Mariana rode around the city and watched the martial law set in. The command center was halfway to Tacoma, out of her cycling range, but anyway the interesting part was up here, watching the soldiers and the urbanites get used to each other.
At first the people were grateful, but soon they noticed that the soldiers were doing little to help, and were mostly setting themselves up for a long stay. The word "occupation" appeared in writing only on photocopied posters which were quickly torn down. The big daily paper took for granted that the occupation was necessary, and the alternative weeklies made feeble grumblings or distracting jokes. Mariana was surprised to learn of an archaic law that prohibited the US military from domestic law enforcement. She found it hard to imagine that the world had ever been liberal enough to make a law like that, or that anyone could be naive enough to think it would be enforced in modern times, or that in any case a yellow old piece of paper could stand up to men with guns.
Anyway she decided she liked the soldiers better, because they were less competent than the police at controlling people. In the second week there were some small street protests, which they crushed a little too hard. Then there were no more protests, but a lot more angry people, who now blended in with the obedient people, where the soldiers couldn't tell them apart.
Mariana was amused watching the soldiers, many of whom had never spent time in a progressive city, trying to remain stone-faced among the upscale lefties and gay couples and hippies and punks. It was physically much easier than the Iraq occupation in that the weather was mild and the natives were not armed, but it was mentally more difficult in that the natives were higher class and more culturally sophisticated than the soldiers. The psychological balance was tipping in favor of the natives, as they got more savvy and many of the soldiers got more sympathetic.
Then the plague came. Apparently the authorities had been expecting it, because even in the first week Mariana noticed subtle medical installations, special tents in refugee camps, and buildings here and there around the city. She heard rumors of a large one on Beacon Hill that had burned down in an electrical fire.
The symptoms began in the third week after the tsunami but did not get properly diagnosed until the fifth, when specialists identified it as a smallpox relative. It started like a flu and then made many red bumps that oozed and -- in the survivors -- scabbed and healed. It was all up the west coast, mostly in the big cities, where it seemed to have sprung up in many places independently, in hospitals and refugee camps, among poorer people who had spent a lot of time outdoors or in the flood water from the tsunami. The media dubbed it Astropox.
Like smallpox it was extremely contagious but only after a long incubation period, so it appeared in waves, each much larger than the last. In Seattle the first was a few hundred, the second several thousand. By the time the panic started, the third wave was already incubating.
Many stores and offices closed, and those that stayed open were guarded by soldiers or police with masks and gloves. People with symptoms were sometimes turned away but often arrested and taken to quarantine camps. There weren't enough masks for the citizens, so they mostly wore bandannas over their noses and mouths and fearfully avoided each other.
Mariana wore a bandanna because bare-faced she would stand out and draw suspicion, not because she was trying to avoid the virus. She had made up her mind to catch it.
By now the death rates were in from the first wave, and they were under 20%. She would have risked it up to 50%, and would not have been afraid of 90%, because she understood that survival is not a matter of blind chance, but health, determination, mental focus, and luck, and she was strong in all four. I'm not going to spend months or years running from this thing, she thought; I'm going to find it, face it, and it will kill me or I'll get immunity.
But finding it was harder than she had expected. The people who had it were in quarantine camps, or hospitals, or at home in bed, or if they were walking around they would hide it. If she went openly into a place where people were sick, she would not be allowed to leave, and she did not trust the authorities to heal her. Their job had never been to heal, but to maintain order by any means necessary.
Days passed. The second wave was centered on the oozing sores stage. In a few days their sores would scab over and their infectiousness would diminish. Then what if the third wave had been cut off by the quarantine and was smaller? Damn, she thought, am I going to miss my chance to get the plague?
She almost didn't see him. His clothing was drab and forgettable, not black like an anarchist or especially shabby. He didn't walk furtively, or hurriedly, but slid along like a ghost, toward the fenced-off enclosure of the dumpster behind the natural food store, as if he belonged there. He's using invisibility, she thought, on me!
And it might have worked, were it not for the weakness, or tiredness, of his motion -- as if he were sick.
She ditched her bike in a bush and walked quietly toward him. It was a dim overcast evening, almost dusk. He had the dumpster lid open and was slowly sorting through the produce, pulling out bruised oranges, lettuce, zucchini. When she got close, she adjusted her path so he would see her in the corner of his eye.
He did, and whirled, his dark eyes flashing from between a high flannel face rag and a low shock of black hair. But still she could see a few of the dark red marks, on his face and hands.
"Hi," she said.
"Stay away from me."
She uncovered her face. "I know."
Sirach Pierce stared back at the strange woman. Her face was friendly, and her presence was calming, but her gaze was balanced on him like two knives. "What do you want?"
"I want you to give me the plague."
He considered for a moment. "Why?"
"What does it matter?"
"If you mean to kill yourself, I won't help you. You should live." He put the slightest accent on the word "you," and she noticed.
"Thanks," she said. "No. I mean to get it and survive. I don't want to run from this thing, and I don't want it to surprise me. I want to take it on right now."
He paused, then he pulled the rag from his face and she saw that he was smiling. "That is so cool!"
His face was skeletal, from the sickness, and tired, but still full of life, and she noticed that he had good teeth. His sores were just beginning to scab over, which put him at the leading edge of the second wave. Probably he lived with someone in the first wave and had caught it right away.
"You're pretty sick," she said. "Why are you walking around?"
"My whole house is sick. Someone needs to get the food, or we'll starve."
She held out her hand. "My name's Mariana."
He took it. "Si."
"Is that short for something?"
"Strange name," she said. "Like something you see on old tombstones."
He chuckled. "You have no tact at all, do you?"
"I do, with people who need it."
"Thanks." He looked down at their hands, still clasped. "I'm not sure you're going to catch it that way."
"What do you suggest?"
He took his hand out of hers and raised it to his mouth. Slowly he inserted two fingers and drew them out, wet with saliva. She glanced down at them, then back to his eyes, and parted her lips slightly. He reached out and slid his two fingers into her mouth. Her lips closed and tightened and he could feel her warm tongue, her teeth. He drew his fingers out.
"Do you think that's enough?" she said.
"Probably... Maybe not."
"I need to be sure."
He nodded and turned his cheek, where several sores were still damp and sticky. Slowly she leaned in and licked them, drawing the whole width of her tongue up his cheek, and then again. The sores tasted salty, and bitter. At last she pulled back, and swallowed.
"Thank you," she said.
"Do you live alone?"
"In a couple weeks you won't be able to take care of yourself."
"I can take care of myself."
Now it was his eyes that looked into hers like knives. "Do not underestimate your opponent. Give me your address. I'll come check on you."
"OK." She had a scrap of paper and he had a pen. She scribbled her address and handed it to him. "I'll see you in--"
She gasped and stepped quickly back, staring at Sirach's face.
"What?" he said. He felt his face with his hands. "What?"
"Nothing." With effort, she looked down. "Never mind. I'll see you in a couple weeks." Then she shot one last wide-eyed glance at his face, shuddered, and walked away.
"Um, OK," he said. "Good luck."
It was the strongest vision she had ever seen, and it haunted her for days: Sirach's face was a pale white grinning skull, his rain jacket was a black hooded cloak, his hands were dripping with liquefied rotting flesh, and his bag was a bottomless pit of skulls.
Once they had all understood that Arch had the plague, they had made their plan: Sirach would take care of Arch, in a part of the main floor enclosed by sheets hung from the ceiling, and Carl and Jenny would never go in there, but stay upstairs and bring back food and water, and take out the piss bottles and shit bags. For a few weeks it worked well enough. Arch got sick, and then Sirach and the baby got sick as Arch recovered. The place smelled awful, but nobody was dying.
Then Carl and Jenny began showing the first symptoms. Somehow the quarantine had failed. Now they couldn't go outside, or they would risk being captured, and Sirach was through the worst, but not yet strong enough to go out. For a few days they had no food coming in, and they rationed what they had. Carl got water by sneaking out in the night and filling the jugs from outdoor faucets. Then he became too sick to go, so Arch got the water, but he was still too contagious to go to a food store.
Sirach had prepared for everybody getting sick by buying a lot of sheets and towels from thrift stores, but now most of them were stuffed in a corner, covered with sweat, blood, pus, urine, mucus, and diarrhea.
Only Suncatcher seemed happy. She had recovered quickly from the plague and seemed strangely well-fed. Finally Arch had followed her out one night and discovered that the raccoon was gone and had been replaced by a lactating coyote. How a coyote had come this far into the city, and to this very house, none of them could explain.
Just in time, Sirach became strong enough to hobble to the produce dumpster. He came back with a loaded duffel bag and a wide smile.
"Wipe that off," Carl said from the bed. "It's scary."
Jenny said, "You look like the Mexican happy skeleton art."
"I met a girl. And I totally scored on food. You want some oranges?"
Sirach and Arch began going out together, first to dumpsters where Arch would disable all the lights while Sirach harvested. Soon they had a huge surplus of food. Another night they did laundry. Arch killed the lights while Sirach picked the lock on a closed laundromat. Inside, Arch was able to make the change machine dispense quarters, which they used on a row of washers, and got their sheets and towels clean.
Carl and Jenny got worse -- worse than Arch or Sirach had been, as if the virus was learning and becoming more deadly. They could barely move, so Arch and Sirach would make a clean bed and then lift their bodies over to it and wash the sheets on the dirty bed. But the mattresses -- actually futons -- were themselves getting fouled and stinky, so they flipped them over and Sirach watched the dumpsters for fresher ones, but found nothing.
By the time Sirach went to visit Mariana, the official death rate had risen to over 25%, and a hundred thousand people on the west coast were infected. Sports stadiums were being converted to quarantine camps, and it was rumored that no one who had gone into the camps had yet come out. This rumor was ridiculed in the alternative media and ignored in the dominant media, but it had not actually been disproven, and plenty of people on the political fringes took it seriously, and hid themselves or their friends if they were sick, while others would report sick people and have them taken away.
Sirach rode over to Mariana's at midday. His sores were fully healed now and he was no longer contagious, but he still wore a mask, as Mariana had done, to avoid drawing attention. The streets were emptier, but not as empty as he had hoped. There were still delivery trucks, and utility vans, and even commuters and shoppers. He found it depressing that people were still mowing their lawns, not digging up the silly things and planting gardens. How much louder does the wake-up call have to get?
Luckily, Mariana's apartment was not locked inside a building. If it had been, and if she were too sick to buzz him in, he would have come back at night to pick the lock, or tried to stick something under the door that would prevent it from closing tightly the next time someone used it. But it turned out he could go straight to her door and knock. Then, when she didn't answer, he tried the door and it opened.
Inside was a single room, a kitchen on one end and then a couch and a bed. The heaters were on, and the place smelled of shit and urine and the peculiar odor of the pox, but Mariana was not there. To one side was another door -- the bathroom. Sirach opened it found her on the floor, naked, face up, covered with red bumps and buzzing flies.
At first he thought she was dead, but then he saw her chest rising and falling. Her cracked, scabby lips smiled at him. "I knew you'd come," she rasped.
He tried to move her into the tub to clean her, but he had not gained enough strength back, and she had not lost enough weight, and he couldn't lift her. So he cleaned her with a washcloth where she lay. Then he rolled her onto a big towel and used it to drag her into the main room, onto the carpet, where he covered her with a clean sheet and blankets. He left her face down, to give rest and air to the sore spots on her back side.
Apparently she had soiled the bed with bloody diarrhea, dragged herself to the bathtub to get clean, and then made it only as far as the bathroom floor where she had lain for more than a day. Sirach stripped the bed, soaked the sheets in the tub, and half-cleaned the carpet and bathroom. Around the bed were bowls of vitamins and herbal supplements, and bottles of cold herbal tea. He heated them on the stove and Mariana drank half a gallon in half an hour.
In the refrigerator he found some leftover stir-fry and ate it cold. Then he found some quarters and took the sheets from the tub and some other stuff down to the laundry room.
When he returned to the apartment, Mariana spoke again. "Couch."
"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't lift you."
"Try again. I'm lighter."
"Actually you should be heavier. You drank--"
He tried and found her lighter -- or anyway much easier to lift. He put a layer of towels and a sheet on the couch and lifted her up there, and covered her again with blankets.
"I have to pee."
He found a towel and put it between her legs. When she was done he refolded it and set it by the bed -- it would be good for one or two more.
He had warned the others that he might be gone for a night or two. Carl and Jenny were still bedbound but recovering and Arch could take care of them as long as the food held. That night he slept on the floor by Mariana's side. Halfway through the night he got sick of smelling the shit-soaked futon, and he hauled it out to the dumpster, which was too full to hide it well, so he dragged it a few blocks, far enough that it wouldn't be traced back to Mariana, and left it on the weedy border of a parking lot.
Back in the apartment, he lay down and reflected: This was a good time. Traffic was lighter but the roads were still good, food and water were still coming into the city, his friends were sick but would survive, the baby was growing, and he was sort of in love. For the end of the world, things could be a lot worse.