<-- Earlier | Cursed Earth
Mike led me out of the office and back to the junction. He pulled a key out of the pocket of his jeans and undid one side of the gate, locking it again after we passed through. We ducked under the smoke curtain, and, once on the other side, Mike grabbed a gas mask from a table and put it on.
"Grab one," he said to me as he tightened the straps. I did so, taking a moment to examine the item. Property of the United States Coast Guard, it was marked. I had to wonder just how that had gotten here, but I pushed the thought aside. The mask wasn't a great fit, but it sealed, so I was satisfied. The mere fact that Mike thought it was prudent to wear one was unsettling, though.
Just ahead another smoke curtain sealed off the hallway. Air was being sucked around one edge of it, making a rather out-of-place farty sound. I smiled wryly at the unexpected levity, but frowned when the implication hit me. Air was flowing into the sealed-off area. That meant negative pressure isolation. And that meant... Well, I wasn't sure exactly what it meant - but what I did know, is that it was an aggressive infection control measure. They had something bad here, or at least they thought they did. I double-checked the seal on my gas mask.
Past the smoke curtain, we passed a set of doors that were welded shut and caulked then turned a corner into what had at one time been a sort of auditorium. It had been converted into a makeshift infirmary, with rows of cots, MacGyvered IV poles and buckets. A lot of the beds were empty, but some held patients, many curled into the fetal position or twisted into thoroughly odd positions, draped with stained sheets. A few people - nurses, or the closest they had, I guessed - milled about here and there, dressed in makeshift isolation suits.
After a few moments, a very harried-looking man dressed in a threadbare suit and gas mask came up to us. "Oh, good," he said breathlessly. "This is the guy that found Roger, right?" The man looked me over, fixating momentarily on my pentacle, narrowing his eyes slightly.
Mike started to reply, but the man cut him off. "Well, I don't think I'm too worried about this one being infected. Come on, you've got to see all this..."
I got the distinct feeling that I was missing something, and I was liking it less and less by the second. "What the netherworld is going on here?" I asked.
The two ignored my question and led me rapidly past the bank of cots into a side room that had once been a sound booth. It had been hastily converted into an office - one with very strange decor, I noted. There was another Silicon Graphics workstation on the desk - this one an Octane2, which was bizarre enough - but the bookcase behind the desk drew my attention more strongly. There were a number of medical texts there, but also a number of books on magic. I might have written that off as an odd coincidence but for the black-handled knife laid carefully on the desk, pointing, I noted, exactly north-south. Was this man a doctor, or a mage? I knew full well he could easily be both, but that kind of thing had always been rare, and these days, the kind of mind that could embrace both magic and science was very unusual indeed.
The doctor sat down at his desk, and Mike shut the door. I felt the air pressure rise in the room as soon as he did so, and I heard air whistling under the door. He typed something on his keyboard, then doffed the gas mask. I reached into my bag and gripped the caduceus, ensuring my ward was still up, then did the same. Mike, I noted, did not. "I'm Dr. Jacobson, by the way," the doctor said after an awkward silence. "To answer your first question, I had a pretty good clue you were coming - or that someone useful was, anyway." Just then Mike came around and set the amethyst sphere down on the desk. The doctor picked it up, peered through it for a second then set it down in the space between his two monitors and lightly tapped his temple.
I knew what he was implying. The same voice had set me on my current journey. Ah, what a complex place the world was.
"Anyway," the doctor continued. "We saw the first case about a month ago. I wasn't sure what it was, but it looked like your garden-variety crud, if a bit more severe. You know, fever, aching limbs, vomiting, the usual suspects. Trouble is, the guys didn't get better. The first one died about seven days in, burning up, puking blood. The other two, well... It looked like they were getting better, but..."
"But?" I asked.
"Well, one started getting ulcers on his face, hands and torso. The other looked alright, but the day after I let him back into the population, he went violently insane."
"He attacked his wife," Mike said somberly, his voice sounding weirdly nasal through the mask. "Held her down and drove a cold chisel through her arm. A few guys tried to stop him, but he went after them, too. Killed 'em all, took their guns, shot his son to death. We found him wandering around outside a few hours later, and that's when it got really weird. Sheriff O'Malley tried to grab him and a bunch of the nutbag's skin just came off."
"I came out to look at him," Jacobson continued. "He was starting to develop the same ulcers as the other survivor. Not only that, but he was, well... I guess you could say obtunded. Not completely; I mean, he was still walking around, if unsteadily, but he definitely wasn't all there. He was still agitated and violent, too."
"Agitated? Wayne, he tried to eat O'Malley's face!" Mike shot back.
"But it didn't make sense!" Jacobson countered. "He was holding a loaded .45, but he just said something about wanting to kill O'Malley and, well, ogged him, then started tearing at his eyes and beating him with the gun. It went off, but it seemed like the nut had no idea what to use it for. He bit a huge chunk out of O'Malley's cheek before we tore him off. O'Malley got sick a few days later and died. The second survivor went mad that night. I didn't take any chances. I put him out with a megadose of Ativan and he never woke up."
"Then," Mike said. "We got more sickies over the next few days. Half of 'em died, half went barking mad, ended up like the first survivor. We had a crisis on our hands but I think we managed to keep it under wraps. We got 'em all down here before they went insane."
"Most of the new group didn't have any contact with any of the first three. They were over at the beta site," Wayne continued. "I figured it might be an airborne pathogen, so I set up the infection control stuff you've seen down here. We thought we had it contained over here, but within a week the entire beta site got sick. We lied, told the others that demons got them, but better than half of them went crazy and ran screaming off into the night. Hopefully demons did get them.
I sighed noisily. "Great, just great. So you've got an epidemic that turns people into, fuck, I dunno, they're not dead so I guess I'll call them zuvembies. What am I supposed to do, other than get the hell out of Dodgeville as fast as I can?"
The silence was deafening.
"Wayne and I debated this one at length," Mike finally said. "As you saw out there, we've got more sick people. I didn't want to get anyone else involved. There's a slight ray of hope, though."
"There's a drug," Wayne said. "I'd been desperately trying anything I could think of, without success. Then I remembered someone saying that the mad folks smelled like mold. On a longshot I hooked up an infusion of Amphotericin B for one of the patients, and he actually stopped getting worse, and then started improving. It's dangerous, I know it is - I could burn out their kidneys and then they're completely screwed - but it's the only chance they've got. Trouble is, I don't have much Ampho left."
I chuckled. "So, you want me to find you some?" I queried.
"That's about the size of it," Mike said. "There's a hospital a few towns over. We used to have radio contact with some survivors over there, but they dropped off a few months ago. Demon attack, you know. Head over there and see what you can find. Better that you go - if we let on to the people what's going on and how bad we need this, we'll have a panic here. It'll destroy everything we've worked for.
Mike's voice sounded plaintive. I shook my head with vague resignation. There was still some hope here, however slight, and I wasn't about to let it die. Besides, it seems the Goddess had told the good doctor that I was coming. Far be it from me to refuse. "Alright, I accept."