Everyone had expected the plague to pass over like a storm, but in hindsight it was better that it lingered, to make the public appreciate the necessity of martial law. So it lingered, all up the west coast from Tijuana to Vancouver, never infecting more than one or two percent, waning and then breaking out unexpectedly, typically through the homeless and very poor, until liberals, making a great show of overcoming their agonizing internal conflicts, gave their consent for all homeless people to be taken away to camps, from which, to the guilty relief of everyone, they never returned. Then the most dangerous dissidents and radicals were taken, and then intellectuals who supported them and their causes.
In this climate, industry thrived, and the economy boomed, as previously restricted forests were freed to be cut down, and all regulations on the free movement and housing of toxic waste were mercifully relaxed. Americans enjoyed unprecedented prosperity -- measured by their ability to buy inexpensive mass-produced products, which were now once again stamped "made in the USA," thanks to the all-time-high economic efficiency of the work programs in the privately-owned detention facilities all down the west coast. The key was, people had to work, or else... well anyway, another completely unrelated improvement was that nobody with a good medical plan ever had to wait for organ transplants. And the naysaysers and doomsayers were silenced by the Dow Jones, which was reported twice an hour for three years on NPR as it rose over 15,000.
"We're the third world now," Sirach Pierce preached to the bedraggled cluster of protesters intending to block the development of Seward Park, a peninsula in southeast Seattle containing 120 acres of old growth douglas fir and cedar, and half a billion dollars worth of prime residential real estate, which the city had to sell to pay for new sports stadiums to replace the old ones which were now nearly 15 years out of date and nowhere near world class. "They're not going to stop for you," he continued. "They're going to arrest you, send you to the camps, maybe kill you right here."
Sullen and determined, they ignored him and stood their ground against the anticipated bulldozers and backhoes.
"Listen," he said. "I'm not against nonviolent tactics, but this is not the place for them. Nobody's looking, nobody will notice, nobody will care if you die. Those tactics will only work if your enemy has a conscience." He could see in their eyes now, the searching, the hope, that their enemy did have a conscience. "You're probably thinking of that Chinese guy in Tiananmen Square who stopped the tank. Well this isn't China in the 1980's. This is 21st century America, the most fucked up country since ancient Sparta. The Chinese had a sense of community. Those soldiers came from villages where people looked out for each other, where they spent hours every day learning to get along. These people you're facing today, they never did that. They come from blank rooms where they spent hour after hour watching TV and movies and video games that told them there are good people and bad people and it makes you feel good when the bad people blow up. And today you're the bad people."
Someone answered, angrily, "What do you suggest we do?"
"Join the resistance! Run away while there's still time. Learn sabotage. Learn to make improvised bombs. That's why the US had to pull out of Iraq. That's why they're here now, and not there, because Americans are a softer target. Don't you see it? America can no longer eat other countries to keep the corporate economy going, so it's eating itself, just like if you're starving you digest your own muscles. After it eats the west coast it's going to eat some other region, with some other excuse. It's going to grind itself down to a wasteland for the benefit of fewer and fewer people, until it gets bought by the new dominant countries for human slave power after the oil runs out."
He stopped to catch his breath and heard the rumble of the coming vehicles. They appeared now around the corner a half mile up, and they were not slow yellow earth-moving machines, but black tanks coming fast.
Everyone scattered. Sirach was running but couldn't go fast enough. A bullet hit his leg and he fell, and got up, and another hit his skull. As he lost consciousness he thought, if only we'd done what we talked about, three years ago, when the plague started. If I could go back there, and do it again...
"Welcome back." They clustered around Sirach, inspecting his pock marks. "Wow. You really had the plague. What was it like?"
There were six of them, in someone's cluttered living room. Sirach sat on the couch. "Not as bad as you'd think. It's mostly a matter of getting used to the suffering, and then waiting."
"The death rate's still climbing."
"And they haven't even factored in the numbers from the camps, which are probably higher."
"What do you think's going to happen?"
"It'll blow over. They'll stamp it out."
"How can you be sure?"
"They have to. The economy can't afford to let it linger."
"But politically, it's the perfect excuse to keep the troops here."
"What are they going to do, keep the whole west coast quarantined for years?"
"Totally! It divides us from each other, except for the military, which can go anywhere."
"And money can go anywhere!"
"Yeah, I've heard they're building corridors from the major ports, to get the stuff through faster to the rest of the country."
"So it could actually help the economy, if they could use the west for cheap labor and resources."
"Wow, like a giant colony, or prison."
"And they'd have to keep the lid on the plague, just big enough to keep people afraid."
"What if they don't, and it gets really big?"
"Or breaks out into the rest of the country!"
"Then the whole thing crashes. I mean, they don't have enough troops. They're already stretched thin."
"Yeah, and then we're not divided against each other -- the dangerous west coast people who we need the troops for. We'd all be in it together."
"The people versus the occupation."
"There wouldn't even be an occupation. They'd have to just back off and protect the rich, and leave the rest of us alone."
"And the rest of the world would quarantine us. We'd collapse into just a regular poor country, not a bunch of ignorant assholes grabbing all the resources."
"Ooh, I hope it happens."
"We can make it happen."
There was a long pause.
"Are you serious?"
"We're always talking about bringing down civilization. This is our chance."
"Well, sure, but not by killing people. I mean, that's the worst stereotype of us, that we just want everyone to die. What we really want is to change the way people live, and then--"
everyone will die!"
"No, really, we can change it without a population crash. Biodynamic agriculture--"
"OK, that's nice in theory. But in practice--"
"In practice, the system's falling anyway. What we're doing is offering an alternative that will save
lives, if people come over--"
"In practice, we can save a lot of lives of animals and non-Americans, and strengthen alternative systems everywhere, if Si takes some vials of plague over the mountains."
"Sure. You've already had it so you won't get sick halfway through. You can hop trains, survive in the wilderness, pick locks..."
"You're the anarchist James Bond!"
And here was where he had said: No, I won't do it. You're asking me to be responsible for the deaths of millions of people, just based on some whims and speculation. I'm not going to kill people without 100% certainty that it's right, and we're nowhere near 100% here.
But now he had been to the future. He had seen his best friends dragged off, or they just disappeared, and he hoped they were dead and not somewhere being tortured. He had seen the last of the chinook salmon floating belly-up in a river that smelled like car deodorizers. He had opened dumpsters and found the blood-smeared bodies of deformed babies, and pushed them aside looking for half-moldy fruit. He had seen buildings set on fire and people gunned down as they ran out of the flames, and the news called it a victory over terrorism. 100% is a luxury for dilettantes, and I'm way over 51% here. He stood up.
"I'll do it."
The door exploded open and men in black uniforms with guns rushed in shouting "Down on the floor!"
Down on the floor of Mariana's apartment, Sirach Pierce woke up.
It was morning, a couple hours after sunrise. He blinked and tried to get his bearings.
"Bad dream?" Mariana said. She was lying on her side on the couch looking at him. She was so sick she looked like a corpse, and so lucid she looked like a corpse animated by some scary thousand-year-old spirit, like a horror movie boss villainess about to levitate and vomit a cloud of spiders. "What's wrong? Do I look that bad?"
"I just went three years into the future."
"Cool! This apartment sits right on a ley line convergence. That's why I picked it."
He shook his head. "It was a long way from cool."
Her face, expressive under the sores and their half-dried excretions, became serious. "What did you see?"
He gave her a summarized version, which still took a while. "It wasn't like a dream," he said. "I feel like I just lived three years and came back here."
She looked in his eyes. "Are you going to do it?"
He paused. "I don't know... What do you think?"
"We're talking about killing maybe 50 million people. That's more than any evil dictator killed, more than Stalin."
"Of course it wouldn't be the same. It's actually the virus that's killing them, and I'm just..."
"It's exactly the same. If you do it, they die. If not, they live."
"They live longer. I mean, they're all going to eventually die--"
"No. It's exactly like you're taking a gun, and going to to their bedsides at night, house by house, killing 50 million people." She grinned. "Like Santa Claus."
"You're not helping."
"I am helping. You need to understand and face what you're going to do."
"What makes you so sure I'm going to do it."
"A little bird told me." She giggled. "A little vulture."
He gaped. "You're the weirdest, most amazing person I've ever met." He went and kneeled beside her and held her damp clammy hand. "If we both survive this, will you be my girl?"
His heart sank.
"Sorry," she said. "I know it doesn't make sense. You're just not the one."
"How about a
"I feel really bad. Not as bad as you, of course. You saved my life and you're not even going to get some."
He sat back and sighed.
"You know what it is?" she said.
"You're not dangerous enough."
"What?! I'm about to kill 50 million people! I'm the most dangerous man in history!"
"You know what I mean. Your personality. You're basically stable and sensible."
"Isn't that good?"
"No. Because I am too. We'd be wasting it on each other."
She said, "I have the ability to ride a wild horse through a field of fire. Why should I ride a well-behaved horse?"
"Because getting burned and bouncing on your ass are overrated."
"You'll do fine," she said. "You'll get a good woman."
I'll get you
, he thought, when you get over this romantic bullshit. How old is she? About 25? Just a few more years. But he said, "Well, good luck. I hope you find what you're after."
On the door came four loud knocks.
Sirach felt the blood drain from his face. "It's the cops, or the military. That's a cop knock." He thought through the options: running, hiding, getting Mariana out somehow...
"I think it's OK," she said.
Already thinking ahead to life in prison, he went and opened the door.
There stood three men, on the left a giant, in the center a normal-sized guy, and on the right a short, slight man with a pointy nose. I'm in a fairy tale, he thought, or this world is getting more and more like Lord of the Rings: A hobbit, a human, and what are those big things called?
"Is Mariana here?" the human said.
She raised herself up and looked over the back of the couch. "Freejohn," she said, but then her eyes were on the big guy, and his eyes on her.