Arcturus Syndrome Ch. 09-1

Author’s note: this is a work of fiction. All characters are over the age of 18. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincide; actual resemblance to the real-world places used in the story is going to be pretty coincidental also.

Special Day 2 note: As we enter Day 2 of the plague, I am shifting format so that each chapter will follow one of the main threads, rather than juggling them in direct time sequence. This chapter follows those in the High School; the next chapter will return to Carl and Ruth. Future chapters will focus on Dr. McKinnon and also the Katherine/Imani/Thorvald thread. The overall story will cover 3 days.

Recap: Melissa is the leader within the High School Quarantine Shelter, where all the children of Philipsburg PA have retreated from a mysterious plague that only affects adults. Melissa and just a few others over 18 are the rare survivors of this plague, although one of their number died during the night. (There is also an “outside” contingent of older adults who are sheltering in pods dropped in by helicopter.) Melissa has found solace in her spiritual tradition, although whether that is a healthy solace remains to be seen.

Day 2

>>> Morning in the High School Quarantine Shelter

Melissa had Cody run the meeting. It was only proper for a man to be in charge, and in any case, the other members of the leadership team seemed to defer to him most naturally. She was very satisfied with Robby as well, nearly all of his former insolence was gone.

Melissa quite enjoyed how attentive Cody and Robby had become.

The rest of the group… needed some work They looked bleary, frightened, and poorly rested. By contrast, Melissa felt the energy coursing through her body. She felt as alive and awake as ever, and she had barely slept at all, making sure everything was done properly. She sat in the back, watching everything.

“Good morning, everyone,” Cody said, keeping it casual.

“We have a couple of things of coffee, if you didn’t see them. The teachers keep it nicely stocked. But first let me give you the bad news…

Expressions tightened.

“Janet succumbed to the… affliction last night. I have heard from the government that even more of the outside survivors fell victim. This means we are probably not going to get out of here today.”

He paused to let that sink in.

Hannah Nickels raised her hand. She was a mousy, brown-haired girl. She was into art or something, Melissa couldn’t remember much about her, but she had a somewhat more formidable expression now.

“How did it happen? Who did it… happen with?”

Cody’s expression tightened. “We don’t know, Hannah. We think she may have just fallen ill. We only found her.”

Hannah looked skeptical. Melissa could tell that Hannah had… seen things. She made a note to follow up with her.

Cody continued: “We have removed Janet’s body from the school, and the government picked it up when they delivered morning supplies. We have all had contact with Janet, so we should be watching for signs. The authorities tell us to watch for symptoms of a fever. And they say everyone should stay well hydrated.”

Another girl, Vicky Gartner, piped up. “Why can’t we call anyone? Why can’t we talk to anyone?”

And after that the questions came fast and furious. Cody stayed calm in the face of it, but Melissa recognized that she had her work cut out for her to form this into a disciplined team.

Of the seventeen surviving graduates, the over-eighteens in the High School Quarantine Zone, only five were male: Robby and Cody, plus three others, Jim, Kyle, and Noah. Melissa felt like she had a better sense of how to get men to support her, which was a surprising revelation, as before this, she had always been quite awkward around guys. She was afraid they wanted something from her, but now she understood that of course they did. That was simply how they were constructed, and she could leverage that. Women, although more naturally friendly and safe in that way, were less predictable. Melissa didn’t like unpredictable, and she didn’t like all these questions.

Melissa gestured to Cody to keep things rolling, and he held up his hands.

“I don’t know much more than you do, but the main thing they are telling us is that there is a communication blackout to prevent panic, while they find the cure. I don’t like it, either. But as for all the details… I just don’t know more than you do. We have one job, they tell us: protect the children.

“But we are adding an even more important rule: protect each other. There are a lot of kids, and not many of us. Of course, the older ones, the kids already in high school can and should be helping, but for those of us on the leadership team… we need to take good care of each other. I will be checking in with everyone throughout the day. Now let’s get our breakfast and then start setting up for the kids.”

Putting them to work helped, but Melissa could tell that other than Cody and Robby, the others were less ready to just follow orders. Although he hadn’t spoken, the most sullen of the males was Noah. He was a smart one, not as well rounded as Cody, and not as handsome, but he had gotten into the University of Chicago on a scholarship. As they were filing out of the office, she pulled him aside.

“Did you have something you wanted to say, Noah,” Melisssa asked, catching his arm.

“Oh, ah, no, not really; seems like our plan is the same story as yesterday.”

Melissa caught his eyes flicker and glance at her. She knew what he was doing. Drinking her in with his eyes. Undressing her. She sighed inside, even this modest, studious guy, just like the others.

“I had the sense there was something you didn’t like about the plan, however.”

Noah seemed to know he was in the crosshairs. He licked his lips, and ran a hand through his hair.

“No, I didn’t say anything… I just… I mean… I don’t like our situation.”

She looked at Noah and stepped a little closer. A little too close. Close enough for him to smell her. (Now there’s a thought she would never have had a few days prior!)

“Nobody likes our situation, Noah. We just need to hang in there. But if you have any helpful ideas, please don’t keep them to yourself.”

Melissa saw that Noah kept glancing at her chest. Her nipples were showing again, but she had given up on thoughts of hiding them. She took a peek too, and yes, that bulge in his pants was showing her effect on him.

“Sure, sure, just, you know, if you need anything, let me know.” Noah licked his lips again, but in a different way. “Anything, Melissa.”

She backed up. “Thank you, Noah. We all need to support each other. And you could do me a favor. You could check up on Hannah. I think she might have been feeling some frustration with our situation also. Maybe you could comfort her.”

“Oh, uh, sure. Hannah? Sure.”

* * *

Feeding the children was a big job, but delegating to the incoming seniors turned out to work well. They wanted to help.

In the midst of cleaning up, Melissa tapped Vicky on the shoulder.

“Do you have a minute?” she asked.

Melissa had never known Vicky well. She was a petite girl with jet black hair and bright blue eyes. It was kind of a stunning effect, but she had always kept to a small group of friends. Melissa thought of them as the STEM girls. All science, no church. But also no boys that Melissa had ever heard about.

Vicky turned, startled. “Oh,” she said. “Am I in trouble?”

Melissa laughed. “What do you mean? Of course not. I just noticed you had a lot of very sensible questions at the meeting this morning, and since I’ve been in touch with the outside world a bit, I thought I would see if you had any more questions.”

Vicky gave her a slow, intense look.

“I know what you are,” Vicky said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“You’re the queen bee now. The alpha-girl you always wanted to be. You got control, and you’re not letting go.”

Melissa felt betrayed. After all she had done for everyone here, for someone to think this of her. Tears blurred her eyes from the unexpected attack.

“Why would you say this, Vicky?”

“Because I see it, and I’m not going to play your game. You have your moment of glory, if that’s what this is. You do your thing, I’ll do mine. You don’t need to play nice, or cry your crocodile tears. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Vicky walked away.

Melissa felt stunned. Shocked, and stunned, and filled with a rising rage. She went to find Robby.

She took a moment to make sure she was presentable. The anger burned inside her in an interesting way. She found she kind of liked it. It was a little like the feeling of temptation, except in this case she was wholly (holy?) in the right. This was righteous anger. And it had that same warmth in her belly. Knowing Robby, she tightened her shirt a little, which was not hard to do.

“Robby, I have a new assignment for you.”

He looked at her warily. And as he looked at her, as he saw her, he softened. The hardness left his face, perhaps shifting somewhere lower.

“Of course, Melissa.”

“You know Vicky?”

He still had enough fire to roll his eyes. “I know Vicky.”

“I want you to… test her.”

He blinked.

“Like you did Janet.”

He cocked his head.

“We need to know who the Lord is willing to save, and who is truly against us. You shouldn’t do anything you are not comfortable with, but we need to know if Vicky is… safe. We need to protect each other. We need to protect the children. And I have concerns about her.”

Robby still hesitated.

Melissa stepped closer, put her hand on his arm. The touch tingled.

Leaning close to him, close enough to kiss, she said: “The same lounge. Ten AM. This is something I need you to do.”

It was enough. She felt the surge of energy between them, the power of her command. His openness to accept it.

* * *

Melissa was keeping an eye on the cleanup, and Noah in particular, when the SatPhone lit up.

“Melissa here,” she said.

“Melissa, it’s Gebre, calling on behalf of Dr. McKinnon. She’s sorry she couldn’t come to the phone herself right now, but her call with the White House is going over. We have some important updates for you.”

“Hi Gebre, it’s great to hear from you, of course. I understand about Dr. McKinnon. What’s the news?”

“We now have very strong confirmation that military electrolytes, as well as any other salty or mineral intensive foods are a powerful preventative for the worst symptoms. Please make sure that everyone is well supplied. We will be dropping off two additional shipments this morning and both will be supplied with a new formulation of the energy drink that is constituted especially for the electrolyte and mineral needs of those in the high school.”

“That’s great news, Gebre. We’ve just had breakfast and all is well here. The leadership team is concerned about what Janet’s death means, though, and naturally everyone is wondering what the plan is to get us out of here and re-united with our extended families.”

“Uh, yeah, well, we don’t have a timeline for that yet, Melissa. Obviously, everyone is working like mad, and our scientists are on a 24/7 rotation.”

Melissa could have told him that it made no difference; this was all in God’s hands. But she knew that scientists could never hear that kind of honest feedback. They were just too narrow minded to see the big picture.

“We’ll have our next major update at noon, but both deliveries should be on the roof by then.”

Melissa was happy to end the call quickly, as she saw Noah slip off with Hannah.

The two of them went to a place she had never been: backstage at the auditorium.

She was surprised to see a couple of beaten up old sofas there, surrounded by shelves overflowing with weird stuff: paper-mache horse-heads, fake armor and even faker swords, a motley assortment of kitchen items and shaky furniture. And stacks upon stacks of boxes. And racks of clothes. She noted the clothes: she was growing a bit tired of these baggy old sweatpants, and the rubbish t-shirt. It might be costume clothing, but maybe something would work for her.

Still, for the moment, she stayed far out of sight, creeping close enough to be heard. Somehow she just knew they had no idea she had followed them. She felt very alive, very confident of herself. It was a delicious sensation.

“So, look, I know it’s crazy, but Melissa asked me to check up on you.”

“That bitch. Who does she think she is?”

Melissa almost burst out from behind the shelving, but she tamped down that sudden heat of anger. Jesus’ own brother, James had said: “Everyone should be quick to listen; slow to speak; and slow to anger.”

Melissa listened.

“There’s definitely something weird about her. She used to be, I don’t know, just one of those kind of stand-offish covenant girls. Promise ring and all. But she’s changed, hasn’t she.”

Hannah said: “I never liked her. I don’t know if she’s changed or if this is just who she is and she’s taking her shot.”

“Fair point. But the actual question is not from her. I want to check in on how you are.”

Melissa couldn’t see her, but she heard the sound of someone sort of settling in. She imagined Hannah leaning back into one of those sofas. She wondered if she could find an angle where she could see, also, but she definitely did not want to be discovered lurking.

“Noah, I don’t know what your experience was, but I was very nearly raped by my dad the other night. He’s dead now, growing crystals with his cock still stuck in my mom, who is also growing crystals. I have talked to others, and everyone has a similar story. I don’t know what’s going on, but it is extremely fucked up.”

“So he didn’t get you then?”

“Hell no. I hit him with a baseball bat. It almost didn’t stop him, but it gave me a chance to run.”

“Sounds like you weren’t infected at all, then.”

“I sure as hell hope not.”

“So, I guess those of us who aren’t infected really need to take care. We all had some contact with Janet, and apparently it got her.”

It was Hannah’s turn to be silent.

Noah continued. “To be honest, I didn’t see it coming, and that’s what worries me. Janet seemed like she really had it together, like she was really focussed on the work here. I am not sure I totally believe Melissa when she says they don’t know what happened.”

Returning to the theme, Hannah added: “Her and Robby and Cody are like a, creepy-ass triumvirate.”

“Nice SAT word. But I think you’re right. Robby and Janet were close before, they were both kind of outsiders, you know, but they really gave it everything they had, helping everyone. Now Janet is dead and Robby and Cody are… not the same as they were.”

“I’ve spoken to some of the others. The change in Cody is very pronounced. He follows her around like a puppy. Nobody saw that coming. He looks like he’s in charge, but everyone can tell, he’s just doing what she tells him. When he first got here, I saw him roll up his sleeves and start fixing her mistakes. But then she got to him.”

Noah laughed. “You make it sound like she has him hypnotized!”

“Maybe she does! Or something like it. You have to admit, with what’s going on with this disease, literally anything could be true.”

They both dropped into silence.

Melissa listened intently, but there was no sound, not even of movement.

Hannah finally broke the silence. “Well, I should get back. I have some activities to organize.”

Melissa heard a sound, imagined Hannah standing up.

Noah spoke: “Yeah, true. Thanks for having this chat, Hannah. I feel better knowing that you and I are not alone in this. That not everyone is under her spell. And, before you get back, I just want to say that I’m sorry.”

“Huh? For what?”

“Do you remember as a freshman, you invited me to pair up with you in bio, and I didn’t? I felt like I snubbed you, because I had a crush on Sierra.”

“Oh, God, I don’t remember that at all. I didn’t know you and Sierra got together.”

“Oh we didn’t, not even as lab partners. She actually picked Cody as a lab partner, if I recall.”

Hannah’s voice took on a teasing tone: “So you didn’t get your first or second choice, huh?”

Noah laughed ruefully. “I guess not, but seeing you now, I can say, I really blew it back then. It’s honestly one of those things that I have always regretted.”

“Aww, that’s sweet, Noah. I’m actually kind of sorry I don’t remember it. But I was a real dummy back then myself. You were probably on a ranked list from based on IQ, and I’m not going to promise you were on the top.”

Noah laughed more naturally. “Hilarious. And fair point!”

But Hannah softened. “You know, we do have second chances. We can be quarantine partners now, against the disease, and against…”

Noah: “Yeah.”

There was a sound, and Melissa risked a peek around the corner. Sure enough, they were embracing. Not kissing or anything, it was just a hug, but Melissa saw the tent in Noah’s pants.

She was disappointed when they broke their embrace and headed back out onto the stage and towards the cafeteria.

She gave them plenty of time, then went to try on clothes.

As soon as she saw it, she loved it. It was perfect. She even remembered it from this year’s production of Oklahoma: A blue dress with white polka dots. It was the most wholesome clothing she could imagine. The hem was just below her knees, but the structure of it really showed off her bosom, without actually showing flesh.

When she put it on, she decided she really didn’t need that stupid bra at all, and feeling her heavy, full breasts against the crisp muslin was a beautiful, wholesome feeling.

* * *

This time, she got to the teacher’s lounge before Robby.

When she had discovered Robby and Janet she had been frustrated by her inability to truly witness the unfolding work of God, but inside the teacher’s lounge there were two small private rooms off the central lounge, as well as a bathroom. She examined each and found that one of the two private rooms, apparently used for private conversations, as each had two chairs and a small table, perfectly fit her plan. With the lights out, and the door ajar, she would have a full and unimpeded view of the sofas.

She put out the lights and sat in the dark, feeling the exquisite sensation of the slightly rough, heavy cotton on her skin. She let her hands roam over the fabric, experiencing all the textures of it. She even lost track of time, and was startled when she heard the door open.

She dropped her hands and moved closer to the door, but not so close that the sliver of light shining through would light her up.

“Ok, I’m here. Your boss already tried to recruit me, or whatever, so if that’s your plan, let’s not bother.”

Vicky. She was clearly in a feisty mood.

“Hey, no, you have it wrong.” Melissa narrowed her eyes, once again following the Apostle James’ advice and listening.

“Cody didn’t send me, and I’m not here to recruit you.”

Vicky had her back to Melissa. She was slender, wore baggy, oversized jeans that seemed a bit too warm for the summer weather. She stood with her hand on her hip.

“I didn’t mean Cody, but I’m listening.”

Robby held up a finger. “Thirsty,” he said. And mixed himself an energy drink.

While he stirred the powder in, he said: “What I mean is, we could be allies, you and I. I never ran in the kind of circles that Melissa or Cody did. They’re obviously some kind of team. What am I? I’m just another nerd. Janet was my friend.”

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