Rick DiSisto came home from the hospital, bone-tired and muscles aching from pulling bodies out of the pileup on I-70, to find his wife Lori hunched over her laptop in the bedroom, tapping away furiously. She was probably working on her virus article for the Columbus Herald. The airy strains of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos wafted through the house from the portable stereo.

Rick stepped into the room, rubbing his temples. The ghost of a headache was floating behind his eyes. "How's the article coming along?"

She stopped typing, sighed, stretched in her chair. "I'm up to ... four thousand words."

He whistled in appreciation. She'd been having a hard time settling down to work lately; the antiviral medication they'd both been taking had been making her restless and distractible. He counted himself fortunate that he'd suffered no side effects from the drug. It was a good sign that she'd finally be able to get to work on the piece.

"You did all that today?" he asked. "I'm impressed."

"Not all. Lots, though. I think it's going to be one of my best pieces. And they'll never publish it. I have to sit there in the newsroom rewriting the vanilla 'official' crap that comes in over the wire."

"But you can send it out on the 'Net, right?" He kissed the back of her neck and began to massage her shoulders. Lori's muscles were knots of tension, but they slowly began to relax under his fingers. "That's why you're doing this, to get the Truth out there, right?"

"Yes, but the regular people who need to know all this don't read the kind of sites that would publish it," she sighed. "Dammit. I never thought the American press could be censored so easily."

"Most people are really scared. And the rest are vultures taking advantage of that fear," he said, remembering with sadness and anger the soldiers who'd refused to help the EMTs pull the survivors from the wrecks during the day. Unless you got some morphine for us, that ain't our job, man. "First the meteors, now the diseases and looting ... people are scared that the whole world is going to Hell. And when the government steps in, all Big Brother-like, and says, 'We'll save you, just do as we say and you'll be fine' and out comes martial law and a soldier with an automatic on every street corner. And people just take it because at least they've still got a job and food and beer and can watch their favorite sitcom on the tube at night."

"You're sounding bitter." She pushed away from her desk and stood to face him. She touched his cheek and ran her fingers down the line of his jaw. "Something happen at work today?"

"Some truck driver went crazy and ran his rig down the wrong side of the interstate. Smashed up about 25 cars. Fifteen people died on impact, and five more died before we could get to them. We were out there for hours. A Humvee drove by, but the soldiers wouldn't help us because we wouldn't give them any drugs."

"That's terrible! Did ... did the truck driver have PIPS?"

PIPS. Post-Impact Psychotic Syndrome. It had quickly come to replace AIDS as the most feared acronym in medicine. Ever since a hail of pea- to basketball-sized meteorites wrecked cities across most of the world the previous spring, people had been going crazy.

At first, the doctors thought it was post-traumatic stress disorder. There was plenty to be traumatized by: fires from exploded gas mains scorched Chicago and New York, basic utilities wrecked across the South and West Coast, roads destroyed, thousands killed, thousands more sickened by bad food and water and the filth of the refugee camps. And when the looters and outlaws came out of the woodwork, the feds took over and declared martial law.

But PIPS quickly proved to be far more than mental stress fracturing. Victims first got a fever, then bouts of spasmodic shaking. The fever got worse, and with it came violent outbursts and paranoia. Those not prone to violence began a constant nightmare word-salad babble about monsters and death.

Rick didn't know if the disease was fatal; the feds had instructed all hospitals to report PIPS cases to the Centers For Disease Control so that the afflicted could be transported to military bases for quarantine. The CDC hadn't released any declaration of PIPS' cause, but the agency had its hands full trying to rebuild its facilities while it wrestled with more mundane post-disaster illnesses like dysentery, pneumonia, and influenza.

However, Rick's cousin Gordon had worked out his own hypothesis. Gordy was an avid researcher who worked part-time as the hospital's parasitologist and taught molecular biology courses at Ohio State. He had isolated strange DNA in the blood of PIPS patients, which pretty clearly pointed to some new kind of virus. Gordy badgered all his friends and family members into taking antivirals as a precaution.

"We don't know if the trucker was infected or not," Rick replied. "I'm clean, though. Gordy's been a fiend about making sure our anti-infective and decontamination gear is in good working order."

The phone beside the computer rang.

Lori reached over and lifted the receiver.

"Hello?" Lori said. "Oh, Janine, how are you? Really? What? She did? When?" A long pause. "Oh shit. You think so? Rick and I can go up there to check things out. He doesn't know us. Could you ... yes, that'd be great. We'll let you know. Okay. 'Bye."

Lori hung up, looking extremely worried. "We've got to go to Cyrusville tonight."

"Tonight?" He blinked. "Why?"

"My cousin Annie disappeared yesterday, and my aunt Janine thinks her ex-husband Harold might have kidnapped the girl. Harold runs a bed-and-breakfast up there. Janine's absolutely desperate to go look for her daughter, but she can't get a travel permit ...."

"But I can, provided I'm responding to a medical situation," Rick finished. "I guess I can sweet-talk one of the ER doctors into signing for me. Calling the police about this would be a monumental waste of time ... they probably have hundreds of unsolved missing persons reports."

Rick frowned. Annie was a pretty 16-year-old who'd lost her left hand to a meteor fragment that punched through their condominium. She hadn't coped well since the disaster, and had become by turns withdrawn and emotionally unstable. Janine and Harold had divorced when Annie was a baby, and as far as Rick knew Harold had never sought much contact with his daughter.

"Did she say why she thinks the guy kidnapped Annie?" he asked. "Seems just as likely she's run off with a boy."

"Janine said Harold's called them a lot recently. He got nutty-religious after the disaster, and now he's on this big apocalypse kick. He seems to think we're in the End Times, and Janine thinks he wants to die with his family near him. His brother died in the Chicago fires, so Annie is his only living relative."

Lori paused. "She didn't say it, but I think she's worried he might decide to speed them along on their journey to Heaven, if you catch my drift."

"Swell. So, the plan is to drive up there, pose as newlyweds, get a room for the weekend and snoop for the girl?"

"That would be the plan, yes. Janine said she'll pay for our room and gasoline."

"What about your article?"

"It'll keep 'til we get back."

 

Their evening trip to Cyrusville took about three times as long as it should have. The queue for $7-a-gallon gas was eight cars deep at the Shell station, and once they got to the hospital it took Rick a solid 45 minutes to get his permit. Once they were past the outer loop, they had to pass through two different Army barricades.

Lori was worried that the soldiers would search the car and confiscate the handguns and ammunition they'd brought with them in case they ran into trouble. But the permit and Rick's easy banter got them through the checkpoints cleanly.

"My head is just killing me," Rick said as they pulled away from the last checkpoint. "Did you bring any Tylenol?"

She rummaged through her purse. "No, I'm out."

"Shit." Rick rubbed his temples. "I'm gonna be throwing up the rest of the night if this gets any worse. Dig into my bag; I've got a bottle of Vicodin in there. Kind of like killing a bee with a sledgehammer, but oh well."

Lori found the bottle and opened it. "Are you sure you'll be okay to drive on this stuff?"

"Should be. Might be kinda whacked-out by the time we get there, though."

The sun was setting by the time the bed-and-breakfast came into view. The inn had begun its life as a huge old farmhouse. Harold had added on new rooms and modern amenities like a swimming pool. In the dying light, Lori could see that the exterior needed a fresh coat of paint. No doubt business had suffered considerably since the meteor disaster a year ago.

Rick parked the car in the small lot in front of the house. He stepped out onto the gravel parking lot, then stumbled and reeled against the side of the car.

"Are you okay?" Lori asked.

"Yeah. Yeah, just a head rush. The vicodin's hitting me harder than I thought it would. I think I'm gonna need to lie down for a while when we get inside."

Lori slipped her pistol inside her handbag, and Rick put on his shoulder holster and then put his leather bomber jacket on to hide his revolver. They got their overnight bags from the back seat, locked up the car, and headed for the front door. Lori slipped her arm around her husband's waist to steady him in case he should trip in the dimness.

A chime sounded as they stepped through the front door into the anteroom. The interior was tidy, the hardwood floors shined and the table bearing the guest register dusted. A broad mahogany staircase rose up at the end of the anteroom, and a hallway opened to the right of the stairs. Even if business had been bad, Harold was apparently still trying to keep the place up.

She heard footsteps, and soon a balding, paunchy man of about fifty stepped into the anteroom from the kitchen.

"May I help you?" he asked, eyeing them uncertainly.

"We're the Smiths," Rick replied. "We have a reservation?"

"Yes, of course," the man replied, relaxing a little. "Welcome to the Willow Ridge Inn. I'm Harold Wilkins, the proprietor. You wanted the first-floor Garden Room, I believe?"

"That the one with the feather bed?" Rick asked.

"That would be the one," Harold smiled. "It's the best bed in the house; I guarantee you'll get a great night's sleep. Now, if I can get you to sign the register ... and I'm afraid I'll need $140 up front. In cash."

"No problem." Rick dug out his wallet and extracted a wad of $20s.

Harold accepted the cash and tucked it in his breast pocket. "It's a terrible thing to have to take cash up front ... but we've had one too many folks run out in the middle of the night. I just can't afford that sort of thing."

He took a deep breath, then gestured toward hallway. "Your room is the second on the left down that hallway. After you, please."

Harold continued talking as they ascended the stairs. "If you need to get anything else from your car, you'll need to do it in the next half hour or so; I'm about to turn on the house alarm. Can't be too careful these days."

Which was true; the looting and general increase in robberies since the disaster had been one of the major reasons the feds had implemented martial law. She imagined that an isolated inn like this one would be a prime target for thieves.

"Have you had any trouble?" she asked. "With burglars, I mean."

"No ma'am. I've barely had visitors since the martial law started," he replied.

He shook his head. "What a mess the world's become. I have to believe that the Lord's got better plans for us, that He's going to put an end to these terrible times soon. But until He decides it's time, we just have to keep going and do our best to live upright lives."

They came to the end of the hallway. "Here's your room," Harold said, pulling his keyring out of his pocket and unlocking the door. "There's a small fridge in here with pop and juice and water and some snacks; feel free to help yourselves."

Lori and Rick stepped inside and deposited their bags by the door. The room was cheerful and brightly-lit by two antique lamps. Rose-patterned paper decorated the walls. The four-poster oak bed was covered by a nubbly cotton bedspread, and the windows were dressed in lace curtains. An antique chest-of-drawers and a modern luggage stand sat beside a door leading into the bathroom. A small writing table with a high-backed chair completed the furnishings.

"No one else is here right now," Harold continued. "So you've got the run of the floor. I can serve you breakfast pretty much anytime you want after 7 a.m. If you need anything during the night, just dial "1" on the phone. Check-out time's 2 p.m., and the second night's half off if you decide to stay another day. If you're looking for something to do tomorrow, there's a nice place to hike near the creek.

"Can I get you folks anything else?"

Rick shook his head, wincing after he did so. "Nope, I think we're good. Thanks."

"All right. You folks have a good night." He handed Rick the room key and left, shutting the door behind him.

When she was sure the innkeeper was out of earshot, Lori said, "He seems like a decent enough guy. He isn't setting off my nut-radar, anyway."

Rick nodded absently. "I really gotta lie down for a bit. Then we can do the Sherlock Holmes routine."

Lori pulled the bedspread down as her husband kicked off his sneakers. He crawled under the covers and was snoring a minute after his head hit the pillow.

Lori lay beside her husband, hoping that she, too, could catch a nap, but she was wide awake. Worries buzzed in her mind. Did Harold really have Annie? If the girl wasn't here, where could she be? What if she'd been captured by a gang?

She finally decided to take a bubble bath while she waited for her husband to wake up. She went into the bathroom and undressed as she filled the big soaking tub with warm, sudsy water.

As she squeaked off the faucet, she heard a faint noise coming from the air vent. She paused, leaned in close, strained to hear. Sobbing. She heard faint sobbing.

Her heartbeat quickened. Could it be Annie?

Lori re-dressed quietly and put on a pair of soft-soled canvas sneakers. Rick mumbled and rolled over, but didn't wake up.

I'll just let him sleep, she decided. It won't take me five minutes to look around a little.

Lori dug her pistol out of her purse, checked the magazine, and stuck it in the waistband of her jeans. She closed the door behind her and started to creep down the hallway. The house was dark; evidently the innkeeper had already turned in for the night.

As she reached the anteroom, she stopped, holding her breath, straining to hear. Yes, it was definitely sobbing, from ... below. The basement.

Lori snuck through the kitchen. The door to the basement would probably be somewhere near the pantry. After a few minutes of hunting in the dark, she found a low wooden door, the bolt latched but not locked. The sobbing noise was louder here; it was a girl's voice.

Lori slid the latch open as quietly as she could and swung the door open. She could see the soft yellow glow from a small lamp.

"Ann?" Lori started down the basement stairs. "Annie, is that you? It's Lori."

"L-lori?" the girl stammered. "Please don't come near me. The monsters have got me. I'm a monster. Don't come near me."

Lori got to the bottom of the stairs. The first thing she noticed was the smell: the air had a foul, coppery stink, like blood and insects.

Then she saw that the teenager was huddled under a quilt on a small bed in the corner of the basement. Harold had evidently taken some pains to make the corner look homey: a handmade rug softened the concrete floor, and there were decorative fabric hangings on the cinderblock walls. A mostly empty two-liter bottle of water and an empty plate sat on a small table beside the bed.

The teenager was shivering, her face beaded with sweat. Her eyes were glassy with fever, and her face looked bloated and skewed, as if the planes of her face had shifted. "The monsters have me, Lori."

Lori's heart fell to the bottom of her stomach. PIPS. Her cousin had PIPS. "Oh, God, Annie. Not you, too ...." she whispered.

"But they gave me back my hand," the girl giggled. "Only it's not mine."

The girl pulled her left arm from beneath the quilt. The year-old scar tissue on her wrist had erupted in a hard, shiny, black-purple mass, and from it extended four long, jointed insectoid digits. The first two twitched spasmodically.

Lori yelped and jumped back.

The girl didn't seem to notice her horror. "See?" Annie giggled again. "Somewhere there's a monster who's got no hand."

Sweet Jesus. Bile rose in Lori's throat, but she forced down the fear and revulsion she felt. Her legs were telling her to run run run far away, but Annie was family, a girl in trouble and pain and she had to help her.

Lori had never seen PIPS do anything like this before. Some sufferers had come down with strange cancers, but this ... this was no cancer. Cancer didn't make working parts. She knew she had to get the girl to the hospital, fast.

"I'm -- I'm gonna get you out of here," Lori stammered, then turned to run back up the stairs.

Harold stood in the basement doorway with a shotgun. He pointed the barrel at her and descended the stairs.

"She's not going anywhere," Harold said, his voice equal parts sadness, anger, and menace. "And neither are you. Take that gun out and drop it on the floor. Then kick it into the corner."

Lori reluctantly did as she was told. You didn't argue with a 12-gauge.

"Can I have some more water, Daddy?" the girl asked, oblivious to the gun. "I'm really thirsty."

"For Christ's sake, she needs a doctor!" Lori exclaimed. "She's your own daughter ... how can you let her suffer like this?"

"It's God's will. My daughter came to me in her hour of need, and now I have to take care of her and let her transformation take its course."

"T-transformation?" Lori stammered.

"My skin hurts," the girl said. "I think it's gotten too tight. I'm really thirsty, Daddy."

"I'll get you some Gatorade in a minute, honey."

He turned his attention back to Lori. "Remember the Great Flood? The Lord saw that what he created had gone bad, so he flooded all the Earth, sparing only the pure to start anew. This time, he's realized that we humans are impossibly flawed. The meteors came from Heaven, you know. None of the scientists expected them. They're the new Flood. Most people will be killed, but He will recreate the pure into his own image.

"We humans have become so corrupt that we see ugliness as beauty and beauty as ugliness. I know that my daughter is pure, and God must have a reason for what she's going through. You've seen her hand. She's becoming one of the Lord's new children, ugly in the eyes of man but beautiful in the eyes of Heaven."

"It's a virus," Lori pleaded. "This isn't God's will, any more than the Black Death was."

Harold raised the shotgun, pointing it at her face. His expression was one of profound sadness. "Where's your husband?"

"Upstairs. Asleep. What are you going to do, shoot us? Murder us? God doesn't let murderers into Heaven."

"This is all part of God's test of my faith. I have to protect my daughter," he said quietly. "Let's go find your husband."

He nodded toward the stairs. "After you, miss."

She walked back up the stairs with the hard barrel poking her in the back. They stepped into the kitchen.

Suddenly, Rick jumped out at Harold from behind the corner. He jerked the barrel up, and the gun discharged into the ceiling with a deafening boom. Hunks of plaster rained down. Lori dove out of the way as the two men wrestled with the weapon.

Rick tore the gun out of Harold's hand, spun and whacked him across the face with the hard wooden butt. Harold went down and didn't come back up.

Lori found the switchplate on the kitchen wall and turned on the lights. Her husband stood there gasping for breath, a pistol tucked in the waistband of his jeans. Harold lay face-first on the floor, blood spilling from his mouth and nose. Rick knelt and felt for a pulse.

"Is he okay?" she asked.

"I think he's just unconscious," Rick replied. "But I might have broken his jaw."

He stood and faced her. "I heard you scream and woke up, so I came down here ... Jesus, Lori, why didn't you take one of the guns?"

"I -- I did," she stammered. "But he came up before I knew he was there."

"Well, go find some twine or duct tape. We better tie him up 'til we figure out what to do next."

Lori started rummaging through the kitchen drawers. "Annie's in the basement. She's got PIPS. But something's ... something's really wrong with her ...."

Rick nodded. "Okay, I'll go take a look." He padded down the stairs.

Lori found a roll of blue electrical tape in the bottom kitchen drawer. She knelt beside Harold and had just finished taping his wrists together behind his back when Rick ran back up the basement stairs with her pistol in his hand.

"Oh man. Oh man." Rick's face was white, and his hand shook as he handed her the pistol. "I have never seen anything like that before. We've got to get her to the hospital so Gordy can examine her."

"Can he send an ambulance with an isolation unit up all this way?" she asked.

"He'll have to, won't he? He'll be at home now. I've got his number in my address book. Let's get back to the room and I'll call him."

Once they were back in their room, Rick tossed the shotgun onto the bed and started digging through his overnight bag. Lori told him about her conversation with Harold in the basement.

"I don't think he's infected," she finished. "Though he's seriously delusional."

"I dunno ... he might be onto something with the meteors. There's a relationship between the virus and the meteors that nobody's properly addressed." Rick found his notebook and hurried over to the phone.

"Are you saying you buy his 'God's newest Flood' notion?" she asked.

"No. The God I know would not have done this. But that girl's being altered by this. She ran away how long ago?"

"Four days ago."

"And she wasn't visibly sick?"

Lori shook her head. "Janine would've mentioned it if she were. But I suppose if she were getting the paranoia before the fever, that would explain why she ran."

"That means she's grown something approximating a new hand in less than a week. That's an awful lot of cellular activity. No virus that could do that. So I'm thinking either it's a bioweapon that was released or escaped during the disaster and then mutated, or ...." He trailed off.

"Or it came from the meteors?" she finished. "That's a heck of a stretch, Rick. Martian flu? How would it survive the extremes of temperature? How could a totally foreign genetic system interact with ours?"

"Okay, okay, it's a stretch. Forget I said anything." He ran his hands through his hair. "Let me call Gordy, and we'll get her to the hospital and see if anything can be done for her."

"Daddy? Daddy, I'm thirsty," they heard Annie call. Her voice was strangely distorted.

Harold let out a short, hoarse yell of terror, then began to pray: "Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. No, Annie, Daddy loves you, don't -- Aaah! My Lord please -- noooOOOooo--"

His scream abruptly ended in a wet gurgle. Close behind it was a damp ripping noise, and a snuffling sound.

Then everything was quiet.

"Oh Jesus," Rick whispered. His face had gone white. "Oh Jesus."

The hairs on the backs of her arms were standing on end, her heart beating fast as an ancient instinctive fear rose like floodwaters inside her.

Daddy, my skin hurts. I think it's gotten too tight.

"Let's get the fuck out of here," Lori squeaked.

They shoved their belongings back into their overnight bags, then raced down the hall toward the front door.

As they hurried past the kitchen, Lori glanced inside. Harold was in pieces. A raw thing -- which at first glance looked like a gigantic black beetle wrapped in the body of someone who'd been turned completely inside-out -- was crouched over Harold's remains, lapping up his blood with a long, proboscis-like tongue.

At second glance, Lori saw the clumps of blonde hair falling from the thing's head, saw the broad, multi-toothed mouth and the razorlike claws gleaming on the ends of the black, jointed legs that had erupted from the raw flesh.

Lori screamed.

The thing jerked its head up. "Lori, I'm thirsty," it whined in its weirdly little-girl voice. "I'm thirsty, I'm thirsty."

The Annie-thing scrabbled toward them with alarming speed, shedding bits of skin and flesh and blond hair as it moved.

"Oh shitshitshit!" Rick fired the shotgun into the horror again and again. Bits of red flesh and black shell sprayed against the kitchen cabinets.

In seconds, it was over. The Annie-thing was a twitching, sodden mass just a few yards from Harold.

Lori gagged, then threw up violently. She was barely able to come up for air before Rick was dragging her along to the door.

They pushed open the front door, and the alarm sounded, loud as Apocalypse. They pelted across the front yard to their car, scrambled inside, and burned rubber until they were a solid twenty miles away from the bed and breakfast.

Then they pulled over to the side of the road, and Rick lost what remained of his dinner.

 

Dawn was seeping into the black sky when they tumbled into their own bed. They held each other close, listening to their hearts hammering in each others' chests.

"I can get you something to help you sleep, honey," Rick offered.

Lori shook her head and kissed him softly on the cheek. "I don't think I want to sleep. Nightmares, and all that fun stuff." She rubbed her eyes. "God, how can I ever tell Janine about what happened tonight?"

"Tell her we had car trouble and didn't get up there," he suggested. "Tell her ... anything. Just not what really happened."

"What did happen?" she wondered. "The feds take all the PIPS patients away to the quarantine bases before they get really bad ... what if what happened to Annie's happening to other people?"

"A bioweapon." He shuddered. "Only it wasn't made by humans. She gets wounded by a meteorite, she gets PIPS, and turns into a monster. There's too much here for coincidence."

She snuggled close to him, shivering. "I feel so awful about Harold and Annie. What a terrible way to die."

"We did the best we could ... what else could we have done?"

"I don't know," she replied. Her expression of worry hardened into determination. "But I do know what I can do about it now."

"What?" he asked.

She rolled away from him and got out of bed. "Finish my virus article and put it on the 'Net," she said. "If the local paper won't run it, I'll print out copies myself and tack it to every light pole in the county. I'll stick copies in bottles and float them down the river. Whatever it takes."

Rick watched her type for a long time before he finally drifted off to sleep to the sound of her clicking keys. He had the feeling that the world was about to take an even steeper plunge into darkness, that Annie's transformation was only the beginning.

But he also knew that their love was strong, stronger than any damned virus, and in the end, that was what mattered to him most. It wouldn't be easy, but they'd find a way to survive.

No matter what.

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