A cold wind strummed the steel cable producing a tune which sung of what the future bore. The bitter summer breeze echoing that the weather had inexorably changed and the fates had even more in store for those who survived.
"Ease it to the side. There's too much tension in the line." David waved with exaggerated motions so those under him could see where he wanted it moved. He spoke distinctly over his wireless earphone to be heard over the construction and wind noises surrounding them.
It was close to a week since David sent his girls into the unknown and those left behind had been busy. Due to the unfortunate transmission by Tricia, revealing that David's group possessed a successful treatment for the plagues, they'd been inundated by new arrivals they weren't prepared for. Not equipped to handle ever increasing numbers of people, they hoped to defuse the situation by sending help to each region. However, the additional people allowed them to initiate larger projects. The biggest of these was this installation of a new transmission tower above David's house. It would allow them to transmit over AM in addition to FM. The AM channel would give their daily broadcasts additional reach while still maintaining the same local audience over the FM channel. Greg thought he'd worked out the details of managing dual transmissions. If not, they could simply rebroadcast the transmissions on the other channel.
The additional people who'd joined the group, while a drain at first, proved beneficial. They'd taken over additional farms as well as helping at the two already being run by Peter and Heather Farmer and Franklin and Regina Perez. They installed additional wind turbines to augment the farms few solar generators. They also built animal shelters against the base of David's cliff; necessary if the coming winter was as severe as David feared. It was still late summer, but the temperature continued to drop. The rain, when it fell, scattered a black sticky residue as the water mixed with the soot in the upper atmosphere. David hoped it would help the soil but feared what it held within its watery grasp.
When the line steadied, David continued winching. The line's progress was controlled by separate lines from both above—where he stood—and below where the others worked. They did similar work with fewer people, but the additional resources allowed them to use more powerful equipment to work more efficiently.
"OK, Wendy, it's lined up. Start pulling it in and we'll align it. Then I can bolt it into place," David instructed. Wendy scrambled along the platform, lying on the rigging and stretching for the swinging steel tubing—a heavy piece of three joined metal poles. Grasping it, she pulled it in, stabilized and maneuvered it into position atop the similar sections already in place. She and Adam worked quickly, even though they weren't familiar with this type of effort. The people gathered came from a variety of backgrounds. But they had a common interest—survival—so they weren't afraid to learn new things and work together.
"I'll bet you wish Alice was here for this," Wendy called. She and her brother struggled to hold the large dangling metal piece in place as David bolted it to the existing antenna. Being young, they were better at scaling the large structure and situating the components. David had the strength and expertise to finish fastening it. David was hesitant allowing the younger kids to assume such risk. But his daughter Alice had proven her worth with his first effort erecting his wind generator. All the men were below, doing the heavy lifting. Even though what David and the others were doing was difficult, it wasn't beyond any of their capabilities. "Alice was much more used to this kind of thing than the rest of us."
"Actually, I wish a lot of people were here for this," David reflected. "Billy Adams and Frank Morre would have helped, since they assisted us the first time. Amy would have been useful too. Both she and Alice could scale a pole in no time. I'd also liked for Ellen and Linda to witness how far we've come. But they're not, just like Alice, and there's no use worrying about what we have no control over."
Wendy let that pass. Despite his claims of cosmic helplessness, it was his scheme which sent Alice and the others on their way. She didn't like commenting when David reflected on those who died before she arrived, not knowing how David would respond. It was clear he still loved each of them: Ellen, his short-time girlfriend; Linda, his ex, killed in a gun battle where she sacrificed herself to protect him and Alice, who he'd sent out to face unknown dangers.
Things grew confusing in this brave new world, she reflected, but that was true for everyone. The meteor storm swept their old, stable lives away and ushered in the new, chaotic world of the Great Death plagues.
What began as a few stray daylight meteors turned into three full days of constant meteors. No one detected them, probably because they approached from an unexpected direction and hadn't passed other planetary bodies where they'd have shown up. While the meteors were tiny, they nevertheless destroyed the available communication and GPS satellites circling the Earth. That merely slowed communications. But the random strikes took down cell towers, telephone poles, relay stations, transmission lines and converter boxes. Enough equipment was destroyed to wipe out the rest of the electrical and communications grid. An excellent system of redundant systems scattered over a wide area collapsed when all those single points of failure quit at the same time. Once the meteor shower abated, society collapsed as well.
Unable to get people to their jobs over obstructed and damaged roads, few businesses could operate. Government services were held up as workers didn't know whether they'd be paid or not. Once the power and communication companies began making necessary repairs, the Great Death struck. These plagues eliminated the very people needed to restore normalcy to the world.
The meteors weren't just a massive collection of space rocks. Instead they originated from some obliterated planet. Their watery world froze solid around the chunks of rock ejected into the cold of outer space. They became tiny comets harboring frozen microscopic life which once flourished on that world. These scattered throughout the universe, where they traveled for millennia until their unfortunate encounter with Earth. While the damage inflicted by a bunch of miniscule space pebbles was bad enough, it wouldn't have been so severe. Except the ice-bound life forms were freed in the atmosphere as the ice melted and broke free during reentry. They then rained down over the Earth for the next several weeks, as each microscopic life hurriedly adapted to a hostile alien environment.
And adapt they had. Although most died out, the few which adapted not only succeeded, they did so with abandon. Where most species of microbial life on Earth faced multiple defenses, these new entities didn't. Most parasites only take enough for both them and their hosts to live and reproduce. These new organisms went into overdrive, killing their hosts in record numbers and ever decreasing time. What started out as isolated cases of anaphylactic shock evolved into multiple deadly plagues which became collectively known as the "Great Death."
David and others identified nine separate plague variants which afflicted humanity, though others affected other species. Little escaped their ravages, although the degree they were affected varied widely. It seemed to all be a numbers game. Those species with a large population—like man—were hobbled, since there were multiple chances for the viruses to gain entry into their system. Thus humans, deer, household pets and crops like pine, corn and potatoes were nearly wiped out, while other species were hardly affected.
Those that lived off of the diseased or dead—carnivores, omnivores and insects—were decimated, as was anything which fed off them. Plants, while affected, weren't as prone to exposure as the more mobile species. Whole species like grasses and weeds survived, while others didn't. What saved everything from complete annihilation was again a pure numbers game. Each individual entity struck by the Great Death presented a chance for a specific biologic defense. Unfortunately, anyone who survived and offered a biologic advantage ended up dying from another variant of the disease. While a single horrendous plague might wipe out twenty percent of a given population, multiple simultaneous plagues reduced the number of survivors exponentially. As few people survived, the odds of a cure evaporated. Thus, the death tolls mounted astronomically until it became a virtual extinction event for the entire planet.
Against this background, David and his daughter gathered an odd collection of individuals. David was a retired accountant with a desire to escape the corporate culture. His daughter, Alice, only visited every other week. Linda, his ex-wife, arrived with a carload of Alice's friends. Because of the isolating influences of his mountain retreat, they escaped much of the ravages of the Great Death. But the arrival of strangers brought the plagues into their house. They learned later it was airborne as well, so they were destined to catch it eventually.
One by one each dropped, sickening and dying, even as David exhorted them to struggle through. He urged everyone that they might be the one to provide the solution to this terrible affliction. However, it soon came down to only four survivors, each infected with a different plague at the same time. They shut down the house in resignation and prepared to die. They suffered in agony for a good week, as they succumbed to one plague after the other.
David's hope of someone providing a biological solution proved prophetic, as he himself survived. Rushing to his daughter's side, he discovered she too pulled through, proving they shared a common genetic link which spared them. As they struggled over the coming weeks to find other survivors, they learned more about the diseases. They were helped by Tom Landers, a young scientist who sought David out to learn from his experiences. Since David maintained a refuge with working electricity and functioning communications, they undertook the search for a cure. Tom proved their theories after venturing to Charlottesville to start the electron microscope there.
He not only validated each of David's theories, he determined the processes by which the diseases were passed from one person to another. However, David's primary assumption—that he and Alice were immune and safe—proved to be false. While they couldn't catch the disease, they were carriers. David infected the first person they'd encountered, Mattie, when she sought some basic human companionship.
Since David refused to give up on anyone, he sat with and encouraged her to struggle through her long illness. He also took Tom's suggestion to use his plasma to give her a 'little extra time', benefiting from his altered immune system. However, that simple treatment infected her with the remaining plagues. When she survived, they realized it also transmitted something else, something which allowed her to survive each of the diseases. However, the cost of such a 'treatment' was severe. While they could heal anyone with the disease, the only way was to purposefully infect them with a series of fatal diseases. While that might make sense for someone already infected, it didn't for the healthy and uninfected.
Knowing how important this solution was, Monique, Tom and Betty volunteered to undergo the treatment. David selected Betty. She too became terribly ill, but pulled through, proving that as drastic as the treatment was, it was effective.
Things had gotten even more complicated after that. Another group of survivors convinced themselves the best defense was to allow those infected to die out, starving the plagues of further victims. Learning that David was immune, the group led by Taylor Peterson tried to assassinate him, despite having used his advice to survive. David, as he so often did, reacted in a definite and decisive way by attacking them after convincing them he'd been killed.
Once they pacified Peterson's group, Tricia, the mother of someone he treated, decided he wasn't making a big enough deal of his treatment. She followed Taylor Peterson's example, broadcasting the details of David's treatment, his location and what it represented.
That well-intentioned but misguided revelation prompted David's solution. He sent his people—those he treated and therefore knew what it involved—into the surrounding cities to develop local treatment options. By transporting a limited plasma supply for each blood type, they'd treat enough patients for each city to treat their own people. Each treated group would then treat double their number, continually increasing the numbers in the city while further spreading the treatments to the rest of the country. That way, everyone wouldn't feel obligated to inundate David's compound. And that's what happened to Alice and the other girls.
Finding his mind drifting with these thoughts, David had to concentrate on his task. After another hour, when everyone was congratulating him, he finally cast the guy wires down. On his way down, he reflected on recent changes.
Those closest to him were now scattered to the four winds. Well, not exactly, since they decided to focus on the more populous cities to the east. Due to a last minute change of schedule, David was the last person remaining at home still immune to the Great Death. Betty, Monique, Debbie and Natalie would extend David's 'procedure' throughout as much of the country as possible before winter set in. However, Natalie suggested a more ambitious approach, and David reluctantly agreed. She'd head for Richmond with Debbie, though they'd separate as each headed to their own destinations afterwards. David knew that Natalie's ultimate task was dangerous, but so was each girl's. For all he knew, he may never see any of them again. But he had to trust that his people knew enough to handle each situation. Even if some were injured or lost, they'd save lives and extend the groups working together to solve a problem everyone faced.
Due to Natalie's special mission, they found themselves short a person. Since she couldn't travel to the northeast as planned, they needed someone to stand in for her. There was only one other person to fill that role. Alice, David's daughter, was the only remaining plasma donor besides David. Because she had the most experience with people, difficulties, combat and working with David himself, she'd undertaken the most difficult tasks. David couldn't go, as he was designated to resupply everyone with plasma and everyone depended on him to orchestrate things. Alice was headed for the biggest cities where they hoped to find the most survivors, including conflicts and less sustainable resources. Hopefully she could handle those conflicts, but again David realized everyone faced severe challenges, and he had no way of helping. He couldn't know who'd succeed or who might fail.
With the change in scheduling, Natalie would accompany Debbie to Richmond. Debbie would continue to the south, passing through Charlottesville, North Carolina, joining Monique in Atlanta, Georgia. Betty, older and more independent, was heading north, traveling from Charleston, West Virginia to Columbus, Indianapolis and eventually Chicago. Since Mattie was still so young, she'd accompany Alice to Washington to observe how Alice handled things. They'd then separate, heading in different directions: Alice to Philadelphia, New York City and eventually Boston; Mattie visiting Baltimore and Harrisburg.
It was a lot of rough and potentially hostile territory for five young women with no escorts, but that was by design. Not wanting to overwhelm anyone, David thought having the young girls traveling on their own would help them sell their solution. Strangely enough, the one person David expected the most voracious objection from was Tricia, Natalie's mother. The nature of Natalie's plan meant there was a very good chance Tricia would never see her daughter again. While Tricia wasn't overjoyed at the prospect, she encouraged her daughter. She told her this was her chance to see the world. That she'd accomplish more undertaking this arduous journey than she would by remaining behind with her mother. So, telling Natalie she trusted her, Tricia sent her daughter on her way into the great unknown.
With those he relied on the most gone, David gathered those left to prepare for the coming winter. They expected it to be severe—especially with their limited resources—with an increase in infections as people huddled together in enclosed hideouts.
They had a lot of work ahead of them. But after they finished here, David had a much more immediate goal, treating some of their more recent arrivals. They'd managed to find two candidates from nearby communities for him to cure. Although he never liked inflicting so much suffering, he knew it was important for him to continue.