Ozowa Chieko had expected the gun-like objects to emit beeps, but no sound came from them.
Well, perhaps they could, but the soldiers had turned the option off. That would make sense. Wouldn’t want those in the queue to hear the results. Still, whether the soldiers let them onto the bus told all those in the audience the outcome. Let on? You’re fine. Not allowed on? You’ve got HuLa. Or the chances of you having it are so high that those in charge won’t risk it. Same outcome, either way.
Tamanaha stirred at her legs. The girl buried her face into her mother’s abdomen — something she’d not done since a toddler. Her small hands held the fistfuls of Ozowa’s shirt. She wished Tamanaha would give her a bit of breathing space. The sweat poured out of Ozowa’s pores. But she wouldn’t dare say so. These circumstances would scare anyone, let alone a young child. Let her find comfort wherever possible, during this absolute shitshow of a disaster. She would keep her daughter safe, no matter what. Nothing would get to her baby.
The line shuffled forward a few steps as some fortunate soul entered the bus. One step closer to the soldiers and their IR thermometers — shaped like plastic guns. One step closer to their assault rifles and pistols. Guns, guns, guns. What was it with these guys and guns?
With every treacle-like motion forward, the bus lost one place. One less place for her and Tamanaha. Well, almost every step forward. Now and then, some poor sod had a temperature over 37.5 degrees Celsius. When that happened, a clatter and click of metal as all guns in the area trained on the feverish individual. “LEAVE THE LINE IN AN ORDERLY FASHION! WE HAVE ORDERS TO SHOOT.” Always a yell. Ozowa wondered how they didn’t shred their throats or strain their vocal cords. She supposed continuous loud shouts were something you learned in the army. Along with everything else.
They hadn’t shot anyone yet.
They shuffled forward a few steps. The floodlights shone down on them. Ozowa squinted in their viciousness. They made you cringe and made you sweat. Even if you didn’t have HuLa. Hardly laboratory conditions — how many false positives would they get? It made sense, though. A false positive posed less danger than a false negative. Better to lean too far into rejecting healthy citizens than in the other direction. One hula-hooper on the bus and it would be a bloodbath.
The man in front stepped backwards and barged into them. “Hey!” she said, but he paid her no mind. His eyes glued ahead. And his hand clutched the woman’s next to him in a white-knuckle grip.
Ozowa stood on tiptoes and craned her neck over the crowd. She turned her head this way and that, in owl-like motions. And then she saw why he’d stepped on her toes. The rest of the line ahead had also shuffled backwards. A raised voice warbled over the hubbub. Thin and reedy. High-pitched and manic.
“No! No! You can’t do this! That’s my wife on there, you’ve got to let me on! I-I waited in line! That’s my spot on the bus — my spot!” The fear in his voice added a nervous tremolo to his tones. And something else. A stilted, start-stop mannerism to his sentences.
As if the man fought with his own body to get the words out.
The line surged back again, and this time Ozowa saw it coming. They all knew the symptoms by now. Even if the cause of the trouble couldn’t see it in himself — either by ignorance or by will — the rest of them sure could.
Tamanaha looked up at her with the eyes of a baby owlet. Big and round. Wide and terrified. Tears dotted her cheeks like gemstones in the sand. “Momma?” she asked. Ozowa could barely hear her daughter over the commotion of everything else.
Ozowa pulled her in close and kissed the top of her head. “Shh, my darling, shh. It’ll be okay. Momma’s here.” She turned her daughter and tucked her head into her belly, face against the softness of her abdomen. Pressed into the womb she’d once called home. She didn’t want her baby to see this.
“No! No! I won’t! You won’t make me, I—”
The words cut short. A short, winded gasp. A body clattered to the ground. Smacks and slaps against the concrete.
Tamanaha still tucked against her body, Ozowa leaned out of the line to get a glimpse.
A man lay on the floor. Skinny and bald. Middle-aged and tanned. Small flecks of blood — bright red against the concrete — marked the spot his skull had made its impact. His face drew into a sneer. “You see? This is what they do! They at—” He spasmed. Bones clicked. Muscles tensed and released. His face shook side to side, foamed spittle sprayed across the floor. His hands — fingers twisted like gnarled tree roots — slapped against the floor. “Attack!” he said as if there had been no pause. “Unprovoked! They—”
One of the soldiers stepped forward, rifle to the shoulder. “LEAVE THE LINE IN AN ORDERLY FASHION! WE HAVE ORDERS TO SHOOT.” Despite the early summer heat, the soldier wore full battle gear. Big boots, heavy jacket, helmet. All coloured to camouflage with the city surroundings. A mask covered the soldier’s mouth and nose. The heavy-duty kind, with circular respirators on the side to filter the air. A pair of goggles — which looked like the ones used for skiing, to Ozowa — protected his eyes.
The man on the ground grunted. His jaw tensed. His adam’s apple throbbed as his throat worked. No doubt he had more words to share, but his body wouldn’t cooperate. HuLa had him, and it would not let go.
It wouldn’t be long until he started to rage.
“Nuh.” He spasmed. “N-nuh, y-y—”
The soldier flicked something on the rifle and barked his orders again. “LEAVE THE LINE IN AN ORDERLY FASHION! WE HAVE ORDERS TO SHOOT.”
The man on the ground jerked and twitched. Noises emerged from his frothed mouth. Nothing intelligible. His hands and feet continued to thrash. A toddler mid-tantrum.
Ozowa knew the shot would come before everyone else. It seemed that all around her screamed as the rifle’s shots cracked the air. She pressed her hands against Tamanaha’s ears and tucked her into her body even further. It hurt her stomach, but right now, it felt that the closer their bodies were, the better.
Two short bursts.
The first three rounds struck him in the chest. The man’s body shuddered as the bullets penetrated him. The impacts on his torso thumped — heavy. Weighted.
The second burst caught him in the face. His head all but disintegrated in a ball of blood and bone. Bits of gooey grey snot splattered against the concrete. The man’s brains, Ozowa assumed.
Odd that they’d pursue such a line of action. Not because they didn’t need to use the threat of violence. But because they’d risk contamination of all these citizens. What with all the blood and gore sprayed across the ground. Who knew how much of that particulate spread even further?
The soldiers remained unperturbed. The one who’d fired the shots fell back into line. The queue ahead shuffled on forwards, as another person gained admittance to the bus. And two from the unit — recruits who drew the short straw, if Ozowa had to guess — dragged the body away. Or what remained of it. A bloodied red trail followed them, as they pulled him around the corner, out of sight. A question mark stained onto the floor. Can you keep her safe? Can you?
Ozowa edged forward, her daughter’s head cradled in her hands.
Friday, April 2, 2021
This is part of my project (novella?) for April’s Camp NaNo. The plan is 30 short stories, 30 characters, 30,000 words. Give or take. All set in the same city. All focused on the same event. Sorry for the clunky title! TPID is the name of the project, Daughter the name of the chapter.
If you’re curious, I also submitted This Place Is Dead #3: Mayor to Reedsy, under the title of Removed From Office: Removed From Office – A Science Fiction Short Story by Joshua Insole – Reedsy Prompts.
Additionally, This Place Is Dead #10: Choose is on Reedsy, under the title of Imogen Jumps: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/89/submissions/62242/
This Place Is Dead #17: Insist is on Reedsy, under the title of Daughters of the Earth: https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/90/submissions/63292/