CHAPTER 0: PRELUDE
In the stifling summer heat life inside the refugee camp had become miserable. The rows of dun-colored tents filled with cots and other more makeshift beds had minimal ventilation and the stink of so many people living in these close quarters was overwhelming. People had taken to milling about outside where at least there was the hope of a breeze despite the glaring sun and relentless, oppressive humidity. Only during the hottest part of the day was there much relief from the constantly present swarms of mosquitoes and flies. Summer in the deep south could be hell on earth. Even without the dead roaming the streets.
It had been days since the last bit of reliable news from the outside. Phones had been out for weeks. Landlines had been the first to go. After that wireless networks became hopelessly congested and service fell off altogether. Radio stations had stopped regular programming. Even the emergency broadcast messages that had for a few days given hope that some semblance of normalcy and organization was at work had gone silent days ago.
Every day new refugees showed up, looking for food, shelter and safety from the looters. With each day that passed the refugees that arrived looked more filthy, more sick, more desperate. There wasn't enough food and water for them all. There came a time where some of those inside would glare out guardedly at those on the outside. More mouths to feed. Less water to share amongst those who had secured their spot already. When they were let in, their reception was not always pleasant. Fights broke out. An elderly man in a wheelchair was struck by a rock because someone thought he looked sick and “probably already has it”. People came to his aid and a few took it on themselves to beat the man who had thrown the rock until the man was unconscious and bloody. Had armed guards not stopped them it seemed like it might have gone even further. There were disputes over water rationing, food portions, or a cot to sleep on. Resources were scarce and the last supply drop from the National Guard had been eight days ago.
Most refugees that came were quiet folk; families that had been trying to get somewhere when they reached a point of hopeless traffic congestion and had been forced to pack what they could carry and walk to find shelter. Some brought stories from the outside. Things they had seen or heard. Someone said they heard entire cities were falling in the wake of the epidemic. Washington. New York. Chicago. Others said that the South had been hit hardest because the disease had come up from Mexico, through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Alabama had been hit hard, as had Florida. A few said Florida was still largely unaffected and had only had a few cases of the illness. There was supposedly even an emergency response hospital in Miami where they may have made some progress in treating the disease. Someone heard an inbound tanker ran aground in the Gulf of Mexico and there was a spill and that people started getting sick right after that. Some said it was a chemical weapon from Iran or Pakistan and that it was the prelude to a full-scale invasion. Many claimed the west coast was a haven and had not been affected. Others said the west had been the epicenter and all the coastal cities from Los Angeles to Seattle had fallen.
Panic and dread were beginning to settle in among the survivors. Because that was what they were. Survivors. Not refugees. Not displaced citizens. No, survivors. Survivors of the deadliest virus the world had ever seen.
It was nearing noon and with the sun high overhead and little shade to be found aside from the airless tents, the camp was sweltering and muggy. FEMA had dropped from three meals a day to two and even those were meager by anyone’s standards. The only bright side was now you could have a few hours between meals to busy yourself. The running joke had been that when you left the breakfast line you made your way right to the lunch line so you could get through before lunchtime and while there were still cold corn muffins to eat. With lunch no longer offered, the dinner line-up started to form around noon. Today something was different. Many folks had begun to lineup before noon. There had been a rumor about running out of rations earlier than usual for dinner and it had spread like wildfire.
People were tense; wide-eyes nervously looking about the others in the line - trying to get a look at the supply truck and the ring of tables where the food and water was being dispersed. What happened there was often the lynchpin for what happened in the line. Someone got shorted on something and next thing you knew, ten people back a fist fight would erupt. Though it was relatively calm and quiet now, it had begun to feel like the calm before the storm. Like things were slowly edging towards a surge; a breaking point, like critical mass had almost been reached.
Right on queue, shouts went up from somewhere ahead of you. In the crowd it was impossible to see what was happening but people were jostling about and some were cheering. Another fight.
"This is it? How do you expect us to survive on a handful of crackers, an apple and half a bottle of water? This is ridiculous!"
A woman’s voice. Pleading.
"Ma'am, please step back away from the table."
"Or, what? You'll shoot me? Look, I just want to feed my kids. They're hungry."
"Hey, lady! Step aside. We're all hungry,"
someone shouted from the crowd.
"Ma'am, I need you to move out of the line, please. You have your meal."
"This isn't enough! My daughter is sick, she needs more than just crackers and an apple!"
Suddenly, the crowd parted and you finally caught a glimpse of what was going on. A young woman stood at the food table, a child tucked up under one arm on her hip and a second gripping her leg. The crowd had moved away from them at the mention of sickness.
All three were dirty and ragged; the woman’s pale yellow tank-top clinging to her with sweat and her dark brown hair pulled back into a messy pony-tail. Her childrens hair was a mess of tangles and it looked like they hadn't had a decent meal since long before arriving at the refugee camp. On the opposite side of the table sat a middle aged man dressed in a gray shirt emblazoned with the FEMA logo, he looked tired, but clean. His hair was neatly combed and his face freshly shaven. His face seemed to be carved out of granite, stoic, emotionless. Behind him stood two armed military men carrying rifles. There were others usually, sometimes up to ten when things were likely to get strained or heated such as at meal times and when bad news had to be delivered. These men were familiar to you. Both soldiers were self-contained near to the point of apathy and generally took little interest in things until it looked like they were about to boil over and then they took sharp, decisive action. Usually by pointing loaded weapons into the crowd or firing into the air.
From your vantage point you see only the two soldiers and notice with their typically composed demeanor had been replaced by keen interest in the woman. One of the soldiers was looking between the two children; his expression anxious.
"Ma'am, did you say your child was sick?"
The grey-haired man at the table asked, but instead of looking at her he had his head down slightly, pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and finger as if straining against a head-ache. With a hand gesture from the man the soldier detached himself from his post, moved to an opening between tables. She took an involuntary step back as the soldier rounded the table..
"She...she has a cold. It's just a cold. Why are you looking at me like that?"
Her voice took on a shrill note as she backed away from the table and the approaching soldier.
"Ma'am, I'd like you to come with me."
The guard was stepping around the table now, his hand outstretched to the woman in a placating manner. His voice was smooth and calm, as if he were talking to a small child or frightened animal.
"No! I don't want to go anywhere. I just want food for my children."
"It's okay. We'll take care of you and your kids."
The smaller child in the woman's arms started to whimper and cry. "You’re scaring them. Please. I just wanted an extra apple. I don't want to go anywhere."
The crowd seemed to move with the woman, never letting her get any closer as she backed away from the soldier. "I'm sorry. I can't do that. I need you to come with me. Now."
The guard's tone shifted to something harsher, more imposing. The woman blanched.
"No! No. I don't want to."
The child in her arms was wailing now and the girl at her pants leg was gripping her mother's leg tight, preventing the woman from moving well.
The FEMA agent behind the food table stood up. He had a placating, authoritative smile on his face and seemed weary."Everyone calm down. There's no need to panic. Look, we have doctors that can help look after your daughter if she's sick. We just want to take care of you and your daughter."
"I know what happens to sick people here!"
the woman shouted, the fear and anger evident in her expression, in her body language. "I've seen them disappear behind those curtains. They don't come back!"
A murmur swept through the crowd as others in the camp agreed. There was no shortage of rumors about what happened to the sick or dying.
The national guardsman ignored Mike for the time being, but he watched him carefully as he wandered back into the crowd. His partner behind the food table bent over his shoulder and activated his radio, speaking quickly and quietly into the device. His automatic rifle, shouldered at first, now slid easily into his hands as he approached the group. The first guard, his uniform identifying him as Corporal Davis, looked between Shannon, Greg and finally the woman and her two children. The situation was cut and dry. It always was. He needed to take her and the children into custody. No questions. No deviations. He stepped forward to apprehend the woman just as two more guards approached from the side.
The frightened woman was trapped between the guardsmen and the doctors. She fidgeted nervously, looking for any means of escape. She started to yell, "You can't do this. We're American citizens. You can't just take us away like we're.... like cattle."
She looked pleadingly from Shannon to Greg and then back at the guards. "I don't want to go anywhere with you. I don't care what you say. This isn't right!"
Two guardsmen closed in on her and one grabbed her from behind. She struggled, screaming out for help. The child in her arms was yanked free by another guard amid its squalling and the older child, a girl no older than six or seven, was pulled kicking and screaming from her mother's leg. "No! No! You can't take them. You can't take my children!"
Corporal Davis set his jaw and stepped in, raised the butt of his rifle and slammed it down with brute force into the woman's temple. She crumpled instantly.
Yells of protest erupted from the gathered crowd. Jeers and catcalls; profanity. People started pushing; shoving - they had been taken past their threshold. The living conditions were one thing but to strike one of the refugees was too much; to hit a woman in front of her child; despicable. Someone hurled an apple and it shattered off of Cpl. Davis' helmet as he bent towards the radio pinned to his shoulder.
The energy of the crowd swelled; people panicked. Some continued to press the soldiers, enraged by the brutality of the attack. Others tried to flee. The crowd surged forward and Davis and his partner were forced to fall back. The FEMA man, the man with the grey hair rose hurriedly from his chair and moved back away from the surging crowd, his megaphone in hand, held uselessly - his eyes darting left and right at the angry throng.
Shots were fired. This caused further pandemonium. People screamed and rushed away from the shooters, clearing wide paths as they fled. They were using rubber bullets though they stung terribly and took down those they struck, but didn't injure them. By now, the soldiers had retreated behind the line of tables used to distribute meals. Ten or so more armed guardsmen had joined Corporal Davis and his partner and lined up elbow to elbow behind them, rifles raised.
Davis took the megaphone from the grey-haired mans hands.
he bellowed; his voice booming and echoing in waves across the panic-stricken crowd.
"Stand down or we will open fire."
he finished, and scarcely a moment afterward two guys in jeans and dirty t-shirts broke from the crowd and upended one of the tables. From behind them came a mob of two dozen or so, running headlong and brandishing whatever they could find as a makeshift weapon. This move gave some of the others pause and the crowd pushed forward again, closing on the guards.
This time, Davis could be seen flagging his men to proceed.
Gunshots rang out amid screams of terror and pain. One of the two men in jeans fell to the ground gasping for air, a bloom of crimson forming on his chest beneath his clothing, spreading out across the asphalt. His feet kicked at the ground, desperately twitching for several long moments before his muscles relaxed and he was still. A child screamed; a piercing wail against the stacatto popping of rifle-fire.
Another fell. A Hispanic man in his forties whose face struck the pavement with such a sickening crunch that there was no doubt as to his fate. The crowd was thinning and clearly the riot had been quelled when a heavy-set middle-aged woman with short-cropped blonde hair was struck by a bullet in the hip and fell screaming to the ground.
Then, as quickly as it had erupted. the gunfire ceased and what remained of the crowd finally fell silent.
It had all happened in a matter of seconds. Three dead and four wounded. The number of guardsmen now totaled almost twenty-five and they stood in a line before the crowd, ominous and imposing. Shoulder to shoulder, guns raised and ready.