Fragments of Fear

Worse than the disease

“I need that antidote!” the general growled on the screen. “Millions of lives are at stake.”
“I’m trying, general,” Dr. Matt Rogers said. “But you constantly calling and screaming at me isn’t helping my focus.”
“Focus? How long do you need to focus? You’ve been at this for weeks. Every day thousands of people die. If you don’t focus soon there won’t be anyone left to cure.”
“You see, that right there,” Matt said. “That doesn’t help. I’m trying as hard as I can. I don’t go anywhere except this lab. I sleep, eat, drink, occasionally shower here. I’m putting one thousand percent effort into finding a cure. Just leave me alone and let me do it.”
Matt clicked the disconnect on the uplink as the general’s face turned red.
He switched the computer back over to his formula and notes program.
“Beginning trial number 302,” he said into the microphone as he carefully picked up two test tubes and poured one into the other.
His eyes lit up as the mixture started to bubble.
“Yes!” he said watching the chemical reaction.
Then the bubbling increased more rapidly. It expanded quickly until it overflowed the test tube.
“No!” Matt cried as the chemicals spilled into the sink.
He rinsed out the tubes and set them in the dish drain to dry, then collapsed into the chair in front of the computer.
“Trial number 302 was an utter failure,” he said into the microphone. “The reaction speed is too rapid. I need to introduce more inhibitors.”
He shut the recorder off and leaned back in his chair. He didn’t remember the last time he had slept and he didn’t remember falling asleep this time either.

It was dark out even though his watch said 1:03 pm. The sky was angry grey and the clouds swirled ominously. He double-checked his gas mask to make sure there was a tight seal. It was dangerous to be out for more than fifteen minutes but this was too important.
He walked to the crest of the hill and looked over the barren landscape. In the background, he could see the cooling towers of the nuclear power plant. Smoke always rose from them nowadays. Solar panels no longer worked because no sun got through to the surface. Coal mines had been abandoned because it was too dangerous to work in them with the disease present. Oil rigs had been abandoned as well.
The world had become a dark and dangerous place.
Since the onset of the disease, 8 billion people had died. Bodies were everywhere. The department of sanitation was doing its best to dispose of them, but being understaffed and more people dying every day made it more than an uphill battle, it was nearly vertical.
He was the only hope left for humanity. All the other scientists working on a cure had succumbed to the illness. This was now or never time. A cure would be a hail mary pass from his own endzone. Failure meant extinction.
As he surveyed the tattered remnants of what used to be modern life, he saw another survivor. It had been years since he had seen another person. Even people he talked to on the computer link had whittled down to a chosen few.
The survivor approached. Apprehension gnawed at the back of his mind. What did they want? Could it be one of the bandits that roamed the land scavenging every scrap they could from both the dead and the living?
As the survivor stopped six feet away, he recognized her. She was the reason he kept going. She was his inspiration. It was the first time he had seen her other than on a computer screen. Even dressed in a heavy jacket and gas mask, he saw her as the most beautiful person in the world.
He reached behind him and pulled out a plastic bag containing a rose he had grown over the last year in his lab. He pulled it out of the bag and handed it to her.
She looked down at the perfect beauty of it and smiled.
He smiled for a moment, knowing she was happy. Then his smile disappeared as the rose began to wilt.
Within moments it was completely dead.
He was devastated that he’d disappointed her.
She reached over and touched his mask. He looked up and saw her smile.
He smiled back as he pulled off his mask and she pulled off hers. They kissed for the first and last time as they collapsed to the ground, gasping their last breaths together.

Matt woke with a start and a hard-on. He looked over at his computer. In the lower-left corner was a counter that read 3,790,217 and the numbers were steadily increasing.
He looked away from the infection count and started working on the next formula.
“It may have been a dream, but not for long if I don’t find a cure.”
He worked desperately for another hour. The dream had given him the motivation to work even harder.
He was just about to test the next batch when he was startled by a strange sound.
He never had visitors. The general provided him with his supplies by having people drop them off at the lab.
He pressed a button on the computer. “Security breach. Command Alpha, Alpha, Theta. Full lockdown.”
He reached into the drawer and pulled out his sidearm.
“Anybody down here?” the intruder said.
Matt took cover behind a bookshelf as he waited for a good shot.
“Matt?” the intruder said.
Matt tapped his watch and said, “General, I need an evac. I’ve been compromised. I have an intruder who knows my name.”
All he heard on his watch was static.
“Mayday, mayday, I need any friendlies to Delta Echo lab.”
The intruder looked around and spotted him.
“Oh, hey Matt,” he said smiling. “How’s it going?”
“Who are you?” Matt said, aiming the gun at his chest.
“Umm, it’s me,” the intruder said. “You know, Kevin, your classmate from school.”
“What’s your security clearance? Did the general send you?”
“Umm, no. I don’t have a security clearance, and I don’t know any generals.”
“Have you come to steal the formula?”
Kevin glanced at the blank computer screen.
“No, I’m not here for any formula.”
Matt quickly closed the laptop.
“I don’t believe you,” Matt said. “You’re trying to steal all my hard work. Who are you working for? The Russians, the Chinese?”
“No, I work for Walmart. You know that.”
“So, the Chinese. They won’t get it. I won’t let them.”
Matt squeezed the trigger and the gun went off.
Kevin stood there, in shock.
“What are you doing?”
Matt fired again and again, but Kevin didn’t move.
“You must be wearing a bulletproof vest.”
“No, I’m not,” Kevin said grabbing the gun. “Listen to me. Don’t you remember me?”
Matt stared at him for a long moment. Kevin thought he saw a glimmer of recognition.
“I’ve never seen you before in my life,” Matt said. “Even if I can’t shoot you, the general is on his way and you’ll be tried for high treason.”
“Matt,” Kevin said softly. “None of that is real. Don’t you remember? We’ve been friends since grade school. We were on lockdown because of the coronavirus, but that’s been over for months.”
“I understand,” Matt said.
“You do?”
“You’re trying to trick me into stopping my research.”
“No, Matt, you’re not a scientist. You’re a junior in high school.”
“Lies. The general said they might try to brainwash me.”
“There is no general. There is no brainwash. There is no research.”
Matt glared at him with rage in his eyes.
“You really don’t remember me, do you?” Kevin said.
Kevin sighed.
“Ok, Matt. You caught me. I’m leaving before the general comes to arrest me.”
Kevin trudged up the stairs into the kitchen. He had barely made it through the door until it slammed shut.
Kevin stared at the door for a moment.
“I’m sorry you saw him that way,” Matt’s mother said.
“How did he get like this?”
“That lockdown thing. He just crept into his own mind and never came back out.”
“Haven’t you been able to get him to a doctor?”
“We’ve tried, but the healthcare system is backed up with the whole corona-COVID thing. Someone who poses no physical danger to himself or others is a low priority.”
Kevin looked at the cap gun in his hand, then handed it to Matt’s mother.
“I’ll need to get that back in his drawer when I go down to restock his supplies.”
“Don’t forget the baking soda and vinegar,” Matt’s dad said. “He gets upset when his experiments don’t react.”