One -Asher Infected

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Asher was in school the day he was exposed to the Horarium Virus. Kindness betrayed him to the deadly disease. The irony of that was not lost on him. The harmless act of picking up a dropped book for a fellow student set in motion the end of life as he knew it.

"Thanks, man!" said the boy as he took the book extended in Asher's hand.

"No problem, bro," Asher replied with a grin. It was just a moment in passing.

The world was a different place from the time Asher’s parents were kids. Asher’s act made him feel old-fashioned and chivalrous. Since the Horarium Virus had been unleashed upon the world, no one ever made physical contact with anyone else or even others' possessions for fear of contamination. Asher later thought that he should have followed the norm rather than giving into a chivalrous impulse. People kept a four-foot space between themselves and others and never touched anything belonging to others unless it had the “CDC Approved - Disinfected. Remove seal upon contact” sticker.

He hadn’t had time for self-reflection. He acted on impulse and he felt pretty good as he sauntered into class. The large room with the far-spaced desks was abuzz with friendly conversation. Each student sat in or loitered near their assigned desk, having removed the “Approved Disinfected” sticker that morning. Some students wore their designer anti-microbial face-masks, though these were mostly for show now. It had been established that physical contact with a contaminated person or surface caused contamination. Somehow, that didn’t prevent it from spreading. It also didn’t  prompt fashion-conscious teens to give up their expensive, trendy face masks.

Class started when the teacher’s image appeared on the viz-screen at the front of class. He might not be in the classroom, but he could still see them on the cams. It made more sense, since rooms had to be so much larger, to split the classes into fewer students and remote-teach from just one room. The teacher wouldn’t be in Asher’s room until Thursday.

In the middle of discussing the Battle of Hastings, the CDC opened the classroom door. Everyone froze in panic. They all knew what those orange Biohazard suits meant. Someone in the classroom was infected.

“Stay seated and remain calm,” instructed one of the four alien-looking figures making their way into the room. Their voices were civil, but their guns told the lethal results of disobedience. A girl stifled a scream. Well, it sounded like a girl.

Asher remembered the book and the ill-advised contact he had perpetrated. A cold sweat broke out all over him and he could feel his adrenaline surge. The CDC men swept the room with ID scanners, waving the devices at the students. One orange-clad figure’s scanner swath rested on Asher and beeped with a menacing whine.

“Asher Reeves?” asked the muffled voice. The face behind the clear plastic shield looked sympathetic.

Asher nodded with his mouth dry and his voice locked.

“You’ll have to come with us, son,” the CDC worker declared.

Asher stood in obedience and gathered his things from the desktop. Dropping them into his backpack and slinging the pack over his shoulder, he followed. He could hear the others in the room exclaim their relief at their near-miss with death as he left. Asher didn’t get a near-miss. Surrounded by the CDC men, Asher proceeded to the Mobile Response Unit that had been erected in the school parking lot.

Urgency and concern drove the hive of orange-clad medical personnel, buzzing with purpose. Asher saw the owner of that fateful book sitting on a gurney across the white plastic tent. Their eyes met, Asher’s regretful and the boy’s remorseful.

Lightning-fast, the team drew Asher’s blood, checked all his vital signs, and checked all his information on their Digi-slates. He felt like a subject and not a person. This was just work to them, but this was his life!

Even the news, the worst thing he would ever hear, came in a businesslike manner.

“I’m sorry son, but I’m afraid you’ve tested positive,” said the man in the suit, his glasses shining behind the plastic hood in a manner that made him look even less human.

Asher felt numb. He heard no wailing and crying, no sirens, no baleful music to signal his doom. No one even slowed down the pace of rushing to diagnose.

It didn’t help that the four enormous men in red plastic suits lurking close by grabbed him, shoved him contorted facedown onto the gurney, and handcuffed him.

The man with the glasses then clipped on the “last jewelry”. Asher knew what it was. Everybody knew what it was. The CDCLJ was the Centers for Disease Control Life Judge. It even won the Nobel Prize. Worn around the wrist, it monitored the life signs of victims of the Horarium Virus, monitoring their temperature and position. It allowed the uninfected populace to know where he, the infected, could be located at all times inside the city’s Quarantine Zone. It also kept track of what his temperature read, and when his time had run out. Curtains. He would die of a terrible and unstoppable fever, climbing until it killed him, and the LJ would tell them when it happened. They could find his corpse and dispose of it. It would be a consolation to his family to know when to begin to mourn, though they would probably start as soon as they discovered he had been sent to The Zone.

And that’s where they were taking him now. They ushered him to a truck with a hermetically sealed and armored cab. Nobody could get to that driver and infect him. Asher had seen the Digi-vids of all the CDC tech. One of the things he had liked for a career option when he graduated was joining the CDC. Their vans’ cabs were impervious to bullets and almost any other kind of projectile. They latched from the inside and protected the drivers from attack as well as infection. Still, driving into the Zone was a job with rich hazard pay. The back of the truck had also been constructed to be impervious from the outside as well as the inside. Instead of hermetically sealing it, which was unnecessary, they had built a network of sharp steel slits surrounded by more sharp steel. He could see outside the truck through the slits and also cut himself to pieces on those steel perforations. That was an acceptable way out for those who couldn’t face the wait. The truck would even prevent his tainted blood from reaching unwitting victims outside the vehicle. As an added bonus, the slits prevented anyone outside from reaching him and becoming infected. The inches of jagged metal saw to that.

Inside the truck sat the boy who had infected him through contact with the book, and a girl. The girl sobbed with her hair hanging and obscuring her face. The boy didn’t cry, but his face contorted as if he might.

“I’m so sorry, man! I…I didn’t know. I would never have….” The boy looked distraught. Asher could only grunt and nod. It wasn’t much of an absolution, but it was all he could manage. The three were silent the rest of the drive except for the girl’s sobbing.

It wasn’t that far to The Zone. The truck idled while it went through all the heavily-armed checkpoints. None of his family would bust through to get him out, or even to join him. They would be shot down first. The CDC made no exceptions about that. Healthy people did not get in.

Watching the last gate as the truck passed through chilled his soul. He was in the Quarantine Zone now and he would never see anywhere else again. The doors popped open and the driver’s voice blared through the loudspeaker attached to the truck.

“Ride’s over, kids. Everything you need to know is on the billboard to the right of the truck. Rest in peace,” said the tinny voice.

His heart dropped into his stomach, but somehow he stepped out of the truck. The girl began to scream, long and loud and hysterical.

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