A short story set in the near future
It had been a long day. I was tired and frustrated with computer problems, dealing with angry and abusive customers of my bank on the phone, and being cooped up. I had shut down my system, rubbed my hands and face with sanitizer, slipped on the nitrile gloves, disinfected by personal cell phone and earbud, turned them on and put them on, then checked my current mask. The telltale was still in the green zone, so I put it on and walked down the row of cubicles to the main door, nodding at the security guards with their zootsuits, full face respirators, and stun rods.
Outside, it was a wonderful day, and I wish it wasn’t just past six. Not that I could do anything but take a slow, leisurely walk. Once I got home to my apartment, after getting though our “medical monitors” (our building is too upscale for “security guards”), I’d be auto-locked inside the apartment until seven-thirty the next morning. Of course, I could enjoy visiting with family on the widescreen UHD unit that occupied most of my apartment wall, or watch any of the “live” (recorded) musical virtual-shows going on, but that was it. It was still two days away from my assigned shopping evening, when I had an extra two hours outside the apartment for going to the store (provided I had an appointment slot open). Or to go to the nearby police station to get one of the “self-quarantine food supplies, 1-week” and have the cost automatically deducted from this month’s paycheck.
But for now, and the next thirty minutes, I was outside, free, and able to wander a bit – although I could have walked straight to my place in just fifteen minutes, a nice gift to my company “stay-safer-at-home” coordinator had gotten me the extra fifteen minutes “due to high traffic density.”
So here I was, with hundreds of other people, walking past the abandoned bus-stops and taxi-stands and even past a light-rail station, now fenced and chained. Headed for home, or work, or even to a store for a lucky few. The sidewalks (and the street, one of many closed to vehicular traffic except for first responders) were fairly crowded.
About a block from my office, I spotted a Positive coming towards me. Even before the warning beep in my earbud, I recognized the situation: people ahead of me were moving swiftly to one side or the other, crowding close to the two-meter standoff, to avoid who was coming. And of course, she was readily identified when I saw her, just coming around a corner. She was wearing the prescribed tall hat and baggy jumpsuit, black and yellow horizonal stripes. And of course the new N99 mask and double-layer gloves and booties. Everyone was silent as we moved and let her walk by, hearing the gentle whine of the air-assistance pump that let her breath, even with difficulty, through the N99 mask. Poor woman. Based on the condition of the jumpsuit, she was only a few days into the mandatory self-quarantine period of twenty-one days. She was wearing a large red card on a lanyard around her neck, showing she was on her way to a required medical progress check, at which the public health review officer would determine if she was adequately isolated. Had to be scary for her.
Then it all turned bad. I was paying too much attention to the Positive and moved too close to someone else. The hard, piercing, high-frequency alarm ringing in my earbud for the six-foot rule was almost immediately followed by sharp electrical hum of a charging taser, as the woman screamed at me, “Get away, Scoffer! I’ll fry you, you filthy dog!”
I jumped in what I thought was the right direction to get away from the panicky, shrill woman, yelling, “Sorry, so sorry! My mistake, I’m moving away.” People scattered, setting off more alarms based on how they jerked, their movements indicating their panic.
I got my ears punished twice more before we all got sorted out and separated properly. Fortunately, the other two people realized what was happening and did not get angry at me. Ears ringing, I stumbled on down the street, choosing to stay well inside the gutter where the street was a bit less crowded. Habits die hard, especially in a big city like this: people tend to stick to the sidewalks. Out in the street itself, it was easier to keep the mandated two-meter separation.
But I’d barely gone another half-block when I heard an old-fashioned bicycle bell behind me, and tried to step aside. But the bell rang again, and I heard my name called. “Bill! Bill Wright!”
Of course, masks make it hard to recognize a name, but I risked looking behind me, stopping to avoid running into someone else.
“Joe!” I said. I had immediately recognized an old, pre-pandemic friend, Joe Carter on his once state-of-the-art ten-speed fat-wheel bike, by his flapping cape and tiger-painted face-mask frame.
“Good to see you, Bill, what’s up?” He was in low-gear, moving at the same speed I was now walking, six feet from my left side.
“Doin’ okay, I guess, how about you?”
“Could be better, but no one wants to hear about it. Looking for someone for a D&D game tomorrow night on Zip, you interested?”
“Sure, Joe. Sounds like a great idea. The usual gang? We need to start a new adventure.”
It was just then that Joe’s bike hit a pothole just wrong, jerking his bike hard to the left, directly in front of me. I stopped but he came less than three feet in front of me, catching his foot on the pavement and jerking to a halt.
The avoidance alarm’s high-pitch scream deafened my left ear immediately, as I stepped back. But it was not just in my earbud this time. It was coming from the speakers on the lamp poles all around us, bouncing off the buildings! I doubled over, trying to pull my earbud out, as the combination was jabbing needles into my brain.
A cop, no, two cops were heading straight for us. Joe’s bike had fallen over, he was trying to get his legs untangled from it, huffing and puffing through the stupid face mask.
He tried to call through it, “Bill, get away from me. I tested positive! Get away!”
He was fumbling with his mask, as I tried to get the earbud not just out of my ear, now, but away. “Bill, get away! I’m on my way to the clinic to get the quarantine gear! I tested Positive!”
Now I could see the red card pinned on his shirt. The sirens seemed even louder.
Suddenly, the two cops in their blue and black facemasks, helmets, and protective gear were there. And they had their guns drawn!
“Freeze! Get down!” One screamed through the voice vowel on the mask.
“Superspreader,” the other cop screamed, his pistol leveling at Joe as the first cop leveled his at Joe.
News at Ten: Police officers had to put down two superspreaders today, at approximately 6:15 PM, on West Main Street. No bystanders were injured or infected, according to the Police Department spokeswoman, and EMTs quickly removed the bodies and disinfected the street. The spokeswoman stated that a Police Review Board was immediately convened this evening and have determined that the police-involved shootings were fully justified, and the officers will return to duty tomorrow.” The news announcer raises her head from the desk screen. “I am sure I am joined by every person in our city in thanking you two brave officers for protecting us from the pandemic by your swift action.”