Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
Chapter 17: A Change in Conditions
Alice surveyed the wide expanse of Sheep Meadow in Central Park and began blowing her whistle. Lassie, trotting beside her, started howling in accompaniment, though she was slightly off key. The normally well-maintained field, a familiar escape for thousands from the noise of the city, was overgrown with weeds. Alice turned off West Drive and leaned her bike against the metal gate separating the broad field from the nearby road and jogging trails. She evaluated the area as Peter, Ralph and William parked their bikes beside hers.
Since they encountered so many people while traveling through the city, they'd decided to split up. Alice took the more direct route, turning off Columbus Circle and entering the park via West Drive. Taylor rode up Columbus Avenue with a couple new additions, crossing over 72nd Street and dropping down by Strawberry Fields. Jack and a few more went east, traveling up Fifth Avenue and crossing over Terrace Dive. Because they took the more indirect routes, there was no sign of them other than the distant sound of whistles and air horns.
The park, as expected, was in terrible shape. There were felled trees, branches, bushes and trash blocking large segments of the trails running through the park. They'd had to backtrack and find alternate routes several times, but their passage was relatively straightforward. Alice hadn't envisioned how large an area Sheep Meadow incorporated when they first listed it as a meeting place. Viewing the terrain, she wondered how they'd ever find everyone waiting for her.
"Wait here. I'll check the grounds while William examines Ralph's leg. I don't want too many people surrounding me. I expect people will be skittish about a large group." Rather than using the gate, Alice scaled a fallen tree which flattened the chain link fence. From there, she and Lassie ventured onto the grassy knoll.
Weeds had overwhelmed the clear space and now a frosting of snow topped the greenery. As in other places, the weeds weren't consistent. While some grew tall, others were stunted or surrounded barren patches of ground. Almost none of the original grass remained, at least little which Alice observed. The meadow was surrounded by trees and paths, allowing observers to hide anywhere. While normally encouraging such behavior, Alice was surprised by the people she'd met in Manhattan. They not only knew of her, but were working together in anticipation of her arrival. However, she also knew they were competitive and saw this as a fight for survival rather than sharing a life-saving treatment.
"Seek," she commanded.
Lassie lunged forward, but paused, turning to her in doubt.
"Seek living," she corrected herself. She used the same command when telling Lassie to search for contagions and the dead.
With that, Lassie took off like a shot out of the blue, racing across the field. Alice was unconcerned with plague-bearing insects like ticks and fleas in the overgrown grass. It was so cold few would be active, if any survived. The days of such pedestrian irritants were long gone. If anything of the old ecosystem survived, she hoped they'd grasp any potential to survive. Supporting a single tick might have dramatic repercussions they couldn't imagine, either good or bad.
Lassie ran from one end of the field to the other, veering one way after another in a zig-zag fashion. She sniffed the air for any trace of someone living, while Alice strolled out, blowing her whistle. At the far northwestern end of the field, near Dead Road, Lassie stopped and barked.
"Good girl!" Alice called, waving her back. Lassie returned, happily wagging her tail, pleased with her success. Alice knew better than to scare away the very people they were attempting to recruit. Knowing they were there, she'd give them time to approach on their own. After all, she'd specified a meeting time later in the day. Many people no longer had working watches, so they had no way to synchronize their times aside from sunrise and sunset.
A shout from a familiar voice behind her made her turn. Apparently Taylor's claims of navigating the streets of Manhattan were true. He'd already completed his circuitous journey and brought along another new addition. She started to walk towards them.
"Stay there," Peter shouted, waving her back. "We'll deal with him. You do what you need to."
She nodded but didn't respond. While Alice had a couple military headsets, there was too large a group to use them, so they resorted to shouting. Which would probably further intimidate skittish people unsure of their reception.
Lassie trotted up and Alice threw her a treat, a reward for doing a good job. She hesitated, looking like she wanted to rub against Alice's leg, but knew better. Instead Lassie lay down and Alice approached—still surveying the area around them—and rubbed her belly. They'd all learned to modify their behavior over the last couple months, both humans and animals. If they couldn't adapt, they died, just as the majority of those perfectly capable of adapting had. There was little sympathy for the inequity of survival in this new world. Some survived by the skin of their teeth, but so many died without anyone to mourn, it made no sense crying over it anymore. Most had cried themselves out long ago.
Alice strolled to the area Lassie designated; walking slowly enough not to intimidate anyone hiding. Lassie trailed her. The cold moist air hinted at a coming winter storm. It reminded Alice of the continual dangers of contagion due to the region's high moisture content. She had to remember not to touch anything because the contamination could lie dormant for decades.
She was nearing the eastern end of the meadow when Lassie lifted her head, glancing to the south. A woman walked across the open field, heading towards them. Figuring they'd feel more comfortable seeing how she responded to someone else, Alice waited for her to approach. She pet Lassie as she waited to ensure she wouldn't rush her.
The woman stopped some distance away and shouted. "Are you Alice, or are you from another group waiting for her?"
"Yes, I'm her." Alice shouted so others could hear. The woman started to answer when suddenly a bicycle bell rang incessantly behind her.
"Hey, Alice! I see you found someone already." Jack and those accompanying him were riding along the footpath bordering Sheep Meadow. "I found a few new people. Since they're on foot they'll be a little while. Looks like you've found your people!"
Alice groaned, not pleased that those with her didn't grasp her idea of not overwhelming people. But when she turned back, the woman she'd been talking to was smiling and striding happily towards her. As she and Lassie waited, another two people broke out of the woods to the south.
"I'm glad you arrived. Everyone is defensive since you can only treat two people. They're afraid they'll be frozen out. I think you need to calm everyone so they don't start fighting right here."
"Don't worry," Alice yelled, much too loudly for the short distance between them. She wanted to ensure everyone else in the area could hear her. "I plan to iron out the details. I won't treat anyone who won't treat every other group. The treatment isn't a reward; it's an obligation. It won't work if everyone doesn't get treated equally."
"My name is Martha." She stopped a few feet away. "I come from the Upper West side. I used to work at the Hayden Planetarium. I hate to say it, but the museum is nice now. The halls are clean, there's no dead lying around, and it's quiet enough to get some real work done. Unfortunately, there's no more work to do!"
Alice smiled. "Don't worry. We'll give you a few tasks to keep you active. Actually, the museum might be a nice place to house people with space and marble floors you can keep sterile. It's better than finding apartments for everyone."
"I considered that, although I haven't done anything about it yet. I set up a water collection system, though I don't know how many people it'll support."
"Hello, the miracle worker!" someone with a British accent shouted as he approached from the southeast. "I bear good news; one might even say positive news as I'm AB positive. You're welcome to a pint or two. I'm willing to put my life on the line to support you."
"That's great." Alice let Lassie loose as both she and Martha turned to greet the newest addition. "Do you have a name, or should I just call you Abe for your blood type?"
"How very droll, and they say you Yanks don't have a sense of humour. Actually the name is Devon, one of the Devonshire Devon's. I'm an actor ... resting pro tem. I had digs near Columbia Uni for six weeks while treading the boards, but as you can see, I never made it back to Blighty."
"Hey, hold off on the 'splainin' till ah git there!" someone with a Texas twang yelled as he jogged towards them.
"And who are you?" Alice asked. "It seems like we have a lot of out-of-towners today."
"I'm Max." The portly man rubbed his belly as he caught his breath, much like a jolly Santa. "I'm a drug rep. I was visiting my accounts in the city when the initial meteor storm shut down the airports. With no way to get home, I holed up in my hotel room. I don't know how much help I can be, but I've got a shitload of pharmaceuticals I can trade. I have a little of everything, and a lot of the newest drugs I was hawkin'. But I also know where my employer stored the drugs they shipped here."
Alice slapped her head. "Man, we should have come here sooner. We knew there would be more survivors based on the sheer number of people. If we had access to the skills and resources here, we'd have made even more progress than we have."
"I don't know," Martha said. "You've accomplished a phenomenal amount in a very short time. If you had more people, there would have been power struggles, making everyone less productive. The CDC had a bunch of people searching for answers, but no one heard zip from them. Yet your little group came out of nowhere, did original research, provided answers and made the necessary leaps to identify what needed to be done."
Alice smiled, fighting down the impulse to blush. "Well thanks for that, but all the advances were due to only two people: my father, David, and Tom, our resident scientist. About all I did was to bust heads occasionally."
"Which is why you're perfect for the job!" Max flashed a grin reminiscent of a father's pride. "You're tough, decisive and quick-witted. You can straighten out the infighting we've been having."
"He's right." You're also good at calming scared people. From what I've heard, your father wasn't good at handling people. He's good, one-on-one, but you seem more social. You appear to work better with groups. That's probably why he selected you for this trip. He knew you were the best choice."
Alice grinned as she rolled her eyes. "OK. Compliment received. Could we continue? But let's ease up on the BS, OK?"
Devon frowned, glancing at Alice's people talking amongst themselves. "What we really need are alcohol and antiseptics, rather than drugs. With so many people in the city when the plague started and no new deliveries, everyone exhausted their supplies. Now we have little left."
Alice scanned the horizon, looking for more new people. "I've got enough to handle the treatment and the pre- and post-cleanup. After that you'll have to establish trade with other communities which still have leftover supplies. I'll also check what's left over in the closest hospital. Hopefully they have some stored away."
Martha motioned with both hands. "If you're looking for new people, there's someone behind you. There are also several new additions joining your friends."
"Yeah, and there are more coming," Alice acknowledged. "I'll tell you what, let's mix everyone up. That way everyone can introduce themselves, we can learn what skills we have and you can hash out trades. It'll also allow us to relay what everyone needs to know. I'm especially interesting in learning which regions aren't here and how we can include them."
"OK, that's the general process the treatment takes. Are there any questions?"
Twenty-six people representing eighteen separate groups scattered across the city were there, all but one from Manhattan. This was by far the largest group of survivors anyone had yet encountered. Considering seven million people had lived in Manhattan and twenty-one million in the metropolitan area, it brought home the extreme devastation they faced.
Maria, a woman from the Yorkville section, spoke up. "Yeah, I think we've got a basic idea of what's involved. But we're more interested in how you plan on selecting who'll be treated."
"Yeah, everyone is worried that if you only treat a couple people, they may not be as willing to treat everyone as you're hoping. What guarantees can you offer that we'll all be treated fairly?"
As voices rose with similar concerns, Alice sighed. She stood and motioned for everyone to quiet down so she could speak. She'd put it off as long as she could.
"I know this is a touchy subject, but I've got both good news and some specific plans. First of all, we've achieved some recent advances. By using filtered plasma in smaller doses, we can drastically reduce the complications. That means our volunteers are less likely to die. It also means I don't have to be awake twenty-four hours a day watching their every movement. Those benefits are further enhanced since I've done this more than anyone besides my father. As a result, I should be able to double my normal load. Treating three or four people at once will be difficult, but it isn't unreasonable. With fewer drastic complications, I can deal with them as they arise and get by with taking frequent cat naps in between."
Several people tried to speak at once, so Alice once more quieted them down before continuing.
"While four isn't a great deal better than two, it gives us more flexibility. When we're done, both the patients and I should be in better shape so we can resume work sooner." She paused, looking over the small expanse of people arrayed before her.
"So this is how we're going to tackle things. As soon as those I treat recover, we'll pick a single hospital and descend on it, removing anything useful we can. That will help with the next round of treatments. The rest of you need to find an intact funeral home. We'll use their crematorium to dispose of the contagious corpses. To accomplish that, we need access to natural gas. That means we need to work out a deal with the people in Fort Lee who have access to the New Jersey fuel depots. To facilitate that, two of the four people I'll treat will be Devon Marsh—our only universal donor—and Ralph, who will reassure those in Jersey that we won't abandon them. That will allow this region to produce their own plasma and start cleaning up the remaining bodies in the city. Now, obviously, if we're transporting large numbers of bodies, we'll need to be cautious. I doubt we'll be able to locate the ideal funeral home near whichever hospital I choose. But if we utilize a single stripped down van to transport the bodies, we should be able to minimize exposure and fuel consumption. Clearly we can't hope to eliminate all the corpses in Manhattan, but we should be able to clear the areas different groups plan to live in.
"By demonstrating we're willing to work with them, the people in Fort Lee should be willing to loan us enough fuel to power a single tow-truck. By clearing free transit between Manhattan and Jersey, we'll communicate to every group outside Manhattan that we plan on helping everyone. Our only limit is how much we can achieve at once. I expect the rest of you to start on that while I begin the treatments. Once we clear the one tunnel, we can get a natural gas truck and begin accepting bodies from other locations to dispose of properly. That will help everyone and further prove we're willing to work for everyone's benefit."
Alice halted, rubbed her arms and glanced up at the darkening clouds overhead. While the weather had been cold and overcast, it had grown worse since they'd reached Central Park. It seemed clear a new cold front was descending. Alice knew she had to finish quickly so everyone could seek shelter.
"Once the one hospital is cleaned, we'll begin treating the next batch of patients. Working together with four people, we should be able to treat eight to ten at a time without exhausting anyone. They can remain productive rather than draining themselves. For now, I want the selection to be the healthiest and those with the best chances of donating plasma. I also want only one person from each group, and for them to be from different regions of the city. We've got to disperse the treatment as widely as possible to respond to people contracting the plague. Expecting the sick to trek across the city is unreasonable. Spreading those who can treat people throughout the city will reduce friction and competition.
After that, we'll leave four people here in Manhattan and divide the rest between Jersey, the Bronx and Brooklyn. The key will be to keep two from each batch treated in Manhattan, and send the rest to the other communities. It'll be a slow rebuilding process, but it's the most equitable. Each community will slowly build up their numbers of the immune, ensuring they'll become more secure and resilient over time. Remember, initially, the key is to treat only enough people so each region can treat whoever gets sick. They can then form communities where everyone feels secure banding together."
"Who are the other two people you'll treat?" Earl asked.
Alice sighed, taking a moment before responding. The entire audience sat in rapt attention, not wanting to miss her response to this essential question. Glancing up again, she noticed the first flakes of snow. The darkening clouds indicated they would have trouble accomplishing all she'd set out. She continued with her outline anyway, wanting to at least define their objectives. The fact New York was suffering through snowstorms in early September supported her father's warnings about the severity of the coming winter. Alice hoped she could reach Boston without getting caught out in the open by another storm.