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“The Plague Between Us” by Clint Monette

The boy sprayed the tomato leaf. His face was starting to wrinkle, and his hands no longer felt like they were his own. It had been a long time since he had seen his reflection in anything other than the darkened swirling fish pool.

“You really don’t need to do that,” the girl said. Her face was beginning to wrinkle too, but here the wrinkles were stronger as if pulled by a heavier weight from a higher place.

“I still think it helps,” the boy said as he sprayed once more.

“And I still think it doesn’t,” the girl answered, returning to her work.

The boy gently followed the stalk of the tomato plant down into the soil and rock. It felt of harsh velvet. The plant was still young. There were others next to it, tall and strong. He sprayed them too, but with less care and precision.

From the girl’s work area, glasses clinked and papers shuffled. She sighed and ran her fingers through her tangled hair. The boy ignored it.

He continued to spray. The pepper plants, carrots, and cucumbers all took the water droplets without complaint. Screwing the top off of the water bottle he dipped it into the fish tank, allowing it to drink as nibbling fish swarmed his hand.

The ultraviolet lights over the garden flickered and dimmed. “Damn it,” the boy said and flicked two of the five lights off. “The batteries drain faster every day. The panels aren’t getting enough sun.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said the girl. “I’m close. We won’t have to wait much longer.”

“I’m going to go on the roof and check them tomorrow.”

“No, don’t. There is too much risk. Turn off another light. The plants will be fine with two.”

The boy turned off another light and went down for the night on his cot. “Good night,” he said as he turned away from the plants, and her lab equipment, and her.

“Good night,” she said quietly.

***

The boy plucked a fish out of the water. It was a perch. He killed the perch quickly with a knife, severing the spine. Delicately he carved into the fish, opening it up. He placed the guts in a pile next to the head. He spread the fish open like a butterfly and cut off both of its wings. The spine and tail went into the pile. On his two wings, he shaved off the scales, being careful not to remove any meat. He slid the scales into his hand, followed by the pile of refuse. In the garden, he dug a small hole next to one of the tomato plants and buried the head, guts, scales, and all.

The natural gas still came in through the lines, lighting his little camping stove through a few cobbled together pipes. He placed the two fish fillets in a pan. He added water from the fresh water tank, just enough to get a layer on the pan and coat the outside of the fish. He dusted the fish with a small portion of salt and pepper. Turning on the heat, he covered the fish and let it cook.

The boy’s lined hands pulled a tomato, a green pepper, and a cucumber out of the garden. Carefully he made a few dozen cuts with his knife, creating a makeshift salad.

The fish went onto plates along with the salad. He set both plates at the little table with silverware. He turned on an overhead light and went to the girl and her lab equipment. “Lunch is ready,” he said over her shoulder.

She had just placed some vials into a centrifuge. “Just a minute, hun,” she said.

“How are things looking?” the boy asked.

“I thought I had a breakthrough, but…” she trailed off.

“But what? It doesn’t work?”

“No, it does work. I can’t say what it would do to the host, but it works.”

“We knew that was the risk. We’ve discussed this. The hosts are no longer an issue in my mind. Have they become one in yours?”

“No, it’s the means of transmission. It’s a riddle that I am still trying to wrap my head around.”

He bent over and kissed her on the temple. “You will get it, hun. Don’t worry.”

She toyed with the food on her plate, her eyes unfocused.

“You need to eat,” the boy said.

“I know,” she replied. “You don’t need to baby me.”

“And I don’t mean to, but you need to keep your strength, and we can’t afford to waste food.”

She sighed and nodded. Slowly, she finished her plate. They both finished, and they continued to sit in silence listening to the whir of the centrifuge, the hum of the ultraviolet lights, and the rippling of the fish pool.

The centrifuge dinged and she got up. He stayed behind and cleaned the table.

***

He wiped a year’s worth of dust from its plastic shell. Carefully he followed its smooth contours. He stroked each individual blade until its black surface held its own shine. He removed the camera and the camera’s mount and set them aside. In their place, he attached a small jug with a nozzle. He soldered a small board together quickly and precisely and attached it to the jug. There was a servo connected to the nozzle. He tied the board into it and then tied the board into the exposed port from which he had removed the camera. He cleaned the battery contacts and then filled the jug with water.

“What are you doing?” the girl asked.

“Don’t you worry about me,” the boy replied as he got up and took a battery off the charger. There had been three batteries charging in all. He had plugged them in the previous night before he went to bed.

“It’s not like we need the thing tomorrow,” the girl said.

He plugged in the battery and ran through a diagnostic check. Each of the four motors powered up individually. He plugged a tablet into it and uploaded a programmed route. He then pushed a button and the drone took to flight.

The drone flew into one corner, and then the next, staying within inches of the wall until it had seen all four corners. It moved into the middle of the room and did three vertical figure eights before heading over to the garden. It maintained a steady position and height just over the tomatoes. The servo on the nozzle initiated and began misting water over the plants moving slow and coating each one.

The girl turned away from her work to watch the display. “Is that really necessary?”

“It is. If this doesn’t work nothing will.”

Out of the boy’s view, the girl rolled her eyes before nodding and returning to her work.

The drone finished one slow cycle above the plants and began another cycle. The water was not yet half-gone. It completed this cycle and began a third, but partway through it stopped and returned to the boy’s workstation.

The boy quickly plugged his tablet into it. The batteries neared depletion. The flight time had only lasted seventeen minutes.

He took the other two batteries from the charger and began rigging them together. He modified the bracket on the drone to accommodate two batteries. He refilled the water, attached both batteries, and uploaded his flight plan.

The drone took off again and began the same routine. When it returned to the garden, the boy watched the misting process closely. He put his hand underneath it, giving himself a dose of water. Without disturbing the drone in the slightest, he adjusted the nozzle and re-checked it with his hand.

After barely starting the sixth cycle, it returned, once again, to the workstation with both batteries depleted. The total flight time was twenty-eight minutes.

He emptied the last few drops from the water jug and left the fill cap off for it to dry. He set all three batteries back by the chargers but did not plug them in. He hung the drone up on the wall where it had gathered all of its dust.

“Is it going to work?” the girl asked with feigned attention.

“It’s going to have to,” the boy replied.

***

The boy took medical books out of a box and stacked them neatly. He found a small roll of twine and threw it into the box. Sorting through a jar of pens, he found an unsharpened No. 2 pencil and tossed it into the box. He dug through the garden and grabbed a relatively fresh fish head and a wilting carrot stem. He took it all over to a darkened corner of the room.

“What are you doing?” the girl asked.

“Just wait and see,” the boy replied. “I don’t know if it will work.”

“If what will work?”

“Just wait and see.”

In the corner, an array of bookshelves obscured the boy from the rest of the room. He put the fish guts and the carrot stem on the floor and then set the box, open side down, over top of them.

He unraveled a fifteen-foot span of twine and tied one end tightly to the pencil. He lifted up an edge of the box and propped it up with the pencil before carefully stretching his line away from the box contraption.

He plopped down on his belly and watched a hole in the wall.

“Are you sure you don’t want to tell me what you are doing?” the girl asked.

“Yes, I am sure.”

The girl went back to shuffling through papers and sliding her pen across a page in quick jerking motions.

The boy stared at the hole for a long while. Then he heard a gentle scratching noise and saw a little nose surrounded by tiny whiskers peeking past the threshold. The rat moved experimentally toward the box and the loot inside.

The rat paused and changed direction, moving a few feet closer to the boy. The boy smiled a little as he watched the rat’s eyes watching him. Its nose twitched and wiggled, and then it turned back toward its hole. The boy cringed. The rat groomed itself. Several minutes went by like this, and the boy ventured few breaths. The rat went down on all fours and turned back toward the box and its loot. It sprinted. Once inside it snatched up the fish head and the boy snatched away the pencil. He sprang to his feet and pounced on the box, just as the rat tried to lift it up.

The boy looked around uncertainly as he could hear and feel the rat clawing at the box. He reached for a tray that was resting on one of the bookshelves, as he did the rat lifted up and went underneath the rim of the box. The boy snatched down, grasping for the rat’s body. He missed, but came up with the tail.

The rat was not large, being only as big as the boy’s balled fist. He carried the dangling beast over to the girl.

“What the hell are you doing?” the girl asked.

“I know you are sick of eating fish.”

“Well, if you are suggesting we eat that disease-ridden thing then you are crazy.”

“If cooked properly it will be perfectly safe.”

“There isn’t any meat on it anyway. Just let it go.”

The boy put the rat on the cutting board and held it by its body. He took the knife and hesitated. It clawed at him and tried to bite him. The knife came down and the struggling stopped. He cut off the tail and removed the guts, just like the fish. The skin presented a challenge. He peeled it off by pulling at the fur and placing his knife at the meat where it still clung to the rat’s flesh. Separating the meat from the bones took the better part of an hour. Each small cube of meat he removed and tossed into his pan.

He seared the meat and then added some water along with carrots, peppers, and two turnips. While that simmered, he placed the remains of the rat into the garden where he had dug up the fish a few hours earlier. He went back to his mixture and stirred it.

“It smells good, what is that?” the girl asked.

The boy smiled and walked over to her. “It’s stew.”

She scrunched her nose up and winced.

“Don’t worry, it’s not fish stew. I know how much you hate that.”

“Well, then what? Not that rat, please tell me you didn’t cook the rat.”

“Just try it. I promise it will be the best thing you’ve had in years.”

“I’m not eating it.”

When they sat down at the dinner table, he took the first bite. He chewed cautiously, then slowly, savoring the flavor.

“Put on whatever act you want, I’m still not eating it,” said the girl.

“Why not?”

“What if that rat has the plague? I don’t want to end up like them.”

“You have a two in five chance of just dying, don’t forget. I cooked it thoroughly. No virus, no bacteria, can survive that.”

“That is not entirely accurate.”

“You know what I mean. The plague has been tested. You have tested it. This rat stew is just as safe as those carrots, or those tomatoes.” He pointed toward the garden with its two lights.

“Okay, but if we turn I am blaming you.” She took the spoon and put it up to her mouth. There was no meat on the spoon, just a piece of turnip and some broth.

“If we turn then maybe we will both be smart enough to cure this.”

She rolled her eyes and smiled, going in for another spoonful. “If we don’t turn, you may just have to catch more rats.”

***

He put his ear up to the brick and closed his eyes. He held his breath, listening close. “We have a problem.”

“What is it?” she asked without looking up from her cultures.

“It’s raining,” he said walking over towards her.

“I should think that’s a good thing.” She ventured a look over toward the fish pool. “The pool is running a little low.”

“I agree, but the problem isn’t so much that it is raining. It’s that there is no water coming in through the collector.”

She twirled to look at him. “When did that start to happen?”

“I don’t know. I assumed we were just going through a dry spell, but I can definitely hear rain out there. I’m going to go on the roof and check it out.”

“Can’t you do it from in here?”

“No. If it’s plugged then it probably has a good amount of water in it. To get to the clog from in here I would have to remove all my fittings. So when the clog goes so would all the water. Besides, this way I can take a look at the solar panels.”

“Can you at least wait until night so you’re not seen?”

“If I wait until night then I won’t be able to see.” He grabbed a small tool bag off his workbench. “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.” He pulled a pair of binoculars off a peg hook.

“What are you going to do with those?”

“Since I’m going up there it wouldn’t hurt to do a little recon.”

He pulled himself out of the ladder hatch and onto his belly, making sure that he stayed below the rim of the flat roof. There were two dozen solar panels up here, all pointed slightly south. He ignored them and sidled up to the edge of the building.

He peeked up slowly, carefully positioning his silhouette so as not to stand out. The street was empty and quiet, except for the pitter-patter of the rain. He looked at the skyline of what was once his city. He cocked his head slightly and brought the binoculars up to his face. He studied the skyscrapers for quite some time until he heard a noise from street level.

The pitter-patter had changed. A different pitch and tone came from down there now. He peered over the roof’s edge cautiously.

Two men stood down there. They were looking away from each other but not searching. They held hands.

The boy furrowed his brow and watched them with his naked eye. A bus rolled in shortly after. The couple, if that was what they were, released hands. The boy saw something that brought the binoculars hastily to his face. The two men were gone, but two other men and a woman stepped off the bus. He watched them closely as they all clasped hands and walked. He watched them until they were gone.

He traced up and down the street with his eyes while the rain soaked through his clothes, but all proved quiet. He turned his attention to the solar panels. They were dark with silt and grime. The rain only made patterns in the residue.

He stripped off his undershirt and gently scrubbed each panel. He took his time and squeezed out his shirt often, trying his best to make sure that none of the silt ran into the rain catcher. He gave each panel equal attention and by the end, his once gray shirt had turned black.

He checked the street again, finding no activity. The rain had picked up, and it had begun to grow darker, but nothing else had changed.

He scooted over to the rain catcher to discover that a large pool had collected. The yellowing white plastic funnel, tall enough to fit a man, and just as wide, was nearly full with sickly water. The boy exhaled in frustration. He tried to reach in with his hand, but he could feel nothing except the liquid and a few suspended bits of debris. Giving up, he stripped naked and slid in, feet first.

With his feet, he tried to feel the clog. He floated, not being able to touch the bottom. He let himself sink down, farther and farther, until his chin almost touched the water. Rain made the sickly pool splash into his face, but he could feel the clog. It was slimy and loose. He kicked it around and, for a brief moment, he could feel suction. It quickly stopped. Carefully he tried grabbing at the debris with his toes and hauling it up. It made for awkward work, but eventually he could feel suction again.

He kept kicking at it now, trying to maintain water flow. After a while, the water level receded to his waist. The storm had grown harsher and less forgiving. The rain maintained the water level no matter how much he kicked and plucked. He reached down with his hand and found that he could just catch something without pushing his face into the water. He pulled up a big ball of black and green sludge and chucked it into the corner of the roof, far away from the rain catcher.

The water swirled and receded faster. With his hands, he plucked out every piece of debris he could find. He grabbed his already soiled shirt and began scrubbing the sides of the catcher and wringing his shirt out just over the edge. Some of the grime came back in, but it was the best he could do. The water level held halfway up his calves. He cleaned the trap of everything else he could get his hands on and then hoisted himself out of the catcher.

Night was coming. He huddled himself in the far corner of the roof and tried his best to wring out all of his clothes. He was still naked. He let each article soak up the water of the rain and then wrung it. If brown and gray still came out, he let it get soaked again. The articles that he deemed clean he hung underneath the nearby solar panel. Rain still got at them there, but the panel did provide some shelter.

The boy let his wet clothes plop to the floor beneath him before descending the ladder.

“That took a long time,” said the girl absently.

“There was a lot to do,” the boy replied as he hung up his clothes and started putting on something dry. “The solar panels should be in better shape now, but their surface is eroding. They weren’t meant to be up there for so long without getting re-coated.”

“I imagine there isn’t much we can do about that.”

“The hosts have been busy though. The skyline has some new buildings to it.”

“Yeah?” The girl was not really paying attention.

The boy started prepping supper. It was bluegill this time. When supper was ready, the girl took leave from her work. “Did you say something about the skyline before?”

“I knew you weren’t really listening,” the boy said with a smile. “Yeah, there are at least four new buildings that I noticed, very tall and spindly things. Not quite sure how they are standing up.”

“Interesting. I can’t imagine why they would need the room. With the population significantly thinned, from a numbers standpoint they should have enough square-footage to support their civilization for at least a few decades, depending on how aggressively they decide to reproduce.”

“Maybe they are just looking for something to call their own. At least they aren’t building by us. A bulldozer could come through the wall someday and then that would be it.”

The girl raised her eyebrow. “We may just have to get on the housing committee or something. What were you doing looking at the skyline anyway? I thought you were going to keep a low profile.”

“I did. You know what’s weird? I saw a few of them and…”

She interjected: “You saw them. Do you know how much we have at risk here?”

“They were holding hands.”

“What? You mean like couples? Are they pairing off like they would if they were still human?”

“No, I don’t think so. There were two men, and there was also a group.”

“Exactly how many chances did you give them to see you?”

“There was something funny about their hands. They had sores on them. Every one of them did, right on the palm. When they held hands, it almost seemed like they were rubbing sores.”

“A test maybe, to ensure that they are all infected?”

“The other thing I noticed was that they never talked. Their mouths never moved.”

“Well, what do you think it is?”

“I’ve had some time to think about it, and I think they were communicating. It is certainly possible, from a purely biological standpoint. I mean the combined viral bacterial infection in the case of the plague is essentially a vast network spread out across the entire human body. Why not allow for direct and pure communication by utilizing the network itself?”

“So you think the sores are communication ports?”

“Essentially.”

“That is outside of the original design, though.”

“Yeah, but we are talking about a sentient life form, an entire civilization of sentient life forms. They had to work inside the confines of the human body. It stands to reason that they would eventually look towards improvement. Even you can see the benefits of direct mind-to-mind communication. If we had it, as humans, then it would have surely become the most popular means of communication, especially in scholarly circles.”

The girl’s eyes grew wide. She shot to her feet and raced back to her lab equipment.

The boy finished his last bite, wiped his mouth, and casually headed off after her. “What is it now, hun?” he said as he came up behind her.

She was scribbling some notes on a pad. “You’re a genius. An absolute genius,” she said without looking up.

“I am not going to deny these facts, but I’d like to know why.”

“Think about it. If they are always touching each other, always with open sores, always infecting each other, then we don’t have to worry about transmission, they will do that for us.”

“Yeah, I thought about that, but after the first one gets sick they will catch on.”

“I just have to make it latent. Give the vaccine, the cure, a month of dormancy, just enough time for it to spread, but not enough time for them to find their own cure after the first one drops.”

“But what about the proliferation? Will it spread far enough and fast enough?”

“Have you ever heard of a mathematician by the name of Erdös?”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“He was well known as a wandering mathematician, and had perhaps collaborated with more mathematicians on more papers than any other single person in the community. Keeping track of who worked with him had become a curiosity amongst many mathematicians. As with anything in the mathematical community, they converted this curiosity into a number, an Erdös number. Erdös himself has an Erdös number of 0, any of his direct collaborators have an Erdös number of 1, any of their collaborators have an Erdös number of 2, and so on and so forth. By the time you get to 6 over half of the entire mathematical community was represented.”

“What’s your point?”

“These mathematicians sat down to write published papers, and even they became ‘infected’ through one vector by as few as six degrees of separation. Now imagine if it was just to have a cup of coffee, or whatever the hell these hosts do for fun. I don’t know how often they touch, but it could be spread throughout the entire population in just a month.”

“From what little I saw, if they were near each other, they were touching sores.”

“Even better. I just have to work on the dormancy. It shouldn’t even be that difficult. I already have the proper bacteria to structure it after.”

The boy leaned in and kissed her temple. She was frantically scribbling in her notebook. He could not make out the words, but he did not want to. He went over to the ultraviolet lights, kicked another one on, and watched them for a moment. After they held steady he wrapped himself in a blanket and went to bed.

***

The boy poured the liquid into the drone’s jug. “Is it going to work?” he asked.

“It’s going to have to,” the girl replied as she watched over his shoulder.

The boy plugged in his tablet and began fiddling with some parameters.

“Do you have the flight plan all figured out?” the girl asked as she watched his fingers tapping and sliding over the screen.

“Near enough. Have to base it on what little recon I did last year. We can’t really risk being seen again.”

“Is it going to be able to see in the dark?”

“No, I removed the camera. It couldn’t even see if it were day. It will just have to rely on its own knowledge of where it thinks it is.”

“How long will it take?”

“The flight is scheduled to last twenty-six minutes. That gives us two minutes of leeway. If the batteries drain too quickly it will come back sooner, though.”

“Come back?”

“Yeah, we can’t risk it being found.”

“Oh, right,” she said and then leaned in to kiss his temple.

The boy attached the batteries but left them unplugged. They went up to the roof into the night air. The streetlights and the waxing gibbous moon lit the darkness. The city skyline loomed in front of them. They stayed low, below the rim of the roof. They crawled toward the roof’s edge, with the boy pushing the drone out in front of him.

“Shoot,” the boy whispered as he got to the edge. “I forgot binoculars.”

She reached forward and set the binoculars in front of him. He looked back and could see a tired smile on her face. He reflected her smile back to her.

He looked over the city. The skyline twinkled and he could see small hints of activity off in the distance. He edged his view closer to their position and eventually rested on the bus stop. There was no one there. Their immediate vicinity was clear.

“It looks good,” he said. “Hopefully there are enough people out and about.”

“Hosts,” she corrected. “And it shouldn’t matter. It can lay dormant and survive out in the open for perhaps a week. As long as it’s in high traffic areas it has a good chance of working.”

“Well, I did my best with that.”

“I know you did.”

“It should be safe for us to stand,” he said as he did so. She stood up too. They perched the drone on the corner of the roof. The boy plugged in the batteries and initiated the drone. Without lingering, it took to flight, and disappeared into the night.

She slipped her hand into his, and he pulled her in front of him so that they both looked into the skyline. He wrapped his arms around her.

“I like that we are together here right now,” she said with a grin.

Two months passed before they came up for air again. They did so cautiously and together. It was daytime. The solar panels were dirty, and the rain catcher was working on another clog. The city was quiet, except for the sounds of birds. They looked out over the cityscape, down into the roads, and saw nothing, no movement. At the bus stop, two corpses lie together, holding hands. The boy and the girl held hands too, and smiled.

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About the Author

Clint Monette is a fleshy being who can often be seen walking or watching television with another rather sweet fleshy being that he appears to be affectionate toward. When he is not walking or watching television he spends his time hunched over a small computing device while carefully rebuffing a small four legged creature. This creature enjoys stealing attention with a small lapping appendage, and has a demeanor that could be described as “peppy.” What Clint is doing at the device isn’t certain, but he appears to be creating things, and hoping against hope that they are good. You can find some of these creations at www.clintmonette.com.

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  1. […] already read all of those and want to prepare for next week’s discussion, go read “The Plague Between Us” by Clint Monette on Crossed Genres, (one of) the short fictional apocalypses I am planning on discussing next […]

  2. […] Read “The Plague Between Us” for free on Crossed Genres. […]

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