Arcturus Syndrome Ch. 07-1

Author’s Note: All characters are over the age of 18. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidence. Some of the locations in this story are very loosely based on real places.

Recap: This chapter largely follows Katherine and Thorvald who are the de-facto leaders of the “outside surviors” – and who have now set up and organized the shelters. The “inside survivors” are led by Melissa, who has organized the protection of the town’s children, locked into the High School to protect them from the events outside. We are also following Dr. Emily McKinnon, head of the Wildfire project, who is spearheading the scientific response to this infection, and Carl and Ruth, two survivors attempting to escape the quarantine zone.

>>> Philipsburg, PA, Pod A, 19:50

“No good deed goes unpunished.” Katherine finished swabbing the last sensor on.

“At least they are wireless now. My dad…” Thorvald fell silent a moment, then continued. “My dad was in the hospital once, and he had these things all over him. Wires everywhere.”

Imani stepped out of her cubby-room. “You notice the sensors are all for white skin?”

Of the “outside survivors,” Imani was Katherine’s favorite. It helped that, although she was about their same age, she was one person Katherine had not gone to high school with. Imani had moved to town the year prior and taught yoga at the Y, and upstairs at the massage place. She was a pretty, busty, black woman with a bright smile and a kind word. She had been helping with some of the more traumatized survivors, including Joey, a guy with down’s syndrome who was prone to angry meltdowns. When Katherine and Thorvald had mentioned their instructions around wiring up overnight for science, Imani had volunteered to join them, and they had gotten Dr. McKinnon’s approval, along with a rather thorough lecture about abstinence.

Imani looked amazing in her yoga pants and athletic top, but the sensors were a jarring bright beige against her rich, dark skin.

“How come they were only going to wire up you two? Why not everyone?”

Thorvald answered: “Too much data, they said. We were really just top on their list because we set up the first shelter, but there’s only so much data they can process. And, Gebre said they didn’t want to freak out more people.”

“Well,” Imani said, “I’m glad they let me in on the game! I want to contribute to the solution!”

“How do you stay so cheerful, Imani?”

“Meditation!”

“I guess I need to learn that, then.”

“And,” Imani added, “compartmentalization. I will probably spend the rest of my life in therapy, but I am not dealing with that right now.”

“Thank God,” Thorvald said. “I’m glad to know you’re human after all.”

Imani laughed, and Katherine saw the way she looked at Thorvald. “Oh, I’m human, don’t you worry ’bout that!”

“So,” Katherine said, “What now?”

“Well, with the extra shelters they brought in over the afternoon, we’ve got enough beds for everyone out here, and enough food, and we’re all pumped to the gills with that nasty army stuff. You know I heard that gatorade was more sugar than anything, but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing now. This powdered stuff is gross. But, since the field is still soggy, I was thinking we just hole up for the night and keep each other safe.”

“How do we keep each other safe?”

“Like the doc said, it’s the sexy times that cause the problems, so let’s just all keep an eye on each other and make sure – if anyone starts to get, you know, then the others can help distract. I was thinking, maybe play some cards.”

Katherine took a lingering look at Imani’s delicious curves and wondered how that was going to work out. She was thinking it might be nice to feel the shape of those breasts in her hands, in her mouth, and Katherine had never even been slightly interested in women before.

>>> State College, PA 19:59

McKinnon joined the ConCall a minute early, and found Ana Gonzales already online.

“You got my message?” the CDC director asked.

“Yeah. We put a request through the channels for all the data that hospital can get us.”

“It’s going to be hard to keep this quiet,” Gonzales said.

“Not my department.”

HomeSec came on, and a beat later, General Buckley joined as well.

“Speak of the devil,” McKinnon said.

Both of them raised their eyebrows in unison.

“Ana was observing it’s going to be difficult to keep the quarantine breach quiet.”

Glenn from Homeland Security made an expression suggesting he agreed. “But there are a variety of ways we can control the narrative. For now, we’re calling it a new covid variant. Everyone is used to that, exhausted by it. It shouldn’t cause any panic.”

“Well, here’s the news from my team,” McKinnon said. “We have ascertained that we are dealing with extremely complex metalloproteins and chromoproteins. There are no bacterial or viral structures present, no cells, and no RNA or similar. Instead, these protein complexes seem to leverage a wide range of minerals, similar to the way hemoglobin works. But we are still cataloging these proteins. There are thousands or more variants, and we are still getting a handle on the categories of these proteins, but the long and short of it is, there are situations in which they basically leech all the minerals out of a human being, forming the crystalline structures we have seen. Mineral salts that form and grow far faster than occurs in nature, so we assume it is a protein-assisted process. The human dies from sudden, massive hyponatremia — salt deficiency. Heavy doses of salt — aka electrolytes — may contribute to survival. It’s worth noting that the survivor in the hospital was on her saline drip, while the deceased was not.”

“Is that a cure, Doctor? A preventative?” Glen asked.

“Far, far too early to tell. And we are hampered by the fact that we have been unable to replicate results in our labs. For reasons we do not understand, the symptoms have only been seen in humans. In rats and other test animals, these proteins appear to be relatively inert.”

“You’ve tried monkeys?”

“We have a pair of rhesus macaques, yes. They have not, as yet, shown any susceptibility to these proteins. Nor do we understand how, in the absence of RNA, these proteins replicate, but there is ample evidence that they do, so there may be polypeptides handling encoding and replication in some way we don’t understand.”

“That was a mouthful. Other than the electrolyte thing, is there anything we can use here?”

“Nothing we haven’t already discussed. Beyond that: the team has taken to calling this the Arcturus Syndrome, as the meteor appeared to originate from the general direction of the star Arcturus. We have no reason to believe it actually comes from there, but there is every reason to believe this is, in fact, a landfall of extra-terrestrial organic matter.”

“Is it alive?”

“Not by any definition of life meaningful on earth, but we may well have to rewrite our definitions before this is over.”

>>> Philipsburg, Pod A, 20:37

They had recruited Amy into the game. Amy was the oldest of the twelve in their pod. They were calling them pods now, because Military Self-Deploying Remote Shelter just didn’t roll off the tongue.

Amy was twenty four, had a haunted look in her eye, long, lank hair, and wore the ugliest, baggiest clothes possible, like something she had stolen out of her obese grandmother’s goodwill bag.

They sat on the floor of the pod, playing hearts.

Outside, it was just dusk. They had the pod door open, the fresh, warm summer evening humid with the afternoon’s rain, fireflies starting to flash and dance. Their other pod-mates were out and about.

It was all women: Thorvald was the only male survivor, other than Joey.

People seemed to mostly want to be alone. Katherine wasn’t sure what the point of the pods even was, although nearly all the houses had dead people in them, so there was that…

Amy played hearts without much spirit, mechanically tossing her cards, pulling them in when she took a round. But she had either crazy luck or mad skills, because she was clobbering everyone.

They talked about nothing. About the weather, the food, the energy drinks they were continuing to sip on.

Until, shockingly, Imani broke the ice.

“The sex was really good though, wasn’t it?”

Amy instantly burst into tears.

Katherine winced.

Thorvald looked surprised. “I thought we hadn’t…? I mean? That’s why we’re alive?”

Imani made an “Ohhhh” expression. “I guess maybe that’s why you are alive.”

Amy sobbed, now, rocking, and nodding. “The best,” she sobbed.

Katherine cocked her head. “You want to tell us what happened, Amy?”

She shook her head, crawled a little and got reluctantly to her feet; then shut herself in her room.

“So much for hearts,” Imani shrugged. “She was a downer anyway. Girl needs some meditation!”

“And compartmentalization,” Katherine added.

Thorvald, meanwhile, was still catching up. “So you… survived?”

“So you thought you were going to die, early today? When it… almost happened?”

Thorvald shrugged. “I figure we’re all going to die anyway. Might as well enjoy it.”

Imani hadn’t heard this bit. “You two?”

“They caught us,” Katherine explained. “They can see everything in here. They stopped us. But, I kind of thought Thorvald was immune, because, you know. Like us.”

Imani slid over next to Katherine so they could both observe Thorvald from the same spot. He was obsessively shuffling the deck.

“I wish he was,” Imani said. “It would be a shame to lose that fine, handsome body to the crystal monster. We could have some fun with him, couldn’t we?”

Katherine felt the heat rising through her again.

“I thought we were supposed to distract each other from sexy thoughts.”

Imani pouted. “Darn you, now you’re the voice of reason. Ok, ok. Maybe you and I should take a walk,” Imani suggested. “Clear our heads.”

>>> Phillipsburg High School, 20:48

Melissa never liked talking to Dr. McKinnon. The woman was hard, and abrupt, almost mean. Not at all the way a woman should be. A woman should be nurturing, nourishing, a force of love and beauty in the world.

At the same time, talking to Dr. McKinnon reinforced her authority, and it was very important for the school to have someone in authority.

Dr. McKinnon herself made that very clear.

“The most important thing, Melissa, is keeping the children safe. We have to protect the children at all costs. That is your… sacred… duty. We are counting on you, relying on you. We need you.”

Melissa wasn’t quite stupid enough to believe Dr. McKinnon. She knew the Doctor didn’t like her. But she was used to that. The lord said: “You will be hated because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

And that’s what Melissa was going to do. Stand firm until the end.

But she did appreciate the reminder. This wasn’t about her. This was about protecting the children.

She conveyed the message to the rest of the “team.” They had decided that the surviving members of this year’s graduating class would be the team taking care of everything. Nobody older was allowed in, and everyone younger was under their protection. There were only eighteen of them, including Melissa, her chosen second-in-command, Cody, and also Robby and Janet, as the earliest arrivals after Melissa herself.

After the sat phone disconnected, she set it down.

“Dr. McKinnon is very clear,” she said. “Our duty is to protect the children. At all costs, she said. So, we have kids grouped by age and gender, and you will each take a group and make sure that everything is good through the night. If there is any trouble, use the school intercom. Please don’t use the fire alarm, as we don’t know how to turn it off!”

Everyone had their marching orders, and Melissa set herself down in the principal’s office.

Robby followed her. “Why don’t you take a group, Melissa?”

He sounded innocent, even curious, like he was trying to understand her reasoning so that he could be a better supporter, but Melissa didn’t like the question.

“Someone needs to oversee things. Someone needs to be at the center, because you know the intercoms only talk to the office, and only the office can broadcast. So, that’s me. And because we have sixteen groups, I have asked Cody to basically make rounds, spending some time with each group, checking on everyone.”

“You’re very organized, Melissa!” Again, Robby sounded like he was praising her, but Melissa thought she detected something else, something sneaky and sly about him.

But she was nothing if not polite. “Thank you, Robby! I don’t think any of us were prepared for this.”

He leaned against the door of the principal’s office as she put the sat phone away and tidied things a little bit. He wasn’t leaving… again. Just watching in a kind of creepy way.

“Was there something else, Robby?”

He continued to lean against the door frame.

“Do you remember when you told me to leave, before? In the lounge?”

“I suppose so, I am sorry if i was rude. I was just very tired right then.”

“Oh no,” Robby said. “I enjoyed it.”

Melissa sat down, swiveled to face him. “What do you mean?”

And she saw now that his… manhood… was very prominently erect, within his jeans. He really was some kind of monster! There was no mistaking that bulging cylinder, angled up from his groin. If it wasn’t at an angle, it would surely lift above the waist of his pants! Melissa had to blink hard a couple of times to take her gaze away from it. It almost hypnotized her. Disgusting.

She berated the sin in herself.

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

“I mean, it felt really good to do what you told me to do.”

“Well, Robby, I’m glad you are so helpful. It’s good to take pride in our work.”

“I didn’t say pride. I mean pleasure.”

Melissa gritted her teeth. She didn’t want people talking about pleasure right now. Especially as there was a flush of heat in her belly, and a tingling in her… places.

He sauntered toward her, and she saw the way things had to shift in his pants as he moved. It was extremely upsetting. Disturbing. Distracting. And she was so thirsty.

“Stop!” she said.

Robby stopped, but he was grinning. His skin seemed darker. He was such a little guy, skinny, a bit short for a guy, possibly just her own height. And that pole in his trousers! It was out of proportion, although Melissa wasn’t sure what the proportions should be, she was quite sure this was the wrong one.

She also realized she had just given him what he wanted. An order.

She licked her lips. It felt good to give orders. It did, it felt really good. A rightness in her heart. A pillar of heat through her body. A strength in her arms, her legs, her gaze.

But Robby wasn’t looking at her eyes.

Darn it. The darned sweatshirt had settled awkwardly again. Her womanly curves were far more prominent than she meant them to be, and her nipples betrayed her.

She had to consciously control her hands, because as if they had a mind of their own, they wanted to reach up and see what it would feel like to pinch and rub those nipples.

No! No! No! Out, demon!

“Out! Out Robby! Get out!”

He looked at her with deep satisfaction.

This would never do, but a thought occurred to her. It wasn’t a good thought, and not a loving thought, but it was a clever thought. She needed to remove temptation, especially temptation such as this, a nerdy, annoying shrimp like Robby really had no place here. And what was he doing? Was he protecting the children? Melissa didn’t think so. Why, he could be quite a danger to them.

And she really didn’t like having that Janet around either. Such an ugly girl, and yet Melissa had seen Cody looking at her.

“Robby, wait a sec,” she said.

He paused at the door.

“Robby…” was she going to do it? “I have responsibilities, Robby. It’s important for me to walk a straight line, to make sure that I don’t lead anyone astray. You know what I’m saying, right?”

He nodded noncommittally. She herself wasn’t entirely sure what she was saying, but it sounded good.

“But maybe you could get what you need from Janet.”

He looked at her, his eyes narrowing.

“Go talk to Janet, Robby.”

>>> Philipsburg, Town, 21:11

“I can see you like him,” Imani said.

“Everyone likes Thor. He’s just a decent guy.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know that in our… condition… we can’t trust anything about our own feelings.”

Imani laughed. “Well, that is true.But I sense something else. Trust Mamma Imani. She can see things that you cannot.”

They walked through the night, each with a grocery bag. They hadn’t started the looting, but at this point there was no benefit to self-denial. Streetlights were on. Trees waved in a light breeze. The streets glistened here and there from the afternoon cloudburst, but things were starting to dry out. It could have been a perfectly ordinary summer evening. But it was silent. No cars, no voices, and now the helicopters were gone. There was an eerie “ghost-town” quality to the silence. Knowing that every house had dead people inside, most of them frozen in some sexual pose or another only added to the weirdness.

“He was a grade older than me. I knew him a bit. Friendly, good at sports but not a jock, good at school but not a nerd, kind of kept to himself. He didn’t go off to college, and I don’t know why. He should have. I guess it doesn’t hurt that he’s the last living man in the world right now.”

“Let me tell you something, Katherine. Right now, Thorvald is back in the pod thinking about you. You are thinking about him. The scientists think there may be a way to survive this thing. Why do you think they wired you up?”

“To get data.”

“To get data about survival.”

“Well why did you get wired up?”

“Because, Katherine, I want to join you. Both.”

>>> Decatur Township, PA, 21:33

They were tired, dirty, and wet.

Carl had lost that feeling of exuberant energy that had driven him earlier. Ruth had grown progressively more irritable as the afternoon turned into evening, and their progress slowed. They lost a half hour trying to get across a particularly rocky gully that was slippery with mud and moss.

But then they heard a sound that sent adrenaline shivering through them both. A truck rumbling down a road.

It was very dark in the woods, and although their eyes had been gradually adjusting, it was definitely too dark for safe scrambling, especially with the ravines and gullies cutting through these hills. Carl was reconsidering his own plan of hiking through the night, and Ruth was clearly ready to turn that gun of hers on him. If it hadn’t been such a miserable trek back home, she might have done it.

But the sound of the truck meant civilization. It meant danger. Danger of being caught. It also meant progress. And, with just a bit of luck, he could put the second phase of his plan into action.

They scrambled onward and came out to the road. Carl really hoped it was the county road he was remembering. Asphalt, one lane in each direction, a very small gravel shoulder. It could be. Should be.

They had already crossed some dirt roads, and a couple of smaller paved roads. But if this was the road Carl remembered, they could get across this and toward the river. He remembered a small cluster of farms, an old graveyard, and a small paved road down to the river, with a wooden bridge. If they could find that bridge, he was pretty sure he remembered the back roads up to Curwensville. He had also been thinking about those farms. But he had no idea whether the farms were to the north or south of their current location, and he wasn’t even positive this was the right road.

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