Contagion

Chapter One

Fear not for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous hand. Isaiah 41:10 ESV

 

Randi Martinez stepped onto her balcony for air despite the cold December wind. The news report detailing the deaths from the human rabies outbreak echoed through the open doors and sent her heart rate into overdrive. She slid the balcony door closed, shutting out the newscaster. How had this happened? She needed to take her family to safety.

Now.

But if she tried to get them to go, they would say she was overreacting. Again.

Movement in the parking lot grabbed her attention. A man half-shuffled, half-ran toward a woman who’d climbed out of her car. “Watch out!” The hair on her arms lifted, and a chill invaded her soul. The woman stopped and looked up, but he bore down on her. “Behind you.” Randi’s legs went weak. She sank to the concrete balcony floor and clung to the railing.

The woman spun around as he grabbed her. Randi tried to avert her eyes but couldn’t. He dragged the woman to the macadam and bit into her neck. Her screams pierced the quiet day as he continued to assault her. Randi gagged, and the man, or zombie, or whatever he’d turned into, jerked his head up to stare in her direction. Blood and gore dripped from his mouth. This couldn’t be happening. She’d rather be back in the Middle East in the midst of a heatwave and sandstorm than in San Antonio right now.

The flesh eater ran toward Randi’s apartment, but he stood below her balcony drooling, making biting motions, and staring up at her with blank eyes. If the disease hadn’t destroyed his neurons, he might’ve figured out how to come up the stairs after her. Visions of herself as one of those creatures flashed through her mind. She vomited several times.

What had happened to the world? Pain squeezed her heart, but tears didn’t come. She hadn’t cried since that night in the trenches. A night that filled her soul with emptiness.

She took several deep breaths, pulled herself up, and focused on building her emotional wall. One brick at a time, she put it into place so she could move forward.

Randi brushed her teeth to rid her mouth of the foul taste and packed her camping gear and guns. Ransacking her cabinets produced a few cans of soup, ramen noodles, mac and cheese, and precious little else. She carried her supplies to the truck, trying to stay as quiet as possible. The infected person ran for her as she stowed her gear in the back. She hopped in her work truck, cranked the engine, and called Miguel. “Hey bro, you at Dad and Mom’s?”

“No, why?”

“Have you seen what’s going on around you?” The assault she witnessed while on her balcony came flooding back. “I watched a man eat a woman in my parking lot. We need to go somewhere safe.”

“Where?”

“I know a place. Call Adriana and Leon. Y’all meet me at Dad and Mom’s house within half an hour. Pack camping and hunting supplies.”

Randi maneuvered around a stranded car in the middle of the highway. No one around except one man with glassy eyes and strings of drool hanging from his mouth who ran toward her. Sounds of groaning drowned out the roar of the diesel engine. Her gut clenched into stone. She gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white and drove around him. How long did they live? “Miguel, I had to go around one of these…what do you call them? They aren’t human any longer.”

“Who knows? Infecteds? Rabids? Zombies? We had an intense case in the hospital.”

“Hey, I need to call Mom and Dad and let them know we’re on our way.” She disconnected and dialed her parents. Her father answered. “You and Mom need to pack supplies. We’re heading to safety.”

Mija, we’re fine here. I’ve seen the news, but you know how the media always inflates the numbers. They thrive on creating mayhem.”

Randi clenched her jaw for several seconds. “We aren’t safe. Chaos is erupting around the world. We need to go somewhere else.”

“What’s the worst that could happen? If we contract this disease, we’ll die and go home to be with Jesus.”

“No, before you die, you’ll turn into a flesh-eating zombie. Do you want that for Mom? Or the grandchildren? Doesn’t the Bible say something about cannibalism? Like you can’t go to heaven if you feast on human beings?”

“Not exactly.” Her father was silent for several seconds. “Are you sure about turning?”

“Ask Miguel. He’ll be there soon. He’s had patients in the hospital, Dad. This disease turns them into flesh-eaters. It’s horrible.” She couldn’t shake the images she’d seen. Muscles in her neck tensed. Life would keep deteriorating from this point.

“Fine, but where will we go?”

Randi sucked in a breath. If she told her father the truth, he might refuse to go since it didn’t belong to them. “I know a place. Trust me.”

“A place? What aren’t you telling me, Miranda?” Uh oh. Dad was ticked. He only used her first name when she was in trouble.

Her father, with his strict sense of right and wrong, would tell her invading Reginald Barker’s land was akin to stealing, but she didn’t care. Dr. Barker’s urgency to get the place built had scared her. “I’m almost to your house. We’ll talk then.” A deer darted in front of her truck as she clicked disconnect. She slammed on the brakes, the tires squealed against the pavement, and she stopped within inches of the large buck.

A few deep breaths in, and Randi depressed the accelerator. She glanced to the left. At least twenty people shuffled toward her. The guttural groaning reached her ears causing her to shudder. She jammed her foot to the floorboard, and the truck careened down the highway. There were so many already. How had the disease spread this quickly? The CDC spokesperson kept saying it was a limited course disease, and quarantining those infected would halt the spread. She shivered in spite of the truck heater and her jacket. Limited course disease my backside.

She pulled into the driveway and ran inside the older brick home. Miguel sat on the edge of the sofa, his hands trembling. “I almost ran over one on my way here.”

“Just one? They’re everywhere.” Randi looked around the room. “Where are Adriana and Leon? We need to get out of here.”

“On their way.” Miguel stared at the floor. “I told her to hurry.”

“If they aren’t here soon, we’ll go get them.” Randi paced the floor. “Dad, are you and Mom ready?”

“We aren’t going until you tell us where.” He held eye contact until she looked away. “We won’t do something illegal.”

“Who gives a rat’s butt about laws now?” Randi gripped her hands together behind her back as she paced in front of the sofa. “Don’t you understand? Survival is all that matters, and I know a place where we can weather this out.”

“Where?”

“You remember the man who hired us to build him a compound on the Frio?”

Dad nodded.

“I…uh sorta kept a remote for the drawbridge and the gate codes.”

“Miranda Martinez, how could you?” Her father frowned and crossed his arms. “You’ve doomed our company with this behavior. A customer trusted you, yet you betrayed his faith. If word gets out, we’ll never get another job.”

“Dad, the business is gone. Life as we know it no longer exists.” Miguel stood and put his hands on her father’s shoulders. “We have to go with Randi. If not, we’ll wind up as food, or worse, biting and clawing through everyone in our path.”

“This is dishonest.”

“You don’t know how it is.” Randi paced. They needed to leave. Now. “There’s a herd of sick people not far from here. If we don’t leave soon, they’ll trap us in the house, and this place won’t offer much protection.”

Leon, Adriana, and their children ran inside. Tears flowed down Adriana’s face. “We hit one of them with the pickup. Leon tried to avoid him, but he kept coming.”

“Adriana, tell Dad we have to go somewhere safe. He doesn’t understand.” Maybe for once her sister would agree with her. Unless she moved into the land of denial like she usually did.

“Dad, we’re trusting Randi. If she knows of somewhere safe, we’re going. Period.”

“But–”

“No.” Adriana jammed her hands on her ample hips. “You cannot jeopardize this entire family because you’re stubborn.”

Mom rolled a large suitcase into the room. “Xever, the children are right. While poaching someone else’s property isn’t right, we must survive. We won’t invade the man’s house, only his land until this mess is over.” Her mother slipped her arm through her father’s. “If he and his family are there, and ask us to leave, we will.”

This mess would never end, but Randi refused to destroy her mother’s fantasy. Besides when the diminutive Faustina Martinez set her mind to something, Dad wasn’t about to argue.

Randi, Miguel, and Leon grabbed the supplies.

“Leon, since your truck is four-wheel drive, let’s take it and mine,” Randi said as they took the first load outside. She shoved a suitcase in the truck. Odd. She didn’t see any supplies from her parents’ house. “Leon, did you or Miguel bring any food or other supplies out?”

“Nope. Just what’s already in the truck from our house.”

“Load everyone into the trucks. I’m going to grab some non-perishables.”

“You got it.”

Randi ran back inside, found a large plastic tub in the garage, and grabbed bags of rice, beans, grits, masa, flour, and cornmeal. She found several cans of vegetables, a couple of bags of pasta, and her mom’s canister set in the next cabinet and dumped them in the box. Once she filled it, she walked to the front door.

She turned and looked at the living room. Memories of Raul playing with her caused her throat to constrict. He would crawl around on his hands and knees as her “horse” for hours on end. A deep ache penetrated her chest. Would she forget him if she never saw their childhood home again?

Soft cream had replaced the tan color on the walls, but her mother never changed the antique furnishings of the room. Too bad the happiness left many years ago. One last look at the cozy room with a brick fireplace in the corner and the antique coffee table where she’d done her homework, and Randi walked out without a glance back. No time for nostalgia. Emotions would only get them killed.

She handed Leon the tub. “Stay close. We’ll take back roads. It’s very secluded and about an hour from here.” She shrugged. “At least it was before this plague invaded. It may take longer, now.”

Miguel and her parents climbed into her truck, and she started toward Barker’s compound. The place covered many acres and spanned the Frio River. If he was there, she would beg him to let them stay, but if he wasn’t, they were taking over the land. Maybe the house if the weather turned much colder. She drove to Highway 90 and pointed the truck toward Concan.

Randi followed the long, deserted road. Her breathing accelerated and sweat beaded on her forehead as she glanced around for other signs of life. There should be more people fleeing San Antonio. Where were they?

They were dead if they got trapped here.

A man stood in the road a few yards ahead, so she eased off the gas, but not much. “Randi, slow down. You’re going to run over that man.” Her father patted her arm.

“He could be a rabid.” She shook her head. “If there’s one, there’ll be more. Our only hope is to get past him as quickly as possible.”

 

*****

 

Reginald Barker brushed his graying hair out of his eyes as he watched the newscast playing on the TV in the corner of his lab. Someone had dumped ZR-76 around the globe. Reports of an outbreak of the modified rabies virus poured in from most countries. Not possible. His legs refused to move toward the vault. Besides him, only his boss, Ed Goldwaith, had access to the samples. No one else.

With a lead weight in his gut, he forced himself to open the vault. All thirty vials were missing. Hot water flooded his throat, his stomach dropped to the floor, and he swallowed the rage that enveloped him. Goldwaith had unleashed a plague on earth like no other.

The television droned in the corner of his office. Dr. Allan Webber from the CDC stood behind the lectern at a press conference and reassured everyone it was a limited virus. “Our scientists are working nonstop, and we are quarantining all infected persons. We don’t expect many new cases.”

If he only knew the truth.

Reginald checked the security video then dialed Goldwaith’s number. “What have you done?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Ed, you and I are the only ones with the combination to the ZR-76 vault. The virus is missing, and now cases are popping up around the world. Why did you do this?”

“I didn’t.” Ed chuckled. “If the virus is out there, then perhaps you dumped it on the world. Are you a homegrown terrorist, Reginald?”

“No.” Reginald took a breath, held it for a second, and then exhaled. “I have video of you accessing the vault. I’m sending it to President Davis.”

“Do you think she’ll bring charges?” Another laugh. “Get real. Who do you think ordered the release? Eileen’s ratings will soar when you cure the disease. She’ll be in prime position for reelection and will appoint me as head of the State Department. It’s a win-win situation.”

“Cure? You idiot. There is no cure for ZR-76. It’s one hundred percent fatal and easily transmitted.”

“For now. Get to work on the vaccine right away.”

“It’s a weaponized version of rabies. Rabies. A fatal disease. The world will end before I, or anyone else can develop a cure.” Reginald curled his fingers into fists, and his muscles quivered. “We discussed how rampant this virus would spread at the project outset. You knew it.”

“Don’t be melodramatic. Modify the vaccine like you did the virus.”

The man was an imbecile. “It took a team of scientists years to modify the virus. Nothing will stop this. Since you released it before we could attempt to develop a vaccine, there’s no hope. I told you six months ago I didn’t know if we could ever achieve it. You’ve doomed mankind.”

“What? No way! Fix this. Now!”

“What don’t you understand? I can’t change it. Why do you think I told you this was a devastating weapon, and we should destroy it? ZR-76 turns the host into a flesh-eater. At least until he dies, but with the modifications, he’ll live a long time while spreading it.”

“I always assumed you’d develop a vaccine.” Goldwaith’s voice cracked. “You’re supposed to be the best of the best.”

“I am, but if you’ll go back and read every email I sent you, you’ll find I warned you more than once.” Reginald pinched the bridge of his Roman nose between his thumb and forefinger and sighed. “I told you there was a slim possibility of success.”

“You’re one of those pessimistic types. Since rabies has a vaccine, I assumed it wouldn’t take long to change it to work on the weaponized version. The president will have my job over this.”

“Your job is the least of your worries.” Reginald hit his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Listen to me. You will not survive if you contract this disease. Of course, before you die, you’ll bite, scratch, and eat your way through your family. Then they’ll develop it and perpetuate the cycle. When you released ZR-76, you set an apocalypse in motion.”

“We need to put a stop to it. Now. You and your team’ll work around the clock until you fix this. Get busy.”

“Keep on dreaming, Gollum.” Reginald smiled. He’d wanted to call his boss by his pet name for years.

“What does that mean?”

“Ever see Lord of the Rings?”

“No.”

“Watch it before you die from your precious virus.” Reginald disconnected and called his wife.

“We need to leave. Pack the essentials and be ready to go within the hour.”

“Why? I have a PTA meeting this afternoon. Can’t it wait?”

Reginald closed his eyes. “Mary Anne, trust me. If we don’t go now, we may never get to leave. Pick Belle up from school, and call David to come home. Now. We’re going to Texas.”

“Honey, I’ve seen the news.” Mary Anne cleared her throat. “We know this disease is bad. There’s even been a couple of cases at our miniscule hospital, but the CDC says not to worry. Are they mistaken?”

“Webber’s an idiot. He has no clue what he’s dealing with.” Icy tendrils gripped Reginald’s throat making it impossible to speak for several seconds. “Baby, please trust me. I’m trying to keep our family alive.”

“Reg, you’re scaring me.”

“I’m sorry, but you need to be terrified. I’ll head home as soon as possible. Call Josh and have him and Mark meet us. I’ll text you the directions to send to him.” He’d keep his brother’s kids safe from this plague if at all possible.

Reginald disconnected and took a small pry-bar from his desk drawer. He found the brick he’d loosened a few days earlier and pulled it out of the wall where he’d hidden copies of his notes and a vial of ZR-76 inside. To redeem himself, he had to find a way to save humanity from this curse. Even if it took years. He stuffed them into the false bottom of his satchel in case Goldwaith had him searched as he left the building.

He closed his eyes, sucked in a ragged breath, and avoided looking toward the lab. He should warn the other scientists of what Goldwaith had done, but at this point, he’d put his family first.

Once he had everything packed, he unlocked his top drawer, pulled out his SIG .380 and eased open the lab door. He smiled, thankful they’d never installed metal detectors and scanners at the doors. If they had, he never would’ve slipped the weapon into the lab. He’d bought the pistol when he suspected Goldwaith had ulterior motives with the virus.

No one in sight. Maybe he could leave without killing anyone. He crept down the hallway and encountered a guard near the door. The man drooled, hung his head, and ran toward Reginald. He grabbed the pistol from his pocket, retracted the slide, aimed, and fired. His flesh crawled and itched as the guard dropped to the floor. The metallic odor of blood mingled with gunpowder hung in the air. What had he done? Saliva pooled in his mouth, and he fought the urge to spit. How many more people would he kill to keep his family from becoming rabid?

Reginald left his top-secret lab located in the mountains a few miles from Silver Penny, Colorado. He took the twists and turns down the mountain as fast as he dared. A light dusting of snow fell as he drove home. They had to leave before the weather made the mountainous roads impassable. Becoming stranded here wasn’t an option.

Knowing Goldwaith, he might’ve released the virus in their hometown, but how did he infect so many people at once? The threat assessment put prisons and schools at the highest risk. Still, how could he have reached around the world? A shudder raced up Reginald’s spine. Why hadn’t President Davis called him to verify the information from his boss? She’d called him several times during the development of the virus.

Although, if she had, her plausible deniability would’ve disappeared. Her unchecked ambition would cost her, her life this time. The government might protect her for a while, but this disease would reach her. It would reach everyone sooner or later.

He pulled in front of the house and raced inside where Mary Anne waited with their children. “Dad, why are we leaving now?” Belle whined. His precious blond princess with her cute little upturned nose. She would turn eleven soon. If he could keep them alive until her New Year’s Eve birthday. “Ginger’s mom said if it snows enough, we can go tobogganing. What’s in Texas, anyways?”

“Uncle Zed left land to us, and I had a retreat built there. We need to get away for a while.”

“Great. Just great.” She sighed and flopped onto the sofa. “You’re ruining my life, you know.”

“Stop being a brat.” David, Reginald’s nineteen-year-old, glared at his sister. “Dad’s trying to sugar coat things, but haven’t you seen the news? He wants to go to Texas where he can keep us safe and out of the reach of the zombies, so shut it, grab your bag, and get your behind in the van.”

Belle stared at her big brother for a few seconds before picking up her bag and heading for the garage door.

“Let’s go.” Reginald ushered the rest of the family toward the car. “Time to leave.”

He wound through town toward Highway 17 to Alamosa. They passed a group of infecteds holding a man against the pavement. “Belle, don’t look honey. Read a book or something.” Reginald glanced at her in the rearview mirror. His daughter stared at the sight of people biting and scratching other people and tears cascaded down her cheeks.

“Toughen up. This is life now, kiddo.” David touched her arm. “It freaks the crap out of me too, but we have to accept this as normal, now.”

Belle screwed her face up into a snarl. “I don’t have to accept this. It’s not normal and never will be. You didn’t even realize it was this bad. Now you want to tell me to accept it. Are you insane? People are eating other people. What kind of lunatic does that?”

“Lunatics infected with this weird rabies virus.” Mary Anne crossed her arms over her chest. “Honey, I know you didn’t want to hear what David had to say, but something very bad has happened in our world, and we must learn to survive.” She touched her husband’s shoulder. “I had no idea things had devolved into this. How did it spread so quickly?”

Reginald stopped at a red light and something slammed into the rear door. Belle screamed, and David yelled, “Go, Dad! Go!” One of the rabids grabbed the handle of the rear door and held on as the car accelerated and dragged him through the streets. The man’s grip didn’t loosen even when Reginald increased speed.

He floored the gas pedal, and the man’s body bounced off the rear quarter panel. The second human he’d killed today. He swallowed several times and fought to keep his mind focused on driving.

“You couldn’t have done anything differently,” David said. “He was dead. His body just didn’t know it yet.”

Reginald tried to ignore the raging headache threatening to overwhelm him. “It spreads with saliva in an open wound. Incubation period varies from an hour or so to a few days depending on the viral load the person gets. A bite, a scratch or wound that gets contaminated with saliva or blood of the infected, and the person has the disease. Goldwaith probably dumped it a few days ago. We’ll see more cases by the hour.”

He wanted to run away. Anywhere the living dead hadn’t invaded. Both men he’d killed were already gone. David was right. There was no hope. He’d spared them from infecting even more people by hastening their physical demise. A death he’d engineered. He hadn’t killed two people today. Instead, he’d killed countless humans with his modified rabies. He should’ve known this would happen.

“Reg, are you okay?” Mary Anne crossed her arms, again. “I’ll drive if you want.”

“No.” He eased up on the gas. He couldn’t change the course of the disease by killing his family. “Sorry. Everything has me upset. I’ll be more careful.”

“So, this is what you were working on, isn’t it?”

His heart hit the ground. He couldn’t lie to her but didn’t want her to know he’d been the lead scientist on the team that engineered the virus modifications. “Yes. I didn’t release it though.”

Mary Anne rubbed the back of her neck. “Something’s been bothering you for months. When you called today, I put it together.” She sat quietly for a while. “I never dreamed anyone would release any of the viruses you’ve worked on.”

“Me either, but I modified it, so I’m responsible.”

“Only for doing everything in your power to put an end to this.” She stared out the window. “Did you bring your notes?”

“I had them build a small lab in the basement. If there’s any way to stop this–”

“If not, then you’ll have to learn to live with it.”

They passed more rabids shuffling along the side of the highway. “I can never make it right.” He pointed to the group of dying people. “How do I make it up to them? Their families? I’ve turned them into mindless flesh-eaters.”

“Did you know this would happen?” David asked.

“No. I thought the DOD would store it along with the other bio-weapons, but Goldwaith and the president released it. She thought it would help her reelection campaign when we developed a vaccine, but there’s not enough time.”

“Dad, you can’t turn back time. We can only go forward.” David, his pragmatic child. Reg smiled. If he could find a way to reverse the virus, a cure, then maybe there was hope for mankind. And maybe hope for his absolution. Who was he kidding? To develop the virus had taken a team of scientists ten years. He was one man with a life expectancy that had dropped through the floor.

As they neared Alamosa, cars blocked the highway. Reginald slowed to a crawl and cut in and out of abandoned autos. He stopped and jammed the gearshift into park. “I’ve got to push that car out of the way.” He pointed to a Tahoe blocking their path. “Lock the doors, and if anything happens, turn around. Find an alternate route to Uncle Zed’s land. Gate codes and a drawbridge remote are in the glove box. Don’t stop until you get there.”

“So many.” Mary Anne covered her mouth with her hand and turned away.

“I’ll help.” David reached for his door handle.

“No.” Reginald pinned David with a stare. “You’re responsible for your mother and sister. If something happens to both of us, who’ll get them to safety?”

David nodded.

He touched the weapon in his pocket as he climbed out.

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