Ward

by

MIRIAM ENGLISH




1st DRAFT
APRIL 2010
Creative Commons License
Licensed under CreativeCommons.
You may use it non-commercially,
but must attribute the source (me),
and any derivative works must use the same license.
http://miriam-english.org/stories/Ward.html





CHARACTERS:

MEG - woman in her 40s. Plain looking -- not ugly nor pretty, unremarkable. She habitually wears jeans, t-shirts, and ankle-boots. She is low-level Aspergers and has a hard, almost grating voice, and moves awkwardly, without grace. Her normal work is on biologically inspired nanotech.
KAT (Katarina) - Meg's dog, a blue heeler -- she is Meg's best friend and constant companion.
SID (Obsidian) - a crow that she looked after when he was young and had a broken wing. He has stuck around as part of the family.
FRIEDA - pathologist. One of Meg's few actual friends.

INCIDENTAL CHARACTERS:

HENNY, PENNY, JENNY - three hens, Meg calls them THE THREE MUSKETEERS collectively. They wander free but sleep each night in a henhouse attached to the house.
JEANIE - a chronically shy waitress at the pub in town.
HAROLD - the old mechanic from the garage.
YOUNG GUY - quiet-spoken, introverted.
MARTHA - local doctor (deceased).
LEWIS - Martha's husband.
JIM - Frieda's husband.

LOCATION:

Queensland country (Australia): about half grassy paddock farmland (dairy) and half bush. Meg's house is a small, but functional, if rather spartan, underground house, which really means it is on the side of the hill with backfill over three sides and the top, presenting only the door, front windows, and shaded verandah to the valley, otherwise looking like a fairly normal house. She has solar electric and thermal panels that double as rain catchment on the hillside above her home. A vege garden is at the front of her house. Another, smaller garden is indoors, behind the front windows, to keep them safe from raiding possums.





1.EXT.   MEG'S CAR, ROAD TO TOWN.   Day.1.

MEG's car is not a luxury model. It is a small hatchback, with oversize wheels. The engine is utterly silent because it is electric. She is driving along a sealed road in the Australian country (think QLD Sunshine Coast Hinterland). It is neither dry nor lush. She is on her way to the nearest town, which is a small place with about 6 shops: a rural supply/garage, butcher, general store, pub (hotel), newsagent/Post Office, and a second-hand clothing store. KAT is in the car too.

MEG

(while driving)

Looking forward to getting more bones? Just don't tell me what they come from.

(repeats for KAT's benefit)

Bonies! Don't set your heart on staying long though. We get your food, pick up my parcel from the Post Office, and we're getting back, okay?

KAT Grins and pants that doggie chuckle they do, knowing she's being told something that includes the word "bonie".

The town comes into view. All is quiet. No people visible. As she drives closer she sees that all the shops are closed except the pub. Only one other car is parked in town, and that's outside the pub.

MEG

Weird. Where is everybody?
I don't think it's the weekend. A public holiday?

She parks outside the pub, gets out, walks around to the passenger door and lets KAT out. Together they walk inside. There are just three people inside -- odd in itself. They are JEANIE (waitress behind the bar), HAROLD, the old mechanic, and a young guy she's seen around town but doesn't really know. They are looking at Meg as she enters.

MEG

Where is everybody? Is it a holiday?

Group shrug.

HAROLD

You haven't heard. What, do you live in a hole in the ground?

MEG

Something like that.

HAROLD

Some kind of plague hit a few days ago. Quarter of the town died in their sleep.

YOUNG GUY

Half the country.

JEANNIE

(glumly)

Half the world!

Meg stops a couple of meters from them.

MEG

(warily)

You're not pulling my leg?

The three shake their heads. Harold looks almost like he doesn't particularly care, as if their deaths are an inconvenience to him. The other two look despondent.

MEG

A plague. What are the symptoms?

HAROLD

No symptoms. They just die in their sleep.

YOUNG GUY

Massive stroke, I heard.

HAROLD

Where'd you hear that? TV is only broadcasting repeats of old shows and most radio is just playing music without commentary. No news to be heard anywhere.

YOUNG GUY

Yeah. Most news people died along with the executives. The technicians are mostly okay, I heard. I get most of my information from the internet.

Jeannie is nodding her head.

Meg digests this for a moment.

MEG

Know where can I get some bones for my dog? The butcher looks like he's closed.

HAROLD

He's dead.

Jeannie looks like she's near to tears.

JEANNIE

He was such a nice man. He was always so happy and talked to me when I went in there. Now he's gone. We'll never see him again.

HAROLD

(bluntly)

Yeah. He's dead.

MEG

Ah. Okay. Post Office?

HAROLD

Dead.

MEG

There was a package I needed...

HAROLD

(shrugs)

Join the queue. It might not have even been delivered. Haven't seen the Post Office truck since before this.

MEG

Okay, I'd better be getting back then. I still have a lot of work to do.

HAROLD

Might be worth checking if your boss is still alive. You might not have a job anymore.

MEG

I'm my boss. While I'm still breathing I have stuff to do.

HAROLD

Enjoy it while it lasts.

Meg puts up her hand in a half-wave and starts to leave. Jeannie waves back sadly.

JEANNIE

Good luck.

MEG

You too.

Kat follows Meg out to the car.




 

2.EXT.   MEG'S CAR, HER DRIVEWAY.   Day.1.

Meg's car is bumping slowly along a narrow, dirt track which winds among tall gumtrees and overhanging bushes. It emerges into a more open area surrounded on all sides by trees. In the middle of this glade is what appears to be a verandah protruding from the hill. Before it is a disorganised garden, and above it is a set of solar panels -- two are thermal and two are electric. Meg stops the car, gets out and walks around to the other side to let Kat out. Together they walk to the verandah. Before Meg can open the door a large black shape swoops down and alights on her shoulder. A large crow -- SID. He nibbles her ear. Meg smiles.

MEG

Miss us already Sid? We weren't gone long.

She opens the screen door (it was not locked) and the three of them go inside. They walk through a small greenhouse with vege garden to another door and the main part of the house. It is a small underground house, well lit with several skylights. Inside is very untidy. Her computer is still on as can be seen by several brightly gleaming LED lights even though the screen is off. The room looks more like a laboratory than a livingroom. She has an electron microscope in one corner, a fairly large binocular microscope next to it, and a replicator nearby. On the other side of the room is a simple single bed, a dog bed next to it, and shoulder-high up the wall a small platform with bird-feeder and a short piece of hollow log for Sid's bedroom.

Meg sits at her computer and presses the shift key on the keyboard. The screen comes on. She picks up an earphone/microphone and puts it on her ear. Sid hops down to the table, picks up a pencil and proudly strides ocross the bench with it. Kat goes to her bed on the other side of the room and plonks down on it. A couple of clicks of the mouse and Meg sits, waiting for a response.

MEG

Hi, I was expecting a package to be delivered to... Yep...

While she is waiting she turns to check where Kat is. When their eyes meet Kat's tail gives a few thumps. Meg turns back to the computer.

MEG

Yes, I was expecting a delivery... No, the Post Office...

(pause)

Oh. Well, I'll re-order, door-to-door... A few months?! Wow. Okay, don't worry I'll drive down and pick one up. Thanks anyway.

A click of the mouse and the call is ended. She takes the earphone from her ear and puts it on the bench, then sits there silently for several seconds, thinking. Sid struts across the bench before her, stops, puts his head on one side and looks at her.

MEG

Amazing, huh? Civilisation comes crashing down and I don't even notice. Need to find out more about this, eh, Sid.

(starts tapping on the keyboard)

Good to see that Google survived. Ummm... let's try the simple and obvious first: "plague".

(pause, then mumbling)

The usual on the black plague... okay here we are: "End of the world plague", "Sleeping death - a new plague", "Sleeping death plague hits". Let's see...

She skims a few pages.

MEG

Hmmm... just speculation. Not much in the way of info...

Sid croaks.

MEG

Another tack, you think? I reckon you might be right Sid. Let's call Doctor Philips.

She puts the earphone on her ear again, clicks the mouse a couple of times, and waits while the other end of the line rings.

MEG

Lewis? Is Martha there? Oh. I'm sorry. I don't know what to say. I only just heard about it. I, uh, I'm sorry to bother you. I'll talk to you later.

Breaks the connection. Tries another call...

MEG

Frieda. I just found out about the plague thing. Are you and Jim alright?... Good. Do you know anything about it?... Can I come around and talk with you about it?... Thanks. Be there in ten minutes. Bye.

She drops the earphone on the bench, gets to her feet. Goes to the small kitchen, slides open a lid set into the end of the benchtop, reaches in and pulls out a few scraps of meat. She throws one piece to Sid, who catches it, throws a larger piece to Kat who catches it, then drops the rest in the bird-feeder. She returns to the kitchen, washes her hands, dries them on her jeans while re-entering the main room and heads for the front door.

MEG

(beckons to Kat)

Let's go Kat. Sid, you stay.




 

2.EXT.   FRIEDA'S AND JIM'S HOUSE.   Day.1.

FRIEDA and JIM's house is fairly conventional, built on a concrete slab, weatherboard walls, corrugated iron roof, with large, white rainwater tank at a rear corner. The loation is at the top of a small hill, looking out onto a pretty, unpopulated valley. There are a few trees nearby, but not the deep bush that Meg lives in. It looks like it was originally cleared pastureland, with a few trees and shrubs replanted. A neat flower garden extends around the house

Meg has just let Kat out of her car and FRIEDA has come out of her house and squats to greet Kat.

FRIEDA

(vigorously patting Kat)

Kat! How are you girl?

MEG

(imitating a dog voice, like Astro in the Jetsons)

Grrreat. I brought my human around to see ya.

FRIEDA

(chuckling, stands up)

How are you, Meg?

They start walking toward Frieda's house.

MEG

Not dead, yet. What can you tell me about this plague?

FRIEDA

Hi Frieda, how's it going? How's Jim?

(looks briefly at Meg and sighs)

Not much to be said about the plague, unfortunately. Most of the people who might have told me anything died when it hit. I've spoken to a couple of pathologist friends who are working on it, but as far as I know nobody has isolated any virus, bacterium, protozoan, fungus, or chemical that could be responsible.

MEG

Stroke, right? How does that happen to thousands of people all at once?

FRIEDA

Probably hundreds of millions of people. And I don't understand how they could all have strokes on the same night.

They enter the house. It is clean and tidy inside.

MEG

The first thing that springs to mind is an infection, right? But it sounds kind of impossible. It has to spread over the whole planet -- billions of people -- which could take weeks, then pow! in one night it suddenly decides to kill?

FRIEDA

And each following night, though in dramatically smaller numbers each time. I expect only a tiny number will die tonight.

They sit on the lounge.

MEG

Not much consolation for those who die.

FRIEDA

Mmm. It looks like it will be harmless in a week or so. We have to face the possibility that we might never find out what the cause is.

MEG

If it's an infection of some kind it could mutate and come back worse. We still need to find out what's responsible.

FRIEDA

Yes. That's the general consensus.

MEG

Why does it hit some people and not others? What do the victims have in common? And what is it about the survivors that makes them special?

FRIEDA

Well, actually it's those who die that are special. Only a small percentage of the population are killed by it... whatever 'it' is. Those of us unaffected are by far the majority. Nevertheless it has done a lot of damage to the social fabric. We are a lot more interdependent than I'd have credited.

MEG

Okay, so what makes them special?

FRIEDA

(shrugs and spreads her hands)

Nothing, as far as I know. Immunological tests show nothing unusual. Gene profiles are ordinary. These people are biologically normal.

MEG

What about location?

FRIEDA

All climatic zones are affected.

MEG

Within regions?

FRIEDA

Only what you'd expect of a contagion or a toxic substance.

Meg raises her eyebrows, waiting.

FRIEDA

Nothing. Just that those most exposed to other people are the most likely to die.

They're both silent for a few seconds. Frieda gets to her feet and starts toward the kitchen.

FRIEDA

Want anything to eat or drink?

MEG

Just water thanks. What about method of transmission? Any thoughts on how it's spread?

Frieda answers from the kitchen.

FRIEDA

It looks like interpersonal contact or close quarters airborne when you see how it clusters around populated areas, but who knows? I mean, bubonic plague followed dense human populations too, because that's where the most rats lived. I must say though, that it doesn't look like any biological vector I can imagine. Humid, dry, high altitude, seaside, tropic, polar... people everywhere are affected.

MEG

How are they taking it? What's the reaction of people generally?

FRIEDA

Those who can, are heading for the country, away from population centers. As far as I can tell there hasn't been any kind of large-scale panic. There's been surprisingly little coordinated response from the authorities. No roadblocks, no curfew, no radio or TV transmissions telling us to stay calm.

MEG

A young guy I spoke to in town said the TV announcers and executives were affected, but not so much the technicians.

FRIEDA

I haven't heard of anything like that kind of selectivity. Probably his imagination. I'll look into it anyway.

She returns to the livingroom with a tray and two salad sandwiches and two glasses of water, puts them on the coffee table and pulls her handheld computer from her belt-pouch. She makes a couple of notes, puts it away again, sits on the couch and takes one of the sandwiches. She motions for Meg to have the other.

Meg takes the sandwich and eats while speaking, mouth full.

MEG

What about mode of death -- the stroke?

FRIEDA

(swallows her mothful before replying)

It's not like any stroke I've ever seen. Massive clotting throughout the brain. The blood supply is basically immobilised. It happens while the person is asleep -- why at that particular time, I have no idea -- the blood in the brain just... coagulates. They die without ever knowing what hit them.

MEG

Grim.

FRIEDA

In that they die, yes. In that they die peacefully? Not so grim. When I die, that's how I'd like to go.

MEG

Forgive me for hoping you don't get that wish soon.

FRIEDA

(pleasantly surprised)

Thank you Meg.

MEG

Yeah. We have an important puzzle here. Don't die till we've solved it.

Frieda rolls her eyes. Her expression is "Of course, it's all about the puzzle".

MEG (CONT)

(with suppressed smile)

And besides, you're just about the only friend I have.

They sit in silence for a little while, eating.

FRIEDA

This clotting... it's weird...

MEG

Can you get me some to look at?

FRIEDA

Anybody else, I'd say that was a ghoulish request.

Frieda stands and beckons Meg to follow. They walk to the back of the house and a room which looks like a small office. A binocular microscope and a centrifuge are on the main bench. Further along is a fume cupboard and a fridge. Frieda puts on a rubber glove, opens the fridge, gets a small cool-box out, with her gloved hand removes three vials from a rack of about ten in the fridge door, checks their labels, puts them in the cool-box, and hands the box to Meg.

FRIEDA

A sample of the clot from one of the interior cerebral veins. I don't have any arterial clot. A small section from the hypothalamus, and a bit from the left amygdala. These are fresh, from the brain of one of last night's victims.

MEG

(squinting at the labels)

Who?

FRIEDA

(shrugs)

I don't particularly want to know. It was someone local, so they could have been a friend.

(taking off the glove and dropping it in the waste basket)

Let me know if you find anything unusual. It's pretty unlikely you'll find anything that anyone else hasn't, but it can't hurt... and the more eyes, the better.

MEG

It might help that I'm not a pathologist. The eyes of an obsessive, detail-oriented engineer might see something they didn't.

FRIEDA

Do you have latex gloves?

(noting Meg's blank look she holds out a box of latex gloves for her)

Always remember when working with blood, treat it as if it is contagious. We don't know what the victim had.

MEG

--in addition to this sleeping plague.

Meg takes the box of gloves. Frieda sits in her chair and indicates another for Meg.

FRIEDA

Any plan of action?

Meg looks puzzled.

FRIEDA (CONT)

For how to investigate the samples.

MEG

Oh. Uh, no... I'll probably look at them under optical microscope, increasing power till I see something interesting, then check that out in my electron microscope.

FRIEDA

(gobsmacked)

We really should keep more in touch. You now have an electron microscope??

MEG

It's an old second-hand one. Wasn't working properly when I got it and I had to fix it. Even so it cost me more than I was expecting -- a little over thirty thousand dollars. Not very high resolution -- scanning -- but it's perfect for what I do.

FRIEDA

And you need a scanning electron microscope for building nanotech, right?

MEG

Not exactly. I mainly look for techniques that nature uses for building very small stuff. I don't actually build much.

FRIEDA

And it takes the end of civilisation for you to visit an old friend.

MEG

You know me. Hermit.

(pause)

You reckon it's the end of civilisation?

FRIEDA

Maybe not the end, but this plague has cut out the center of our society.

They both sit and ponder that for a few moments.

MEG

What's the best way to dissolve the clot in the blood sample?

FRIEDA

I'm not sure. A protease I guess. Saliva has some proteases... It'd be pretty slow, but I guess it would work. Meat tenderiser? Oh, you still vegetarian?

Meg nods.

MEG

Papain? Paw paw leaves. You wouldn't have any growing here would you?

FRIEDA

I do. Unfortunately a protease might also digest what you'd be looking for in the sample.

MEG

I don't actually know what I'm looking for yet.