The ward smelled like mildew and feet. Moisture fogged the windowpanes, and green and black mold grew in scaly patches on the walls. The redhead in the bed next to mine turned away from me and hacked a wad of phlegm onto the floor.
He straightened up and winked at me. “Sorry to give you such an unpleasant welcome. Name’s Fuego. I’d shake your hand, but…” He rattled the chain connecting his wrist to his bed frame.
“No offense taken,” I said. “Why don’t they open a window?”
The redhead chuckled. His laugh morphed into a cough. He hacked another wad onto the floor. “This bug is killing the Elites, too. They’re rounding up Poors and infecting us, hoping to stumble across a gene for resistance.”
“So we’re lab rats.”
“I like to think of myself as a guinea pig,” he said, “but whatever animal you pick, we’re fucked.”
I went quiet.
“Gets depressing talking about it,” he said. “What were you doing when they grabbed you?”
“Watching a meteor shower.”
Fuego’s eyes widened. “Heads up!”
Electricity jackhammered through my body. My muscles locked. The current stopped as suddenly as it started, and all my muscles relaxed at once.
Two guards wearing face masks connected to air tanks dragged me trembling and stumbling out of the ward and into a long hallway. We came to a small room empty save for a stool and a chair.
The guards pushed me into the chair. Arm and leg restraints locked into place. One of the guards fitted a mesh cap with sensors over my head. “Sit,” the second guard said. “Stay.”
Both of them laughed on their way out of the room.
A tall man wearing full-body PPE with self-contained air entered and sat on the stool. He carried a tablet in one hand. Through his faceplate, I saw blue eyes and light brown hair swept back from a creased forehead.
He didn’t introduce himself. “Are you really a bartender, or is that your cover?’
“Cover? I pour beers and mix drinks. I go home and hope I don’t wake up sick.”
“You were arrested with a suspected member of the Resistance.”
“You mean Paloma?”
He glanced at the tablet. “Paloma what?”
“Paloma’s the only name she gave me.”
“How’d she recruit you?”
“She didn’t recruit me. She moved in across the hall. I asked if she wanted to see the meteor shower.”
“Thought maybe I could get her into bed. She brought peppermint schnapps, I brought hot chocolate.”
He looked at the tablet again. “Presumptious of you.”
I shrugged. “Might as well. No telling how long I’ve got.”
He nodded. “The scanner says you’re telling the truth. Too bad you got caught up in this, but I’m not letting you out.”
“Why’d they tase me?”
He shook his head. “Some people are just assholes.”
“I wouldn’t’ve guessed it,” Fuego said, “but you might be somebody.”
I rubbed my face. “What do you mean?”
“I heard they brought you in with Paloma.”
“You know her? You heard?”
Fuego waved a hand in the air. “Long story. From now on I’m calling you Meteor.”
“I don’t need a code name,” I said. “I was just trying to get her in bed.”
Fuego laughed. Sweat beaded on his temples. His neck flushed red.
“You’re not coughing,” I said. “Are you getting better?”
He shook his head. “You stop coughing, it’s not long before you stop breathing.” He smiled. “My question is, how are you feeling?”
“Aching all over from the taser. Okay otherwise.”
Fuego raised his eyebrows. “Most guys start going downhill the first day.
Next morning, at the latest.”
“I’ll get it eventually.”
“Maybe,” Fuego said.
The gas woke me. It smelled like bitter lemons and left a film on the back of my throat.
Fuego smiled. “They’re breaking us out.”
“My guess is you, me, Paloma.”
“No, who is breaking us — ”
Clean, dry air filled my lungs. My head pounded, but I wasn’t cuffed. A wooden table filled the gap between my bed and an empty one made up with white sheets and a brown blanket. Disconnected medical equipment stood along the wall next to the empty bed.
I tried to stand. The walls spun. I groaned and lay back. The bed held me semi-upright.
Paloma walked in and sat on the empty bed. Bags shadowed her eyes, and her black hair tangled around her head. She handed me a glass of water. “Don’t try to move yet.”
“I already found that out. How come you’re walking?”
“We kept you unconscious while we traveled.”
“Where are we?”
She shook her head. “You’re probably wondering what’s going on.”
“I’ve pieced some of it together,” I said. “Something’s in the schnapps, right?”
Paloma’s face betrayed nothing. “Why do you say that?”
“The bug already got most of my family, so I doubt I’m naturally resistant. On the roof, you insisted on pouring a shot into my hot chocolate. When the choppers showed up, you smashed the bottle. I didn’t think about it until Fuego asked me — ”
Paloma looked down.
I looked past her, at the silent machines. “He didn’t make it?”
She shook her head. “His lungs were too damaged. The gas…”
She cleared her throat. “It’s not a cure, but it prevents the disease.”
“Bacterial spores. Once ingested, the bacteria multiply and counter the pathogen. We don’t know how, we just know it works.”
I nodded. “And you put it in liquor because police won’t notice a Poor carrying a bottle.”
Paloma smiled. Her eyes remained grim. “Use their biases against them.”
“Send me back,” I said.
“To do what?”
I smiled. “I’m a bartender. You send me booze, I mix drinks. We set up special events in Poor neighborhoods, spread the bacteria.”
“You’re not in the Resistance.”
I locked eyes with Paloma. “Sign me up.”
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