Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
Chapter 11: Putting Your Ass on the Line



"Yeah, I'm here." Dennis' voice rang out over Sandy's walkie-talkie. With little interference, the weak signals traveled further, although they could lose the connection when passing behind an obstruction. "I'm bringing some supplies back."

"We're moving the schedule up a bit. I've been infected."

"Damn! I'm sorry." Silence filled the cabin for a second before he continued. "I guess it's time to fish or cut bait."

"Don't worry," Monique advised. "There's another change in plans. I told you I can only handle two patients at once. We found an alternate to take your place. But we need to begin treatment immediately."

"You ran into someone who was infected while wandering the streets? Wow. That's ... unexpected."

"It wasn't quite so simple," Sandy explained. "What's more, you won't like the results. Our new patient is a dog. He apparently realized he was sick and sought me out, likely catching my scent while returning home. I let my guard down and he infected me."

"Wait, you're telling me you're trading my spot in the roster to treat a friggin' dog?"

Monique took the mic from Sandy. She couldn't drive anywhere until they knew where Dennis was setting up the treatment center. "I thought you'd be relieved. This way you don't need to risk contracting the disease."

"Look, there's nervousness about a dangerous undertaking, but then there are senseless risks. You already told us you're only available for a single treatment. If Sandy dies, but this ... mutt lives, where the hell does it leave me? Can this dog donate plasma or treat plague victims? You're saying this one flea-bitten hairball is important enough to chance leaving all of North Carolina untreated?"

"I agree, it's a huge risk, but this is only the second dog we've encountered. Their ability to locate and identify sources of infection makes them invaluable. We need to take this drastic step because of what it offers. But don't worry, I have contingency plans. Atlanta isn't far. If our plans fall apart, I can take you with me to Atlanta. I'll treat you there where you can help them get started. Once you've recovered and they're organized, you can return to set up your own treatment center locally."

"Yeah, I can picture it. If the locals—who already don't trust us—hear about our failure, they'll be sure to flock to us. A newbie—who fled town and doesn't quite understand the process—returns and asks them to lay their lives in his hands. It doesn't sound encouraging."

"We can debate this later. We need to get started right away. Did you select a location where we can begin the treatment?"

"I've got a place. I'm a ways out, but before I leave, we've got a situation here. I was out in the suburbs collecting supplies when I stumbled on a group of survivors. There's an exclusive subdivision where they've set up house. I tried to at least tell them what we're doing, but when I approached they opened fire."

"Damn," Monique grumbled before clicking on the mic again. "How many people are we talking about?"

"I don't have an exact number. I counted at least three separate occupied houses. There's no telling how many are in each house, but I'm guessing it's a few."

"OK, another change in plans. As you pointed out, in order for this treatment to be successful, it can't be in isolation. This only works if it draws people to the city and allows you to build a new community. If no one knows you can cure the plagues, there's no point in starting. There won't be anyone to treat. We're at Kings Mountain Hospital downtown. Where are you, how quickly can we reach you, and how long will it take to return to begin treatment?"

"Hmm, give me a second to figure this out." He gave a quick laugh. "You know, driving is much easier when you can stop in the center of the street to consult a map.

"OK, the route I took is pretty clear, probably because survivors pushed the wrecks and abandoned cars aside. If you get on South Tryon Street and drive west, you'll encounter a sign for the Bakelee Center. If you turn left there, you'll come upon a gated community about three miles down. The locked gate isn't secure, though I'm not sure what you can do if the people don't want you there."

"Don't worry about them," Monique said. "After enough of these encounters, we've learned how to talk to people so they'll listen. What's more, it isn't uncommon for people to seek refuge in exclusive communities. They think surrounding themselves with signs of privilege and exclusivity will protect them against the ravages of disease. Unfortunately, they didn't protect the former residents."

"Alright, speaking of changing plans, if you're heading here we should adapt our plans. On my way out I noticed a clinic which shut down right after the power initially went out. I think we can use it instead of the one I'd planned. That way, you won't waste time returning to the city."

"Good, that's ideal. We'll meet you in a little while. You can give us specific directions on the way." Monique put the van in gear and drove out. Sensing a change in mood among his human companions, Roscoe stood up and began barking.

Dennis chuckled, hearing Roscoe over the walkie-talkie. "I guess that's the diseased mutt. I sure hope he's worth the chance you're taking on his account."

"I do too," Monique replied, navigating around obstacles. "I'm not even convinced we can cure animals yet. If we can't, this is a lot of effort to sink on a losing proposition."

"OK, this is the place," Dennis said after sliding the door open to Monique's van. He noted Roscoe, lying on a small table in the back with Sandy holding him down. Monique adjusted the partially filled IV mounted above him.

"Give me a second." Monique smoothed the shaved skin on Roscoe's neck, examining his veins. "I need to start Roscoe's treatment right away. Once we do, he'll worsen quickly. But he's been infected for some time. We should have time to finish here, relocate and get set up. But if he's going to survive, we have to start now."

Sandy held him steady as Monique, singing in low hushed tones, inserted a needle below his ear. The dog twitched, but not enough to dislodge the IV.

"Nice job," Sandy commented. "Very smooth."

"When you do this for a living, you get good at hitting the right mark while making it seem simple. David's singing technique works on many levels, but I suspect Roscoe recognizes just how sick he is. Since he's been infected for so long, we've got to give the plasma time to work before it's too late." She looked Sandy in the eyes. "Just be aware, if he starts convulsing, there's nothing we can do. It won't be an anaphylactic reaction, but an immune response." Sandy nodded, petting her new companion.

Monique turned to Sandy, giving everyone their marching orders. "OK, I want both of you to remain here in the van. The fewer people wandering around, the less the residents will feel intimidated. They'll respond to a lone female better than a strange man or a group of unknown interlopers. Turn this knob to shut off the IV," she instructed, turning the drip on. "This will empty quickly. As soon as the plasma reaches this level, shut it off but leave the IV. I'll extract it when I get back."

"Where are you heading?" Dennis asked.

Monique smiled at him as she climbed out of the van, leaving Sandy to her designated task. "I'm going to talk to some people."

"Uh, in case you weren't paying attention, the last time they shot at me."

"No, I'm aware of that. But you aren't the pleasant conversationalist I am." Monique stowed her rifle behind the seat and shifted her pistol from her holster to behind her back. "No sense taking chances," she told the skeptical Dennis.

Not stopping to entertain any additional objections, she grabbed a few items, slid the van door closed and set off. Dennis circled the van and climbed into the driver's seat. He wanted to respond quickly if things went south. He draped a plastic sheet over the seat and disinfected the steering wheel and door, pulling on his surgical gloves to avoid touching anything damp enough to transmit the plague.

Monique strode down the center of the road. It was a short hike before she reached the first house. She continued past without stopping.

"Look, a curtain moved in that third house," Sandy whispered, pointing through the windshield. She had to look away to check the rapidly draining IV.

Dennis nodded, glancing at the other houses. "I see it. I don't like this much. If anything happens, I'm not sure I can help."

Monique, though, took no heed of the occupants, walking straight down the middle of the road, glancing neither left nor right. She proceeded to the next house and was almost past it when a rifle shot rang out. It sounded like a weak party popper, but both Dennis and Sandy jumped, which startled Roscoe. Monique never broke stride and didn't flinch. Instead, she stopped, bent over—flashing Dennis her toned derriere—and placed something on the street in front of her. Standing again, she resumed walking as if she'd just found a lucky stone which momentarily distracted her.

Sandy studied Monique's actions, but was unable to determine what she was up to. "What'd she do?"

"I'm not sure. She dropped something off."

Monique walked past the next house, stopping in front of the house after it. She again paused, bent over and placed something at her feet. As she stood again, another shot rang out and Dennis swore, gripping the steering wheel.

Sandy watched to see whether their only hope was hit, glancing back just in time. "Damn, I almost missed shutting this off. Let me know when she gets herself killed."

"I will," Dennis assured her just as another shot was fired. By then Monique was already in front of the next house, bending over once again.

"What the hell is she depositing that's worth risking her life? Are those explosives or something?"

Sandy continued holding Roscoe as she scratched his chest to reward him for behaving. She'd given up tracking Monique's movements. "No, I suspect they're those loaded smartphones of hers. What good they'll do there, I don't know. If someone returns, they'll crush them."

Dennis didn't answer, watching Monique continue her trek to the end of the drive. No further shots were fired. Apparently when they saw she wasn't dissuaded, the shooters gave up the attempt. Placing the last phone on the road, she called out, shouting loudly. It was difficult for Dennis to decipher her words, though. He rolled the window down so they could hear what she said.

" ... which contain instructions on how to avoid contracting the Great Death plagues. They're fully charged and will run for at least six hours. I suggest you listen to the recorded portions, as that's more important than the music and movies we loaded on each.

"We're preparing to treat someone from this community with the plague. I know you're paranoid, and you have good reason to be. But I want you to watch how this treatment progresses and remember: this could be you. If any of you get sick, and each of you undoubtedly will, the person I'm treating will be able to treat you. Needless to say, this is a dangerous and delicate treatment, so we'll be occupied for the next several days. Dennis, our local representative, will be rotating between downtown Charlotte and a small clinic we've appropriated near here. If you want to know anything else, it's on the phones."

With that, Monique began the long walk back, not pausing to glance anywhere but straight ahead. This time, she didn't break stride, and no one else fired a shot. When she reached the van, Dennis had started and turned the vehicle around.

"Thanks for that," Monique said, sliding into her seat and closing the door. "There's no way they'll investigate if they think we're watching. Chances are, they'll ignore them for a couple of hours and only venture out one at a time. It's best we leave them alone."

"You don't have to tell me twice," Dennis mumbled.

"What the hell was that about?" Sandy demanded as Monique leaned over and deftly removed the IV from Roscoe's neck. She capped and deposited it into an empty plastic container. Getting no response, Sandy continued, her voice growing shriller. "You were gambling with my life. If they were better shots, there'd be no one capable of treating me. If you were injured, neither of us could treat you or get close enough to try."

"Don't worry. They weren't trying to kill me. They were warning me off. They don't want any more killings. They only want to be left alone, just like everyone else."

"So doesn't it make sense leaving them alone, at least until there's another person capable of handing the treatment?"

"If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right. This way, they'll remember what I did. Hopefully, it'll get people talking. And I can guarantee, they may be sly about it, but each of them will track our progress on a daily basis."

Ignoring Sandy's tirade and Monique's calm response, Dennis glanced back to ask his own question. "I'm curious, if they're all together, why not stay in the same damn building? I mean, any one of those monstrosities requires a ton of fuel, but heating each one is just plain stupid."

Monique cleaned Roscoe's injection site before responding. "Alas, they aren't living together. As much as I could gather, each one operates independently. While they may know about each other, I doubt they'd dare walk down the street like I just did. They settled here because of the mistaken notion that exclusivity shields them from the unknown. If you can't control what life throws at you, you control what little you can. By congregating together, they can better maintain the roads and warn each other if anyone ventures near, like we just did."

"Yeah," Sandy responded, rolling her eyes. "There's nothing like rifle fire to alert neighbors that someone is coming calling. Ringing the doorbell is so passé!"

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