Continuing directly from part 3 (here). Also, if you’d like a copy of the whole story for your preferred eReader device (Kindle, Nook, etc.) or a PDF version, just email me at email@example.com.
Radio Complex, New Sacramento
December 24th, 2069
Jeff had been suffering frequent migraines for weeks. Frequent? No, constant. The dull throb was always there—some days it burned brighter and, bringing on a constellation of other symptoms from joint-ache to sensitivity to light, it left him feeling weak and crippled. But even at times when he felt comparatively normal, the pain was still there in the background, like a long-burning, low-grade fever was eating him up inside. He hadn’t told anyone. During the time he was too weak to go to work, he told his supervisors that he had the flu. That’s probably what it was, anyway. I’m not lying, he thought to himself on those days, hanging up the phone after calling in sick. He wasn’t withholding the truth—he told them he had the flu, and he probably really did. And the most severe flare up of symptoms had passed in a couple days, anyway. So he went back to work.
“How are you doing, Shippy?” Alan used Jeff’s old nickname. Neither of them could remember where or why the moniker had started. “I heard you had the flu. That sucks. My wife and I had it this time last year. I remember those long nights where we basically took turns sleeping on the bathroom floor.”
Jeff tried to smile. Sometimes he wanted to tell someone he didn’t feel right. Occasionally, he wanted to mention that he had skipped the vet. But every time he thought about saying those words aloud, he experienced a deep, visceral revulsion—automatic physical refusal to follow the impulse, like he would experience if he tried to jump from a high ledge. He didn’t say anything to Alan besides, “I feel a lot better now. It ran its course. Just had to let it run its course.”
“Well, glad you’re back with us in the land of the living,” Alan joked. Shippy forced another smile, and glanced at a pair of scissors with a bright blue plastic handle on a table, just out of reach from his seat at the radio dials. Alan is breathing, he thought. If I just grabbed those scissors and stabbed, he would stop breathing. It’s weird how simple it is. This hit him like a divine revelation. An exhilarating, heady expansion of his view of the world and his place in it. And the revelation revolted him beyond words. His right hand shot up to shade his eyes and rub his temples.
“Something the matter?” Alan asked, seeing Jeff gritting his teeth.
“Nothing,” Jeff replied. “Just a headache.”
“You sure you’re feeling well enough to be at work?” Alan asked. “If you get me sick, I’ll be pissed.”
“I’m just dehydrated,” Jeff said, shrugging. “Too much caffeine.” He picked up the bottle of water that had replaced his usual coffee cup and took a long draw from it.
What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck. The headache was flaring up worse than ever, from background throb into a splitting pain through his entire skull. He felt as if he couldn’t take his hand away from his eyes, or the light would cut through his brain and kill him. And the one droning thought kept running on and on—I could just stab Alan and he would stop living. That’s so weird. That’s amazing.
The thought was still revolting, but he couldn’t make it go away. Like a very hungry man in front of a pie, who can’t keep himself from thinking about eating it. He couldn’t keep himself from being drawn to it.
“I’m only half here. I don’t know where the other half is.” Alan stared hard at Jeff, surprised by the sudden dull pain in his voice. He had taken his hand away from his eyes, and Alan saw that they were incredibly bloodshot.
“Holy hell,” Alan said. “Forget a day off, you look like you need a doctor.”
“I just need to give in,” Shippy said. “If I give in, the headache will stop. That’s all it is. It’s tension. I’ve been trying so hard…”
“You’re scaring me a little, buddy,” Alan joked, but there was some truth in it. Jeff didn’t look or sound right. He rose shakily from his chair and turned his back on Alan.
“Do you need me to call an ambulance—” Alan started to ask, but Shippy whirled around towards him and plunged a pair of scissors into his chest. He didn’t scream anything articulate as he stood there, looking down at the light blue plastic handles sticking out under his shirt collar. Just a long, confused wail. He saw a cheerful rivulet of blood running through the fabric. He fell backwards and was quiet.
Jeff didn’t think about how strange it was anymore, how easily a man could be killed. He was beyond that thought. A shudder of relief ran through his body, as his headache dissipated and he could finally breathe easily again.
He had only been half there, and didn’t know where the other half was. But now the second half had joined the first. He was somewhere else, but he was whole.
Residential District, Old Sacramento.
December 25th, 2069
“He was definitely killed between six PM and midnight,” Keith McCarthy, a Sacramento Police Department investigator, told Steve. They stood across the room from a corpse, macerating in a pool of blood. The body hadn’t been removed yet because a SAC BPH technician in full Hazmat coveralls was still in the process of testing the blood for indicators of VHV exposure. The two men watching kept their distance from the corpse until it was cleared.
“He clocked in at six, and his relief showed up at midnight to sign him out and take the next shift,” Keith continued. “So obviously he died in that timeframe. The question is, did the radio man on duty with him do this, or did someone else come in and surprise them both.”
Steve looked at the body, identified as Alan Cunningham, married, without children, lying across the brown linoleum floor of the office below the radio tower. A pair of scissors had been driven through his heart.
“And there’s no evidence of a struggle,” Steve observed, “so you’re thinking it’s more likely that his coworker suddenly turned on him? A third person jumping two men might get the first one unawares, but I would expect to see a huge mess, if the attacker also managed to kill or abduct the other guy.”
Keith nodded. “Exactly. It’s entirely possible that his coworker Jeff Eckman was out of the room at the time and that’s why we’re not seeing traces of a second confrontation here, but I have officers checking the surrounding area for any signs of struggle elsewhere. I think we’ll have that possibility ruled out soon. The initial impression I got here is that one man suddenly turned on the other and killed him in cold blood. Obviously, it’s possible that this was just run of the mill murder. But possibly it was something else. That’s why I called you guys.”
Steve wrinkled his brow. “Yes,” he said. “It looks like VHV. We could have a Sleeper unconfined in this area.”
Keith had the kind of face that looked angry when serious. He gave further details, frowning as if he strongly disapproved of it all. “Eckman clocked in right along with Cunningham. So he killed Cunningham any time after six, during their shift. The next team showed up for their shift and found the body around midnight. The killer has had at minimum an hour head-start getting away, but possibly up to eight hours, depending on when exactly this happened.”
The BPH tech stood up across the room, and signaled to Steve that the test was positive—protein formations in the blood indicated exposure to VHV. They were definitely dealing with an infected man who had turned, killing his coworker. And now he had been loose in the heart of the Technology Park for possibly several hours. At least it’s late, Steve thought to himself, looking at his watch. 1:20 AM. Well past curfew, so for hours there hasn’t been anyone in the streets for him to potentially expose.
“Fucking Christmas Day,” Steve said to Keith, “and this guy is taken from his wife. And he was exposed to VHV—so she can’t even see his body. It has to be incinerated, and the ashes kept by the government for controlled disposal.”
“She can’t have the ashes?” Keith asked. Like most people outside the medical community and BPH, he didn’t have extremely detailed knowledge of the virus.
“No, she can’t,” Steve said, shaking his head. “She can’t be exposed to them. If she buried him, deadly material could leach through the soil or into groundwater. And if she decided to scatter them, it would be an airborne bioweapon.”
Keith was obviously confused, so Steve explained. “Exposure to VHV causes various proteins in the body to be mis-folded in specific ways. That’s what we test for during vetting—mis-folded proteins indicating exposure. Decades ago, disruption of protein synthesis was part of how the virus wasted and killed the host. In its modern form, the effect on proteins is a vestigial feature of the infection—it’s less severe than it was, but still detectable. Eventually it leads to problems in the host body. Tumors and kidney shut-down. It puts an expiration-date on Sleepers, but by then the virus has already been passed on. Being exposed to the mis-folded proteins themselves is dangerous. They propagate mis-folded protein states in healthy organisms, like a prion disease, and they aren’t always neutralized by incineration—even at temperatures upwards of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. This man’s ashes could kill his wife and others. We can’t even give her the closure of burying him.”
Side Streets, New Sacramento
December 25th, 2069
The Bureau of Public Health quickly mobilized in force. Motor vehicles weren’t a common sight in the streets of Sacramento, but within an hour of the discovery of VHV in the radio-office the Technology Park was patrolled by a dozen BPH trucks, searchlights sweeping over doorways and probing into alleys. It was hours after curfew—the streets were deserted. The lights turned up nothing living, apart from occasional raccoons and opossums.
Lilly pulled her cellphone from her pocket—out of habit, she checked the bars to see if she had signal before placing her call. She did, of course—on the outskirts of the Tech Park, she was very near a tower, and could count on coverage. Cellphones were a luxury for government officials only. There were far too few operational cell towers currently in service to accommodate a higher volume of calls being made and received. Cells were only for official use, facilitating rapid contact between operatives around Sacramento. The general public was limited to landlines and two-way radios for contact with other parts of the city.
Navigating to her contacts and touching a name, she placed a call from the passenger seat of the truck in which she patrolled with Agent Cora Reynolds.
“Hi. boss,” Steve Bradford said, answering his phone.
“Are you at Jeff Eckman’s home?” Lilly asked.
“I am,” Steve said. “There’s no sign that he’s been here in the past few hours.”
“I didn’t think you would find him there. But possibly the viral instinct to maintain normalcy will kick in, and he’ll go where he always goes. What does it look like there?” Lilly asked.
“Pretty standard modular residence,” Steve replied. “Small. Sparse. He lives alone and doesn’t seem to care about decor. Smart lighting, smart AC—smart everything. It’s fitting for someone who works in the tech field.”
“Stay there and wait,” Lilly ordered. “Turn off the lights and stay out of view. It’s unlikely that he’ll wander into your sights, but we need to cover all possible contingencies. I’ll send reinforcements to wait there with you, as many I as can spare from the active search.”
“‘One is as ten thousand to me, if he be the best,’” Steve quoted.
Lilly ended the call and looked at Cora, behind the wheel. “Your family lives near here,” she observed.
Cora nodded. “They’re safe,” she said. They rolled down the street slowly, Lilly going back to directing the searchlight mounted on the door outside her window. “I called them right away and told them to lock the doors and windows, and not go outside for anything. Not even to walk the dog around the yard.”
Lilly smiled. “They’ll be fine,” she said.
“I know,” Cora said. “Thanks, boss. But let’s find this thing quickly and not play the odds.”
They drove along in silence, eyes peeled for any hint of movement in the darkness between buildings on one side of the road, or in the brambly fields on the opposite side.
Technology Park, New Sacramento
December 25th, 2069
Shippy crept along through the darkness, worried and sick to his stomach. His soul shivered in fear like a thin dog in the cold, raging in vain at the terrible thing called life. There must be a corner somewhere where you could creep, curl up soft and be warm—but he had never found it. The big boys at school always stole his lunch and rubbed his nose in the dirt, and when he grew up it was just the same. There was something under his face—something that said, “Come bully me. I won’t bite.” He couldn’t see it himself, but it must be there. He was always going places and thinking, “This time, they won’t find out.” But they always did find out, after a while. They always saw that he was weak.
In his mind he had built up a super-Shippy, who ordered people around, loved glittering girls, threw out his chest and died for a bloody flag, and then revived to be thanked by gilt generals. A schoolboy Shippy, bullying the other boys and eating their lunches. It was his totem. He envisioned that Shippy now—reckless, powerful; unchained from the weakness that had always haunted him like a specter and looked back from every mirror and every window he passed. The vision consumed him and he raised his head, walking proudly down the dark alleyway towards home.
He remembered stabbing someone. There was blood all over his hands. His old weakness told him from somewhere in the back of his mind that he should run away. But something new inside him, something strong and unflinching, was telling him to act normal, to do what he always did. Not to let anyone know he had changed. That he had become like iron. Hide it. Hide it. They’ll never expect it. They bullied you for so long. It’s all different now, but their surprise will be half the fun. He took the steps towards his front door two at a time, bounding up them like a dancer. He opened the door to his home—and a figure slipped around the corner and bashed him in the head with the butt of a rifle.
He fell backwards, and the old Shippy would have curled up and waited until his bully got tired of kicking. But not anymore. He barely felt the pain of the blow, and reveled in his lack of timidness. He sprang up from the ground instantly and threw one hand at the figure’s neck, gripping her throat below her gas-mask, feeling the soft flesh cave in under his fingertips. The figure thrashed and tried to aim her rifle, but Shippy grabbed the barrel with his other hand and ripped it from her grasp, hurling it across the room to clatter on the floor. He was so strong. He had never been so strong. He heard her screaming behind her gas-mask. It was muffled and wheezy.
A voice in the dark said, “Lights on, full,” and emerged quickly out of the blazing white that dazzled Shippy and made him step back. The man who had spoken placed the barrel of a rifle against Shippy’s forehead. Shippy was wiling then to be friends and call it all a joke. But the man fired once, and it was over.
Residential District, Old Sacramento.
December 26th, 2069
Steve had dispatched the Sleeper quickly and easily as it came into the modular home, avoiding the need for the other three agents inside the room to engage. The agent who had been nearest the door suffered minor injuries and was quarantined for seven days, in case of exposure to infected blood. But she had been well protected by her BPH uniform and additional biohazard gear. Steve was sure she would be fine and released after the week was up. They had bagged the body rapidly and loaded in into a waiting Bureau truck. It was incinerated within the hour. The public vetting had been carried out on Christmas day and took five hours. Jeff Eckman had apparently not led very social life, because no one else in the area had been exposed to the virus.
And now it was time for Steve to do a very different kind of duty. One not in his official capacity to perform.
“Are you ready?” Abbie asked, standing beside him on the doorstep of a small, yellow house.
“Born ready,” Steve said. But he felt far more somber than he let on. He reached out and knocked smartly on the white painted door. It was quite a while before they heard any sound inside, a shuffling of feet and fiddling with the knob. A woman opened the door—her face a Greek tragedy mask. She was pale and drawn, her eyes puffy and red from weeping. Steve took a deep breath.
“Good morning, Mrs. Cunningham,” he said. “My name is Steve Bradford. I’m with the Sacramento Bureau of Public Health.” He saw a look of terror come into the grieving woman’s eyes, as if he had come to drop more horrible news on her.
“And this is Abigail Bonaventura,” Steve went on, hurrying to state their business and set the woman at ease. “She isn’t with the Bureau. We’re not here on official business.” Someone else walked up to the doorway beside the woman—a family member or friend, who had come to support her during her grieving.
“What are you here for?” the second woman asked. She was on edge. They were both bracing for whatever was coming. Steve held forward a dark mahogany box.
“These are your husband’s ashes, ma’am,” he said. “I just wanted to return them to you.” Mrs. Cunningham’s eyes widened, and she reached for the box with trembling hands…
“Why did you do it?” Abbie asked, as the two of them walked down the sidewalk away from the house, several minutes later. They had left Mrs. Cunningham in the arms of the other woman, sobbing in a mix of sadness and relief. Relief to at least have some sense of closure in regaining her lost husband’s remains for proper burial; to not lose him suddenly and without all trace, like he’d slipped away into the ether.
Alan Cunningham’s remains were a biohazard. They could have killed his wife. So Steve hadn’t given them to her. The ashes in the box were wood ash. Steve and Abbie had spent Christmas night sitting beside a small bonfire in his yard, burning an old wooden chair and several tree branches, drinking, talking quietly.
“Why?” Steve echoed, chewing on the question. “Because that woman deserves to stay human. When things like this happen, it can turn us hollow. It’s our rituals that make us human again. Now she can bury her dead.”
Abbie stared at Steve.
“I solved the riddle,” she said.
“What riddle?” Steve asked.
“How you can be such a cynical asshole, and so amazingly kind at the same time,” Abbie explained. Steve laughed out loud. He hadn’t know what she was about to say, but he certainly hadn’t expected that.
“You don’t front,” Abbie went on. “You’re cynical about the world, and you don’t try to cover that up, flashing disingenuous smiles to everybody. But you’re fiercely committed to the people you care about. You’d do anything for them. You’re cynical, but you’re whole-heartedly kind when you decide to be. That’s the answer.”
She stopped walking and hugged Steve. “Let’s go drink,” she said, stepping back and looking him in the face.
“Yes,” Steve answered. “That.”
Well, that wraps up Episode 1! Stay tuned for the segments of Episode 2 (written by Yours Truly).
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for more!
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- Bag Men (Volume I)
- Bag Men: Waste (Volume II)
- Bag Men: Trinity (Volume III)
- Bag Men: Vanguard (Volume IV)
- Bag Men: Radioactive (Volume V)
- Bag Men: Origin (Volume VI)
- Bag Men: Hydra (Volume VII)
- NEW RELEASE — Bag Men: Siege (Volume VIII)
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