Kallie ignored the grasping hands and contorted faces as she hurried down the corridor, grateful for the level-three biosafety gear that insulated her from their misery. To them, she was another hooded white suit with goggles and mask. To her, they were overwhelming.
She focused her gaze straight ahead, trying to ignore the pleas for outlawed drugs. Everyone claimed to understand the prohibitions until it applied to them.
And these days, Kallie thought, it always applied to them.
A hand grabbed her arm and yanked her back to a gurney.
“Please, help me. Can’t you see?”
She did. The welting rash and lesions had disfigured what might have been a handsome face. Syphilis. Such an easy disease to cure in her grandparent’s day now delivered a death sentence. She shook her head and pried his swollen fingers from the sleeve of her coverall.
Her attending physician had warned the first year residents about succumbing to pity and the repercussions of breaking the law. Not only would they lose their medical license, they’d serve a minimum of ten years in prison and get fined three times the amount of their school loans, which in her case, would indenture her parents to the government for the rest of their lives. And these punishments didn’t even begin to address the ramifications to humanity. So while Kallie’s heart ached for this doomed man, she would leave him for the hospital orderlies. No antibiotic Hail Mary to stave off the inevitable; just a curtained slot in the Palliative Care Ward where he would live out the rest of his miserable existence.
Or until he requested physician-assisted suicide and signed the release for a lethal dose of secobarbital.
“Someone will come for you soon.” She hurried away before he could ask any more from her. “Damn,” she muttered, sniffing and wishing for the hundredth time she could touch her face without the risk of spreading deadly pathogens. “Save the ones you can, Kallie. Save the ones you can.”
No more distractions. Grandpa’s forgetfulness had delayed the family carpool by twenty minutes and Kallie had been making up time ever since she entered the suit room of the hospital. She ran her hand up the front of her neck, checking for the umpteenth time that she had zipped the coverall to the chin and properly secured the cup-shaped N100 particulate mask over her nose and mouth.
The respiratory mask was designed to filter 99.97 percent of any germs she might encounter in the ER triage. Not a hundred percent, but then neither was the PAPR hood she was required to wear in the ER’s airborne transmission wing. While many of her colleagues wore the level-four security hood even in the lower risk wings of the ER, Kallie preferred the comfort, visibility, and humanity she gained by wearing only the required mask and goggles: Suffering patients needed to see a caring physician, not a hazmat worker. Besides, the protection was almost identical.
Provided the mask fit.
Kallie sighed, steaming the lower half of her face. Just last week, a triage nurse with an improperly fitted mask had died after a child with influenza coughed in her face. The deadly strain killed the nurse in thirty hours. Kallie shook her head with regret. The paramedics should have recognized the extreme hazard and wheeled the girl directly to the airborne transmission wing. Instead they brought her to triage. Now a compassionate nurse with an ill-fitted mask was dead.
All because of a flu.
Kallie clenched her hands, frustrated by the injustice. Her grandfather claimed he had caught influenza dozens of times when he was young with rarely more treatment than rest, juice, and chicken soup. When that didn’t work, his pediatrician had prescribed an antiviral. To a child! If that weren’t hard enough to fathom, Grandpa said his parents used to get annual flu shots at the grocery store. Kallie could hardly imagine a world where death could be avoided so easily. Then again, the drugs and vaccines that had saved Grandpa and his parents from the flu had doomed the rest of humanity to uber-virulent, deadly-toxic superbugs.
How was she supposed to feel about that? Ashamed that her own relative had contributed to the problem? Or grateful he had lived to have children and grandchildren? After all, without Kallie, Dr. Raje would have no one to berate.
Kallie slipped through the open door and took a place behind her fellow residents, wishing for once she wasn’t five-feet-ten.
Dr. Raje’s face wrinkled like a stewed prune when he saw her. “Nice of you to grace us with your presence, Dr. Anderson. We were just discussing options for this patient’s patellar fracture. Dr. Holmes believes we should cast it and send him to the second floor general ward. Dr. Kwok suggests surgery and admittance to the third floor infection ward. Perhaps you’d like to share your wisdom on the topic.”
Kallie frowned. The patient, Eddie Spinks, had shattered his kneecap, and the chances of a comminuted fracture healing on its own in a cast were slim to none. More likely, he would suffer chronic pain and lifelong disability. And then there was the floating fragment to consider: Not only would the displaced bones knit improperly in a cast, the fragment would likely cause a deadly infection. On the other hand, cutting him open would almost certainly kill him.
Kallie took a breath and delivered a careful response. “Assuming he survived, the patient would have a better chance of full recovery with the surgery. Casting the knee is slightly less risky, but it would probably cripple him. I think the patient should be presented with the risk/reward statistics for both procedures then allowed to make his own decision.”
Dr. Raje snorted. “And the hospital? What about the risks to us?”
Kallie bowed her head. Now that mankind had entered the era of antimicrobial resistance, doctors made decisions based on hospital liability and global responsibility. The patient had no say. She knew this. She just didn’t accept it. Kallie had become a doctor to cure patients, not protect hospitals. And while she cared about the future of humanity, she didn’t believe all the doomsday predictions and cautionary restrictions shoveled into the news.
What happened to the cool futuristic notions of the past? The hover crafts and space elevators to the moon and Mars? The body scanners that could detect illness in seconds? The nanotechnology and medical breakthroughs that were supposed to make disease obsolete? Singularity?
Kallie stifled a snort of derision. Money for those fantastic advancements had been consumed by humanity’s fight for existence.
Dr. Raje dropped the patient’s chart into the slot at the foot of the bed with a decisive clank. He had given up waiting for Kallie’s answer, if indeed he ever expected one. As Kallie watched her fellow residents follow Dr. Raje to the next bed, she peeked at the chart for the verdict: The fractured patella would be cast.
Kallie sighed again.
Sighing was becoming a regular occurrence and one her mother feared would harm her matchmaking score. Kallie didn’t care. So what if disgruntled suitors marked her down a couple of stars? She didn’t crave motherhood, and she had no desire to leave the people she loved to join some stranger’s family. Kallie would rather never experience the supposed joys of sex than have her actions governed by another tribe’s hierarchy.
All for the sake of safety.
Everything about her life felt controlled and monitored; and she hated it. Kallie didn’t need the government, the Global Health Association, or anyone else telling her what to do. She knew how infectious diseases spread and, unlike the general population, could easily test any suitors for hostile microbes or genetic incompatibility—after all, her best friend worked in CADLab, California’s most advanced diagnostic laboratory. But that wasn’t how society worked. Children grew up in the shelter of their family compounds, attended virtual schools, and played with germ-safe siblings. When the hormones kicked in, suitable matches were found through online services and the young women—or sometimes teenage girls—were married off into other families while carefully chosen brides were brought in for the young men.
Civilization hadn’t boldly expanded to the stars; it had shrunken into fearful tribes.
The patient on the ER triage table shifted then groaned. Patellar fractures were painful. Without surgery, Eddie Spinks would likely be moved to the palliative care floor along with the man dying from syphilis and every other terminally infected or contaminated patient.
The seventh floor was so crowded, the hospital had patients bedded in slots like cattle waiting for slaughter, which is exactly what they were. What difference did it make if Ebola—the cure for which had been discovered and discarded decades ago when the virus became resistant—ripped through the ward? It would be a blessing. The hospital hazmat team could clear the corpses and sterilize the entire floor by morning. She knew: She’d seen it done.
“Hey, doc. What they gonna to do with me?”
Eddie Spinks was thirty-four—only five years older than Kallie—strong, athletic, probably the main support for his clan. He had crashed his motorcycle in the rain while hauling a dinette set harnessed to his back.
She patted his good ankle and forced a smile. “They’re going to take good care of you.”
“Yeah? Don’t sound like it. I heard what you said about being crippled and all. Think I’d rather get cut open.” He paused, waiting for a different verdict. None came. “Yeah. Figured as much. Thing is, my kin ain’t strong enough to fetch the groceries. And now that guy run me over and bust up Jacob’s bike…” He let that thought drift unfinished. “Heck, they don’t even know I’m here.”
Kallie checked the chart. “I’d call, but I don’t see a number.”
Eddie scoffed then flinched as the action jolted his knee. “We don’t got a phone.”
Kallie nodded with understanding. If his family lived below technology level, they also wouldn’t have a computer, let alone a monitor wall like the one in her family’s media room where her cousins attended school. How had Eddie gotten an education? From his kin? She doubted Ma and Pa had done a very good job.
“Where do you live?”
Eddie shrugged, carefully this time so as not to jostle the knee. “What difference it make? Not like anyone’s gonna drive to Hidden Springs.”
“Where’s Hidden Springs?”
He gave her a look that said she’d just proved his point.
Kallie glanced at her residency team to make sure her absence hadn’t been noted.
“How about a neighbor? Is there someone I could call who could run the message over to your folks?”
He shook his head. “None that got a phone. Besides, who would take the risk? I mean, it’s not like my kin’s sick or nothin’. But you never know, right?”
Kallie nodded. His neighbors were probably just like hers: keeping to themselves, terrified of germs, donning masks and clothes that covered every inch of skin no matter how hot the weather. Except in Kallie’s neighborhood people could order what they needed online and have those deliveries left on stoops, where they could be sterilized before being brought into homes. Eddie’s tribe couldn’t do that.
She slid Eddie’s chart back into the slot.
“What about Jacob? He’ll want to know what happened to his bike, won’t he?”
Eddie grunted. “Blast Jacob to hell. Him and his damn ideas. Why else that truck run me into the wall?”
“I thought you were in an accident. If this was hit and run, we have to call the police.”
“I ain’t callin’ no police. Besides, Jacob worked for the government. If they’re trying to kill him, cops ain’t gonna do nothin’ for me except let them know they got the wrong guy.”
“What are you talking about? And who is this Jacob?”
Eddie snorted. “He could teach you a thing or two about infections—you and that uppity doctor.”
Kalie grit her teeth. “Is that so? Well then I guess it’s too bad he isn’t here to help you.”
“Nah. Jacob’s smart, but he ain’t no doctor. Used to work in a lab with germs and rats. Won’t tell me doing what. Gotta be something top secret, though. Otherwise, why would someone try and kill him?”
“Why are you so sure someone was trying to kill him? Maybe the driver didn’t see your bike. Ever thought of that?”
Eddie snorted louder. “I had a table strapped to my back. You tellin’ me a driver couldn’t see me? No. Someone mistook me for Jacob sure as shit. And now I’m gonna die.” He shook his head. “Dumb bad luck.”
Kallie sighed, wishing she had followed the rest of her team. Hadn’t Dr. Raje warned her about engaging patients in conversation? Only every other day.
“You’re not going to die, Mr. Spinks; but I’ll call someone better equipped to talk you through these fears you’re experiencing.”
“I don’t want no shrink. What I need is help for my kin.”
Kallie gazed longingly at her team, who had moved on to a patient Kallie recognized from six months ago—an African-American boy with osteosarcoma. Since there were only a few palliative options to consider, her team wouldn’t linger over his chart. Treating cancer had become a thing of the past. You either beat it, or you didn’t. The Global Health Association had long since banned the use of cell-killing chemotherapy and radiation treatments that often led to skin infections. Doctors still performed surgeries on occasion but only the ones with the lowest risk of infection, and never on or near bacterial-rich gastric organs. No. After rejecting Eddie’s relatively low-risk knee surgery, a conservative doctor like Patel would never approve pelvic surgery for a patient with such a dismal chance of survival. All of this meant Kallie could afford another minute with Eddie Spinks.
“You said you’re the only one strong enough to do grocery runs: Why does it take strength? Doesn’t your family have a car?”
Kallie stifled another sigh. She should have known better than to ask. If Eddie’s family lived below the technology level, they wouldn’t be able to afford their one government-allotted car.
“How about mass transit? I know it’s risky, but the UV blasts at the doors really do help; and the side effects are minimal compared to the disinfectants they used to use.”
Eddie shook his head. “Pop built our place next to a river in the San Gabriel Wilderness after the government stopped funding the parks. Not too many folks live out there, survivalists mostly.” He chuckled. “Guess everyone’s a survivalist now.”
Kallie smiled. “Some more than others. I’m still a city girl.”
“Yeah. Can’t see you packin’ your gear down the river bank. Probably fall in and mess up that nice white suit.”
Kallie pinched her lips into an annoyed grin. Bad enough she had to stuff herself into these sausage suits every morning without some hick patient making fun of her.
“Okay,” she said, with an edge in her voice. “Time for me to go.”
As much as she tried, Kallie couldn’t get Eddie Spinks out of her head. Even when the paramedics rolled in the dying firefighter and she pressed her gloved hand against his gashed belly to stanch the blood, thoughts of Eddie lingered. Or more accurately—thoughts of Jacob.
What did the former government man know about infections that Kallie and Dr. Raje did not?
“Have you got it, Dr. Anderson?” asked Dr. Raje.
“Yes,” Kallie said, pinching the ruptured intestine. “Give me a clamp.”
The next twenty minutes passed with focused attention, relieving Kallie’s mind of nagging questions. They returned when she dumped the contaminated gloves.
What did Jacob know? What kind of work did he do for the government? Was he a fabrication of a psychotic mind? Was Eddie Spinks an attention-grabbing liar?
Kallie snapped on a clean pair of gloves. She had another thirty minutes before the end of her shift; then she’d pay Mr. Spinks another visit—and order a psych evaluation for the morning.
As it turned out, Kallie’s next task took her across the hall from the ER room Eddie shared with the osteosarcoma boy and a construction worker who had severed his hand.
Kallie glanced at their room while she gave her sleeping patient a cursory inspection. The woman had arrived screaming from a virulent urinary tract infection. Dr. Raje had ordered a morphine drip to spare her—and everyone else in the ER—from her anguish. Would Dr. Raje do the same for Eddie when his infection set in? No. By then, Eddie Spinks would have become someone else’s problem.
Kallie released the woman’s limp wrist and glanced at the clock. Visiting hours had ended. A straggler ambled out of the room across the hall. A construction worker checking up on his buddy? The uncle of the dying boy? Certainly, no friend of Eddie’s: No one knew he was here, which reminded her that someone had to contact his family.
Kallie grit her teeth. If she wanted it done, she’d have to do it herself.
“Hello, Mr. Spinks. How are you feeling?” she asked, from the foot of the bed.
He was dozing. Had Dr. Raje already put him on a drip? Couldn’t have. No way an infection could have set in that fast. Just in case, she checked the IV rack for a morphine bag. Nothing other than saline.
“Eddie? It’s Dr. Anderson. I need to ask you a few questions.”
She jostled his arm. “Eddie? Can you hear me?”
She put a hand on his chest, leaned her cheek over his nose and mouth, and shouted for a nurse.
Five minutes later, she called the time of death.
Kallie planted her feet and glared at her family.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said. “I need to help a patient, that’s all.”
Her grandfather blew snot into his handkerchief and wiped his nose vigorously. “Not a big deal? Jeremy, talk some sense into your daughter.”
Kallie’s father nodded. “Grandpa’s right. Since when do residents make house calls?”
“This is a special situation, Dad. The family doesn’t even know this man’s been hospitalized. They have no phone, no neighbors, and as of yesterday, no vehicle. They must be worried sick. Someone has to tell them.”
Kallie wasn’t about to mention that the patient had already died or that she found the circumstances of his death to be highly suspicious. Her family was alarmed enough as it was.
“But why you?” her mother asked.
“Why not me? Why not anyone? That’s the problem with our society: Everyone’s locked in their fear.”
Grandpa slapped a palm on the table. “We take care of our own, young lady.”
“And that’s precisely my point. We’ve become a clannish, frightened society that doesn’t give a damn about anyone else.” She held up her hand to forego any further argument. “I became a doctor to help people. I won’t let Eddie’s family die in isolation. Someone has to help or they’re not going to make it.”
Her mom gasped. “I thought you were just going to break the news about your patient. You’re not going to let any of these people in our car are you? What if they’re carrying a virus? What if they have bacteria clinging to their clothes?”
Kallie waved a hand impatiently. “No, of course not. But I could fetch some groceries, or take a message to a friend.”
Or find Jacob.
That was the real reason Kallie wanted the van: She needed to know if Jacob was a real person or the delusion of a mentally disturbed man. Because if he did exist, and if he had worked in a government lab, and if he did know more about infections than Kallie or Dr. Raje or any of the other attending physicians at LA Memorial, then Jacob could either substantiate or refute Kallie’s suspicions.
But first, she needed the van.
“I won’t let anyone inside, Mom. I promise. But if they have a trailer, I’m going to hitch it to the van and move them to an in-law tribe.”
Her father grunted. “An in-law tribe won’t accept them, and you know it. Once a daughter marries, she separates from her birth family and joins her husband’s family forever. That’s the only way to stay safe. The germs have to be contained. Each tribe takes care of its own—period, end of story.”
Kallie cringed to hear her grandfather’s expression come out of her father’s mouth. But that’s what happened when generations were confined together for life. The diversity boom from the turn of the millennium had reverted into a homogenizing trend where online matchmaking sites chose potential mates based on the woman’s predicted compatibility with her potential husband’s tribe. The practice was based on the assumption that household harmony rose in direct relation to points of commonality. To this end, algorithms matched couples according to similarities—race, genes, intelligence, personality, religion, even hobbies. So while couples like Kallie’s grandparents had come from different heritages and backgrounds, their descendants had become, and would continue to become, more alike with every carefully selected marriage. Even now, just two generations later, everyone in the Anderson family, including Kallie’s sister-in-laws, were determined, intelligent people with hazel eyes, straight cinnamon-colored hair, broad shoulders, narrow hips, and long legs. All the women topped five-feet-ten. All the men ranged from six-one to six-four.
Kallie’s dad heaved a sigh that sounded annoyingly similar to her own.
“How did you get so headstrong?” he asked.
Kallie snorted, followed by an identical snort from her grandpa, dad, mom, brothers, sisters-in-laws, three nephews, and two nieces until the entire family was laughing at the absurdity of the question. Then the merriment died away, like a wave receding from the shore, and the family was serious once again.
Kallie’s father put a hand on her shoulder. “You’ll be careful, won’t you? Keep your doors locked and wear your level-four gear?”
Kallie shook her head. “I can’t do that, I’ll overheat. But I’ll bring the hood in case I have to enter the house”
He frowned. “Not good enough.”
“Dad, I’m not going to drive all that way in full gear. It’s overkill. But I’ll follow all standard precautions: I’ll cover up, wear a mask and gloves, and keep a yard of distance between me and anyone I meet. Okay? I’ll be fine. Promise.”
Grandpa blew another nose-full of snot and grumbled something about foolishness and respect.
Mom gave her a hug. “Be careful.”
Kallie kissed her cheek. “I will. Try not to worry.”
As if that were even possible: Worry was an Anderson family trait…
(End of Excerpt)
If you enjoyed the first part of “Resistant,” you may read the rest of my 10,000 word story in the Never Fear: The Apocalypse anthology on sale as an ebook for just $4.99 or in trade paperback for $14.99. I’m in terrifying company.
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