A waiting room, tense, stark, no conversation, only the understanding that someone will open the door, make a selection, and take a child back through the door. There will be no mention of the person who makes the selection or the one selected. While there is speculation that there is another, or a group of others, who are tasked with the choice, and that this person who comes through the door is neither plenipotentiary nor capable of more than carrying out orders. “Do this,” and he does. “Go there,” and he goes. “Enter the room and return with this predetermined selection,” and he complies.
I don’t know which is worse, the nights filled with sirens blaring or night when nothing moves and I fear that everyone else has succumbed and I’m alone. The sirens run all the time now, a calling like the roster before sunrise, a reminder to pray if your god is still alive, as we eat our meals, bathe our bodies if the water is running, and mingled in our dreams at night. One house after another is struck down, set ablaze in hopes of curtailing the contagion, a futile response but some people are compelled to do something besides wait for the rot that transforms. Perhaps that is what I fear the most, the transition and permanent silence, no more words, no language, no music or laughter, not even the cries of a mother for her children. There is no return from that void, that night that dawn neglects.
The company Winter Celebration (named as such to be inclusive according to the climate and culture department) party seemed pretty normal: there were adult beverages –nothing unusual there– along with a buffet of food and a classy string quartet playing seasonal international music. Still, something felt off to Wickersham. Maybe it was the sound of distant sirens, or the simultaneous text everyone received asking them to remain calm. Maybe it was a low pressure front moving through the city. Maybe the stars were aligned for the trickster gods. Whatever it was, when crowds began running past and the windows started rattling from people pounding on them with panic in their eyes, those inside the event grew nervous. When one pane of glass shattered, people scattered. Screams and angry shouts filled the air.
As the sirens grew closer, Wickersham ducked for cover, pressing into the crowd to get as far away from the mayhem on the street as possible. People fell and others trampled on them. Wickersham wasn’t sure if it was a hand or foot he stepped on that caused him to lose his balance and crash to the floor.
He tried to stand, got knocked down and kicked, tried again, and managed to regain his feet. That’s when the lights flickered. Not the room lights. These were the lights from the police battalion outside. The normal red and blue rotating lights had been replaced with strobing laser. As the people around him looked at the lights –they really had no choice in the matter– the dropped and began convulsing. This wasn’t just a riot, this was a roundup, a purge, and Wickersham knew his very existence was in jeopardy. He considered flopping on the floor and imitating those around him, but no way he’d pass a screening. He lacked the mandatory genetic manipulation that made the populace susceptible to light-induced seizure response.
Another light, this one steady, swept the room. Wickersham turned and trampled the shaking bodies underfoot as he ran from the light, no direction in mind; his only purpose to evade. The lights were coming after him.
The creatures crouched there on the hardened tarmac. From his hiding spot in the dry arroyo, he counted twenty of them but there might be one or two others, long metallic tubes with outstretched wings. The rising sun glinted off their conical tops.
As much as he hated them, having crushed the life out of the people of this planet his home, there was something majestic about the aliens. Some twenty feet in diameter and over a hundred in length when reaching full adulthood, they seemed slender for creatures of such size. Jagged red and black streaks ran from tip to tail like flashing lightning.
He picked up a rock to throw at the congress, a futile gesture from this distance he knew but even closer would inflict no more damage than tossing an acorn at an oak tree.
All at once two of the creatures leaped into the air, wings snapped rigid. Caustic jets ignited from their tails. The sudden exhaust caught him off guard, knocking him into the arroyo. By the time he’d regained his feet, the two were mere speaks in the sky.
Was it the warmth of the sun? Some unheard signal between the aliens? Whatever, the rest of the congress joined the first two and the roar of jets rattled the air around him even as he dove back into the dry riverbed, covering his head with his arms in fright. When the air stilled he stood. He clambered up the bank and tossed the rock up at the sky and screamed at the vanishing creatures.
You get used to it, the fever. It’s like background noise, present but unimportant. Everyone has some level of fever, and after a while it is like nothing. A degree or two and you go about your business. If it gets much higher than that, take something and keep going. No sense stopping for something as small as a simple fever. Now some have a much rougher time of it and you can’t fault someone for it when a real fever sets in, but for the most part, the fever is like the aches and pains of old age and we never live so long as that so might as well pick yourself up and carry on. It’s the headaches that get to me though. For me, they start in my chest and stab straight up into my temples. It can get so bad I think someone froze my brain and cracked it from the front of my skull to the back. Pain meds used to help, but this is different. The fever I can live with, but the headaches are like a sabertooth tiger gnawing on my cranium. When they get that bad, there’s little I can do except find a dark corner to curl up in and hope it passes soon. Sleep can help, but that brings its own risks. Wouldn’t want to get caught in a lucid loop where I know I’m asleep but unable to wake myself. The nerve bugs trigger the worst nightmares when they get real bad. No vaccine and no cure for those. We’re all infected, so might as well accept what we can, live out our lives as best we can.