Science Fiction sacrifice Apocalyptic Fiction Mother/daughter

The Fat Man

By Susan Forest
May 21, 2019 · 5,098 words · 19 minutes

18 onspec fat man

Art by Chris Harms.  

From the author: When climate change and resource conflicts release a flood of US civil war refugees into Canada’s state of martial law, Miche and her daughter wonder if people can be saved by sacrificing a few. And if so, which few?


    I see the sequence. All at once, after scanning the computer data only half a dozen times, it jumps out at me. This little nasty--estimated 80% mortality--will pass from human to human. Somewhere in its travels, it has picked up a gene sequence from an enveloped, single-stranded RNA virus.

    Contagious. Very, very contagious.

    I lean back, contemplating the computer data. Wind slams fitfully against the window of my office. Cubicle. Whatever. I don't mind. Some of Better World Research's donations are significant, but every dollar has to stretch, and a cramped office is immaterial as long as the lab equipment and biohazard security are cutting edge, which--incredibly--they are.

    My phone rings, its unfamiliar cheer jangling against the growl of the generators, the blasts of sheeting rain. Since martial law, telephone service has been sporadic.

    International Deliveries Canada, last remaining multinational courier service. I pick up. "Hi, Hon."

    "Mom?" Julie's voice is clipped. Managing I.D.C.'s exports is good pay, but with the upheaval in global transportation, grueling.

    I rotate my shoulders. "Hey, good news. I got the sequence on my virus. Ready to work on a treatment."

    "Mom, are you getting radio at your office?"

    The pitch in Julie's voice brings me forward in my chair.

    "The river's over its banks--"

    The building's generators increase in pitch, and the overhead fluorescents flicker to life, erasing shadows in a pale glare.

    "I haven't heard if we'll be evacuated again, but it looks bad, Mom."

    I shut down my computer, actions reflexive. "I'm coming home. When can you be there?" I shrug one-handed into my rain jacket, the other holding the phone.

    "I can be there in half an hour."

    I don't like Julie walking the fifteen blocks through downtown from the warehouse, but with no car, it's that or lose her job. I fish my bag from the floor. "I'm on my way."

 

 

    Through rivulets of rain on the train windows, I watch the towers on Crescent Heights glide past, electric lights in a handful of high rises gleaming above the dark tenements of Calgary's downtown. Private generators, like Better World. Increasingly, there is no grid, even for the rich. At least the train is running today. So far.

    I stretch to grip the warm metal bar overhead, braced against the rocking of the rails, jostled by the crush. Intermittent radio static hisses in my ear buds. The usual waft of city smells--uncollected garbage with a hint of sewage--is muted by the rain, but the train reeks of panic.

    A baby bawls in the arms of a frightened young woman on a seat near me. A girl with mousy blonde hair bends and coos over the distraught child. Under the flicker of overhead lights, the woman on the seat--teenager, really--rocks the wailing babe in her arms, reaches frightened fingers out to the young man next to her.

    I steady myself against the swaying of the train. The words of the radio announcer erupt in my ears, neighborhoods being evacuated, then cut out as the train jolts. Sweat tickles my hairline and I snap the radio off. Useless.

    The baby bawls again, louder this time.

    "Lady, shut that kid the fuck up." The man braced against the pole knocks me against the seat as he spins and blasts stale beer and cigarette smoke at the young mother. A punk, spoiling to take on a world that has spitefully reneged on its promises.

    The tight-lipped conversations nearest me halt, faces watchful.

    "Leave her alone." The husband speaks with a twang.

    Bad news. Americans should keep their heads down.

    "Why don't you fucking foreigners go home?" The punk's voice cuts through the bedlam of sound. He leans in, his drenched jean jacket pressing against me.

    Cold chills my spine and I tremble, immobile. Fear clamps my mouth shut.

    The young woman whitens and catches my gaze. Both of us are helpless. The baby's cries ring through the car above the relentless cacophony of the wheels.

    The train lurches to a stop, jerking everyone forward. The doors slide open and the young woman and her husband vault from their seats, wriggling and pushing their way through the throng to the platform. Doors whoosh shut.

    "Bet that Yank has no papers," the woman behind me whispers to her companion, her voice brushing my neck.

    The train will not reach Inglewood too soon.

    "We let too many of those Yanks in," the woman's companion does not bother whispering. The train pitches and surges forward. "I was glad when they closed the border."

    "Closed the border," her friend snorts. "How can they close the border? All those illegals have to do is duck under a barb wire fence in the middle of the night."

    The streets flash by and I cannot wait for the trip to end, to see Julie, to check the house. Through the train windows, decaying concrete apartments scream out silent graffiti. Hopeless men lounge in doorways, caught between heat and rain. Bands of young louts with no vent for their powerlessness huddle in alleys beneath cardboard, drinking. Many are my countrymen. But many are southern refugees, fleeing drought, fires, hurricanes. Fleeing the American civil war, as the chaos south of the border has been labeled, for the doubtful security of Canada's martial law.

 

 

    Henry, my boss, leans on my office door with a grin. "May I?"

    I look up from my screen. Research on the effects of mycotoxins on virus casings. "Sure." I move a pile of papers from my second chair onto the floor.

    "Stellar work, Miche." He drops a flash drive on my desk. "We don't even have an undisputed nomenclature for 'Nasty' but you've already got a drug to kill it."

    "Not exactly." I don't know a single scientist who doesn't panic when someone--even another scientist--over plays claims.

    "Good enough for lab work. I'm authorizing animal testing."

    I grin. "Thank you."

    "But I also have another project for you." Henry drops a second drive on my desk. "Another tough bug. Not as infectious or lethal as 'Nasty,' but it causes crippling birth defects. We haven't been able to come up with a treatment."

    "Interesting." As autumn closes in and Julie spends more time with her nose in a book, work is the chief bright point in my life. My sister and her husband moved to the Yukon a month ago, and I've heard nothing of them since.

    "What's been tried is in the file, but here's one quirk. It's phenomenally sensitive to low pressure."

    "Low pressure?"

    "Yeah. Take this virus above three thousand meters' elevation and it dies." Henry grins. "I know that'll get your wheels turning."

    I frown, intrigued. "I'm on it."

 

 

    Blankets hung from the ceiling insulate Julie and me from the chill of the rest of the living room as I add a stick of scrap lumber to the hearth. An ancient metal Christmas tree on a frill of white fabric reflects the firelight.

    "Mom, don't!"

    "It's Christmas Eve," I rationalize. "Besides, I'm heating the kettle for the hot chocolate. Get your mug."

    "The hot chocolate was your gift."

    "And it will taste sweeter shared with you." Even with closed borders and no gasoline for private individuals, special items can sometimes be found--especially if one works for an international courier, as Julie does. "Now. Open your present." I place a bundle on the blanket draped across Julie's knees.

    "A rug! Thank you!" In the brightening light of the fire, Julie examines the rags I braided from scraps. She frowns. "Something heavy inside."

    "Unroll it."

    Julie flattens the rug across her lap, revealing a mason jar of clear liquid. "What is it?"

    "Vodka."

    "Mom! How did you get vodka?"

    "A bunch of us at the lab got together and made a batch for everyone to use as gifts."

    Julie's face splits into a grin. "Thank you!" She hugs me. "A dram of this can go into the hot chocolate."

    "I was hoping you'd say that. We might even make the vodka palatable." I fetch mugs.

    A gunshot rings out, far too close to the house, and Julie's hand flies up, grasping my arm. The two of us freeze, listening.

    Footsteps and voices, laughing. Retreating. Then, only the wind. I let out a careful breath, then smile brightly and spoon cocoa sparingly into the mugs.

    Julie bites her lip and looks up at me. She has something to say.

    I give her an inquiring look, permission.

    "Mom. I've decided...to quit International Deliveries." She blows out a determined breath.

    "Honey?" This seems a foolish choice. "Why?" I set the cups on the table.

    "Military's recruiting."

    If her first announcement has taken me by surprise, this one floors me.

    Border skirmishes. War. Shooting. A million despairs leap into my mind, and I have to remind myself not to talk to her as if she was a child.

    "I believe in this, Mom. Don't look so shocked." Clutching her blanket with one hand, she unscrews the mason jar, trying to make her words normal. "I've been thinking about it for a while. International Deliveries is an old model. A rape-the-world-for-profit model, a model that got us into this mess to begin with. I want to fight for my country. Protect my home."

    This speech sinks through my gut. Not that I haven't heard it before. But this time, Julie's mouth forms a hard line as she pours vodka into each mug. This time, she means to act.

    "Military," I say. When? There'll be training camp first, won't there? She won't be in danger immediately. But--training camps were becoming briefer. I want to ask, how long? but words don't come. "Border patrol's had some intense skirmishes."

    "I wanted to talk to you first, before I give my notice."

    I must be careful not to oppose her too strongly. "But--haven't you heard?" The water boils and I find the hook to lift the kettle from the fire. "Canada's sending troops to North Dakota. To stop dam construction on the Red River. Joining the military now--"

    She frowns. "But last week--last I heard--the U.N. ordered the Americans to let the water cross the border. The president--"

    "North Dakota seceded from the Union. Or--most of it did."

    "When?" Julie throws her hands in the air. "I wish the damn radios worked!"

    "Yesterday. I heard it at the lab." I pour the hot water into the mugs.

    "So--we're aggressing on American soil?" She digests this, but I see more hope than fear in her eyes.

    I slide into my chair and wrap myself in blankets, unhappy with the direction of the conversation. "This might not be a good time," I suggest.

    "And when is a good time?" she snaps. "A person can't just sit, Mom. I can't hide behind a desk and watch the country decay. The world decay. It's soul-destroying."

    "But fighting?" I have to say something.

    "What do you suggest?" she argues. "Do you want to run away, north, like Auntie Pauline? You think people from Calgary aren't moving north, trying like fools to outrun the heat? The strife? There'll be no place to live in Whitehorse. No jobs. We'd be refugees, just like all those Americans are here." Julie sips her toddy. "Or should we stay here and starve? Wait for some rapist or shooter or mugger to get us?"

    "You're exaggerating. It's not that bad."

    "Isn't it?" She studies me a moment, then shakes her head cynically.

    "What?"

    "It is that bad, Mom." She sees my protest and pushes on. "It creeps up on you so you don't notice. The slowness of change. Makes it easy to say, 'oh, that's how it is. Nothing we can do.' And we keep on taking it."

    "The issues are complex." My utterance says nothing, stalls. I have to talk her out of enlisting.

    "You think so?" Julie turns in surprise. "Don't we just have too many people on this planet? Using too many resources and producing too much waste? Now we're squabbling over the little bit that's left."

    Safer ground. Thank God. Abstraction, I can deal with. "Over population isn't something we can cure. At least, not soon enough." I stave off the image of Julie in uniform.

    "The planet can't sustain eight billion people. And more every day."

    I'm breathing again. I cradle my mug against cold fingers. "The U.N.'s throwing all its resources--"

    "The U.N.!" Julie scoffs. "Too little, too late. We need fewer people. Now."

    "Resource wars are erupting all over. Cutting populations."

    "Breeding a culture of hopelessness and violence. No. What we need is--" Her brows lift with a sudden thought. "A pandemic. Those microbes you work with. Aren't they pretty deadly?"

    I raise my head. "What are you--"

    "Someone needs to drop some into the water supply."

    Is she serious? "That's cold and calculating."

    "Preemptive strike. Surgery," Julie says. "Excising the tumor to save the patient."

    "Fine, as an academic argument." Why do I respond? "But you can't control biological weapons. Viruses don't stay put. The virus goes global, it only brings on the inevitable, faster."

    "There's no fuel for mass transit."

    This slows me down. "Often, true. But the world isn't experiencing collapse at the same rate." I sip my drink, and the burn is raw. "Some people still fly."

    "You said this germ died at altitude. It wouldn't cross borders by airplane."

    "You're thinking of a different virus."

    "What?"

    "I'm working with two viruses."

    "Then cross-breed them." Julie leans forward. "Take the altitude gene out of one virus and put it in the other."

    "That's not as easy as--"

    But it could be done. Shock snaps through me.

    "I thought that was what you did."

    This debate is-- "You're being ridiculous."

    "Am I? Mom? Really?"

    "Yes! Mass murder?"

    "There is no more law." Julie nods toward the front of the house. "We're protected as long as thugs find a homeless man in a cardboard box easier to rob than us. It won't last, Mom. We're on the brink of the same chaos that's destroying the U.S. When did you last see a cop?"

    Police have been drawn off to the border, or conscripted into the army. Martial law.

    "And as for morality," Julie goes on, "Canada's going to war over water rights. In another country. We support men shooting men. Kill the other before they kill you. It's not immoral to protect your country."

    "So we should release a deadly virus overseas, where it can't migrate here? Kill the 'other?'"

    Julie turns to me, intense. "Yes."

    I have no words. But Julie's gaze holds mine and seeing what I see in her face, I believe her. As absurd as it is... "It might make logical sense, but no one could ever do it."

    "Someone has to."

    "No." I shook me head. "This is the Trolley Problem. Do you let the runaway trolley kill five people, or push the fat man onto the track to dislodge the switch, and so kill him? People never advocate pushing the fat man. They can't. Morally, people just can't commit murder."

    "There is, Mom. A fraction of people always exists, people willing to do what needs to be done." Julie's face betrays no hint of doubt. "Someone can do this. Someone can save us."

 

 

    Beyond the bedroom wall, the wind moans. It must be four in the morning. I've been lying awake for an hour.

    Large centers, Julie argued. Cities with high crime, poverty, unemployment. If a pandemic spares cities of fewer than a million, it will leave enough people to keep the economy going. What's left of the economy.

    I roll over. Hurricanes, fires, floods, droughts. War. These are already decimating populations. No need for a pandemic.

    But natural disasters--and war--also destroy infrastructure. A pandemic wouldn't.

    How can Julie be so certain? So calm?

    I fold my hard pillow. Extreme weather events aren't going to disappear just because the population crashes.

    --but the sooner the cause is removed, the sooner the climate will stabilize. Fewer people, stable climate, intact infrastructure. Surely, that is the best of all possible futures.

    "Mom?" Julie whispers from her cot across the room. "Are you awake?"

    "Caffeine and alcohol," I whisper back. "Bad combination."

    The floor creaks, and cold air invades my sheets. Then Julie is in bed with me, eyes gleaming in the dark. I say nothing, my lips pressed tightly together.

    A gunshot sounds in the distance. Downtown.

    I know what Julie is going to say.

    "We have to do it, Mom. We can. You and me."

    Dread touches my stomach. I do not reply for a long time. "How?" But I know my role.

    "You and I select the cities. Twenty of the world's largest. Poorest. Most hopeless." Julie's whisper seems loud over the sound of the winter wind. "I won't quit International Deliveries. We package the aerosols and ship them to one resident in each city. Free gift. They trigger when the package is opened. It's been done before."

    "I can't."

    "We have to."

    "And I can't let you do it, either. We'd be caught."

    "Maybe not. There isn't much policing."

    "We will."

    "No one knows but you and me. We don't need anyone else."

    I bite my lip. "Still."

    "I'm fighting for my country. I can't continue to be part of the problem."

    "Fighting for Canada? Not humanity?"

    "My country. My people. My family. Someone will survive this apocalypse. I want it to be us."

    "Mass murder, Julie. Worse than Stalin. Worse than Hitler."

    "We'd be the mothers of a new world. We'd make global recovery possible."

    "We wouldn't be called that by those who die." My head moves from side to side. "I couldn't live with myself. Killing."

    "You say the bug sends people into a coma. A merciful death. Better than starvation."

    I can't respond. They don't deserve it. Innocents.

    "We're soldiers."

    "With no authority to act."

    "We'd be saving animal species. Saving ecosystems. Mom. You see the sequence, what's happened, what's coming. It's right in our face."

    Could we?

    "You wouldn't still be talking to me if part of you doesn't recognize that I'm right."

    My throat closes. "I'm afraid."

    Julie puts her arms around me. "Me, too."

 

 

    Sunlight filtering through smog heats the stinking streets. As usual in summer, I'm drenched in my own sweat before I reach home, but the walk along the river is pleasant.

    I've seen no altercations on my way and heard no gunfire, even distantly; heat has removed everyone's will to expend energy.

    I unlock the door and welcome the momentary respite from the sun, though the motionless heat inside the house is almost worse. I drop my bag on the chair.

    "Mom?"

    "Julie?" Why is Julie home before me?

    She steps into the hallway, a murky silhouette against the dim light of the kitchen. Blankets, that in winter hold heat in, are now used over the windows to keep sunshine out.

    "I brought the packages. I said I was sick and left after lunch. Said I'd work at home."

    On the table is a pile of envelopes, a stack of way slips, pens, seals, scissors, paraphernalia.

    I have a secret package, too. Twenty, half-gram micro-aerosols in a plain pill bottle. Its unsubstantial burden has been in my purse all week, gnawing holes in my mind. I've been unable to make myself touch it, take it out of its hiding spot, either to slide it into Julie's hand, or to fling it into the incinerator at work.

    Now, seeing my daughter's things on the table, queasiness writhes in my stomach. The work has taken physical form. Real.

    "Your co-workers? They didn't guess?" I let my scrutiny linger on the damning evidence. In the corner where the blanket curls from the window, a crevice of sunshine is visible by the frame.

    "No," Julie confirms. "No one knows. We're good."

    Nausea climbs my throat.

    "I've managed all the costs of transport." Julie waves at the way slips, her hand stiff, jerky. "I've done the paperwork for border crossings and customs, where they still exist." Her voice catches, but she goes on. "I have addresses in the twenty most populous cities and I've been filling out the slips. Almost done." She stares at the papers on the table, face tight and grim. "And, I've created a triggering mechanism, based on the sample aerosol you brought home last month." She flicks the "open here" label on a closed envelope and a puff of air explodes from the opening. Paper clips and an elastic.

    My pulse quickens, a tiny, insistent hammer in the heat.

    "So. The viruses?" Julie's face, focused on the packages, is stone.

    "The spliced virus is viable." The words come out by themselves, a whisper, as I stand far back and watch myself. I am done at Better World. Finished.

    "Where are they?"

    My throat is dry, the heat spinning around me. My reputation. My livelihood. Gone. It's just a matter of time. But my lips move. Mechanical. Distant. "Here."

    "So." Julie blows out a breath of air. "We can assemble the packages."

    But when did I agree to do this?

    Yes, I'd done my work with the viruses. I'd let Julie do her part. But I always expected a roadblock to stop us. Inside, I'd debated with myself: one day convinced we're right, the next day uncertain. I can always call it off, I told myself. Nothing is final.

    But now--

    I look at the packages, and I am light-headed. I fumble onto a chair.

    "Mom?"

    I grip the chair arms, dizzy.

    "Mom!" Julie's hands are on my shoulders, lowering my head. "Are you sick?"

    I reach for the floor and lower myself onto it, closing my eyes. Julie finds a damp cloth and bathes my face.

    "Is it the heat? Did you eat something bad?"

    The spinning prickles of blackness withdraw and I embrace the cool hardness of the linoleum. "I...don't..."

    "Mom?"

    And I know. "I can't. Do this."

    "You can't do what?" Hardness edges Julie's voice.

    Certainty churns with my despair. "I'm going to destroy the virus."

    Julie's hands stop their soothing work. "We agreed. This has to be done. You told me you'd do it."

    Did I?

    I feel Julie rise to her feet. "This...this is everything. Everything!"

    I raise myself to a sitting position, head lowered. When I lift my eyes, she is trembling, fists clenched, face pale.

    "Are they in your purse?" She moves toward the hall, the chair by the door. "They're in your purse, aren't they?"

    "Julie, no!" I rise to my feet, stumble down the hall.

    Her back is to me in the gloom, scattering things from my bag.

    "No! We don't have to do this!" I grab her arm.

    "Do you know what I've already risked?" She pulls the bottle of aerosols out of my bag. "To do this much?"

    I yank her elbow and she whirls, and the scissors from the kitchen table are in her hand. 

    "No!"

    I lunge for the package, pushing the open blades away. Hot pain sears my hand. Red. Wet. "It's wrong, Julie! It's--"

    Julie steps back from me, staring at the blood. "I--I--" The scissors clatter to the floor. "I'm going for a walk." Julie fumbles for the latch, steps over the threshold. The front door slams.

 

 

     When Julie isn't home for supper, I pick at my meal, worried. After supper, I examine Julie's work and finish the three incomplete way slips. An apology.

     Useless work.

     The late sun, almost at its solstice, dips behind the skyscrapers, easing from furnace heat to the close heat of a long spring twilight. When I can stand being alone no longer, I step into the street, locking the door behind me.

     Men and women lounge on front door steps or stroll along the street. The neighborhood has become transient in recent years and I don't know my neighbors well, but I ask a few if they've seen Julie. I check the corner store, and one further down the street. Mr. Nandi hasn't seen her. I go to the supermarket, closed now.

     The dark deepens and nightly gunfire and laughter warn me to return home. Perhaps Julie has come back. I walk along the river road, quick steps.

     On a corner curving sharply past a warehouse where the broken pavement leaves the river for the busier thoroughfares of the city, I find her.

     Shot.

     Pants thrown aside next to the brick wall.

     Hair, blood soaked, a wild array.

     I stand, rigid, unable to believe what I see. "Julie?" The word is a breath, involuntary. But I know before I speak, there can be no answer.

     The sound that comes from my throat is a hollow moan, my body emptied of all it has once held, except sound. My muscles cease to exist and I fall to the pavement, my arms enveloping the limp frame of my daughter's body in a hug that mocks every embrace we'd ever shared. I push Julie's hair from her bruised face and hold her close, grief pushing all sound from me but hiccoughed sobs.

     Julie.

     Beautiful, passionate, level-headed. The rock.

     Child of my body.

     Gone. All gone.

     I rise, and rage, and storm and wail. A crowd of babbling, confused people is drawn to me.

     I try to lift my daughter, to carry her home. Strangers help bring her to the house, and when they cannot break the barrier of my sorrow, leave me to the long night. The night of begging. The night of remorse, and bargaining to take back all the errors of my ways, to promise away my future, to strip my soul bare in exchange for the return of my daughter.

 

 

     And I am stripped bare.

     I go to live in a corner of my skull. I watch as my avatar manages the doctor and the policeman and the funeral parlor. I watch as my avatar returns to work. Uses its privilege to access deep levels of biohazard storage, set triggers and send the pre-arranged packages. Track sporadic news outlets.

    Finish Julie's work.

 

 

     Does the world's crumbling civilization sustain enough bureaucracy to trace the source of the outbreaks? That the attacks are terrorist in nature is clear from the delivery mechanism, though no organization claims responsibility. The possibility that the attacks are the product of a madman is raised, though no madman is located. But the virus is analyzed. It is tracked. To Better World. To me.

     There is enough infrastructure left to imprison me. Enough media to damn me. For twenty years.

     "Miche?"

      I sit in a pool of sunlight, wearing my blue dress. The early spring breeze is warm. More full of hope than of heat.

     The warden touches my shoulder. "The reporter you agreed to meet is here."

     My avatar responds. I'd resolved long ago, before they came for me, not to commit suicide, a coward. I would face my damnation for the years given me.

     The reporter seats himself across the table. "It's good of you to see me, Mrs.--"

     "Miche. Just Miche."

     "Miche," he says politely. "May I record your responses?"

     "Yes."

     He sets up his gadget between us. "So. There's been considerable speculation and controversy over the past twenty years about your actions in the pandemic of 2024. Some call you the mother of the emerging world. They say you're responsible for the reduction of environmental stressors that makes the possibility of global recovery foreseeable. How do you respond?"

     "Those are the people who benefited. Canadians. Americans. I doubt I'd've been called that by those who died."

     The reporter moves on to his next question. "Why did you do what you did?"

     "I saw the sequence. What came before. What was bound to come after."

     "But others didn't see it?" He lifts an eye, abandoning his script.

     "Many did. Most did. It was there for anyone to see."

     "Then what was the difference?" the reporter asks. "Why did you act, and others did not?"

     Hubris? Revenge? Tribute? I don't know. For Julie, but that is no answer.

     I gaze out the window, up at the clear blue of the sky. Why did I do it? It seems so far away now. A different life. A different person.

    In my mind, I see five people tied to a trolley track. It doesn't matter that they bound themselves there willingly.

    The train is coming.

This story originally appeared in On Spec Magazine.