01: Battleground, First Stop in the Recovery
“Well, now that we’ve put Charlottesville behind us, we’re officially leaving all our friends behind,” Natalie sighed wistfully.
Debbie rested a reassuring hand on her arm. “I know it’s hard, especially since you’ve grown so dependent on those around you since the Great Death. But this is a chance to meet a whole new group of survivors. To expand not only your personal group of acquaintances, but extending the reach of David’s treatment and help others prepare for what’s to come.”
“Still, they have to deal without us and won’t be available when we need assistance.”
“Yes, it’s scary. Your friends have been your lifeline for the last several months. But think of everyone who hasn’t had that support. Your friends gave you the freedom to develop into a strong individual, capable of surviving. You need to do the same, extending the same safety and encouragement to others.”
Natalie didn’t respond, so Debbie glanced at her to gauge her reaction. “Are you missing your mother?”
“No! Well…, maybe a little,” she admitted, glancing at the sides of the road littered with abandoned vehicles and overgrown with weeds. “But she was the one who encouraged me to do this. When I argued I was still too young, she practically chased me out the door. ‘This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,’ she insisted. As if we didn’t all travel further than this entire trip only a short time ago.”
“She wasn’t talking about miles, honey,” Debbie explained, feeling much older than her fourteen years. She and Monique were the same age and been helped by a community for some time. But Natalie was more insecure. Debbie knew that was because the person they’d turned to for protection had betrayed and abandoned them by taking his own life. “She was discussing experience. The world has changed. People have changed. The world we knew is gone and we need to figure out what kind of world we now live in. David helped us learn how to survive, but now we need to discover what shape the other areas of the country are in. If we can help them the way he’s helped us, it will be a tremendous experience.”
Natalie continued staring at the passing scenery. “Do you miss him?” she asked, turning the question back on Debbie.
“It’s only been a week,” Debbie replied patiently before turning pensive. “But, yeah, I do. He’s been the focus of all our lives for so long. Even those of you in the Peterson camp, you listened to his advice all those weeks. Venturing out, trying to do what he did so well is … well, intimidating. I’m afraid we won’t be able to do it as well as he did.”
“Has anyone besides David ever attempted this treatment?” Natalie asked, referring to using David’s infected plasma as a treatment.
“Not really. Alice and Mattie helped, but I mostly just stood at the ready, eager to do whatever I could. But David and Alice wanted to do everything personally. That’s what made the treatment so successful. Because they were so dedicated and knew what to expect, they could help people through whatever they encountered. But they did it so well I couldn’t chance getting in their way.”
“Do you think we’ll be able to do it then?” Natalie asked, quite sensibly.
“Yes, I’m sure we can,” she answered, much more assuredly than she felt. “While we haven’t participated ourselves, having been through it we understand what it means more than any medical professional left alive. And you don’t need to worry, that’s why I’m here, to guide you through your first couple of encounters. I must say, though, David’s ‘pep talk’ was more than a little disconcerting.”
“Tell me about it. Listing how any mistake we make will cost lives is intimidating. Especially when he started telling us that any delay equals ever increasing deaths down the line was a little … unfair. I mean, we’re still kids. He’s expecting us to become instant adults, ready to do whatever needs to be done.”
“Yeah, it’ll be tough taking a hard line with desperate people, especially if we have to leave them behind. But it’ll be tougher refusing treatments to the sick.”
Natalie frowned but didn’t respond, staring out the window. They rode in silence for several minutes before Natalie changed the topic. “What do you think Richmond will be like? Wasn’t it wiped out by the Pentagon’s attack?”
“Honey, the whole damn world was wiped out, so the damage done to a single city is a minor concern. We’re not going shopping, we’re searching for survivors. Anyone tough enough to take the worst the world can throw at them and keep going.”
“And you don’t think those ‘tough enough’ will be dangerous?” Natalie pressed.
Debbie waited until she maneuvered past an overturned car before responding. “Honey, don’t forget what David did to Peterson. David’s dangerous. That’s why we all felt so safe around him. Anyone currently alive now is dangerous if you threaten either them or their new families. Our job is to convince them that we aren’t a threat.”
“Not easy to do, when we each carry the viruses which caused so many deaths,” Natalie reminded her, absently tapping the glass as she gazed out the window.
“Yes, we’re what people fear the most, but we offer what they’re too terrified to hope for. We carry multiple plagues, each of which killed millions of people. But those infections also carry the eventual cure. David’s genetic anomaly, which he transferred to each of us, allows people to survive the plagues. But it only works if we purposely infect them with a horrendous disease which could kill them in unimaginably painful ways. We’re proverbial angels of death, but we’re also the emissaries of hope. We carry the threat of death. But by inflicting that pain we grant people the hope of not only survival, but of lifelong immunity for them and their future children. We’re providing the only solution to the Great Death. Once people realize what we offer, see how careful we behave and how well we understand it, they’ll respect us. They’ll still be cautious, but that’s only to be expected. We’ll be OK,” she concluded, patting Natalie’s arm again.
Natalie again shrugged her off, not ready to be consoled. “So we’re not delivering the plague, we’re planting hope?”
“More appropriately, we’re seeding hope among the ashes of despair. It’ll take a little while to sprout. It takes time for seeds to grow in inhospitable soil, so you can’t expect them to trust us right away. Instead we need to move slowly, earning their trust one step at a time.”
“You don’t think they’ll try to hurt us?” the marginally younger girl asked, her voice sounding distant.
“Honey, we’ve talked about that repeatedly. Yes, it’s very likely they will. This isn’t a safe journey we’re undertaking. But we aren’t doing it for pleasure. We’re doing it for those who need us. There’s a lot of risk involved, but by being careful, using common sense and applying David’s advice, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“But you don’t know, do you?” she continued to press.
“No, I don’t,” Debbie admitted. “No one does. But in this new world, you deal with things when they arise. You can’t avoid death anymore. It’s all around us. All we can do is face it with the best knowledge at our disposal. But death will surround us the rest of our lives.”
Natalie turned and regarded her, a slight grin curling the corner of her lip. “Actually, I’m glad you said that. I was afraid you’d try to sugarcoat it. Mom kept insisting how wonderful this trip would be, assuring me how safe we’d be while begging me to be careful. The worry behind her words was scarier than what we’re actually facing. Honesty is…,” she said, unable to finish the sentence.
“Liberating?” Debbie suggested.
“Yeah, I guess that’s it. Realizing that no one else knows what to do or how to react lets me know that I’m allowed to make mistakes. That even if I do everything right, it won’t necessarily protect me.”
“Everyone is in the same boat and we’re much better prepared than anyone else,” Debbie reminded her. “They’re scared, but when we reveal we can not only make their life easier, but help build safe communities, they’ll learn to trust us. They’ll have to accept us, because if they don’t, they won’t survive on their own.”
“So it was nice that everyone in Harrisonburg and Charlottesville were so helpful,” Natalie said, sidetracking the conversation once more.
“It really was. I didn’t think they’d have the time to prepare everything they gave us.”
“You’re not kidding. This hybrid SUV is amazing. Not only is it sturdy enough to manage these horrendous roads, but we get the gas mileage to find the few surviving gas stations.”
“The amount of work they put into it was incredible,” Debbie marveled, amazed at what they’d accomplished in the few days David gave them. “By cobbling together undamaged parts from all the damaged vehicles, these things are almost like new!”
“Almost,” Natalie said, running her fingers across the bloodstained, ripped fabric on her seat.
“Attaching the trailer hitch and tow bar was a real boost. They allow us to tow your vehicle using a little more gas.” Debbie ignored the obvious irony in the situation. The fact they could travel so easily while most people remained in seclusion, afraid to venture outdoors, was apparent to them both. They realized this difference in perception was their greatest risk. Despite their advantages, they realized how close they’d all come to not making it. But focusing on what may have happened wouldn’t help them, so they buried those thoughts.
The new hybrid SUVs had been prepared for them by their friends in Harrisonburg and Charlottesville. Each had a major hybrid dealership, as did Staunton, situated between them. The people there scoured the vehicles at each dealership, cannibalizing parts to restore the best running ones to ‘almost new’ condition. Alice had been worried about the lack of their hand-painted medical symbols, but one of the women discovered adhesive ambulance signs at a rescue station. Adding those made them look much more professional than their crude hand-done images. Whether anyone seeing it would assume they were legit or simply found an abandoned medical vehicle was anyone’s guess.
“How’s the gas holding up?” Natalie asked.
“It’s fine. The hybrid engine gives us slightly better gas mileage, but because of the larger size of the vehicle and the road conditions, we’re still using a lot of gas. We should be able to make Richmond, but we’ll need to fill up before then, as gas will likely be harder to find in the city.”
“Do you think we’ll find anyone? After all, they had that war with the Pentagon after the government collapsed and they refused to recognize the interim President.”
“I have no clue. I heard they took some tank fire, but we won’t know until we get there. Nor will we know what shape everyone is in or whether anyone heard our announcements and has been able to organize before our arrival. This is really our first test.”
“That’s what I figured.” Natalie twisted in her seat, looking directly at Debbie as she cracked a grin. “So, now that we have all of that out of the way, why don’t you tell me more about David?”
“What’s to tell? You lived with us for the past week, you should already know everything,” Debbie replied.
“I was hoping for more of the romantic details. Either personal recollections or more tidbits about him and the other women.”
“Again, I’m sure you’ve heard all of this already, but …” She proceeded to repeat all the oft told tales of his many relationships, mostly begun against his objections. Natalie heard them before, but with nothing else to focus on, she enjoyed the distraction. After all, the man saved her life, pulling her back from the shadow of the Great Death. She idolized him, like the rest of the women around him, and she didn’t tire of hearing about him. If nothing else, it kept her from focusing on the unknown dangers ahead of them.
They were nearing the city, approaching the Rt. 288, WWII Veterans Memorial bypass, when they noticed an occupied car ahead. It sat in the middle of the road, facing the wrong way having entered via the exit ramp. Natalie grasped Debbie’s arm, imagining the worst.
“Yeah, ready your weapons. We need to be prepared however this goes. Since we announced our arrival, anyone who wants could be waiting for us, either friend or foe.”
Natalie wasted no time, having kept their weapons beside her the entire trip. She had a .45 strapped to her hip and laid her M16 across her lap where she could access it quickly. All the girls David sent out were equipped with fully loaded M16s, pistols, shotguns and body armor. They didn’t want to appear like an invading army, but didn’t plan to walk into any traps either. Life without the rule of law, surrounded by starving people without recourse to the supplies needed to live, was uncertain and invited trouble.
“Can you see anything?” Natalie asked, fumbling for her glasses since she’d been too busy readying their weapons to put them on earlier. She didn’t normally use them, but on long drives her slight myopia got worse.
“I see movement,” Debbie said. “Someone’s noticed us approaching. They’ve got a sign across the road saying ‘Welcome’.”
“You don’t suspect a trap, do you?” Natalie asked, clutching her rifle so tightly Debbie was more afraid of her than the strangers awaiting them.
“We won’t know until we investigate. While it makes sense to be cautious, we’re here to make friends. We can’t do that if we don’t stop and talk to the only people we’ve met. Hand me my rifle. When I stop, you get out and approach them. Since I’ve had more practice with firearms, I’ll stay behind and cover you. If everything looks OK, I’ll join you when you give me the all clear.”
“And what of all that talk about helping me learn how to deal with situations?”
“How else will you learn than to get out there and face one?” Debbie replied with a laugh. “Just watch out for snipers. You don’t need gasoline or electricity to fire a weapon.”
“Gee, thanks,” Natalie replied. “You fill me with such confidence.”
“Forget the confidence, just flash your winning smile,” Debbie suggested, slowing to a stop a safe distance from the waiting car. Two middle-aged men waited for them standing in front of their car. Debbie didn’t think they’d expose themselves if they were preparing for a fight, so she trusted that Natalie would be fine. She figured it was good experience to get her thinking, learning to anticipate trouble and not panic in dangerous situations. Debbie had been in several already, trailing behind David, Alice and the others. She knew what to do and could react quicker than her friend.
Swallowing heavily, Natalie lay her rifle back down, opened her door and got out. With her glasses on, she saw one of the men waving and both were smiling, but she remained cautious. Telling herself to buck up, she started the long walk towards them. She understood why Debbie parked so far away, but the trek between the vehicles was agonizing. She kept glancing around, trying to detect anything amiss as Alice so carefully instructed her. Her palms were sweaty before she’d gone ten paces. She worried whether she’d be able to grip her pistol if things went to hell, but so far it seemed unlikely. Still, she was nervous.
The two men knew enough to not advance. They stood where they were, hands in plain view so it was clear they weren’t hiding weapons at the ready. They presented a contrast, providing visible evidence of the random nature of who found who in this post-apocalyptic world. One was tall, scraggily with a ragged short beard. The other was clean cut, nicely dressed with a dress shirt and blazer, looking like an office professional or school teacher. The one man’s clothing looked wrinkled and frayed, so Natalie guessed the local shops were already emptied. Though his companion’s neat appearance belied that assumption. Both wore blue jeans and regular shirts instead of camouflage, another good sign.
“Howdy!” the one man yelled. “We been waitin’ for ya. We arrived early ‘cause we didn’t want to miss ya.”
“Sounds like you’re from the South,” Natalie ventured, trying to sound relaxed and friendly.
“I’m from Tennessee,” he answered. Natalie could believe that from his ‘Southern casual’ style of dress. “Nate here is originally from Philadelphia. We’re both long-term residents of Richmond, though.”
“So why are we meeting here, as opposed to in the city?” she asked, nearing close enough they didn’t need to shout. But she stopped a short distance away, not wanting to scare people already paranoid about the plagues.
“We were sent to meet you. The Interstate closer to the city is a mess. We’ll guide you through the local roads from here. We thought it would be more neighborly helping, rather than you wasting your time trying to find your own way in.”
“Well thanks for that,” she replied, taking one last glance around before flashing Debbie an ‘all clear’ symbol. “I’m Natalie. My friend is Debbie. I assume you already know what we’re here for?”
“That we do, Natalie,” their spokesman said. “My name is Wilber. Seems everyone has abandoned their family names.”
“So how much of a community do you have?” Natalie asked. “We were afraid no one would have prepared for us.”
“Well, we didn’t start until we heard you were planning to come here,” Wilber admitted, while his friend Nate shuffled his feet. It had been so long since they’d dealt with people he’d already forgotten how to make small talk. “Once we did, someone started putting up hand-printed flyers around town. When I saw a couple, I went to where they suggested we meet. The guy who put them up had us meet at an abandoned coffee shop. He had a sun teapot and served tea and old cookies just like a tea party. Nate showed up a couple days later. We immediately started organizing, preparing for you.”
“We did just like you instructed,” Nate added, eager to participate but unable to keep his hands still as he waved them around in excitement. “We’ve been consolidating resources, setting up defenses and leaving instructions on where to find food.”
“How many are you?” Debbie asked, catching up to Natalie, carrying her M16 as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“We’re only five at the moment. After we got together, someone who hadn’t heard your broadcasts saw us and was intrigued enough to approach. When we explained our plans, he got excited and came back with someone else.”
“You’ve been following our safety guidelines, haven’t you?” Debbie asked.
Wilber grinned, clearly proud of himself. “Yes, ma’am. Just like you said. No shaking hands, staying at least four feet apart. No coughing or sneezing. Stay away from liquids or humid conditions, and always wear gloves. We been listening to you for a while, so we have the procedure down,” he answered before hesitating. “You both cured?”
“That we are, Wilber. Though I’ve got to say, it ain’t a pretty procedure,” Debbie replied, imitating Wilber’s speech patterns. “We’ll need to find a gas station before we enter the city. The few we found were either razed, drained or contaminated.”
“Don’t worry,” Nate said. “We have our own stash. We figured it’d be easier supplying you with gas than having you waste time searching for it.”
“Do you have it to spare? We’ve got the equipment to extract our own from underground tanks,” she informed them.
“We didn’t, but since Nate had a running car, we had electricity. We broke into an old auto repair place and found one of the pumps you described. We’ve been filling all the old gas cans we can find.”
“Better to leave it in the ground where it’s safe, rather than storing it where it can be stolen,” Debbie offered.
“Yeah, we considered that,” Wilber replied. “But Mr. David says we need trading supplies to attract people, so we’ve been offering full gas cans.”
“Smart thinking. So what shape is the city in?” Natalie asked, deciding to join in the conversation again, if only to prove to Debbie she could handle this on her own. “We heard it was heavily damaged. Charlottesville is a bit of a mess. Almost completely burned out.”
“We suffered a lot of damage,” Nate admitted. “The D.C. military bombarded the downtown when they advanced. We sent our families away so they’d be safe, but when the Great Death struck afterwards, most people never saw their loved ones again.”
“We heard stories about people setting out in retribution as a result,” Wilber said. “That they burned soldiers alive in their tanks and razed the Pentagon, hunting down Generals hiding in their closets!”
“But how is the city itself?” Natalie pressed, taking a page from the plain-spoken Alice’s book. “Is there much left? Is it habitable?”
“There’s a lot of damage and certain areas are unlivable,” Nate reflected. “The bombardment triggered fires we couldn’t fight without power or water pressure, so whole neighborhoods went up in flames. We saved most of the people, but lost them shortly after to plagues, as you know. We hope to rebuild within certain areas of the city, focusing our efforts while allowing the rest of the city to return to nature. Naturally decompose, if you will.”
“OK, that’s enough for me. I’m eager to see it,” Debbie said, grinning broadly, though her eyes remained wary. “Let’s get this show on the road. There’s a lot we have to do; so the sooner we get there, the quicker we can get started.” With that she turned and set off, never looking back as Natalie hurried after her. Soon Wilber and Nate were leading them off the obstructed highways onto the more accessible local roads.
They arrived in downtown Richmond several hours later. The roads were indeed been deplorable.
“They’re putting on their flashers, I assume that means we’re here,” Debbie announced.
“Man, it’s about time!” Natalie took in the surroundings as she grabbed their bag of trade items—prerecorded smart phones. “It took us longer to go the twenty miles from the outskirts than it did the fifty miles here. Did you see the highways? They were packed so tight with abandoned vehicles the only way to get through would have been on foot. I don’t think bicycles could fit between them!”
“Yeah, I saw it, the same time you did,” Debbie reminded her copilot. “I expected a city to grind to a halt during a meteor storm or military assault. I was more concerned with the damage. Even the streets we’re using are almost impassable because of debris. And this isn’t the small debris and potholes we’re used to from the meteor storm. There are huge chunks of asphalt, marble, girders and glass. These must be from when they attacked the city with explosive ordnance which blew large chunks from the sides of buildings.”
“What about the ‘scattered fires’ Wilber mentioned?” Natalie responded. “There are huge segments of the city completely uninhabitable by man or beast. Damn, every single building for miles around burned to the ground.” She was amazed once again at the destruction, not just from meteors but from one’s neighbor in a political dispute.
“Yeah, the damages here are much worse than in Charlottesville. I’m amazed there’s anyone left.” Debbie took one more glance at the damaged buildings surrounding them as she pulled to a halt a short distance from the heavily-dented sedan Wilber had driven. “I guess it’s time to introduce ourselves.”
“Should I pack my gun?” the less experienced 14-year-old asked.
“Leave the rifle but lock the vehicle. Always keep your pistol and knives on you, though. We want to show them we’re friendly, not stupid. Besides, I suspect we’ll have our hands too full to carry our rifles.”
Natalie took her advice, storing her M16 and getting out of the SUV, once again checking the pistol on her hip. Despite all the intense training she’d received from Alice and the other girls before they’d left, it still felt alien to her. She just couldn’t get used to carrying something designed to kill the few remaining survivors left.
When they neared Wilber and Nate, they noticed some dark shadows in the building ahead of them. While Natalie resisted the urge to clutch her sidearm, Nate waved his companions over. With that clear signal, several people streamed from the building. They were as incongruous as Wilber and Nate. There was a bookish gent with a whitish beard and glasses, a big black guy with tattoos but with cleanly shorn hair, and a slight woman, standing hesitantly behind him. She was a light-skinned black, her wavy hair making her look more Italian.
“We told you we’d get ‘em here,” Wilber called out. “And right on time too.”
“You’re both from the group in West Virginia?” asked the studious man, leaning forward as if his glasses weren’t the proper strength.
“We are.” Debbie flashed her brightest smile, glad to see they accepted them as is, not demanding explanations or questioning their presence. “We’re with David and Alice’s group, the one’s broadcasting over the radio. I’m Debbie and this is Natalie. We may be young, but we’ve been through his procedure and know how to do it.”
“Well, in that case, I’m Emanuel.” The speaker wore glasses, standing a little taller but tilting his head, as if having trouble seeing them clearly. “I’m a professor at Richmond Virginia Seminary. Or at least I was,” he added apologetically, forgetting almost nothing survived the Great Death.
“I’m Rufus Alders and this is Betsy Wanker,” the handsome black man said, introducing the diminutive woman hiding behind him. She stepped forward and grinned at them.
“Wanker?” Natalie tittered.
“Hey, what can I say,” Betsy answered with a shrug. “It’s a family name. While I’ve been known to wank one out every now and then, it’s not how I came by the name.”
“It’s a Southern name,” Emanuel explained.
“Sorry, no offense,” Natalie hurried to add, blushing.
“Man, I’m glad to finally see another woman,” Betsy said, diffusing the awkwardness. “Rufus is the perfect gentleman and has defended me against a lot. We come from different worlds, though.”
“Tell me about it,” Natalie laughed. “The plagues make for strange bedfellows, if you’ll pardon the expression. David’s group is composed of some of the oddest people. But you can’t turn your back on good people nowadays. When someone can help you, you don’t question where they came from.”
“You’re telling me,” Rufus said. “I’ve never received the respect I’ve gotten for doing what everyone used to consider manual labor. My college education seems wasted now, but if my brute strength helps us survive, then so be it. I’m betting we can finally ignore all the racial crap in the future. Why, even Wilber here’s turned into a decent sort,” he added with a laugh.
Wilber flashed his own grin. “Hey, we Southerners might be a little slow, but once we figure something out there’s no stopping us.”
“So how much do each of you know?” Debbie asked, just to establish where they needed to start. “Is everyone up to speed? Do you understand what we’re doing?”
“Actually, only Wilber and I have been listening to your broadcasts,” Emanuel said, taking over the lead role. “When I first heard you were traveling, I figured you would visit here, so I began trying to locate people like you suggested. I posted fliers so people would know where to go.”
“Everyone expects us Southerners to be slow, but I knew how to get by. When the power went out, I moved my car to a secure location. Instead of driving around surveying the damage, I laid low. I only used the car to listen to the radio, turning it on just long enough to recharge the battery, my laptop and cell phone. After the radios went dead, I’d still check in periodically and got around using a bicycle. It attracted less attention. It ran perfectly without power and is versatile enough to avoid the bigger potholes.
“When Alice started broadcasting, I tuned in every day. I learned what to avoid and I stayed away from any infectious sources. I guess I got lucky, because I didn’t get sick even though everyone else did. When you went off the air, I nearly despaired. I started sleeping in my car. Houses are now free for the taking, but a tank of gasoline and a working generator are worth their weight in gold. Anyone can break into an empty house, but I was damned if I’d let someone siphon my gas!”
“Hurry up and get to the point, Wilber,” Rufus suggested, rolling his eyes.
“Anyway, when I heard you was coming, I drove to the city. There I saw Emanuel’s posters and I met him and Nate. Rufus brought Betsy later.”
“She wanted to learn what we know, not our personal histories,” Nate reminded him. It seemed they were used to his long-winded explanations.
“I told everyone everything I know,” Emanuel said, ending the discussion. “We know you use a plasma transfer. We understand it’s incredibly painful, takes a long time and is potentially fatal as well.”
“That’s right,” Debbie responded, “which is why we’re not eager to apply the treatment willy-nilly. It’s difficult, risky and we can only do so much at any one time. Now, do you know your blood types? That will determine who we decide to treat. If anyone is type AB, we’ll treat them even over someone already infected, because we’ll ultimately save more lives that way.”
Everyone started to answer at once, until Emanuel held his hand up, halting them. “That was one of the first things I established. I’m A positive, Nate’s O, normally a universal donor. Wilber’s a B negative. Rufus and Betsy don’t know what they are.”
“That’s OK, we can test everyone,” Debbie assured them. “After all, we’d rather know for sure than risk killing someone. But we’re trying to get an idea of who would make the best candidates. By the way, the pluses and minuses don’t apply to plasma donation, but don’t ask me why. I’m not that technical, never having studied medicine in school before the whole world went to hell.”
She turned to her ‘trainee’, pushing her hair out of her face. “Grab the test strips and start sampling blood. Test Rufus and Betsy first.”
“I’m sorry, but I really don’t get these reverse plasma types,” Rufus complained. “Why is it Nate can’t do it and then treat everyone?”
“Alas, I never understood it that well myself, despite multiple explanations,” Debbie admitted as she turned back while Natalie ran off. “It gets fairly confusing. It seems your red blood cells absorb certain antibodies and that determines what type of blood you can receive. If the red blood cells don’t have any antibodies, you can donate to anyone. However, all the antibodies not absorbed by the red blood cells are left to float freely in the bloodstream. When you’re dealing with plasma, which is whole blood minus the red blood cells and other components, type O blood has all the antibodies. Understand?”
“Now wait a minute,” Nate protested. “I remember donating blood and they told me I was a universal donor for both whole blood and plasma.”
“Ah, that’s a complication that always confuses people. Blood banks started playing all kinds of games with the blood they took. Before they’d take whole blood, rarely bothering with plasma as America and most of Europe largely abandoned plasma usage. Not long ago, they started collecting multiple samples at once: whole blood, plasma and separate samples of red blood cells. Since they mentioned being a universal donor while also collecting plasma, it made people assume their plasma could also be used universally. However, type O is one of the more common blood types, so even type O can be widely used. Our problem is that it can only treat others with type O blood. The confusion is understandable. After all, who really listens when they rattle off that information? But our resident medical expert insists that plasma blood types are the opposite of normal blood types.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure I really understand it,” Rufus admitted, “but I’ll accept you know what you’re talking about. But why can’t you use whole blood instead? Wouldn’t that be simpler?”
“Ah, another question I’m only semi-qualified to answer, but I’ll do my best. Plasma is the preferred method for transferring immunity, which is how we first started this treatment. The idea was you’d give someone your blood, and they’d use your immunity for a short period to buy them some time. But the immunity usually doesn’t last long and it’s not overly effective.
“However, in both David and Alice’s case, they had something odd in their blood which isn’t immunity based. Instead it turns off the body’s tendency to overreact to infections. However, since it doesn’t transfer immunity, it instead transfers the very plague infections we’re trying to fight.”
“OK, but again, why wouldn’t whole blood do the same thing?” Rufus pressed.
“I’m not really sure, but it just doesn’t,” she assured them. “According to Tom, the plasma treatment is better for the absorption of this type of thing, but I really never understood why. Besides, there’s also the safety issue. With as much blood as we have to donate to treat everyone, doing whole blood transfusions would slow the entire process.”
“That’s OK,” Emanuel answered, again holding his hand up to curtail the discussion. “We understand what’s needed and what isn’t. That’s all we need to know.”
“Hold still, this will sting a little,” Natalie told Rufus. He towered over her but seemed more worried about her breathing on him than the needle she held to his finger. Despite wearing gloves, face mask and leaning over, things she’d been instructed to watch for, it didn’t lessen everyone’s fear of accidental infection. Given the repercussions of such an accident, it was an appropriate fear, even if unlikely.
“You should really do Betsy, if you can,” he argued, glancing up at Debbie since Natalie was focusing on his hand. “We’ve got an abundance of men here, and if we’re going to survive, we need more women. Besides, she’s better at dealing with people, so she’d make a better nurse.”
“Who we select will be more than a nurse,” Natalie explained, not bothering to glance up, afraid of spilling blood or touching him. “They’ll become the resident medical expert. A full MD won’t be any help if you catch a plague. You’ll still need to find a doctor or nurse if you can, but whoever we choose will have a lot of responsibility.”
“That’s exactly why you should choose her,” Rufus countered. “Being the only woman, she doesn’t have any leverage over the others. If she’s their only hope for survival, then no one will cross her.”
“Actually, we’re hoping to treat two people. It’s best if each of us treats a single person, as it requires our undivided attention. Having two people treat someone allows us to take breaks to nap and recharge, but we’ll see what works best. If we have an AB person we can double-team him. If not, we’ll try to get by treating each one separately, as that provides you better protection. But in either case, we’re better off treating two just in case someone doesn’t make it or has an accident later.”
Everyone nodded gravely. This struck at the heart of the issue. Just how sick the treatment would make someone, and how likely they were to die from it. “Now, does anyone have any communicable diseases they’re aware of?” Debbie pressed. “After all, if you do and you’re a donor, you’ll transfer it to everyone you treat. You can still be treated later, but right now we’re creating future donors, so anyone who needs help can seek it here.” No one raised their hands.
“That’s what I figured. Most people with underlying diseases probably already died. I think everyone had to be fairly healthy to survive this long.”
“He’s an ‘O’ too,” Natalie called out.
“Good, that makes me a prime recipient and Betsy a better choice,” Rufus responded.
Everyone watched as she moved on to Betsy, nodding to her as she did. Her results would determine who had to undergo this horrendous assignment, and who’d ultimately be responsible for everyone’s life in the entire region. It was a daunting task, in both regards.
“Do you have a workable location for a treatment center?” Debbie asked, hoping to distract everyone and keep their minds from dwelling on the selection process. “It needs to be remote and easy to sterilize. A decent bed wouldn’t hurt, since a cot isn’t really sturdy enough. They tend to thrash around a lot. They also make a mess, so we’ll need plenty of water and cleaning supplies. Each of you need to drink fluids, as whoever we pick will be pissing themselves, throwing up, getting the runs and sweating like a pig. It won’t be a pretty sight, which is also why it needs to be isolated. No one else can enter, and we’ll need to scrub it down from top to bottom when we finish.”
“There’s a medical office upstairs from where we’ve set up shop,” Emanuel said, pointing at the building they’d just come from. “We picked this spot because it was the least damaged, was centrally located and is easy to find.”
“Unfortunately, none of that’s any good if you don’t have access to water,” Debbie pointed out. “If you have to carry it a bucket at a time from the river, you’ll get tired of it right quick. Someplace in the suburbs with a private well with an automated pump you could connect to a generator might be best.”
“Actually, the water towers in these high-rises serve most of those functions. We set up a water facility which collects rainwater and funnels it into the water tower. Gravity keeps the water pressure up. As long as we don’t get too many people in the one building, we should be OK.”
“It sounds like you’ve been busy,” Debbie observed.
“Actually, it was Wilber who figured most of it out. While the rest of us have more academic training, he’s the best one at figuring out how to get things to function again.”
“OK,” Natalie interrupted, standing up and stepping back so she could face everyone. “Betsy’s an A minus. So there aren’t any ideal candidates.” Everyone started glancing at each other, trying to translate that into an actual selection, so she continued. “Wilber and Betsy are the best candidates, as an A and a B cover everyone. It’s not ideal, but we can make it work.”
Rufus cocked his head, smiling. “Well, I’m pleased. Not that I want Betsy to suffer, but because I think it’s better for her. It’ll also help Wilber. As helpful as he is, he still has a bit of an inferiority complex over his background. Having such responsibility will definitely help him, although it’ll mean more work for the rest of us, as we won’t be able to risk his getting hurt.”
Natalie handed each a small water bottle. “Drink up. You’ll need it. We’ll start you on a transfusion immediately, while we start preparing the next dose. You can all watch how we prepare the plasma. We’ll supply you with a separat—”
“We already got one,” Wilber answered. “When we heard what you were doing, we scoured the available medical facilities, while avoiding any with a lot of bodies. We managed to find a couple in a suite of medical offices that closed before the plagues hit.”
“Once again, my hat’s off to you,” Debbie said, moving her hand as if tipping a hat. “You’re making this much easier on us. Now, this is going to be hard on all four of us, so here’s what I want the rest of you to work on.”