They came for me in the evening.
“I’m sorry to tell you this Mrs Saad, but your daughter has tested positive. It is vital that we take her to the facility where she can receive proper care immediately.”
“What about us?” my mother asks, the concern on her face obvious, despite her efforts to hide it.
“You and the rest of the family have tested negative. You are welcome to be tested again at one of the clinics but we have no reason to believe you are at any additional risk, despite your daughter’s results.
Now Cass, please go and pack some changes of clothes and any toiletries you need. Unfortunately, we will have to ask you to leave your phone and any other electronic devices at home as they can’t be disinfected properly.”
“But how can I contact my parents?” I ask. I can’t imagine going anywhere without my phone.
“There are telephones at the facility that you will be allowed to use. Now please come along quickly.”
One of the testers, his face obscured behind his protective mask, takes my bag of clothes from me “for sterilization” as I’m led up to the waiting bus where the other children are sitting down, a few chatting quietly, some watching a movie on the screen, most ignoring it. Some have tears, sobbing silently to themselves.
My parents barely touch me as I say my farewells, afraid of me, of the virus inside.
That was the last time I saw them.
It started without anyone paying it much heed. A sniffle, maybe a mild fever, the usual tiredness from a bug. There was nothing to worry about, nothing to do about it. Everyone gets a cold. All but the unluckiest recover without any lasting effects.
Then one day, a couple of weeks later, you’d be wheezing in the hospital struggling to breathe. Or you’d simply drop dead. The virus triggered your immune system, sent it haywire, attacking your blood vessels, your lungs or your brain.
They tried the drugs. But by the time you knew you were sick with the virus it was the immune system they needed to stop, and when you do that it’s every other disease that’ll get you. Especially when the medical system is stretched beyond breaking point.
The bus pulls into what looks to be an army base surrounded by razor wire fences and masked soldiers with weapons at the ready. I was already terrified and this did nothing to reassure me. How long did I have? Were they going to try out some experimental treatment on us? Or was it just a lot closer to where they would bury us?
The virus, officially labelled abv-456, was almost always fatal. Normally that would stop it in its tracks. But this was an devious little almost-lifeform. It was mild enough that you barely knew you had it while you were at your most infectious. And infectious it was.
We’d learned from the ‘rona, or at least we thought we had. Business, schools and community facilities were closed, people stayed home. Factories were switched to churning out protective gear and tests were prepared, vaccines promised.
People still died.
After filtering out of the bus we are made to queue at the entrance of a large hall, like the one where we have sport and assembly at school. As I reach the entrance a chunky band is strapped around my wrist. I am instructed not to remove it. Then I am given a small drink of sweet fluid.
I step through and join the crowd of other kids milling around inside. Everyone looks to be between twelve and the late teens in age.
Once the hall is full the doors are shut behind us. The lights are darkened except for those above the stage at the front. A man wearing an inflatable hood stands on the stage.
“Good evening boys and girls,” his amplified voice echoes around the hall. “I know that many of you are very concerned about your test results and of being separated from your parents. I want to reassure you that you have nothing to fear and will be well looked after here.”
“Each one of you was given a treatment for cmv-456 as you entered the hall tonight. This treatment is experimental, but safe, and we are confident that it will cure you. Just in case however, you will need to remain at this facility until we are entirely certain that you cannot infect anyone else.”
Other lessons had been learned from the ‘rona. Lessons like people not wanting to lose their jobs and businesses. Their frustration of changing routines. Their willingness to listen to conspiracies over facts.
And those at the top worried about their stocks dropping, about their influence waning. So they quietly locked themselves away and ensured that, this time, the governments would follow their rules.
“My fellow citizens. At the start of this crisis I promised you strong action to fight this pandemic and I can assure you that I have never wavered from that commitment. Today I am informed that we have completed testing the entire population for abv-456.
Whilst we await the results of these tests I would like to share with the public some excellent news. Our scientists have discovered that some of us are fortunate to have natural immunity to cmv-456. They do not appear to be able to catch the virus.
Researchers are working feverishly to replicate this immunity so that we can deliver a vaccine for all our citizens. But in the meantime we need those lucky citizens to share their good fortune with all of us.
From today all naturally immune citizens will be informed of their status and classified as essential workers. You will need to attend your nearest Jobs Centre where you will be tasked with providing the essential services on which our economy depends.
All naturally immune citizens aged twelve and above are expected to comply with this request. I regret that this service will be compulsory and that there will be penalties for anybody who refuses to support their fellow citizens.”
They lied to us. We aren’t the sick ones. That treatment was sugar water. There isn’t a treatment, there’s no vaccine. The scientists have said as much.
I was a good student. I could have been a doctor or a manager. But they don’t give us any education now, just work. Last week it was burying the bodies. Now it’s the mines. We don’t even get properly paid, just an allowance that we never see. And they keep us isolated from the norms, as we call them. We might infect them, they say. As if we could.
You see, we’ve got the survival adaptation. But you know those so-called leaders? Those politicians, billionaires, thought-leaders, visionaries? The ones they pay the big bucks to make decisions? They don’t get there by adapting. They’re too scared to. They bludgeon down anyone else who might out-compete them.
They’re afraid of us.