Two groundhog guards escort me to the medical facility inside General Pol’s manor and lock me inside once outside the room. This facility has twice the number of locks that Romano’s has, but when I observe the equipment I’m surrounded by, I note how it is much more primitive and ancient than Romano’s.
I sigh in a failed attempt at releasing stress as I set my bag down next to a big bowl of vibrant, orange tangelos. What are those going to do for me other than trigger my acid reflux?
One wall is stacked to the ceiling with cardboard boxes full of countless files. One last taken from the stack is left on the desk next to the hybrid fruit. I pick it up and open it to find that everything Pol said about how humans spread the plague was true, but is this information even going to help me cure the current cases of the Black Death? Where do I even start?
I notice a second file and open it. These are all the records of the humans and mammalian ranchers who have died from the plague or are currently being quarantined with not much time left to live. It reads, ‘The average time of mortality is 24 hours after disease onset if left untreated, and all these people have been left untreated.’ Talk about pressure. ‘Victims experience chills, aches, vomiting, blood-filled coughing, and even death in a matter of days depending on which type of plague the victim contracted from the bacillus germ Yerina pestis.’
Panacea never taught me how to deal with any disease of this magnitude. Does she even know about it herself? Did she think it wasn’t necessary for me to learn since it wasn’t prominent in swine? All she taught me about was damn influenza! Think Chinatsu, think!
The plague had emerged and ended multiple times throughout history, meaning it is possible to cure. If it had been achieved once by the ancient humans, it can surely be done again! But how did they do it? Isolation seems like the easiest solution, but then how would the ranch function? There would be no food, no pharmaceutical production, everything would be on hold. If humans are the main carriers, I will need to evaluate the laborers first.
I march to doors and knock from the inside.
“Hey, you both need to let me out of this room! I know you can hear me!”
“The General requests that you continue working until you have found a solution. Have you discovered one yet?”
“I haven’t been in here ten minutes even, so no I haven’t discovered a solution as of yet.”
“Then you have no business in any other area of the manor other than the medical facility.”
“I can’t be sure if I have unless you let me out of here! Where are you keeping the infected humans?!”
“They are confined in the beaver impoundments on the ranch’s perimeter.”
“And are they still expected to fight and harvest while ill?!”
“Of course, more and more of them continue dying off so we need all available laborers at all times.”
“The more and more you keep them confined together you won’t have any laborers by next season. Whose idea was this?!”
“General Pol does not rule enough acres to build each infected individual human its own shelter and distance them from each other. It would be too costly.”
“And every human and possibly mammalian dying out wouldn’t be costly? If you let the humans continue in these living conditions, there won’t be a ranch much longer. What about the infected mammalians? Are they confined in their own impoundments as well?”
“No, they’ve designated living areas that are spaced apart throughout the land.”
“You just said setting those up for the humans would be too costly!”
“Precisely, for the humans.”
“You might not care about the humans, even though we are all wiped out nobody would be around to do your dirty work; but if you care about your own kind, us being separated is the first step in battling the root of the problem! Make sense?”
For a moment, there’s silence, then keys jingling into each of the six locks allowing them to open the door. I stomp out confidently with the files in one hand and the other on my hip.
“Thank you both for finally coming to your senses. Take me to the impoundments.”
Pol’s cabs are rickety and uncomfortable. The pathways of the ranch are filled with rubble and potholes making it feel as if the wheels are about to fly off at every bump we hit. The groundhogs seem unfazed by the roughness of the ride, but in comparison to Romano’s velvet seats and tarp to block the sun and rain, it’s chopped liver.
Thunderous, grey clouds begin to gather as we are halfway to the impoundments. It’s sprinkling on all three of us now.
“Can this cab go any faster? The sooner I find a cure, the sooner I can return to my ranch. And I would prefer if my uniform doesn’t get soaked in acid rain.”
Both guards ignore me.
“This ride doesn’t have to be so torturous to either of us. As your guest, you should-“
“You are not General Pol’s guest no matter how many hybrid fruits he offers you. You are our last resort.”
I’m not sure if I should feel offended or proud of my knowledge and abilities.
“Understood, nobody has to talk in they don’t want to… but I want to know; how do the ranks work here? The mammalians here, the rodents, are much more diverse than the simple swine who rule my ranch. How is who is in power decided? I mean, I know what the rats did to the mice, but you and the beavers are bigger and stronger than the rats, why didn’t either of your kind try to steal Pol’s place?”
Irritation becomes more obvious in the guard driving. I must have hit a nerve.
“I mean,” I continue, “The thought of overthrowing Pol never crossed either of your minds? If you tell me ‘no’ I know you’re lying. For a human it would be impossible for us to subvert pretty much any mammalian; but you are rodents just like the General. Shouldn’t you be equals? Shouldn’t the groundhogs have their own ranch to claim?”
The driver brakes and comes to an abrupt stop creating momentum that almost throws me into the seat across from me.
“What are you really doing here, human?”
“I’m just trying to go back home… woodchuck.”
“THAT’S IT YOU LITTLE-“
The guard turns around and reaches through to my side of the cab and grabs me by my uniform collar; making a high-pitched, piercing whistle in my ear nearly deafening me.
“Nuh uh uh! You said it yourself; I’m your last resort. You hurt me, who knows what the General will do to you.”
The second guard in the passenger seat warbles something to him, persuading him to let me go and keep on driving.
When we reach the impoundment, it’s a horrific sight. Humans floating in the murky water, some sat on the logs and branches that surround it. The beavers couldn’t come up with a better area for them to reside in temporarily?
I hop out of the cab and approach the humans with caution. The closer I get, the more I see what horrible condition they are all in. They’ve bled into their skin and their tissue has turned black. One human hunches over in a coughing fit, spewing out blood into the same water other people are submerged to their chests in.
None of these humans will make it to morning even if we separated every single one of them immediately. The most I could do with them is question if they can recite all the events that occurred before they felt the onset of symptoms and try to collect an extra sample to bring back to Rio in an effort to restore her faith in me.
“Don’t take too long!” The guard shouts to me from a distance.
I put on my mask and gloves and continue to step within the hearing range of the herd. The same female human who threw up blood into the pool of water moments ago, spots me, and her eyes widen with disbelief. She runs towards me shouting,
“Somebody’s come to save us! Thank goodness you’re here, please, please help me! Help us!”
When I see she doesn’t stop running, I start to back away creating distance between us.
“Ma’am, please stay where you are! What’s your name?”
“Okay Sumio, I can hear you fine. Can you hear me fine?!”
“Yes, I can!”
“Good, then let’s continue our conversation from this distance for now okay?!”
A little hope faded from her eyes, “Okay…”
“Sumio, can you tell me how you contracted the plague?”
“My coop mate, Kiki, had it. She and I used to have to share a bed because the coop was overcapacity. Funny how now there aren’t even enough healthy humans anymore to occupy the damn place.”
“And friend, Kiki, do you have any idea how she contracted it?”
“She wasn’t my friend; she was just my coop mate. And no. Those two woodchucks over there hauled her here before she had time to let any of us know she had been infected. By the time I became symptomatic and they threw me in here, she was already dead and gone.”
“Do you know who she was in frequent contact with?”
“Aside from me? Kiki didn’t really participate in many activities with us here. I always figured it was because the General purchased her from her own ranch and forced her to leave her family and friends behind.”
“Who did the General purchase her from?”
“If I remember correctly; the swine. Her loyalty didn’t change with her deed. She would even sneak our supplies to some radicals she used to know from her ranch every couple of nights.”
She was the one organizing the side deals with Romano’s brownreds. If she already had the plague, she must have been the one who transmitted it to the unknown brownred who may now be spreading the infection right now across Romano’s ranch.
“Do you know the names of the swine-owned humans she met with?”
“Like I said, she didn’t talk to any of us much. But she did always mention one name…”
“Yes, that’s it.”
I should have known. The weakness in the limbs, the headaches, the chills, all the mild symptoms of the Black Death before you experience the death part. I needed to get back to my ranch to help Koshi before it was too late. Even if I gave Pol the perfect plan on how to go about curing the ranch, I wasn’t permitted to leave till there wasn’t one infected human or mammalian on the ranch. That could take months, even years; and Koshi didn’t have years or months, at this point he might not even have days.
“Thank you for the information, Sumio. It’s going to save more lives than you can imagine.”
“What about my life?!”
“By the looks of your skin and the blood you just spewed, there isn’t anything I can do.”
“But I thought- I thought they brought you here to save us!”
“Is that what they told you?”
“Sumio, they brought me here to make sure you didn’t bring any more people down with you”
“No, no, that’s not true!”
“The mammalians don’t care about either of us. The most I can do is give you something to inject into your arm. It will make everything less painful for what time you have left.”
“Keep your lies! You liar! You liarrrrrrrrrrr!”
Suddenly she starts charging towards me with her hands in necrosis outstretched and blood flying from her lips as she screamed. I zig and zag through the pouring rain across the field in the direction of the cab. The mist blocks most of my view except of the cart toppled over.
“What happened?!” I yell to the guards; still running.
“The wind knocked it over into the dirt! But the rain softened it to mud and now the cab’s wheels are stuck!”
“We need to run now!”
“We can pull it out from the mud. We can’t leave a cab in close proximity to the humans because they think of trying to use it to escape!”
“You’re going to have much bigger troubles than that if you do not listen to me now and run!”
“We don’t take orders from your kind!”
I continue running past the guards, the cart, everything. The sound of aggravated breathing follows closely behind me. I hear sharp screams and grunts indicative of a struggle behind me. Even if the guards manage to put her down, they will certainly contact the Black Death from their physical altercation. So, either way, she wins in the end.
With all this mist, I realize nobody is able to see what is happening right now. Nobody’s going to seek help for the two groundhogs and nobody would be able to see if I had tried to escape or not. If I could just make it to the perimeter unnoticed and survive the unclaimed acres. I am faced with two choices in which I have full freedom to choose, which a rarity was for me. I could choose to run towards the manor and alert the rest of the guards of the situation, while those physically intervening would only further the transmission of the Black Death. Or I can act as if I had never witnessed any of this, and save who mattered to me. Koshi.
I faced the outline of the castle-like manor through the mist one more time before making my decision,
“I’m coming for you, Koshi.”