Part 1: Hell
In the teeth of the plague, the world slowed to the pace of a dying heart. In that murky haze of delusional disbelief, it rippled all around like the face of deformity. Like plastic gods caught in the flames, the pillars of sense and reason melted down to the sickly ichor of a fading epoch. By the plague’s hand, all true faces were unveiled, all souls laid bare to the bone.
Reuben could hardly breathe through his mask as he ran through this twisting gyre of nightmares. He stumbled through the woods by the roadside, fearful that they might see him. His friend’s blood clung to his face like a scarlet parasite. He had barely escaped with his life from the checkpoint. What value that ‘life’ of his now had, however, was up to debate. Amidst so much death, life was cheaper than dust.
Between the trees, the dead had arranged themselves in bundled clumps. Some naked, some clothed. Slain by the germ or by the bullet, he did not know. Nor did he care. They were one and the same, for to be of the infected now was to be earmarked for execution.
Across the bone-dry fields, he could hear the shots still ringing, could hear the women’s screams, their useless pleas for mercy, and then the shuddering shower of steel to silence them. He couldn’t tell if it was the army doing the shooting, like it had been back at the border checkpoint, or, worse still if it was the others; those men who had emerged from the shadows of the underworld to reap their harvest from this falling world.
Neo-Nazis, Hell’s Angels Bikers, and the Ku Klux Klan, one and all they had gathered to form an unholy union known as the Iron Klan. The moment the Federal Government had declared the whole state was being quarantined, they had made their move. The virus, the Iron Klan declared, was being spread by the racially inferior and the impure. By that account, the infected had no right to be, their existence served only to endanger the lives of the pure ‘real’ Americans. Bar the old KKK with their pointed white hoods, they came unmasked and unveiled with no shame to hide and descended as demons upon the hospitals.
In the distance, Reuben could see the smoke rising from their pits and pyres. He tried to keep his head low as he darted between the trees, tried to keep his eyes peeled for any oncoming danger. He had his mask and plastic gloves to protect him from the infected, but no gun to defend himself if one of the Klan chose to add him to their score. Terrible as the Klan was though, it was not they which terrified him most. Acts of deliberate violence were to be expected from their ilk. It was everyone else.
Within seconds of the announcement that D.C was abandoning ship, all the gun stores in every town had been emptied. Rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, all alike had taken to arms and were shooting at each other like it was Gettysburg all over again.
Most people - or at least he hoped most people- were just trying to defend themselves. Others though, many of them decent, familiar, upstanding citizens, had rallied to the Klan’s call to stem the spread of the virus with bullets. Was it not, after all, the spike in infections that had led the government to seal off the whole state? The infected were guilty. They had to die.
Once they were dead and gone, everything would return to normal, like it was before 2020... wouldn’t it?
These ‘civilised’ folks had found moreover that it was so very easy to kill the infected. The enemy wore masks that concealed their human faces. There was no sympathising with a uniform plastic covering. No scope for empathy. The enemy was faceless. Soulless. Godless. Lifeless. Worthless. Killing them differed little in that respect from squashing a gnat under one’s boot.
The whole road in front of him was a circus of confusion. People were running in every direction, most of them not even knowing where they were going. In many ways they all resembled a scattering swarm of flies searching for an exit from a sealed glass jar. They were just moving for the virtue of moving. Reuben had never seen anything like it. And yet he was no different, he had no notion of where he was heading. He had already reached the lid of the glass jar earlier that day and found it shut. Now he was here, in the very jaws of the virus blizzard.
Masked and unmasked, the faces flashed past him in dizzying blurs of movement. They ran past with shotguns, with pistols, with hatchets, with overflowing suitcases, with crying babies, with belongings too precious to leave behind. Every last one of them was both terrified and trigger happy at once, shooting at anyone and anything coming too close for comfort. And all the while as these lambs took fright, the wolves of the Klan lined up their victims and stacked the pyres high.
In the middle of all this madness and breathable paranoia, Reuben finally had to stop. His lungs wheezing for air through the medical veil grasping his face, he held his ground and feasted his eyes on the full view laid out before him. Through the fog of whizzing bullets, he saw a hospital engulfed in a towering inferno. On the grounds surrounding it, three massive wooden crosses had been erected. Each of them burning like the totems of Gehenna. Stacked around them were heaps upon heaps of naked corpses. Gangs of Neo-Nazis, their faces raw and twisted as devils, were standing over the dead, taking selfies as though the infected were their trophies. Others of their number were carrying out executions, lining up a dozen handcuffed infected at a time next to a trench, and then mowing them down in a hail of gunfire. Any who survived the salvo of bullets had their skulls split open with hammers. In ghoulish ceremonial pose next to it all, the members of the old KKK stood in silent file. Nameless and pitiless beneath their pointed white hoods, they presided over the scene as sorcerers would a black mass, preaching the virtues of the white Aryan paradise yet to come as the tongues of fire scratched the heavens.
That was more than Reuben could take. He wished he were blind in that moment. It was too much. This couldn’t even be real. This was a nightmare. It had to be. No one should ever have to see this. This was what America had come to; a festival of murder, fear, and hatred. It couldn’t be real. How could it be? This was all some madman’s delusion he was seeing. And yet if it was, he smelled the stench of death, he heard the cracking skulls beneath the boots and hammers, he tasted the burning petroleum. He fell to his knees, tears welling in the corners of his eyes. Then he did something which he had not done in a very long time. He prayed.
“Our father,” he started, clasping his hands together as the killers howled and their fires cackled. “Who art in heaven.” A gunshot rang out, a body fell with a thud on the road. “Hallowed be thy name.” A scream knifed upwards from the maws of a wailing child. “Thy will be done as it is in heaven also on earth.” An unarmed black man was cornered against a garden wall. “Give us the bread of our need this day.” The man raised his hands up in surrender. “And forgive us our debts and our sins as we have forgiven our debtors.” Tears streamed down the man’s shivering cheeks as the guns were raised to him. “And bring us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” They shot him through the head just as the police would have – if there were any police still alive to do so. “For thine is the kingdom, the power, the glory... for an age of ages-”
“Amen,” finished an anonymous voice.