In the summer of my twenty-third year, the Red Lung virus began its spread across the eastern United States. Flulike symptoms evolved to raging fever, necrosis of the lungs and finally asphyxiation, as victims choked and drowned in their own blood. By the time government officials knew anything was wrong, the virus had already made its way overseas and was rapidly decimating Europe and parts of Asia, with no signs of slowing down. A worldwide emergency was called; towns had been emptied, cities lay in ruins and the virus continued its deadly march toward human extinction.
We thought Red Lung was as bad as it could get.
We were wrong.
"Kylie! It's Mr. Johnson!"
I spun from Ms. Sawyer's cot, nearly beaning Maggie in the nose as I whirled around. The intern looked frantic, her eyes wide over her mask, her face pale as she pointed to a cot along the far wall. Two masked interns were struggling with the body of a middle-aged man who was spasming and coughing violently, trying to throw them off. Blood flecked his lips, spattered in vivid patterns across his sheets and hospital robes. His mouth gaped, trying to suck in air, and his breathing tube lay on the ground in a pool of blood and saliva.
I rushed over, snatching a syringe from my lab coat and dodging the intern, who stumbled back as the man flailed. Grabbing the patient's arm, I threw my weight against him, which didn't do much as Mr. Johnson was a big guy and frantic, and I weighed about one hundred ten sopping wet.
"Hold him down!" I called to Eric, the intern who'd been flung back, and he pounced on the man again. Blood streamed from the man's nose and flew in arcing ribbons across the bed as he coughed and flailed. I uncapped the syringe and plunged it into his arm, injecting eight mms of morphine into his veins.
Gradually, his struggles ceased. His eyes rolled back, and his head lolled to the side as he passed into unconsciousness.
At this stage of the infection, he would probably never wake up.
I sighed and brushed away a strand of ash-blond hair that had come loose from my clip during my struggles with Mr. Johnson. My hand came away sticky with blood, but I was so used to that now, I barely noticed. "Keep an eye on him," I told Eric and the other intern, Jenna, who looked on with weary, hooded eyes. "Let me know if there's any change, or if he wakes up."
Jen nodded, but Eric made a disgusted sound and shook his head, his dark curls bouncing.
"He's not going to wake up," he said, voicing the fact that everyone knew but was too numb to think about. "We've seen this a thousand times, now." He turned accusing eyes on me, gesturing at the unconscious patient. Though he slept now, we could hear the gurgling in his throat and lungs, the rasp of air through a rapidly flooding windpipe. "Why did you even waste a shot of morphine on him? We're almost out, and it could've been used on someone who has a chance. Why not put the poor bastard out of his misery?"
"Keep your voice down," I said in a cool, even tone, giving him a hard glare. Around us, our patients coughed or slept fitfully, too drug-addled to really understand what we said, but they weren't deaf. And the other interns were watching.
They were just as discouraged and frightened and exhausted, but I could not show weakness, especially now.
"It's not our place to say who lives or dies," I said quietly, looking at Eric but speaking to all of them. "We have a responsibility to these people, to fight for them. To not give up. That's why we set up this clinic, even though all the hospitals in the city have probably shut down by now. We can still help, and we will not abandon them."
"You're crazy." Eric finally looked up at me, his face bleak. "This is crazy, Kylie. Everyone is gone, even Doc Adams, and he set this whole place up. You might not want to accept it, but it's time to face facts." He nodded at Maggie and Jen on the other side of the bed. "This is futile. We're the only ones left, and we can't save anyone. We lost. It's time to throw in the towel."
"No." My voice came out flat, cold. "This isn't a stupid boxing match. These are people's lives. I'm not going to abandon them. Even if I can only give them a peaceful last few days, that's better than doing nothing." Eric snorted, and I stared him down. "But I'm not keeping you here." I pointed past him at the entrance to the makeshift clinic, the opening covered with plastic strips. "You can walk out anytime. If you want to leave, there's the door."
He glared at me before he reached up and tugged down his mask. I could see the grim line of his mouth and jaw, and my heart sank, but I kept my expression calm.
"You expect miracles," he said, taking a step back. Glancing around the small, cloth-walled room, the patients huddled beneath the bloodstained sheets, he shook his head. "You can stay here until the city crumbles around you, and the stink of dead bodies makes your insides rot. You might not have a family, but I haven't seen mine in weeks, and I don't even know if they're still alive." His face crumpled with worry and fear, and I felt a stab of guilt before he curled a lip and sneered at me. "So you stay here with your cadavers and the virus until one of them kills you. I'm done."
He spun on his heel and walked across the room, pushed through the door in a swoosh of plastic, and was gone.
I wanted, badly, to sink into a chair, to rub my tired eyes and even get a little sleep, but that wasn't an option. Glancing at the two remaining interns, I gave them what I hoped was an encouraging smile.
"Maggie, go check on Ms. Sawyer," I said, and she nodded, looking relieved to do something that didn't involve large, violent patients. "Jen, why don't you check the supplies, see what we have and what we're running out of. I'll keep an eye on Mr. Johnson."
They hurried off, and I hoped I'd managed to hide the worry and constant strain of keeping this clinic alive, the despair that another had gone, given up, and the secret fear that he was right. I noted the hopeless slump of their shoulders, the exhausted way they carried themselves, and knew they wouldn't last much longer, either.
Walking to our tiny operating room, I turned on the sink and ran my arms beneath the cold water, letting the dried blood swirl into the basin. I glanced up, and a thin, pale girl stared back at me from the mirror, blood speckling her face and streaked through her fine blond hair, which hadn't been washed for days. Dark circles crouched beneath green eyes, the telltale marks of exhaustion, her cheeks gaunt and wasted.
"You look hideous," I told my reflection, which nodded in agreement. "You're going to have to sleep sometime or you'll be fainting on the patients."
But there was no time for rest, no time to take a break, especially now that Eric was gone. This small clinic, hastily set up on the edge of urban D.C., was the last hope for those infected with Red Lung, the virus that had decimated the city and turned the downtown area into a war zone. Makeshift clinics had been constructed around the city to help with the overwhelming number of sick, but it was never enough. As more people died and civilization broke down, chaos and riots had spread rapidly with nothing to stop them, the worst of mankind coming to the surface. All the other hospitals had closed down, the dead left to rot in their rooms, or laid out in rows in the parking lot. As the city had emptied, even the other clinics had begun to vanish, the doctors and staff either dying or giving up in despair. As far as I knew, this was one of the last, but there were still infected people out there, and they deserved some kind of hope. Even if it was very slim.
Splashing water on my face, I rubbed my tired eyes. Now, if I could just cling to a bit of that hope myself.
"Hello?" A deep voice cut through the beeping machinery and coughing of patients. "Anyone here?"
I jerked up. Hastily I dried my hands, scrubbed the towel over my face and hurried out to the main room.
Two strangers stood just inside the entrance flaps, both young men, one leaning on the other with an arm around his shoulders. I blinked in shock; the second man had on a stained white lab coat much like mine. He had light brown hair and glasses, and even across the room, I could see he was badly hurt; his shirt was torn, especially his sleeve, and his arm looked as if he'd stuck it in a meat grinder. The other was tall and broad-shouldered, holding his friend's weight easily. His shirt and jeans were stained with blood, though I suspected it wasn't his own. His gaze met mine, dark eyes appraising beneath a mess of short, mahogany-colored hair.
"Can you help us?" he asked, his voice rough with worry. "We saw this place from the road. Is there a doctor around?"
"I'm in charge," I said, stepping forward. "But this is a quarantined zone. You can't be hereyou'll both be exposed to the virus."
"Please." His brown eyes grew pleading, and he glanced down at his friend, who seemed barely conscious, hanging from his shoulders. "There's nowhere else to gothe other hospitals are empty. He'll die."
I sighed and gave a brisk nod. "In here," I ordered, and he followed me into the operating room, hefting his friend onto the table as gently as he could. The other moaned, delirious, and his arm flopped to the counter. His skin was flushed, feverish, his face tight with pain.
I cut away his shirt and coat, revealing an upper torso that was pale and slightly overweight, but he didn't seem to be wounded anywhere else. I would examine him thoroughly later, but the arm was the most pressing concern. Gently, I lifted the mangled limb from the table to study it. Several torn, bloody holes ran up the limb from wrist to elbow. The flesh around the wounds was hot and puffy, deep punctures well on their way to infection.
"These are teeth marks," I said, frowning at the strangely symmetrical patterns through the mess of blood and shredded skin. "What attacked him?"
"I don't know." The voice behind me was husky, evasive, but I wasn't really listening. I studied the arm further, trying to match the bite patterns with what I'd seen before: dogs, cats, even a horse, once. Nothing fit.
almost look like human bite marks." But that wasn't right, either, not with this type of deep puncture wound. The thing that had left these marks had long canines like a predator. Human teeth were not capable of this.
The stranger's voice was stiff, uncomfortable. "Can you save him?"
"I'll try." Turning, I fixed the stranger with a firm stare. He gazed back, eyes hooded. "What is your relation to this man, Mr..?"
"Archer. Ben Archer. And we're not related." He nodded to the body on the table. "Nathan and I. I worked for him. He's a friend."
"All right, Mr. Archer. Not to be rude, but you can either help me or get out. I can't be tripping over you every time I turn around. If you think you can take direction and do exactly as I tell you, you're welcome to stay."
He nodded. I pointed to the counter behind us. "Get some gloves on, then. This is going to be messy."
He turned, and I blinked. Blood covered one side of his shirt, and the fabric was torn, sticking to the skin. Several deep gashes were raked across his shoulder blade, still raw and bloody, though he didn't seem to notice them.
"What happened to your back, Mr. Archer?"
He jerked up, wincing. "Ah," he muttered, not meeting my gaze. "Nathan was attacked and
I got it when I went to help. It's nothing, not that deep. Please, help him first."
"I intend to, but as soon as we're done here, you need to let me take care of that. And you are
going to tell me what happened when we're done, Mr. Archer."
He nodded, and we worked in tense, determined silence, broken only by me barking orders, directing my helper to hold this or fetch that. I didn't mince words or attempt civility; my focus was on saving this man's life. But my impromptu assistant took all direction without comment until the task was complete.
"There." I pulled the final stitch shut, tying it off with a short jerk. The man lay on the table, disinfected, bandaged and sewn up the best I could manage with such limited supplies. "That's it. We'll just have to keep an eye on him, now."
Ben Archer stood behind me. I could feel his hooded gaze on the table in front of us. "Will he make it?"
"He's lost a lot of blood," I said, turning around. "He needs a transfusion, but there's no way we can do that now. The wounds haven't gone septic, but I'm mostly worried about his fever." The man's face fell, and I offered a kind lie out of habit. "We'll have to wait and see if he survives the night, but I think he has a chance of pulling through."
"Thank you," he murmured. He seemed relieved but shifted restlessly at the edge of the counter, as if he expected something to come lunging through the operating room doors any second. "I didn't get your name, Doctor
"Just call me Kylie." I really looked at him for the first time, seeing the stubble on his chin, the haunted look in his dark brown eyes. His shoulders were broad, his arms muscular under his shirt, as if he was used to hard labor.
"Miss Kylie." He shot a glance at the tiny window, at the late-afternoon sun slanting in through the glass. "I'm grateful for your help. But we have to go. Now."
"We have to leave," he repeated to my astonishment. "We can't stay here. I'm sorry, but we have to go."
I scowled at him. "You're not going anywhere, Mr. Archer. Your friend is still badly hurt, and you don't look so good yourself. What you're going
to do is sit down, let me take care of those lacerations on your back, and tell me what the hell happened to your friend."
He flinched, one hand going to his shoulder, but shook his head. "No," he whispered, and the guilt on his face was overwhelming. "We can't stay here," he protested in a stronger voice. "We have to leave the city." His gaze flicked to mine, intense. "You should come with us. Everyone shouldeveryone who can still walk needs to go. It
isn't safe out there anymore."
"When was it ever safe?" I murmured. He took a breath to argue again, but my voice grew sharp. "Move him now, and your friend will die," I stated bluntly. "With that fever and those wounds, he'll be dead by morning. You leave, you kill him. It's as simple as that."