group dispersed promptly upon my little display of pique, but it was already too late by far. Joe was long gone, his blood carefully collected in a pitcher and his throat cut in the manner prescribed for sacrificial goats. A fire burned beneath his mortal remains, the smoke rising into slate-gray sky making, if I recalled the Old Testament correctly, "a scent pleasing unto the Lord."
I made it back before dark, having decided that leaving Joe to burn was the best thing I could do. The column of black, greasy smoke that marked his funeral pyre stayed in my rear-view mirror for what seemed a very long time. When evil times came it seemed Man always needed an offering, a scapegoat to buy off the supernatural powers and suffer in his place while he walked scot-free. What in the human mind was it that made us believe that someone else could suffer our pain, someone else could reap the hatred and ignorance we persist in sowing throughout our lives? Why must the innocent always suffer, to expiate the guilty? For surely that was the case here...
You see, I'd been to Joe's house several times. And met his wife. I didn't recognize the preacher who was still orchestrating things when I pulled up and started shooting, but I for sure recognized one person...
Joe's wish came true. His beloved spouse did come back to him at the end.
The very end. With a butcher knife in her hand...
The letter from UM was still clasped in my forepaws as I sat unmoving, its faint scents playing through my mind and bringing the bitter recollections to their logical conclusion. Joe was a good man- everyone who knew him realized that. He had worked hard, dealt honestly and asked only to be judged for who he really was. But he had died while others far less deserving had made it through just fine. His wife, for example, who had had the temerity to collect on his life insurance. There were virtually no trials for the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during The Collapse, though few were so brash as Judith Barnhart. I found out later she donated half the money to her new church, which continues to spout the most hateful possible anti-SCAB propaganda to this very day. How could she do that, I often wondered? What tricks must her mind have played to make her perceive evil in that simple soul? And if the crowd saw the Devil in Joe, by what twisted logic had they chosen him for their holocaust? Even I knew that a scapegoat had to be perfect and unblemished. If they thought Joe was evil why sacrifice him?
What did she tell the kids, anyway? Would it be better if she lied, or told the truth?
I sighed, and dropped the letter gently into the trash. Who knew how prejudiced people thought, what twisted concepts and self-righteous actions they were capable of? All I could do was stand up for what I thought was truth, and use my gifts as best I was able to counter the horrors I seemed to continually meet in my journey through life. It was a shame, though...
SCABS had changed the bodies of millions, but only slightly altered the minds of most of its victims. It was a tragedy of cosmic proportions that the mysterious plague from Heaven had focused on transforming the human body instead of the soul. There was so much more room for improvement in souls. What an opportunity had been lost!
Then I sighed. That would probably have been just too much to ask.