Arcturus Syndrome Ch. 06-1

Author’s Note: This is a work of fiction; any similarity to persons living or dead is coincidental. The locations in this story reference real places, but are primarily imagined. All characters are over the age of 18.

The Story So Far: This recounts events in a small Pennsylvania town infected with some mysterious plague, possibly with origins beyond Earth, as well as the scientists trying to cure the disease. The illness creates a strong desire for sexual contact, but the vast majority of people die at the point of orgasm, and quickly become consumed by crystalline structures. Most recently Katherine and Thorvald attempted to have sex in the portable shelter, but were observed and stopped by the team at HQ. Meanwhile Carl and Ruth are attempting to escape the infected town, while Melissa continues to rule the roost inside the High School. The scientists have at last been able to get some samples into their possession to begin study and analysis.

>>> Flashback to Day 1, late morning

It should have been terrifying. It would have been mortifying if they hadn’t been laughing so hard.

Katherine had gotten back into her clothes, with Thorvald still bursting out in random cackles as he did the same.

“They must have had quite a show,” she said.

“This situation is nuts. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s scary, it’s crazy, and goddam if you aren’t the sexiest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Thing?”

“You know what I mean. But what’s weird is, I was feeling it for Melissa inside, but it was twisted somehow. It made me feel sick. With you this was… just… exciting!”

“You falling in love, then?”

“God I hope not.”

“Finish buttoning up your pants there, Thor. I’m going to call this lady back.”

She toggled the uplink switch. “Um. Hi. Remote shelter calling in, I guess. Anyone there?”

The green light came back on, the small video screen blinked on.

“Copy, shelter, CC online. Please hold.”

There was a pause and then a woman’s face came into view. She was older. Forties or fifties. She was striking, in a way. High cheekbones, a hard, fierce expression.

“Who am I speaking with, please?”

“I’m Katherine, this is Thorvald,” Katherine said. “Kath and Thor.”

“Ah, you’re the one who went out and checked on my team?”

“Oh, yes, that’s right Ma’am.”

“And I think you found some of the infants?”

“Yes, I did find a few.”

“Good work Katherine. I’m Dr. McKinnon. I’m supporting a team of scientists who are trying to ascertain what’s going on. I realize you may be embarrassed, but as you have probably realized, this illness has a tendency to result in unintended sexual situations. Please put that behind you. However, as you also realize, such situations are lethal. It’s imperative that you restrain yourselves.”

“Actually,” Katherine said, “That’s not totally accurate…”

She blushed to think about it, and avoided going into detail, but explained to the woman that she had, in fact, survived two encounters.

This caught her interest.

“We are going to need a very in-depth interview, Katherine. You might be the most important person in the world right now. We are going to need to know everything about you: medical history, dietary habits, exercise, and, yes, a full sexual history. I’ll put you in contact with one of my assistants.”

“I can tell you right now, the sexual history is going to be short. I’ve never… done anything… before today.”

“Well, I am very sorry your first experiences were like this. But we are working to understand this thing, and there are exactly two pieces of information we are trying to isolate. What causes it, and what cures it. You may hold the key to the latter. But there’s no guarantee that Thorvald has similar resistance, so please, do what you need to do to avoid sexual contact.”

McKinnon concluded: “In about five minutes I’ll have you on the phone – you should have a satellite phone there – I’ll have you on the phone with my assistant Andrea. I need you to give her an absolutely detailed account of everything you have observed. No observation is too small. Do you understand?

“You might want to have that conversation in private,” McKinnon added with a nod toward Thorvald.

After the line disconnected, Katherine said sarcastically, “Well, this is going to be tons of fun.”

>>> State College, PA, 16:02

The team reconnected on ConCall periodically through the day. The call at four, however, was when the bad news started.

HomeSec: “We’ve lost eyes on our runner. We tracked him to a house up in the hills, but lost satellite view with this storm. We had some drones over the area, but the weather was too much for them.We know they departed, but we missed their departure. They took a car, a red Mazda, and we have not located it in town.”

Gen. Buckley: “Nor have we intercepted it at any of our checkpoints. When he first tried to off-road it, we tightened up security to include all drivable access points, roads, dirt roads, open fields, anything navigable. We have the manpower. But there’s been nothing.”

McKinnon: “Do we know why he’s running?”

HomeSec: “No idea. We don’t know who he is. He may be with another person. We had an additional heat signature from that house, and there is definitely no one in there now.”

McKinnon: “Well, that’s your area, Glenn. Once the storm clears, you will nab him, or them, quickly enough i’m sure. When do we expect that by the way?”

HomeSec: “The storm should be gone within the hour, but cloud cover may remain well into the night. We expect a clear day tomorrow.”

Gonzales: “I have some concerning news to add. We have a reported incident in suburban Philadelphia that was not on our contact tracing list. It’s a positive match: a couple found crystalized in a coital position in restaurant bathroom. We are doing the contact tracing, but there are a lot of potential exposure points.”

McKinnon frowned. “So, it could be out then.”

Gonzales: “Yes, it could be out.”

HomeSec: “Which suburb please? And timing?”

Ana Gonzales consulted her notes. “A place called Narberth. The couple was discovered by cleaning staff after close last night, but it took some time for the information to reach us. We’ve isolated the cleaning crew themselves, as well as the first responders, but the secondary contacts are going to reach into the low hundreds. Glen, I’ll have all the names to you, but depending on the contagion of this thing, it is possible it has escaped us. Fortunately, there have been no signs in any of the contacts. If it turns out *not* to be airborne, or considerably less contagious than we have been thinking, we might have some hope.”

Glen at HomeSec looked concerned. It was the first time McKinnon could remember him showing an actual expression. “Well, Doctor McKinnon, we’d better hope the scientists can work quickly.”

McKinnon: “Right, well, we managed to get our scans done and samples pulled before the storm hit, we have about 80% of the equipment requested up and running. We also have some interesting data from what we’re calling the mature survivors on site. There is some evidence that ingesting electrolytes mitigates the worst symptoms. There is also some kind of dampening effect from sunlight. With regard to the impetus to sexual behavior, the loss of impulse control appears to respect no taboos, with one possible exception. We have confirmed that none of the children have been affected or molested. This means that either that taboo remains intact, or else the effect is only extant between two affected individuals, and the children are unaffected. The latter could be excellent news for diminishing contagion, but it’s too early to tell.”

HomeSec: “I don’t believe in luck, Doctor M, but if it exists, we’re going to need it.”

>>> Philipsburg, PA 16:27

“I don’t understand,” Melissa said. “Why won’t Dr. McKinnon talk with me?”

She didn’t know why it was important that she continue to talk to McKinnon, she didn’t even like the woman. But somehow it seemed important.

The man Gebre stayed patient. “Dr. McKinnon has shifted her attention to working with the scientists to find the cure for this, Melissa. We are doing everything we can to ensure the safety and comfort of everyone in Philipsburg. We had to suspend shipments during the worst of the storm, but we will have the remaining bedding and some more food options arriving before seven PM.”

The line rasped to dead air.

A different flush went through Melissa. Anger.

They were sidelining her. They got what they needed from her, and it was just taking care of children!

The thoughts continued to spiral in her head. She had seen things no woman should see. She had single-handedly brought this whole safe zone together. She had ensured the safety of the children by exiling Thorvald. Not on anyone else’s orders. On her own initiative! They needed her. She would be someone! Even Cody recognized it, and he had been class president. He was going to Columbia University!

“Get hold of yourself, Melissa,” she said sternly. “Let’s not be self-indulgent. The children do need you, and we all need the cure for this, if there is one.”

She was, after all, still half convinced it was divine punishment.

She had been very careful to avoid situations where she and Cody were alone together. This was not hard, the school was quite full of people.

Her next temptation was, of all people, Robby.

She had just been doing some story telling with the younger children, trying to keep their spirits up, and their mind off things. She had always found that bible stories were best, but the school didn’t have those, so she just told them from memory, studiously avoiding the story about Lot’s wife. That would not be appropriate!

After she had told the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den – which kind of resonated for her right now, because she felt her faith was being tested – she found she wanted some time to herself, so she got herself into one of the teacher’s areas where they had some comfy chairs. She sat herself down in one before she realized that Robby was there too.

“Need some time away, eh?” he asked.

Melissa nodded, disappointed to find that she wasn’t alone. Disappointed to find that it wasn’t Cody disturbing her effort at solitude.

“Yeah, me too,” he said. And: “Hey Melissa. You have been talking to the military and the scientists all day, do you know anything yet? Tell me honestly, are they going to get us out of here?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t they?”

“Well, I just mean, if they were going to, why wouldn’t they have done it already. They’ve got helicopters. They could land on the roof and shuttle us out as easily as dropping things in. They could send a few busses.”

“It’s about the risk of the disease to adults,” she said. “They need to understand it before they can send anyone in. But they think it should just be a day or two. Longer for like a vaccine or something, but just, you know, to understand it.”

“Huh,” Robby said. “I guess that makes sense. But here’s the other thing I don’t understand. Why aren’t kids affected? Why aren’t we affected?”

“Who knows, Robby. I’m not the expert. It’s just adults.”

“We’re eighteen though,” Robby said. “Legally, we’re adults.”

Melissa had to laugh. “I’m not sure a disease cares about the law, Robby.”

“Ok, just one more question then, how come you kicked out Thorvald?”

Melissa discovered she didn’t have a quick answer for that. Nobody had questioned her. She wondered if she bossed Robby around if he would be as compliant as Thorvald and Cody. Maybe she just needed to assert herself more.

She felt that anger in her body. She looked at Robby, his skinny body, thin cheeks, greasy dark hair. Who was he to be questioning her decisions?

To her surprise, in scanning his scrawny frame, she also noted that he had a somewhat enormous bulge in his pants. She had actually noticed that about him before, even back in school. It was one of those things you didn’t let yourself think about. A shrimp like him? It didn’t make any sense. But now he was peering at her quite intently, and the intensity of his gaze brought other heat expanding inside her.

No! She commanded herself. No more of that! And not with Robby!

She clenched down on the feeling. Took a deep breath. And reminded herself that honesty was the best policy.

“I saw signs that he might be infected, Robby. After all, he was a year older than us.”

“What signs?” Robby asked. And there was a tone in his voice that Melissa didn’t like. It was like he had an accusation in the question. What was he insinuating? Was he looking at her chest?

Melissa glanced down. Dammit! Even with this school sweatshirt on, somehow the way she sat had pulled it taut and her nipples were showing again. She needed to get a better bra, for sure. She moved to adjust and loosen the sweatshirt.

“Look, just drop it Robby, ok? I’m tired. I did what I had to.”

He shrugged, but didn’t leave.

She stared at him, waiting for him to leave. He didn’t though. And he kind of smiled at her in a strange way that set something fluttering inside her.

“Well?” she said, at last.

“Well what?” he wasn’t quite sneering, but he wasn’t respecting her. That anger returned, anger combined with something else, burning at her inside.

“Aren’t you going to leave? Like you said?”

He paused, considering.

“Do you really want me to?” he asked, at last, and she felt that heat spreading, the flush of her anger rising to her cheeks. She wanted to go over and slap him silly.

Of course I do! But she didn’t say it.

What was going on with her? She wasn’t attracted to Robby. She didn’t want him here.

She opened her mouth again to speak, and caught some motion in that bulge of his. She swallowed.

She actually felt that slipperiness of herself. That cursed sensation! She flashed to memories of the night before, of watching her mother riding her brother, rocking her wide hips forward and back, the sounds she made. How wet she had gotten watching them.

Why did God spare me? I sinned as much as they did, in my mind.

Melissa gritted her teeth. She clenched her jaw, and drove all those thoughts away from her mind. Banished those images, hopefully forever. She prayed to God for strength.

“Yes, Robby, I want you to leave. I just need some time to myself.”

“Ok,” he said, and got slowly to his feet. Her gaze followed that strange, thick, lumpy shape at his crotch. She thought she could make out the shape of it, like a sausage stuck down one pant leg.

“Leave, Robby!”

And he picked up the pace, leaving swiftly, without another word.

Jesus! Melissa said to herself angrily. And then amended; Jesus save me from sin, give me strength against the temptations of evil.

>>> State College, PA, 17:16

“I need a word with you.”

McKinnon looked up from her laptop.

It was Kettleman.

“Yes?”

“There’s tons of data coming in from the machines. We’re going to be up to our eyeballs in molecular biology tonight. But there’s something else we need to do.”

“Why do I have the feeling I’m not going to like this?”

“We need your two ‘mature survivors’ to have sex.”

“Absolutely not. Zero per-cent chance.”

“Hear me out. We have a few dozen survivors outside, all in their early twenties, almost all women. As far as we know everyone older than that in this town is a salt lick now. These survivors have all been affected, and most have had and survived a sexual encounter. There are only two males: Thorvald and the down’s syndrome guy. Moreover, Thorvald is one of the few who has not had a disease-induced sexual encounter. He is the perfect experimental subject.”

“You’re talking about killing him.”

“No. I’m talking about using everything we know so far about the survivors and setting up a controlled experiment that has a reasonable likelihood of success. And if it doesn’t we still gain data.”

“You are talking about killing him.”

Kettleman winced. “It’s possible. But are you really worried about ethics? If we don’t succeed at this, we’re talking about nuking – or napalming – the whole town, children included.”

“There is a difference between scientific ethics and political decisions made for purposes of global stability.”

“Bullshit,” Kettleman spat. “That’s just bureaucrat-speak. Are you afraid to make the call? You want me to talk to them?”

McKinnon shut her laptop and folded her hands on the warm surface.

“I already expect my career to be over, Jeffrey. I don’t see any way my professional life survives this. You saw the reaction to the robot video of my team. They will be looking for scapegoats, and I am the most likely candidate. I’m not a bureaucrat right now. I’m a human being. I am not prepared to intentionally tell two people to have sex for science. I am not prepared to intentionally put someone at 99.9% likelihood of a gruesome death. Katherine is traumatized enough, and Thorvald is a good young man. No. Not a chance.”

Kettlemen was relentless.

“Look, this is potentially a matter of saving civilization. Of saving our species. Even if your scruples are utterly sincere, they are naive. And you didn’t strike me as a naive person. But let me offer you a compromise. Let’s instrument them. We can get them to put on sensors that transmit to the control station. Breath rate, heart rate, brain waves, and also some chemical monitors to get a read on what’s in their perspiration. We can get that stuff on them and… let nature take its course. I did see the video, Emily. Those two are not done with each other. If they’re going to do it, let’s at least get the data.”

McKinnon tried to stare him down, but he didn’t blink. He was utterly in earnest.

“You know, Dr. Kettleman. I kind of thought you were some kind of liberal hippie type. I thought you were going to be a very different kind of problem here.”

“Glad to surprise you. It’s pretty simple, though. You have all your experts on infectious disease, on epidemiology, on molecular biology, biochemistry, and pharmaceuticals. None of that is me. I work with living human beings. I’m not particularly useful in the lab. I am basically an intern, injecting rats and monitoring their little heart rates. You’re wasting me in the lab. But with data from living people… I can contribute. I do want to help save the world, Doctor.”

McKinnon shrugged. “Ok, you got me. Set it up. I will give them another no-sex talk before the sun goes down, but if the sun is an inhibiting factor, then you are probably right. All hell will break out at night.”

The conversation left her feeling unsettled, and it was in this state of mind that she picked up a call from Gebre.

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Gebre. No: I don’t want to talk to Melissa. She gives me the creeps. You know how I feel about those religious types. And to be honest, I am finding the survivors outside to be a lot more useful, if considerably less numerous… Ok, ok, I’ll tell her a bedtime story later, ok? Let her know.”

>>> Osceola Mills, PA, 17:30

They were absolutely drenched, completely sodden. The downpour had beenboth intense and sustained. They had just barely scrambled out of the ravine before it flooded. That wouldn’t have made any wetter, but it would have been dangerous.

But by 5:30 the rains had subsided to a warm drizzle.

“The only way this would suck more would be if it was cold,” Ruth said.

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