The rain is coming down. Pelting and pelting like it will never stop. The streets are black rivers, shimmering light blobs reflected in them like the COVID-19 pictures. It’s winter in the city. Not the season for rain. It’s like our Earth is giving one long exhale, releasing all the dammed-up waters as her temperature cools. The human virus on her back is at last contained. Locked indoors, under curfew, where it can do less damage. Cars stand idle in their garages. Polluting factories are closed. The climate is inching back slowly from the triple red zone. All thanks to that other virus, Queen Corona, as we have named her.
The night feels totally deserted, except for me. Wandering through the weird emptiness that used to be a thriving city. I’m dressed in my usual stealth uniform of black. It makes it easier to evade the military patrols. The commanders have dictated that everyone except the military and police, without exception, must remain imprisoned at home. They don’t call it that, of course: "voluntary self-isolation" is their hashtag. All of it is for our own good, they tell us. To keep us safe from the enemy that can’t be defeated: the evil Queen Corona, with her multiplying offspring, that is holding our human world to ransom. For those who get infected, there is no cure and pretty much no treatment. No viable vaccine as yet. That’s what they told us that first night, as they broke the news and ushered us into our first taste of lockdown.
I skirt the gaping construction site of the new hotel, abandoned now like everything else. Girders and scaffolding are still in place, deep excavation cavities already dug for foundations never laid. A troubling smell comes out of them. Charred body parts perfumed with heavy sanitiser. It’s been turned into a makeshift crematorium. There are similar sites all over the city. In all the cities of the world, there’s no more burial room. And, since funeral gatherings are outlawed anyway, it makes sense to dispose of the dead in one mass grave and incinerate the remains for safety.
I still can’t get used to seeing the city so deserted. I wonder again what they’ve done with all the street people who used to inhabit these pavements: undesirables, as they’re now labelled. Herded into shelters, we were told, where they slept on cushy mattresses and were fed three square meals a day. They’d never had it so good. Still, if it was so good, why did they keep escaping from there? We’d see them on our night escapades sometimes, Caleb and I, flitting between the empty overturned bins, looking for something to eat. Impossible for them to survive out here in Coronaland. But it seemed they’d rather starve in the alleyways than live under the conditions in the shelters.
A distant rumbling announces the arrival of a storm trooper patrol. I duck into a doorway opening as the vehicle rolls slowly towards me. A big troop carrier with steel-tread wheels. The soldier riding in the cockpit is in full battle gear: face shield, space suit, riot stick, teargas canisters and bullet rounds – ready for anything. As it gets level with my doorway, the vehicle suddenly brakes. My heart jumps as the searchlight probes my hiding place. It’s no joke to be caught out here when the curfew is in force. The penalty for breaking it is jail – or worse.
The rain is on my side. The downpour curtains the opening, and the spotlight veers away to probe the other side of the road. They’re not really expecting trouble. The rest of the law-abiding citizens are in their beds, where they’re supposed to be. They must be so bored, these battle-geared troops, primed for action that never comes. Night after night, this fruitless patrol. Even the roaming cats know to stay out of their way or end up as target practice. Occasionally, in my wanderings, I’ve come upon a carcass or two, shot to pieces. Vermin of the city will not be tolerated, one of the broadcasts told us. By "vermin" they meant not just cats and rats, but human undesirables: criminals, addicts, beggars, vagrants, illegal migrants – all the troublesomes of the city that no one knows what to do with. The aged have become an upper case group as well. They aren’t so much undesirable, but part of the special vulnerables in need of extra vigilance. Anyone over 60, regardless of health level, has been ruled to be an elderly, subject to the Special Condition Regulations that has forced them into extra-strength lockdown. That means they aren’t allowed to mix with other family members, especially grandkids, or leave their homes for any reason, even to get food.
"Ridiculous!" snorted my Aunt Belinda. "If they think I’m staying locked at home for the rest of my life, they’ve got another think coming." She was my favourite aunt and she lived with us, a character like no one else. My Ma says I take after her. She was one of the over-60s. But you’d never think so, seeing her in action. Her favourite workout during the first weeks of lockdown was sprinting up and down our steep driveway with her trademark purple hat on her head. She had arm muscles like a wrestler’s from all the bench-pressing she did with bags of potatoes and butternuts. "I’m fitter and healthier than most of those power-bloated idiots, anyway," she’d say scornfully. "I won’t have my rights trampled this way."
The problem was, you didn’t have a choice. The word of the Covid Command was law. There was a new COVID-19 Public Safety Act quickly passed through Parliament which gave unlimited and unchallengeable powers to those in charge of the crisis. They had a whole control network going: military enforcers who patrolled the city day and night and went from door to door to ensure compliance. There were special detention centres for COVID rule-breakers. They’d even set up a snitch line, where people were rewarded with food parcels for ratting on their neighbours.
I stay in my doorway recess, quiet as the rats, until the troop carrier has gone on its way. Then I continue on mine. Despite the rain and the danger of being busted, I quite enjoy this midnight rambling. It is good to be outdoors after the long cooped-up months of the lockdown, the city so beautiful in its night dress. Washed clean of its sins in the downpour. The buildings silent and dark under the thick cloud that hangs over them, nothing to indicate the thousands of lives locked away inside them.
Shopping trolleys are on the loose in the mall parking lot, spinning by themselves in the rain. Caleb and I used to ride them, drag racing each other through the forbidden streets, taking back the freedom of the city that had been taken from us. He was my best friend in the whole world. He could make me laugh like no one else could. Maybe we would have been more than friends. But he’s gone now. Vanished into nowhere, like so many others. The one thing I know for sure is that it wasn’t COVID that got him.
The first COVID Command were a decent bunch. They had our genuine interests at heart. "If we do not take drastic action now to curb this lethal enemy, we may not get a second chance. Our human race will be decimated, our healthcare systems overwhelmed; our economies will collapse, and our cities will be populated with corpses." The picture they painted was a grim and frightening one. There was no reason not to believe them.
Very little was known about Queen Corona at that stage. Overnight, it seemed, she descended on us, and throughout the world the infection rate shot sky-high, bodies piling up on our TV screen graphs night by night. Our commanders were so genuine in their concern for us, so visibly haggard and stooped with the burdens of decision placed on them. How could we not put our trust in them?
In the beginning, we obeyed whatever they said. Everything we heard about this unknown virus was terrifying. How unstoppable it was. How it could leap from person to person like contagious lightning. How slim the chances were of surviving it. How horrible the death that resulted. The human race had no immunity against this lethal bodysnatcher. We couldn’t have been more vulnerable if Queen Corona had descended on us from outer space. Maybe she did. Such a pretty virus, when you saw the pictures. The shape of her imprinted on our collective eyeballs through thousands of screen repetitions. That crimson aura. The tentacled hairdo. The bump-covered sphere with its bobbles and knobbles and zigzags and spiky bits highlighted in luminous colours. Like an alien planet might look if we ever got to land on one: unearthly, weird, yet strangely compelling.
Even after they found out that it wasn’t the lethal killer they’d thought for most people who got it, we still went along with everything they asked of us.
By then, we were in extended lockdown. Everyone in the city. The rich people, the poor people, the unruly shacklands where it was almost impossible to stay put because of the crowded conditions. They’d even taken the kids out of school. When in the history of civilisation has that ever happened?
First it was weeks. Then the weeks became months. Pretty soon, #Stayathome was what our lives were. It was all for our own safety, of course. Our human bodies were the prey that this ruthless queen fed on. The only way to stop her breeding frenzy was to deny the predator fresh hosts. That meant keeping us, the human carriers, isolated from each other. At least until the long-awaited vaccine was ready. The researchers were hopeful that this would be soon. Nearly there. Nearly there. But the virus was a cunning innovator. As fast as the researchers thought they had the antigens pinned down, Corona V would mutate her structure to baffle the human immune response.
The popularity of the Command Team by now was waning. The strain of permanent lockdown was telling, rebellions big and small busting out everywhere.
It was them, the first Command Team, who put us under martial law, who set loose the revved-up storm troopers, as my Aunt Belinda called them, to patrol our streets and keep the disobedient ones compliant. We didn’t like it, but we went along with it, as we had gone along with everything they did on our behalf. We’d grown used to their familiar faces, their comforting parental voices chiding us gently on our nightly TV screens.
Then, suddenly, without warning, that changed. One moment they were there, gently but firmly in control. The next, they were gone, and an entirely new Command Team was in their place. That’s when things really started to go downhill.
The New Command were noticeably younger. Louder. Harder. All men – never a good sign. They wore military-style crimson jumpsuits with the corona insignia patterned on them and matching berets on their heads. Their eyes glittered as they stared unsmiling out at us from the televised podium.
"We want to remake the city into a place that is habitable for all who legitimately live in it," they said in their first broadcast to us. "We must take this chance to rid ourselves of undesirable elements in our communities once and for all. By this, we mean those who are draining the blood of our social systems like leeches. Those who have chosen a path of crime from which they can never be rehabilitated. Those who choose idleness over dignified employment. Those who live without shame on the streets of our city. And the many illegals who don’t belong here."
Who could argue with that? Was it not a world we were all secretly hungering for?
"As we conquer the virus, we must conquer the social illness that is killing us. We want a new, invigorated society. Young, strong, resolute and sustainable. We are not going to wander for 40 years in the desert like the biblical Israelites did, waiting to occupy our Promised Land. COVID-19 has given us the chance we need to make changes that are long overdue. Citizens of the city, let us stand together and do what we must do to triumph."
As time went on, the rules became more draconian. Our movements were monitored in a way they never had been before. Everyone had to carry a cell phone with them if they left their homes. That way, they could track you and check you were going nowhere unauthorised. If you were caught out without your phone, or if you switched it off, you would be microchipped. Simple as that. It was like they were hiding something from us. The virus was a convenient excuse to keep us all locked up so that we wouldn’t find out what they were really up to.
And even if we knew, what could we do about it? Their power over us was absolute. The pandemic had given them the opening they needed to get our skewed society straight. To clean up the city once and for all of all its inconvenient unwanteds. With everyone, even the journalists, under martial lockdown, who could oppose them?
"That’s the problem with martial law," my Aunt Belinda said. "It may start off with good intentions. But before you know it, it’s become a tool of oppression." She’d lived through a couple of martial situations herself, so she knew what she was talking about.
"I know fanatics when I see them. I lived through a world war and a racist regime that was full of them. Never trust a fat cat," she told me, in reference to the New Command’s visibly expanding paunches. "You can be sure it got that way on someone else’s milk."
Everyone was living on food support by that stage. The New Command had revoked all the lockdown easing of the previous Command. No one I knew was working, and all the businesses not listed as essential had collapsed. The pension funds were drained, and no grants were being paid anymore. Food parcels were all that kept us going. Only those with the approved IDs and no black marks against their names were eligible to receive them. We were among the lucky ones.
The elderly had become a special focal point of the New Command. They had been of particular concern to the Old Command as well. They were said to be especially vulnerable to the virus, which meant they got sicker than anyone else, which meant they took up too many beds in the high care wards. It made sense that they should remain isolated from contagion as much as possible.
The New Command took it one step further. Not only were the elderly at risk themselves, they proclaimed, but they were a perfect breeding ground for COVID contagion, which put the rest of us at risk as well. At all costs, the New Command was determined to protect "these ageds" and keep them separated until the virus threat was contained.
The order came that no elderly was allowed to live independently or with their families. They had to vacate their present homes and transfer to special care facilities, where they could be looked after properly. A few had been found to be flouting the strict regulations around going out or fraternising with relatives. They clearly couldn’t be trusted to keep the required social distancing from other family members in their homes. Therefore, they must be put somewhere where they could be better guarded. All for their own good.
My Aunt Belinda was spitting mad at the new rulings.
"No way will they get me into one of those decrepit places," she ranted. "Who are they to dictate that I can’t live with my own family? It’s all nonsense, anyway. Why are they targeting us out of everyone? What about all the other compromised vulnerables: the smokers, the drug users, those with serious conditions and weakened immune systems? Why don’t they lock them up for their own good, too? There’s something else going on here, mark my words," my aunt said. "Whatever they’re up to is shady business. That’s why they’ve got us locked down so tight. The virus is just the excuse."
When the door to door inspectors came knocking, conducting their random checks on household wellness and checking that there were no vulnerable aged being harboured, she ran into the garden and hid behind the thorny Kei apple tree.
"Any elderly living here?" they asked me. I shook my head guiltily.
For a while after their visit, Aunt Belinda remained subdued and unusually meek, keeping her mask on, even in the house, forgoing her outdoor exercise. That didn’t last, though. Before long, she was at it again, gardening outdoors in the winter sunshine, big purple hat bobbing like a rebel flower. Doing her energetic driveway runs at sunset.
I tried warning her to be careful and stay out of sight, but she wouldn’t listen.
"The exercise keeps me healthy, and so does the sunshine," she said. "What possible harm am I doing to anyone? Who would be so mean as to report me?"
Someone was. One of the neighbours spotted her and phoned the snitch line. Next thing, the white van arrived at our door. My Ma and I weren’t home when it came. It was our day for food queueing, a process that took most of the day. We got back to find her gone. An official slip under our door notified us that she’d been taken off to one of the elderly care facilities. We were lucky not to get jail time for "harbouring her against regulations".
I was really worried about her. The rumour grapevine had alarming things to say about those care centres. It was said that the elderly were dying like flies inside them – much worse so than on the outside.
By this time, there were many stories circulating about Corona V, so much fake news. She’d become a very smart virus, capable of extraordinary feats. It was said that she could actually track the elderly into the sanitised care centres. That’s why they were dying in their droves there. She could hop fences, penetrate walls, even hitch a ride through the 5G airwaves. So it was said. All cell phones were confiscated from the elderly for this reason. Purely to safeguard them from this super-predator Queen Virus that was so determined to get into their decaying bodies.
Despite the ban on cell phones, Aunt Belinda managed to contact us from the care centre. A few nights after she was taken, I got a series of SMSes from her.
Come get me pls
This place is prison
We kept in solitary
They killing us here
Then the messages stopped. I tried to find out which care centre she’d been taken to. But it was hopeless. No one even knew where these top secret centres were, let alone which one she was in. I had wild thoughts of tracking one of the white vans the next time it was spotted in our area. I’d get our cell group network to trace the route for me, then head there after dark and kidnap her back. It seemed like a great plan.
Except that I never got the chance to implement it. Two days later, we received an official notice on COVID Care Centre letterhead, terse and to the point:
Regret to inform that your relative Belinda May has passed away from COVID-19 virus. In order to mitigate the spread of infection, we have burnt her remains.
I read and reread that message about 10 times, trying to take it in. I just couldn’t believe it. Dead? My Aunt Belinda? Just like that? Impossible! She was so full of life. In better shape than I was. If Corona V wanted to box with her, she would give the predator queen a run for her money, that was for sure. She’d never just meekly roll over and die.
I missed her like nobody’s business. Our house felt so empty without her. I couldn’t stop thinking about the messages she’d sent: Come get me please. They killing us here.
It was after that that I became a Nightstalker. Roaming the city like an undesirable in the sleepless illegal hours of curfew. Too wired to sleep. Too angry to care much about anything – my own safety included. Grief and unending lockdown will do that to a person.
Nightstalkers are the eyes and ears of the city’s rebel movement. Since the New Command took over, resistance to their rule has been growing. There’s a whole counter-surveillance network, run by cell phone. They have spies posted in strategic spots all around the city, keeping watch from rooftops and windows and reporting on anything suspicious. They circulate their own news updates, coded as health warning bulletins, in case they’re intercepted.
Caleb was a Nightstalker, too.
I’ve reached the Clocktower Corner, where the food parcel distribution happens. I stand with my back against the plate glass window of the diamond store, locked and barred now, the interior stripped of goods. It comforts me to be here, the last place Caleb video-called me from. He was so angry. He told me he’d got into an altercation with the security, who had been manhandling an undesirable out of the food queue. "The guy was harmless, just hungry like the rest of us. They didn’t have to drive him off like a dog. I told them to leave him alone and that I’d give him some of my food."
"Be careful. Don’t antagonise them. Next thing, they’ll ship you off to one of those places that no one comes back from," I warned him. But he laughed it off, as he always did. "You worry too much. See you tonight, my Rose," he told me.
I crouch down on the wet street, feeling my grief surface anew. See you tonight, my Rose.
The rain is taking a breather, clouds parting briefly to show glimpses of stars, much brighter and better than I remember. One of them is glinting in a puddle in the corner of the gutter at my feet. I reach forward to snatch it up. Pain stabs my heart. It’s a ring – Caleb’s ring, the friendship ring I gave him on his birthday last week, just before he vanished. Now I know for sure that something bad has happened to him.
Another troop carrier is growling out of the distance towards me. I get to my feet and turn into the alleyway that runs between two buildings, narrow and dark and piled with uncollected garbage bags. Picking my way through the smelly dark, I walk slap bang into a shuffling apparition approaching from the other side. I don’t know who gets the bigger fright.
The figure leaps back, scrawny fists raised in ninja pose. She babbles something at me in a voice that hasn’t been used in 100 years. Some kind of mad bag lady, obviously: undesirable number 1.
"Rose," she croaks.
I jump back.
"How do you know my name?"
Then I recognise her. It’s Aunt Belinda.
I can’t believe it.
"You’re supposed to be dead!" I stutter. "They sent us a message – the virus – they cremated you –"
I leap towards her and give her a long, COVID-defying hug. Boy, does it feel good.
Her body is bony and frail in my arms. She’s lost so much weight, she’s like a skeleton. She’s wearing filthy carpet slippers and a torn dressing gown over her pyjama suit. Sopping wet from head to toe, as I am.
The troop carrier is level with our alleyway. I grab Aunt Belinda and yank her down among the garbage piles, shovelling black bags on top of her to hide the pale gleam of her dressing gown. Her hand stays in mine, gripping my fingers tightly.
The patrol pauses briefly to searchlight the alleyway. But the exercise seems more routine than suspicious, and it soon goes on its way again.
"I can’t believe it’s you. I can’t believe you’re actually alive. Why didn’t you contact us and let us know you were okay?" I say, as soon as it’s safe to talk again.
"How could I contact you? They took our cell phones away. And I couldn’t come back home – it would have put you and your mom in too much danger. I’ve been living on the run," she says.
She looks it, too. Hungry and dirty and desperate. She must have lost about ten kilograms since I saw her last, her eyes all bulgy and her face as wrinkled as a raisin. They’ve turned her into an elderly, after all.
"Do you have any food?" is her next question.
I haul out the apples I stashed in my windcheater pocket. Ma got me into the habit of carrying food with me when the lockdown first started. Every time we went shopping, she’d buy some extra and leave it near the bins or the alleyways for some starving fugitive to find.
Aunt Belinda grabs the apples from me and bites into them like she hasn’t seen food in a long time. It’s painful to watch her eat, her mouth so out of practice that she can hardly chew. She seems better, though, after she’s swallowed the fruit, her eyes less bulgy. I search my other pockets and come up with a stale, squashed sandwich half I’d forgotten about. She wolfs that down, too.
"You’re soaking wet. Let’s get you under shelter. You’ll get sick," I say without thinking.
She gives me a grim smile.
"After what I’ve been through, I’d welcome it."
"Why? What happened in that place? Why did they tell us you’d died?"
"To cover up the fact that I’d escaped. I left my hat sleeping on the pillow and hid behind the door when they came in to check on me." She grins as she says it. "Then I slipped out behind them and ran down the corridor to the TV room. It has double doors that open onto the garden. I knew where they kept the key."
"You’re lucky they didn’t spot you," I say. "You would have been in such trouble."
"They’re not expecting resistance. Most of the oldies there are so terrified of getting the virus and ending up with a nasty death that they cooperate with whatever they’re told to do."
"So, what is going on there?" I ask. "What was all that about solitary and killing people in your messages?"
"I’ll tell you," she says. "But let’s get to a safer hiding place first."
She leads the way across the city. I’m surprised to see where she’s heading: the construction site.
"This is my hideout," she tells me.
"Here?" I shudder. "This is where you’ve been living? This terrible place?"
"It’s not so bad when you’re used to it. Last place they’d think of looking for me. No one likes to linger here. They come, they dump the bodies for incineration, they leave. I hang out at this end, where it’s further away from the cremations. You get used to the smell after a while."
"We were so worried when we found you’d been taken off there," I tell her. "There are so many stories about those care centres. They say the elderly are getting sick and dying there even more than on the outside. And then, when we got the letter from them, we really believed that you’d died."
"I could have," she says. "I would have, if I hadn’t run away. You have no idea what’s going on in that place, Rose!"
"What do you mean?"
"Everything you’ve heard about the elderly being killed off in there is true. Except that it’s not Corona V’s fault that they’re getting sick."
"I don’t understand."
"It’s them," she says, "the ones who run the centres. They’re the ones who are killing us off."
I look at her doubtfully, wondering whether life on the run has affected her brain.
"That doesn’t make any sense. Why would they want to do that? What have they got against old people?"
"Nothing," she says. "It’s just the opposite. We’re very useful to them – because of our susceptibility to the virus."
She raises her haggard face to me.
"They’re using us as guinea pigs – human trials for their new experimental vaccines and treatments. That’s why they want us locked away in the care centres. It’s the perfect controlled environment. And what better subjects for vaccine trials could there be than the high-risk elderly group? If the experimental drugs work on them, they’ll work on anyone."
I search for words that won’t upset her.
"But – is that such a bad thing?" I ask hesitantly. "We need that vaccine, don’t we? There’s nothing wrong with testing it on old people first, is there? I mean, if they’re getting sick and dying anyway? Better than all of us living in permanent lockdown. Better than so many people getting ill and dying when they don’t need to."
Aunt Belinda winces at my words.
"Careful with that line of thought, girlie," she snaps, her eyes flashing. "Some of the worst atrocities in history have been committed in the name of the greater good."
She looks at me in silence for a moment, as if wondering how much to reveal.
"What if I told you that these care centre infections are not just random? That the old people being kept there are intentionally injected with the virus?"
"You can’t be serious! They’d never do that. That would be like – that’s like –"
"Murder," my aunt says fiercely. "Exactly. Only they don’t think of it like that. They call it challenge trials. That’s when a group of subjects is purposefully infected with the disease to test the effectiveness of the remedy. Some are given the vaccine before they’re infected, and the rest are given a placebo that has no effect at all. Then they can see how effective the vaccine is in preventing people from getting the virus."
She shoots a glance at my face.
"You still don’t believe me, do you?"
"It’s not that. It’s just – it sounds so wrong," I stammer. "I mean, to put helpless old people through that suffering deliberately –"
"For the greater good," my aunt shrugs. "You virtually said it yourself. Isn’t saving the lives of millions worth a few thousand sacrificial deaths along the way? We’re just expendable old bodies in their eyes."
She gives me another one of her fierce looks.
"But no good can come of something so bad," she says. "It never does."
As she speaks, I remember last night’s news broadcast: the New Command proclaiming triumphantly that the COVID-19 vaccine will be ready for roll-out in a matter of weeks.
"We have instructed our researchers to accelerate their trials. We don’t have the luxury of waiting the usual 10 to 20 years for this vaccine to be approved. The situation is too urgent. We need it ready now."
Day has crept upon us as we’ve been talking, cracks of ivory splitting the black apart. "I’ve got to go," I say. "I don’t want to get spotted by soldiers."
"Yes, go, go," my aunt says. "Come back tomorrow night if you can. You know where to find me now. I’ll wait for you right here. Make sure you bring food with you – lots of it."
"I’m not leaving you here." I grab her hand. "Come with me."
She hesitates, then shakes her head.
"Much too risky. They’re still looking for me. They’ve probably got their spies keeping watch on the house. It’s safer for all of us if I stay where I am for the time being."
I want to argue more, but there’s no time. It’s getting lighter by the moment, the shadows of buildings emerging to take shape around us.
We do another illegal hug. She kisses the top of my head. I kiss her cheek. And off I go.
"Don’t get caught, my lovey, whatever happens," she hisses after me.
Ma is already up when I get back, waiting for me with that look on her face that spells trouble. She’s furious with me for breaking the curfew, and even more furious when I tell her where I’ve been, and who I’ve been with.
At first, she doesn’t believe me. She thinks I’m just making it up to conceal the fact that I’ve been roaming the city with my friends. It takes a while for me to convince her that I’m telling the truth.
Then she gets madder than ever.
"Are you saying you just left her there, alone in that terrible place? How could you do that, Rose?"
"What was I supposed to do? I told her to come home with me, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to put us in danger, or have us end up with black marks against our name and no more food parcels."
"I don’t care about black marks!" she rants. "I want my sister back safe and sound in this house."
"I’ll go there again tomorrow," I tell her. "I promised to take her food. I’ll make sure she comes back with me this time."
But, as it happens, I am not able to keep my word. The snitch line has reported a black-clad figure on the loose and up to no good in the Forbidden City at daybreak. Storm troopers have been put on high alert. Warnings come through on our cell newscasts that they have orders to shoot on sight. I would go anyway, just to drop off the bag of food. But Ma has locked the door and hidden the key.
"It’s bad enough that I almost lost my sister. I’m not going to lose my daughter, too," she says tearfully.
"You won’t lose me. I’ll be extra careful. I’ll give her the food and come straight home. Please, Ma, let me go," I beg. "She’s got nothing to eat, and I promised. We can’t just let her starve."
But she won’t budge.
"I’m worried about her, too," she says. "But I’m not letting you out with those trigger-happy soldiers about. We’ll take a detour past her spot on our way back from the food queues tomorrow and leave some food for her."
It’s a risky thing to do in daylight. If we’re challenged by soldiers, they’ll want to know what we’re doing out of our permitted zone. But we have to take the risk.
Luckily, we make it to the hideout spot without being stopped. There’s no sign of her there, of course. She’s probably well hidden underground somewhere, waiting for day’s end before she emerges. We don’t dare call to her for fear of attracting the wrong attention. So, we hide the food where we think she’ll find it and go on home. It’s the best we can do.
For the rest of that week and the whole of the next one, the Nightstalkers have no choice but to lie low. I worry so much about Aunt Belinda, alone and hungry in the awful crematorium construction site. What if she hasn’t found the food we left her? What if she doesn’t even know we’ve been there? I feel so rotten that I went off and left her there that first night. I should have tried harder to persuade her to come home with me.
As soon as the fuss over the curfew-breaker has died down a bit and I can persuade Ma that it’s safe to let me go, I pack my backpack full of food and slip out into the midnight city.
It’s a clear, cold winter’s night, the sky that special shade of winter azure, stars glittering across the blue-black like they own it. I keep to the deepest shadows, ready to merge into them at the least sign of trouble. My breath is frosting in the air, a dead giveaway to anyone on the lookout. I can only hope that the cold has put all the nosy neighbours to sleep.
I’m glad to reach the construction site unmolested. Aunt Belinda isn’t there. But then, why would she be? She couldn’t know I’d be coming. She’s probably on walkabout, searching the alleyways for non-existent food scraps. The thought makes my stomach twist.
I check the spot where Ma and I hid the food for her on our last visit. My stomach clenches again as I see the bag still there, untouched. Did she not find it? Has she changed her hideout, perhaps? Or has something happened to her? I hang around the site for what’s left of the night, hoping against hope that she’ll appear. I wait until the brink of dawn, until I dare not wait anymore. Then I leave the backpack hidden near the spot where we sat the night we spent together. I use a nail to scratch a rose on a few of the steel girders that enclose the spot, in the hope that she’ll see them and know I’ve been there. Then I run for it to beat the daybreak.
I go back again the next night – and the night after that. But the place is as deserted as before. The backpack is exactly where I left it, the roses I scratched as lonely as when I did them. No other scratchings added near them to tell me they’ve been seen. I can’t bear to think about what may have happened to her – whether they’ve captured her again – or whether Corona V has found her first.
A nagging guilt gnaws at me. Did my hugs make her sick? She was an elderly, after all. What if I was a carrier without knowing it? Younger people can transmit this virus without showing symptoms themselves. It is a terrible thought – especially since I have no way of knowing whether it is true or not.
A few days later, an official broadcast comes through that the long-awaited vaccine has finally been achieved. There is great celebration everywhere as citizens of the city are ordered to present themselves at designated points on allotted days to be vaccinated. We are to line up according to the alphabet letter of our surnames: A–Cs on one day, D–Fs on another, and so on, until everyone in the city has had their shot. Corona V’s days are numbered, along with our lockdown days. Cheers erupt from every home in the city. Even knowing what I know, it is hard not to be swept up in the general celebration.
All the same, I can’t help thinking of my Aunt Belinda’s words: "No good can come of something so bad."
She couldn’t have known how prophetic her words would be.
It turns out that our super-smart shapeshifter, Corona V, hasn’t finished with us yet. The vaccine trials have been too rushed, the testing not nearly rigorous enough. Too little time allowed for any defects to reveal themselves.
In the first few days of the Preventative Immunisation Campaign, eager thousands receive their shots of the weakened and supposedly harmless virus. Fortunately for my Ma and me, we are at the tail end of the waiting list. They run out of stock before they can get to us.
It isn’t that the vaccine isn’t doing its work; it triggers the immune system antibodies just as it is meant to. Only one problem: in their rush to develop a deactivated COVID culture that will stimulate immune response without producing the disease, the researchers have left out some of the signature proteins that allow the white cell detectives to identify the enemy.
The anonymous invader slips right past the immune sentries, makes camp in the ganglia of healthy cells and sets up the usual reproduction factory. The defender cells know there is an invader in their midst. They just can’t recognise where or what it is. They go into overdrive, unleash their inflammatory arsenal and begin attacking the body’s own cells as enemies. There is heart failure, kidney collapse, lung collapse – organ damage on a massive scale. The real pity is that all of these repercussions were seen in the rushed clinical trials among the captive elderly. But, in their haste to develop a workable vaccine, they didn’t take sufficient heed of them. They simply put it down to the natural weakened immunity of the aged.
In the end, there are more fatalities from the vaccine than the entire death toll of the virus. The body count mounts like nobody’s business. The open-air crematoriums burn day and night.
There is one piece of good news through all of this tragedy: the New Command falls victim like everyone else. They were the first to volunteer their arms for the fatal needle prick. They were among the first to fall. I like to think that the ghosts of the sacrificial elderly gathered round to usher them into their designated spots in the hellfire of the afterlife; I imagine my Aunt Belinda would be leading the way.
The Old Command Council comes out of whatever hibernation they’ve been locked down in, and wander back onto our TV screens.
"What we have learned, what Princess Corona has taught us, is that she is here to stay until she is ready to leave," they tell us. "She won’t be evicted from her throne among us until she is good and ready. We just have to let COVID-19 run its course like any other virus. Many people will catch it; some will die, most will recover. Eventually, the human collective will win its immunity. Life must go on as it goes on until that happens.
The virus queen seems happy with that.