It was twenty-five blocks to her destination, fifteen north and ten west, right through the heart of what had once been downtown. It was an eery and empty place now, the power cut long ago, to conserve what remained. The power grid and other major infrastructure still functioned to a degree, though for how long was anyone’s guess with fewer and fewer people left to maintain it. They only had electricity in the evenings and only in the few neighborhoods of the city where the Quarantine Protocol remained in effect. Contaminated zones, like downtown, had been abandoned by the Protocol, though not by everyone.
The high rise looked like any other on the block. There was a restaurant and a pharmacy on the main floor, some offices and a skywalk connecting to the building across the street on the second. Above that were more offices and above that apartments. All of downtown had been emptied by the Quarantine Protocol, but those who could not live under that law had returned, here and elsewhere. The spray painted red X’s signified that it was still inhabited. Here was where one could find all those things deemed inessential by the Protocol.
She passed by the elevator and headed for the stairwell and began to climb the fifteen flights, the flashlight she had her only guide. It was stuffy and hot and sweat was soon running down her face. As she went a door opened and then clanged shut above her as someone began to descend. They halted upon hearing her footsteps. Marta continued on to the top of the next flight and then called out the floor number to the person above, exiting the stairwell and moving well back of the doorway to wait. After a few minutes there was a loud knock at the door. She waited at least a minute more before renewing her ascent.
When she reached the fifteenth floor she knocked loudly and then waited before entering. She moved quickly down the hallway until she reached Apartment 1543. Hanging on the doorway was a clipboard from which dangled a pen. Taking up the pen she wrote down what she needed and what she had to offer and then knocked on the door. She turned and walked back the way she had come until she reached Apartment 1522, which she entered after knocking to ensure it was empty.
The apartment had all the furniture from its last occupants. There were even magazines and letters from months ago sitting on one of the tables. She had long ago stopped looking at such markers of the disappeared. Instead she went to one of the windows, peering through the closed drapes to look at the streets below. She could see a man passing near the entrance of the building walking erratically and her mouth went dry. Though she urged him on he sat down on the sidewalk right near the entrance. As she pondered how to avoid the polluted man when she left there was a loud knock two doors down from the apartment she was in.
When she had counted off thirty seconds, Marta left the 1522 and went down two doors. Unlike the other, Apartment 1526 was completely empty with light streaming in from the drapeless window. In the center of what would have been the living room there were several small boxes. Seeing them she could not contain herself and she ran forward, dropping to her knees to inspect them. She opened each one to inspect the pills, ensuring they were all still within their plastic casing. That done she popped one of them free and, with a shaking hand, swallowed it. The boxes she put in her bag exchanging them for a small container of strawberries that she had picked that morning from the terrace garden of their building.
The contaminated man was still sitting at the entrance when she had descended to the fourth floor. There was another entrance on the opposite side of the building but even that, she feared, might be too close to the contamination. Instead she decided to take the skywalk, though it was a journey into the unknown. That building had been unmarked, meaning it was abandoned. In her experience the polluted were drawn to people, the internal logic of the disease insisting that it be spread, so an empty building would likely be safer than chancing the other entrance.
Her decision made she did not linger. It was never good to remain away from where the Protocol was in force. The uncontaminated in these areas lived on the knife’s edge and preferred it that way, if the reports of beatings and theft and worse that were broadcast were true. She did not doubt it, not after surviving these last months where any illusions about what people, contaminated or not, were capable of had been shattered utterly.
Marta moved quickly across the skywalk, feeling exposed for some reason in the glass walkway. The high rise she entered was much the same as the other one, filled with abandoned shops and stands, all draped in shadows, daylight rising up from the entryway below to guide her. A series of frozen escalators led down to the main floor. She stood atop one, peering around the lobby to ensure she was alone before starting down. The escalators emptied out toward three revolving glass doors that glimmered where the sunlight caught them. What she could see of the street beyond appeared empty but she walked from one end of the lobby to the other to confirm that there was no one near before stepping into the nearest revolving door.
The door went forward about a quarter of a revolution – not enough to allow her to exit, but enough to close off her means of retreat – before it lurched to a halt and would not budge. She pushed at it, calmly at first, assuming it was merely jammed, but when it became apparent that it was stuck she threw all her weight against it, trying to shake it loose. The door rattled loudly but would not move and she kicked at it in frustration. Next she turned around and tried to push the it backwards, but, as she suspected, the tracking wouldn’t run that way.
She tried to gather herself, to calm the pulse that was thundering in her temples, but instead panic set in and she moved about in a frenzy from side to side, trying to dislodge the door. It had no effect, the door shuddering and vibrating under her blows, but no more. At last she slid down to ground, her back against the glass, tears in her eyes and sweat streaming down her face. Her whole body began to tremble as she thought of what would happen if someone were to find her trapped here, or if no one did, if she were just left to starve and be set upon by the contaminated.
After some time Marta managed to calm herself and she began to think through how she could engineer an escape. Nothing came to mind and she had to fight down her panic again. The thin wedge of space she was trapped within seemed to be growing hotter by the moment, the sunlight beating through the panes of glass. Though she knew it was impossible she could not help imagining the stuffy air slowly draining from the place with each breath she took until she suffocated.
A flash of movement on the escalators above caught her eye and for a moment her heart leapt in excitement, only to be replaced by trepidation. No one would help her here. The Quarantine Patrol would not come for her even if she managed to contact them on the radio. She swallowed, telling herself that it had been nothing more than a change in the light, but the distinct sensation of being watched that crept across her neck told her otherwise. She leaned forward trying to parse the shadows above her, hope and fear wrestling in her mind. She thought she could make out something there, a vague form, but she couldn’t be certain. No further movement came, though she waited expectantly.
“Fucking goddamn idiot,” she said at last to herself.
The words seem to break a spell that had been cast. The shadows moved atop the escalator and she briefly made out the form of someone backing away quickly. She nearly called out, begging whoever it was to stay and help her. Before she could though there was a crash against the glass behind her and she whirled around to see a man, his face contorted into an awful grimace slamming himself against the immovable revolving door. She screamed and jumped to her feet, throwing herself against the door as hard as she could to no effect. The contaminated man yelled something unintelligible in response to her screams and redoubled his tortured efforts.
from Quarantine Protocol