Alice snapped the medical bag shut and turned her calming smile back onto the girl. Her once flushed face was already returning to its usual complexion.
“There,” Alice murmured, stroking the girl’s shoulder, “that wasn’t too bad, was it?”
The child shook her head, nervously plucking at the fresh Patch on her mottled arm.
“Ah, ah,” Alice said warningly. “Don’t pick at it, or it’ll fall off again. And what’ll happen then?”
“The pictures’ll come back,” the child mumbled.
“Exactly. And you don’t want that, do you?”
The strawberry-blond head shook once again.
“All right,” Alice said, rising to her feet. “Now, it’s nearly dinner time. Why don’t you run off and get yourself a seat?”
The words were barely out before the girl jumped off the wire-frame bed and hurtled out of the room.
A moment later Frank appeared in the curtained doorway.
“Done?” he asked.
“She was the last,” Alice said with a nod.
Frank stepped back, allowing her to join him in the corridor.
“We were just in time,” Alice said, falling slightly behind as Frank lurched on ahead. “The hallucinations were starting as I turned up.”
“I told you,” Frank grumbled. “The virus doesn’t wait long once the Patch is finished.”
Alice scratched her own Patch thoughtfully at these words.
“Don’t dawdle,” the man said, throwing the words over his shoulder. “Zachary wants to see us.”
This caused her to fall still.
Colonel Zachary barely ever asked to see anyone. Least of all two medical attendants like Frank and Alice. The Patch began to itch and sweat began to prickle against her forehead. The day was beginning to look bleak.
“What I say doesn’t leave this room, understood?”
Alice glanced over to Frank, hoping for some guidance in his eyes. But, not for the first time, she began to wonder whether Frank had been anything in his life other than sullen.
Right now, those grim, stony eyes were fixed unwaveringly onto the Colonel.
Colonel Harriet Zachary leaned back in her chair, running a pale hand across her crew-cut hair. Now in her late fifties, her face had grown hard and lined like a walnut. Her sinewy body gave an impression of fatigue and weakness, but the glaring steel-grey eyes were enough to send a chill down Alice’s spine. Those were eyes that had seen horrors she could never imagine. And rightly so, considering Colonel Zachary was one of the few in the camp old enough to have been present for Point Zero.
“We have a problem,” the Colonel stated, her eyes drilling into Alice.
“Tell me something new,” Frank muttered.
“Our monthly delivery ain’t happening this month.”
Now Frank did react. His eyebrows rose and a snarl bounced onto his lips. “Is that some kind of joke?” he asked, almost jumping from his seat.
Zachary raised a hand, immediately silencing him. Her eyes darted to the door. She was one of the only people in the compound allowed a physical door, and right now she looked immensely grateful for that fact.
“I wish it was just that, Blake,” the Colonel said. “The truck coming from Outpost 19 was caught in a storm. Everything was lost.”
Alice’s eyes drifted down to Frank’s hands. They were gripping the arms of his chair, the knuckles blanched completely white. She glanced back at his face. Was that fury? Or fear?
“But that truck was carrying next month’s supply of Patches!”
“And food, and clean water, and blankets, and God knows what else,” Zachary snapped.
“We can ration the food and the water,” Frank snapped, his face turning almost yellow. “But we can’t ration the Patches!”
“And what do you want me to do?”
“Anything!” Frank roared.
Alice flinched. It was both. Fear was driving his fury on, making it burn hotter and hotter. If he wasn’t careful . . .
“Frank . . .” Alice murmured.
“I know,” Frank snapped, visibly calming. But only slightly.
“What’s done is done, and what’s lost is lost,” Zachary said. “You’re right, we can ration food and water, but you’re wrong about the Patches.”
Frank sighed, shaking his head. Alice placed a hand on his, not knowing what else to do. He snatched it away, shooting her an angry glance. “What are you suggesting?” the medical attendant asked.
“As it is, we have enough Patches to last another three weeks, correct?”
“You know it is.”
“We need them to last another eight, at least.” Colonel Zachary’s eyes met Frank’s. A conversation was happening, one that Alice had no part in.
“How – how do we do that?” she asked.
“Operation 80,” Frank said quietly.
“Fresh Patches only go to the young, and indispensable staff,” Zachary explained. “Everyone else will have to . . .”
“Survive as best they can.”
“But without the Patches –” Alice began.
“Things’ll go to shit,” Frank answered.
“Not if you handle this correctly.” The Colonel sighed. For just the briefest of moments, she looked twenty years older. “This is a crisis, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, but we have two hundred people to consider.”
“And you’re planning on letting half of them die in the next month,” Frank snarled.
“That’s the best outcome we can hope for, Frank!” She leaned in closer. “When stock begins to run low, tempers are going to start running high. Things will go to shit, yes, but I need people like you on my side to help stop pandemonium breaking out. Can you promise me that?”
Frank stared at her, silent for a moment. A small wheeze suddenly crept out of his lips, the closest he could manage to a laugh. “Do I have a choice?” And that was that. He sank back into his chair, deflated and pallid.
“Over the coming weeks we’ll have the East section cordoned off,” Zachary explained, her hands shaking slightly. “Those who end up without Patches will be quarantined there. That way, the risk of total panic will be minimised.”
“Forget the quarantine,” Frank murmured, a sick smile twitching the corner of his lips. “You should just shoot them. It would be kinder.”
Point Zero was what they ended up calling it, those that survived. There weren’t many left now, and, of those that remained, not many of them liked to talk about what they’d seen. Mainly, what they spent their time doing, was trying to forget.
Alice had been eight years old when it happened. Thankfully, at such a young age, she had managed to block most of it. One of the fragments she could recall was how, in the last hours, some of the news stations had run a countdown. A morbid timer dialling down to when the bombs finally began to drop. And, when it reached zero, the first, and only, wave dropped.
In the end all it took was a couple of bombs; one instigating missile, and one sent in retaliation. The pair were enough to wipe out both the warring countries, and the peaceful ones too.
Eventually the survivors pooled together, managed to form some sort of cummunity. But it wasn’t long after that the virus followed. There was only one symptom that anyone knew of. If there were more, no one had survived long enough to experience them. Sufferers began to develop hallucinations. Visions so awful and vivid that the victims were driven into a madness. Most ended their own lives, whilst others were put out of their misery by those around them. It was impossible to know just how many lives were lost, but it took another two years before the Patches were finally developed.
These small squares, applied directly to the skin, effectively blocked the virus from spreading. Of course, the Patch only lasted as long as a week, and when they ran out it was a race against time before the virus took hold. That was the job of Alice and Frank. They were the ones who stood between the people of the camp, and the virus that could wipe them out. Now, with the loss of their next delivery, that was a battle they had now lost.
In two days Frank had aged. His skin was greying, unshaven, and his eyes were sinking into darkened hollows from lack of sleep. His hands trembled as he recounted the small amount of Patches that remained.
“This is all we can spare today,” he murmured, his eyes not leaving the pile.
Alice followed his gaze. What Frank had selected wouldn’t even cover half of those that needed a fresh prescription. He heaved a ragged sigh. Alice caught him just as he tottered, his knees buckling beneath him.
“I’ll do the rounds alone,” Alice said, guiding him to a chair. “You get some rest.”
“No,” Frank said, weakly trying to get up. “There’s too much to do.”
“Rest!” Alice barked, trying her best to impersonate the man before her. He couldn’t help but smile at that. Her eyes flickered down to his arm. When had his Patch last been replaced? Five, or six days?
A hacking cough broke free from the man, causing him to double-up and tears to jump to his eyes. Alice went to bend over him, but she was frozen by his cautionary hand.
“Go do the rounds,” he said, wiping spittle on the back of his hand.
Wordlessly, her eyes barely leaving Frank, she swept up the fresh Patches, picked up a clipboard, and then left.
The first thing she noticed was the increased military presence. Usually, whilst on her way round the camp, Alice would see maybe half-a-dozen soldiers loitering around. They would give her a brief, non-official nod as she went past. Most would be leaning against doorways, not paying particular attention to much at all. But today it seemed no one had been spared, and they were all alert. They ignored Alice; the citizens were their sole focus. The ones who might make trouble when they found out there weren’t enough Patches that day.
Alice couldn’t help but feel her eyes drawn to the rifles they each held. Today they weren’t just part of the uniform. Today she remembered what they could do. She clutched the straps of her bag tighter, increased her pace, and tried not to meet the gaze of Trey.
He was expecting his Patch. He had been watching her walk up the corridor. He had watched her walk past him.
She ignored him, gritting her teeth and trying to block out the sound of his voice.
“Alice! I – I need my Patch! Hey, you forgot to give me my Patch!” He was shouting now, limping crookedly after her. She knew he would be clutching the wall for support, unable to stand up properly now. That was why Frank had crossed him off their list. That was why two soldiers had stepped away from their post and had taken hold of him. Alice began to hum, tried to focus on that, rather than the sound of Trey being dragged away to the East section.
The day went smoother than Alice was expecting. Though she could put that down to the soldiers. Wherever she went, at least two were watching, waiting to snap up anyone who had been crossed off the list.
Now, much earlier than usual, her bag was empty, the names were ticked off, and the work was finished. But Alice had never felt more tired. Trey’s screams had followed her all day. The sounds of all their anguished screams would haunt her. The cries as they realised what was coming had echoed down the halls.
She was alone now. After the final patient, she had decided she needed some space. Without realising it, allowing her legs to take control, she had wound up on the ground floor. She stared around her, taking in the abandoned, darkening room. No one came up here anymore. Even Alice hadn’t been up here since she was younger. She had used to come up when she wanted to be alone, when those subterranean tunnels became too suffocating. She remembered how she would stand in front of the door and stare out of the round, grimy window. How many hours had she spent gazing at the barren wilderness, dreaming of being able to finally step outside again?
That ache suddenly hit her once more. She glanced over her shoulder, a childish sense of guilt hitting her. No one was really supposed to be up here. But, then again, if they found her, what exactly could they do? It wasn’t as if she was planning on going out. She just wanted a look.
She took a step towards the iron-bolted door. She spat on her hand and started wiping some of the caked-on grime that had built up over the years. It took a few minutes, but, eventually, she managed to make a just few inches clear enough to see through. It wasn’t much different from what she remembered.
The grey, scorched earth rolled on to the horizon. Occasional clods of dirt would skip along, carried by a howling wind. Skeletal ruins were in the distance, the blanched remains of buildings, their purpose long forgotten. A chill down her spine. She couldn’t help but feel that, someday soon, the camp would end up looking just as bad as those damaged relics.
This was a bad idea, she thought. Nothing about that scene made her feel easier. There was no hope outside that window, only a lifeless tableau of ruin. She was just turning back when the man appeared.
He stumbled out of the ruins, barely keeping upright as his foot caught a block of stone. Alice snapped back round, her eyes widening. She knew that face. It was mired in panic and fear, but she still recognised him.
He was one of the deliverymen, she was sure of it. How many times had he made lewd remarks to Alice as she helped unpack the boxes? How many unsolicited winks had she received? How often had she had to stop herself from slapping his sneering face? It was difficult to like Lou, but that wasn’t going to stop her from helping him. Besides, if he had survived the storm, perhaps the delivery was still salvageable?
“Hey!” she yelled, slamming her hand against the door. “Over here!”
But he couldn’t hear her. He continued on, tripping and staggering as he walked aimlessly along the plain. He didn’t seem to know where he was, nor even care, as far as Alice could see. His shirt was torn to ribbons, exposing his milky white skin. Streaks of red ran down his front and along his face, and bruises were forming. He could have concussion, Alice thought. Maybe even a broken arm, judging by the way the left one hung limply by his side.
If he wasn’t treated soon it could spell badly for him. She glanced around. Of course there was no one else. If he was going to be helped, then the only person to do so had to be her. She turned back to the window. He wasn’t far away. With the way he was walking, and the dazed look in his eyes, Alice was certain he wasn’t going to outrun her.
She took a few deep breaths, trying to think of a better idea. When one failed to appear, Alice let out a sigh, and then took a final glance outside. Lou had stopped, only around twelve feet away from the door. His pale, blood-streaked face was turned up towards the steel-grey sky. His mouth was open, mid-scream, but the sounds were swallowed by the howling of the wind.
Steeling herself, and grunting with the effort, Alice managed to slide the two heavy bolts across. They wailed with the effort, barely tearing themselves free. Once they were loose, Alice turned the handle and heaved the door open.
As soon as she took her first step outside her hair was thrown across her face, and the breath was snatched out of her. The screaming of the wind was so much worse; Alice struggled to even hear her own thoughts race by. And the strength was almost enough to knock her to the floor. But, with one arm out to try and balance herself, Alice started to make her way towards Lou.
The sounds of his screams became audible as she approached. There was something inhuman in the wails, and the agony it held started to bite at Alice. She began cursing herself for coming out, but she also didn’t have the strength to turn back. That was when she noticed.
His arms, save for a sleeve of bruising, were blank. No Patch, she thought. There really was nothing she could do. Looking at him should have been enough to tell her it was too late for him. The other worldly screams simply punctuated his madness.
But the delivery, she thought. If she could get him a fresh Patch, if he was given enough aid and time to recover, then he may be able to lead them to the truck, or whatever had survived of it, at least.
She pressed a hand against his arm. The screaming cut off, as if a door had been slammed shut. His blood-shot eyes rolled in their sockets, fixing themselves on Alice. Horror blazed in his pupils. A fresh, equally harrowing shriek leapt from his lips. His hand slapped across her face, the crack of the impact blotting out both the wind and his screams. She staggered back, blood trickling from her nose and stars dancing in front of her eyes. Given his condition he shouldn’t have been that strong. She’d dealt with patients in the beginning stages of the virus, and not one of them had possessed that sort of brute strength.
Was he too far gone?
She turned back to him, hoping to try and calm him down. Before she had time to react, he was on top of her, his fists raised and his lips curled into a violent snarl. Alice raised her arms, blocking the first two blows. A scream of pain burst out of her. She had to get away. She tried to slap his arms away, tried to push him far away enough to let her run back to the camp. But his fists kept flying, kept hitting her and knocking her off-balance, until she couldn’t tell which way was back. She was just stumbling backwards, her legs screaming with fatigue and her arms throbbing with pain, when she saw the tears streaming down his face. His face was emblazoned with terror.
“Get away from me!” he shrieked, his voice piercing the storm.
He raised his hand, released a roar, and threw it towards her. She screamed again, raised her arm above her head, and almost collapsed with pain as the blow connected. But the pain played second-fiddle to the sensation she recognised with dread. She hurriedly staggered backwards, avoiding Lou’s second fist. Her eyes stared at her bare, freckled arm and her lips began to tremble.
Her Patch was gone. Panicking, her breath escaping like bullets, she glared at the ground, scanning every patch of grey dirt. If she wasn’t quick, if she didn’t grab it soon, then she’d lose it to the wind. She knew it. Just as the icy claws of terror were scraping along her mind, she spotted it. The clear, square of plastic was nestled against a wedge of mortar. She caught sight of it as a gust of wind teased at it, causing it to jitter as the squall tried to pick it up.
Ignoring the growing pain in her arms and thighs, Alice rocketed towards the Patch, knocking Lou aside as his groping hands searched for her. She snatched up the film just as it was being prized out from its corner. She heaved a sigh of relief, tears of gratitude springing into her eyes. She was about to reapply the Patch when she heard a guttural roar from behind. Against her better judgment, she turned. Horror poured over her.
She had mistaken that for Lou?
Warm, sickening bile began to crawl up Alice’s throat. The figure’s chest was scorched black in places, the skin beginning to peel off like dried wallpaper. Both arms were covered in blood and a translucent ooze that trickled and dripped from the end of his flayed fingertips. His left cheek was torn open, revealing cracked and browning teeth to the unforgiving wind. His eyes weren’t merely blood-shot, they were blood-drenched. The vessels had burst, blinding him entirely. Clicking escaped his sunburnt throat, his agonised screams dying away. The only people who could help this man now were the soldiers currently sitting oblivious in the camp.
Before the vomit escaped her, Alice turned her back on the man. The Patch was still clutched in her hand, she had to apply it now before –
Her blood ran cold and her mouth was drenched with a bitter taste. She was staring down at – could this really be her arm? It was scorched red. The patches that weren’t mottled and wrinkled were covered in yellowing, marble-sized blisters. These sores ran all along her forearm and up to her shoulder. A wretched stench poured out the lesions that had been burst by Lou. Clear, oozing liquid ran down, mixing with blood. Whether it belonged to her or him, she could no longer tell.
Pain that had, previously, been knocking quietly on the backdoor of her mind, was now front and centre. How had she not noticed it before? Tears running down her face, anguished yelps dancing out of her mouth, Alice struggled to her feet and lurched back towards the camp entrance. The pain overtook her as she reached the door. She used her right arm to support her, but she buckled under the small pressure. Blisters decorated this limb too, though not so much as her left. The main fault lay in how thin and withered her arm was.
“It’s not . . . real . . .” she panted. But the pain was arguing the contrary.
She flopped against the door, and there she saw herself. It wasn’t the strongest of reflections, but the ghostly image was clear enough for Alice. Her hair came in sporadic patches, leaving portions of pale scalp visible. Her face was gaunt and as mottled by burns as her arms. Her eyes had buried themselves in two darkened hollows, now widened by horror. Her thin, cracked lips were parted, giving view to two rows of tiny, grey teeth.
Alice turned away, clamping her eyes shut and squeezing the tears out. She started banging her head against the door. It had to be the virus, it just had to be.
But the pain couldn’t be imagined. She sank to the floor, clutching her rakish chest and sobbing silently. The Patch was still clutched between her emaciated fingers. Flickering this way and that as the wind continued to try and steal it.
That was it, Alice thought, watching Lou stumble and limp his way blindly through the ruins. His pitiful howls being lost within the wind. The Patches didn’t cure the virus. There was no virus. There were no hallucinations, except for the ones the Patches provided. The agony laying claim to her body was testament to that. If it continued for much longer she knew what would happen. She was staring at it.
She needed a new Patch – she needed a dozen. She needed the fantasy again. She needed the anaesthetic that the Patches had to provide. She needed to be free again. She couldn’t bear the pain lucidity brought. If this was reality, she thought, struggling to stand again, if this was what waited for them when the Patches ran out, then even madness would be bliss.