Please enjoy the beginning of my short story, The Sting Girl, and if you’d like to read more, this story is available for $2.99 as an ebook on Amazon, iBooks, and elsewhere.
Early Spring, 2034
On Tuesday the national news announced it was a World War again, by Thursday all the Chronics had been rounded up from their San Francisco homes and apartments, and sometime in the middle of a pitch black Saturday night Trinity Jane Nickelfire finally stumbled from a monster-green Army transport truck and was herded by drones into a medical camp by bright, blinding lights.
Now, she now lay like a broken China doll on a damp patch of dirt, shivering under a piss-brown tarp, trying to keep her twitching muscles from jumping out of her skin.
The tarp crinkled like birthday wrapping paper.
It was annoying.
When she’d finally fallen asleep, she’d even had a stupid birthday dream where her mom and dad were singing in a sunny yellow kitchen and everybody was all excited, the lemon poppy-seed cake had seventeen candles, and then bam! the cake blew up and her parents ran around screaming with blood spurting from their flesh-peeled faces.
Bacterial nightmares were a drag.
When you woke up you really quick had to count ten good things that you knew were true. When you were done counting, the lies in the nightmare would already be fading away.
Because for one, she’d never had real parents, so they weren’t going to lose their faces.
And secondly, she couldn’t eat sugar anymore. So any kind of cake was like broccoli and she didn’t miss it.
Not when sugar made her symptoms worse.
Trinity realized suddenly her neuro twitch had stopped. She held her breath under the tarp. Even the low-grade buzzing vibrations under her skin were gone.
It was always a freaking miracle when her infected body went still.
She almost smiled. But it was too much work.
A coughing fit punctured the night. That same phlegmy lung-hacker from inside the Army-green blowup tent had started up with his whoop again. Damn mucous-filled stranger, laying there inside that sea of metallic folding cots with the other parchment-paper faced people gripping their woolen blankets under the glow of blue service lights (that made everyone look like they were wearing black mascara)—hack, hack, hack.
The terrified whispers. The uncontrolled moans. The psst escape of stinky cabbage farts—then hack, hack, hack.
But really it was the cabbage farts that had been too much. Who could breathe?
Within the first hour, Trinity had dropped out of her cot and crawled secretly along the modular plastic floor of the Army tent on her hands and knees.
Just to find fresh air somewhere.
The hexagonal floor pieces had been snapped together like a jigsaw puzzle and the little drainage holes had pinched circular imprints into her palms. Trinity had slunk past one row of pot-bellied cots and then another. The tall folks with their feet dangling. Cold blue toes.
Her bony knees spiked with pain through moss-green drawstring pants—the identical bottoms they’d all been issued with white T-shirt tops.
Trinity had thought the spherical nurse drones would track her movement at the canvass exit flaps, but for some reason their ocular sensors didn’t sense her.
The nurse drones had panels that could open, and all kinds of medical gadgets could extend on mechanical probes. Each drone had a different numeric identifier and a barcode. They floated down the rows, smooth white basketballs with a big red plus sign, monitoring their human horde.
While one had crawled secretly away.
Technology was stupid.
The tracking frequency of Trinity’s V2 identity chip must have been malfunctioning. She’d investigated the surgical implant, permanently flush to the skin on her wrist. Tapped the touch screen, but it had just glared darkly at her with a singular white pixel. That was unusual. In fact, the device had never blinked with a single white square before.
She should have made a break for it then. Run like hell and escaped. But who could run? She hadn’t even felt like her legs could stand.
Instead, she had collapsed under this piss-brown tarp just outside the Army tent—and now the fresh air probed through the holes in the plastic with airy fingers.
Fragrant and clean and wild, blowing in from somewhere that couldn’t possibly be another city, the intoxicating, honey-sweet breeze could have been funneled right through the perfume section of an elite consortium.
You know what?
It smelled gorgeous.
Where the hell had the military stashed her, anyway? She’d never been in a targeted group before—not through any of the world wars in her brief stint of life so far. She wasn’t Muslim, she wasn’t Anti-Technology, she was just plain old Latina.
And inside the cultural melting pot of The City, Latina was still cool.
Trinity ground her teeth. It was having an incurable disease that wasn’t cool.
It was having to fear your own government that wasn’t cool.
For most of Trinity’s life the domestic terrorist attacks had been cranking up to an insane level. Finally, the defense conglomerates had run for President under the state of emergency Save Our Sovereignty campaigns, and the question had been fervently debated—how do we save the country?
The pundits squawked while domestic terrorists blew more stuff up. Bye-bye Golden Gate Bridge. There was a national vote. The defense corporations officially merged into one corporation and the new Universal One became the first elected Corporate President.
Save Our Sovereignty had become the final answer.
The end to capitalism would allow the release of scientific patents that had been keep secret for centuries. New technology would save us from the terrorists who had sacked Washington. The state. (Because Washington D.C. would have been too much).
Reality changed overnight.
It was like a science fiction movie except it wasn’t a movie.
Nanobots in the sky to fix global warming, made-to-order cloned organs, a new monetary system with scannable human implants (everybody has to have one), and these UFO flying disc things that all along had existed.
Free energy boxes called the Free-E Device hit the shelves. Google already had the hover car.
But Chronic disease.
It was poking a dangerous hole right through all the political lies.
Trinity never should have told the doctors anything. And she should have kept trying to hide her symptoms from her foster mother. She’d punched her ticket to this quarantine camp (Oh excuse me, I mean medical facility) with that fateful blood draw. But how was she supposed to know World War Whatever was just around the corner? That the rumors about Chronic disease being a U.S. biological weapon against its own people were going to get all mainstream and in everybody’s face?
The muscles in her forearm started twisting like angry snakes again.
The bacterial infections under her skin were winning their own world war—hijacking her nerves. Her immune system lost the battle a little more every day.
She was dying, but she couldn’t die. It was like your own body turned into a torture chamber and you couldn’t get out.
But she was still trying to stay positive. Out here in the night. But the nightmare feelings started pulling her down like an anchor to the bottom of a drowning sea.
That stranger’s hacking cough. Hack, hack, hack.
Just stop coughing.
Please stop coughing.
I hate you when you cough.
She’d had enough of that sound. Trinity yanked the tarp off her body. The cold spring sky goose-bumped her skin. The moon hung sickly, a clawing fingernail losing its grip on reality. The weak stars were swollen, bloated eyes.
She would try running anyway, after all.
Maybe find the perimeter and sneak out and hitchhike her way back to San Francisco and live on the streets.
Hack, hack, hack the cougher laughed. I’m sick, sick, sick and so are you.
Screw running, Trinity thought. Screw all the healthy people who can still run. Vertigo swooped down on her, like she was dropping through the ground continually, without end.
She hated that symptom.
Trinity took as deep a breath as she could, and then just went ahead and screamed—screw you Universal One you’re trying to take over the world you lying sacks of shit you created this disease to weaken your own people—as loud as she could.
It was totally exhausting.
If her V2 was still malfunctioning, she would be undetectable and off the grid as long as she was unseen and quiet. But nothing would call a drone on a her ass faster than a good ol’ domestic terrorist diatribe.
The low mechanical whir of a Three-Point Tactical shot up within twelve inches of her nose, its mirrored black helmet-head on a long, telescoping neck. The shoulders and retractable arms were Herculean. It was the creepiest robot ever made. A marriage between a grey alien and an African mamba snake. No legs. It flew like lightening and was weaponized.
Trinity jerked and the tarp under her back crinkled like a giant potato chip bag.
A red laser sliced across Trinity’s eyes in a microsecond, reading her retinas for identification with a bright stab of pain. (After Universal One came into power, everybody had one month to get their retinas scanned at the DMV. The wait lines were horrific.) The drone’s handcuff lashed out and gripped Trinity’s upper arm like amputation might be a frequent side effect. She was yanked up to her feet.
It was too cold outside, anyway.
And she shouldn’t be laying on the dirt while she was fighting an infection.
Maybe solitary confinement would be warmer. Quieter, too. She’d spent the last year and a half lying in bed, anyway.
At least when she was alone it wouldn’t smell like one hundred other people’s digestive issues.
Solitary smelled blank, if blank can be a smell.
It was too quiet and that made the tinnitus in her ears worse. Like hearing nonstop dual tones. And the glaring blueish-white lights inside the ceiling panels never went off. Even when she closed her eyes—blue.
An indestructible camera observed her with a shiny glass lens in a corner. Even during the night when she had those screaming nightmares where people blew up, and the panic and anxiety coiled around her ribs like a constricting snake trying to swallow her for days on end, the camera just watched.
Like a one-eyed voyeur.
The claustrophobic white walls were cubical, the temperature was neutral, and she lived under a scratchy wool blanket on a spongy plastic floor mat with a metal ration food bowl and water cup as her only friends. They were filled twice a day. When shoved through a slat in the wall onto a conveyor belt they both said shmmmm.
A black-and-white instruction panel bolted on the wall next to the conveyor belt kindly informed in twelve languages: return vessels to receptacle. no exceptions.
Corporate One’s logo—a little blue rectangle with the left side missing, just like a backward, block letter C—emblazoned nearly everything. Like somebody in marketing couldn’t figure out this wasn’t the best place to advertise the brand.
A hole in the ground vaporized her bodily functions.
That was kinda cool. Every house should have one.
When Trinity was awake she really missed her cell phone and the internet. Cut off from contact with the outside world, she longed for the feel of her smooth leather phone case snug in her palm. At least now her foster mother couldn’t call her up and yell.
Trinity would fall asleep and when she woke up she had all these same thoughts again.
Try having a chronic brain infection.
It’s a trip.
It really is like your thoughts erase over and over, then you discover them anew.
A paper cup with useless pink pills accompanied every meal. She tossed the drugs in the vaporizer. The mirrored camera didn’t seem to care either way.
Was anybody even watching the feed?
She rode the constant wave of symptoms. Twitch, twitch, twitch. The same symptoms that had been explained and debated on the national news before the World War was announced—fever, night sweats, joint pain, crazy-weird neurological stuff, fatigue, sound sensitivity, seizures—oh, and don’t forget the short-term memory loss.
Did she say that already?
It’s like every day becomes the same day, without the day before.
On the national news, right before the World War was announced, a bunch of famous people had just started going public about being diagnosed with Chronic. Actors couldn’t finish shooting the movie. Congress folks getting confused at law meetings. People falling away out of society.
Where were they? In bed.
And they were suffering. No two doctors alike could agree on treatment. Except treatments often failed.
So when the famous folks started asking what this tick-born disease really was, and where it came from, and why there was a cover-up of the epidemic?—Well, those were innocent questions. And that was probably going to be a problem.
For the folks.
Who weren’t so innocent.
A soldier in Army fatigues opened Trinity’s door in the wall. She hadn’t seen a real person in a long time—how long? Her inability to track time made her feel crazy.
The soldier was young and cute and patriotic but his eyes didn’t smile.
Trinity’s legs held her up like half-cooked noodles when she followed him. She felt like a ghost in a labyrinth of hallways she didn’t remember traversing before.
When she stepped outside, that gorgeous and mysterious perfume filled her lungs like an old comfort. She felt drunk on the magnificent scent and knew she never wanted to go back to the blankness of solitary again. But the sky radiated an overpowering bright, electric-blue and the fireball sun sent daggers though her eyes.
Damn the light sensitivity.
She needed the police sunglasses back home on her nightstand. She shaded her eyes with her palm but her pupils were optical lenses with the aperture stuck on nuclear blast.
White, 3D-machine printed buildings now replaced the temporary tents that had been there the night of her arrival. It was like a plastic, hexagonal city without seams had gone up while she was locked down.
Really? The future couldn’t still be made out of wood, or even hemp, or an old classic like concrete?
The ground was still just dirt.
The soldier showed her to her new barracks with the red letter H at the entrance. She found her bed with the general population. The nurse drones whirred around, marginally attending to people’s needs, dispensing drugs. Trinity talked to some nearby people, but she kept her head down, her eyes averted. She didn’t want to be recognized. Everyone was afraid, anyway. In pain.
Mostly they were all in bed, unable to organize or resist or do anything. No one even talked of escape, the idea was too exhausting. When you had Chronic, a lot of what you did was just stare at walls. It’s all your brain could do.
Trinity joined them.
Her symptoms got worse.
She finally felt like she could take a longer walk. The spring air was crisp. The mysterious perfume was only a whiff in the air today, but Trinity closed her eyes and inhaled like she might be healed just from that heavenly scent.
The Western perimeter of the camp was made of twenty-foot tall conical fence posts that radiated a dangerous red laser grid. Black-and-white signs warned of lethal consequence in twelve languages.
In other words, the lasers were not going to give a mild warning stun, they were going to barbeque.
Black tactical drones hovered in strategic positions, monitoring. The peaceful landscape of green fields and hills beyond the barrier faded into a pastel horizon. Maybe farmland, or grazing areas. No homesteads were in sight.
So basically this was nowhere.
Trinity found the mess hall. Almost no one was there because the nurse drones delivered bedside trays. The buffet food squirmed like it might be on a Petri dish under the microscopic lens of a fingerprint-smudged sneeze barrier. The overcooked scrambled eggs smelled like wet hay. She scooped breakfast onto her gun-metal plate and called it a main course of unknown.
Trinity carried her tray and sat heavily at a picnic-style table.
“You come in with the new offload?” a bright-green eyed, red-bearded man announced from the distant cattycorner of the rectangular table. He slid on the bench to sit across from Trinity and stuck out his block of a hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Trinity felt overwhelmed by the sudden onset of Friendly Human Contact.
She hesitantly presented her fingers for a handshake. His hydraulic-crush knuckles surprised her with gentleness. “I’m Shaughnessy. Don’t eat that cold stuff.” He nodded at the sad blob on her plate. “I can get you something cooked up fresh. Have you heard yet? They sacked Washington D.C. just ten minutes ago.”
“Oh no,” Trinity said, worried about the people who lived there. “The real Washington D.C.? Like blew it up?”
“I dunno. The national news said sacked. They showed pictures of bandana terrorists with guns all around the White House.” He emphasized the word.
They were both silent for a beat.
“You gotta brand the bad guys for the show somehow,” Trinity mumbled.
Shaughnessy gave her a sideways look as he examined her face and she worried she’d said too much.
“So what are the latest countries this time?” She didn’t worry about sounding uneducated in a concentration camp, but her eyes did dart to the corners of the room where the drones hovered with their supersonic ears. “I mean, I never saw the end of the news broadcast when they announced the new World War.”
“The usual suspects,” Shaughnessy answered carefully.
Trinity ran her fingers though her hair. She knew what he meant. War was a racket. How much was propaganda, how much was real, how could you know?
“The Washington D.C. thing will be a distraction,” she said. Translation: That will keep the public in fear mode and loyal to their corporate savior.
Shaughnessy seemed to consider her words. He unfolded himself and stood up. Practically an Irish giant. The normal sized bench table looked like it was a tinker-toy construction that would topple if mistakenly bumped by his muscly thigh. “Like I said, something cooked fresh? Let me show you the ropes around here, skin ’n bones.”
He offered his hand to help her up and Trinity didn’t hesitate to feel his gentle touch again.
So many white walls, so many white hallways, so exhausting to walk—but Shaughnessy led her gently. They came to a door which unlocked when he scanned the V2 on his wrist. A colorful kitchen leapt into view. Hanging pots and pans gleamed with reflected silver winks and the room exploded with a rainbow of various fruits and vegetables sitting in bins on the wire racks of shelves.
On closer inspection, the produce was blemished or moldy. “Volunteered to cook,” he declared proudly, indicating himself with a bow. A few other people shuffled by, focused on their cooking tasks. “It’s my shift,” he added.
“Just make sure to avoid the cabbage.”
He looked at her oddly, not getting the reference. Suddenly she noticed the faded Erythema migrans rash on his forearm. “You were bit recently?”
He nodded. “All the luck. Hunting deer and got this tick bite on the weekend. In the doctor’s office as a precaution on Monday. Forced outta my home on Tuesday. But I’m not a Chronic like you. Not yet, at least. I’m taking the drugs.”
“They don’t always kill Borellia burgdoferri. It can shape shift into other forms and hide deep in your tissues because it’s a stealth infection, it’s bacteria that can think,” she said defensively, and then regretted it.
“Well, we can only do what the government recommends,” he said lightheartedly. “And we’re all getting the best treatment here, right? These medical facilities were created to relieve the pressure off our loved ones while the healthy serve the war effort.”
Trinity considered the translation: This is all a crock of shit.
Shaughnessy whipped an Army green apron around his waist. The ties barely could tie, and the apron edged up toward looking more like a baby’s bib than a man’s stain protector. He got busy chopping vegetables and fired up the gas stove.
He looked like a man who rarely chopped vegetables.
Trinity’s legs were turning into soggy noodles again. “I think I’ll go lay down.”
“You’re not just a young woman with Chronic disease,” he said quietly. He stopped chopping and looked up, his green eyes bore into her like he could be a drone probing for information. “Tell me, if you had one wish for all the Chronics, what would it be?”
Trinity’s damaged mitral heart valve started acting up. Pound, pound, pound. She didn’t know what to say.
“Because you just seem like someone who knows more than she lets on,” he continued.
“I don’t,” Trinity said. “I don’t even go to school anymore.”
“What would you wish for us?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what have you been doing these years you’ve been sick?”
“Lying in bed.”
“Lying in bed doing what?”
“Staring at walls.”
“Staring at walls doing what else?”
“Looking at my cell phone.”
“And what was on your phone?”
“The Chronic forums and my websites.”
Shaughnessy laughed outright, a happy, jackhammering thud of a laugh that released the pressure of the moment. “I knew it,” he said. “You’re the Trinity. I think we’re forum friends.”
Trinity could breathe again. That’s all he’d been wondering. “Really, we’re friends?” She tried to recall all the tiny little photographs in the alternative Chronic treatment groups she frequented online. “What’s your name?”
“I thought you were a girl who liked mystery novels?”
“Negatory on the girl part,” Shaughnessy confessed. “It’s a long story.”
“That must take a lot of work, making your fake account seem legit so Universal One doesn’t cancel it,” Trinity said. “So who is the real Shaughnessy?”
“Sometimes you can’t be yourself.”
Trinity nodded, her exhaustion canceling her intrigue. “Sounds complicated. I’m just one person and it’s hard enough to keep up with my feed. I mean—it was…” Her muscles started in with twitch, twitch, twitch.
“But you kept up with it all so well,” Shaughnessy said softly. He took Trinity gently by the elbow. She didn’t think anything of his kindness at the time.
She leaned on his strong arm the whole way back to her plastic 3D-printed building with an H. She was too fatigued to realize until much later that there was no logical way Shaughnessy would have been part of the Chronic underground. Not on the forums. Not anywhere.
Chronic meant untold years of degenerative suffering. Desperation drove you underground, outside and beyond the sham of recommended drugs—where patients broke the law to realize they could help each other, help themselves.
And Shaughnessy had just been bit.
Trinity woke suddenly in the middle of the night as she lay underneath her wool blanket in her cot. The ceiling rained those eerie blue service lights down on the lumpy medicated figures in their rows. There were groans and smells but Trinity had long ago rigged up a double-tied sock filter that she wrapped around her face each night to breathe.
It worked like a charm.
But she had a creepy feeling now.
Copyright © 2016 Valerie Brook. All rights reserved.
Published by Two Lights Press
Cover Art Copyright: dendiz/shutterstock.com
Cover Art Design: Two Lights Press/inspired by pixelmatortemplates.com
This is a work of fiction. Name, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction, in whole or in part in any form. Nothing contained in this work of fiction is or should be considered, or used as a substitute for, medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment by a physician.