An Excerpt from FOUNDERS’ EFFECT

War of the Second Iteration, Book Two

 

Somewhere nearby voices were raised. As they paused and listened more carefully, it was obvious concern and even alarm were being expressed. Passers-by were gravitating toward something anti-spinward of where they stood. “There’s a public news terminal over that way, I think,” John said. “Let’s follow along and see if this is a reaction to a report.”

It was not far, and what they found was a holographic newscast being looped over and over, a well-dressed young woman at a low desk, calmly assuring the public that, while the Commonwealth had departed, they had first trained station medical staff, and left sufficient supplies to finish treating all residents. As people arrived in waves, and departed in small groups, comments changed from, “They’ve left?” to “I hope they left enough,” and many variations on those themes. To the question of why the Commonwealth mission had pulled out so soon, and so suddenly, no answer was forthcoming, but the buzz of conversation quickly passed from alarm to the sort of puzzled speculation that would keep conversations alive in bars and restaurants through the night.

“Looks like I blew my chance to do that bit of recon,” John said to Wirolen as soon as they were far enough away from the terminal to avoid being easily overheard.

“So it seems. John, this feels even less right than before, if that is possible.”

“It has the feel of a plot moving forward, doesn’t it?”

“We should leave, too,” Wirolen said.

“Our flight plan is for departure forty-eight hours from now,” John replied. “Changing that right now might look suspicious to the station master’s office, with the alleged Commonwealthers moving out in such a hurry.”

“Yia,” she said, seeming a bit reluctant.

John nodded and said, “Can’t say I blame you. But out here in the DZ, calling attention to yourself by doing something unexpected is a very bad policy.”

“Well, if we are to behave normally, let us do something normal, like having dinner.”

“The usual place?”

“Yia.”

It was halfway around the station from there, so they found their way to a tube station and caught the first capsule passing in the spinward direction. The capsule was moderately crowded, a mix of folk coming home from the day cycle work shift. Some were still a bit high on the medicine dispensed by the recently departed medical team; others were discussing the lack of reason given by the Commonwealth for their sudden departure. Mixed in were people who seemed weary, as if the day had been long. Wirolen was the only Leyra’an aboard, and attracted some attention. A dark-haired man, graying at the temples, surrendered his seat to her, and attached himself to a handhold, giving John a nod when the two made eye contact.

John almost did a double-take, and barely restrained himself. The courteous gentleman had an odd combination of flushed cheeks set against an overall pallor, and sweat beaded his nose and forehead. And there was a small but angry-looking red welt on his neck just below the right ear. He glanced down at Wirolen, but if she had taken note of the man’s obviously feverish condition, she gave no sign. And the gentleman in question left the tube capsule at the next stop.

Two stops later, one stop before their own, a woman boarded with two pre-teen girls in tow. The woman seemed out of sorts and spoke sharply to one of the girls, then pressed her hand to her left temple, as if plagued by a headache. For some reason, this too caused John a feeling of concern, though he was damned if he could put a finger to what troubled him.

Came their stop, and they found themselves back on the concourse, in the same strip of shops, offices, and eateries they had found the day of their arrival. Wirolen wrapped her arm around him, as was her habit when they strolled anywhere. The outside tables were all taken, so they strolled through the door, and found themselves greeted by the same waitress. Once again, Eliza looked and sounded tired.

“Not sleeping any better?” John asked as she led them to the same table they had used on several visits.

“It’s that obvious?” she replied. She scratched absently at the back of her head, and then did it again. “But I’ve been sort of off the mark for a day or so, now. Must be that medicine taking hold. They said I’d go way up, then sort of drop a bit before things sorted out.”

Ahs’ah impris!” Wirolen gasped, and caught at Eliza’s arm from where she now sat. “What happened to your elbow?”

“I… I don’t have any idea,” Eliza said, looking with wide eyes to where Wirolen indicated. “You’d think I’d have felt that, if I banged into something!”

“It almost looks like a burn,” John said, examining the ugly red lesion.

Even as it came to him that it looked just like the welt on their fellow tube passenger’s neck, and that Eliza looked a touch feverish, the woman scratched her head again. Her hand came away red with her blood on her fingertips. “What?” she gasped, gaping at her hand. “What? What?”

John came to his feet and stepped around behind her. “Hold still and let me see,” he said. “And calm down.” Her hands were shaking. Wirolen picked up a napkin and wiped the blood from the girl’s fingers, removing the visual stimulus that so clearly upset her. “Do you feel any pain back here?” he asked, searching through hair dampened by perspiration and a small amount of blood.

“N… No,” she stammered. “It itches. A lot.”

Just at her hairline John found an ugly, bleeding sore, sunken in the center. “You should get to medical, right now.”

“Is it Founders’?” She turned to look at him, blue eyes round and fearful. “Do I have Founders’?”

“No,” John said firmly, knowing it might calm her even as he cast about for a way to motivate her to seek help without simply giving her something else to fear. Before he could go further an elderly man in a pale green suit and a white shirt joined them.

“What’s going on here?” he demanded, frowning.

“I think I’m sick, boss. I think I need to see a doctor.”

“Let me see,” he said gruffly. He looked where John indicated and shuddered. “Yes, okay, why don’t you take off and…”

Someone outside screamed, a high, thin wailing. And then kept screaming.

Somehow, Wirolen was out the door ahead of him, even though she was seated when the outcry arose. John followed; the server – hand to the back of her head – and her employer, trailed along behind. A crowd had gathered around one of the outside tables, near which a young man lay on the ground, shivering and twitching. A girl knelt by his head, now gasping and crying instead of screaming. Wirolen dropped down beside her and asked, “What happened to him? What did you see?” She shook the girl hard and said, “Answer!”

“He wasn’t feeling well. Said he felt hot. Then he started yelling that it hurt and he fell down! And look at him! Look at his face! Oh, God, please, help us!”

John looked, and muttered “God save us!” a prayer to match that of the young woman. People around them were already drawing back and turning away, too unsettled by what they saw to remain nearby. The man’s face should have been fair-skinned, to judge by the pale color of his hair, but instead was a pasty gray with a sickly blue tint. His face and arms were sprinkled with small lesions that oozed blood, and were spreading and opening even as they watched. Sweat soaked his clothing, and he gasped for breath as he lay trembling on the green concrete of the concourse.

Around them, mixed in the buzz of conversation, were exclamations of fear as people saw that they had welts on their hands and arms similar to, if not yet as frightful as those of the young man on the ground. The young victim of the bizarre plague that seemed to be spreading through Webster Station opened his eyes, coughed, and gasped out the word, “Help…!”

War of the Second Iteration – the complete series – is also available though Kindle Unlimited.

 

Posted May 11, 2017 by underdesertstars

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