Chapter Seven: Into the Reclamation Zone

The juice flipped back on about an hour ago. Hard to say, in light of everything that’s happened, if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but at least there’s a chance that I’ll be able to get most of this down after all.
Somebody has been calling for help just outside of our room for the last thirty minutes or so. Billy and Dad just keep piling more stuff against the barricade every time that poor man screams. We thought about opening the door, but if the last few days have taught us anything, it’s that trusting in others is foolish and the blighted can be pretty darned sneaky.  
Sooo…let me just try to pick this back up where I left off.
We kept upwind of the Wilsons. Even though it was cold outside and the air was heavy with frozen fog, we just couldn’t risk being near them.
  Jack and Penny stumbled along behind us, Pete acting as a crutch for his mom. We kept an eye on them, but they were as harmless as a couple of kittens in the shape they were in.
We angled straight for Burnside. Jack said they’d cordoned off everything from the North Park Blocks to the northern end of the Pearl District. Bounded by the river to the east and the hills to the west, this was Dr. Camille’s Reclamation Zone—the heart of emerging medicine in the battle against the blight.
Jack and Penny both stumbled a few times, but we actually made decent time. Dad said it was just after midnight when we encountered the recon team.
“Halt!” the lead man said. He had some seriously heavy artillery, and he was dressed for battle. He wore night-vision goggles like the kind you see on the movies and a camouflage helmet. Seven soldiers, similar guns at the ready, fanned out behind him. “Do any in your party carry the blight?”
“Healthy,” Dad called back, “but there are blighted among us. They need help right away. They’re following behind us, just a few hundred yards back, and they have healthy children. The kids ate with us.”
The man nodded. He stepped forward, the phalanx behind him keeping pace. “Share a bite with me, then?” he said. He pulled a bag of baby carrots out of a pocket in his flak jacket and my stomach lurched. Man, the sight of those little beauties made my mouth water.
Freaking carrots!
“Of course,” Dad said. He took one from the bag and popped it into his mouth without hesitation. Billy and I followed suit and the lead soldier smiled at us. He shook each of our hands and Dad gave him our names.
“May I?” I asked, motioning to the bag. He handed it to me and I had to fight the urge to scarf the entire thing down in a flurry of orange crumbs.
“Feel free,” he replied, laughing. “But save a few for the youngsters behind you. We always need to be sure.”
I felt terrible, having forgotten about the Wilsons. Sheesh. They needed the food much more than I did. I handed the bag back to the soldier without taking another, and he took it with an appreciative nod.
“So you say the parents are blighted?” he asked.
“They are,” Dad said. “And it seems that they haven’t eaten—any of them; at least it appears that way to me. The parents are willing to pass on instead. They…they just want to see that their kids are looked after.”
“Well, we might have remedies for all of them. Have to wait and see. Jimmy! Take Blutz and Aaron and go check on them. Full de-bug.” He handed a tall man the bag of carrots and, without a word, three soldiers peeled away from the group and jogged toward the Wilsons. I watched their approach. Just as they neared the little family, Penny crumpled forward in the street.
The soldiers pulled hazmat hoods from their packs and zipped them down over their faces.
One of the soldiers yanked a wand from a holster on his backpack and began to spray a fogged substance over the entire family. The kids shielded their faces while Jack Wilson knelt and pulled his wife into his arms.
When the soldier was finished delivering a thorough dousing, another swooped in and picked up Penny. The third took Jack’s arm and they hustled the parents away, not toward the checkpoint that was well lit on Burnside, but instead toward an old mission that had been cordoned off with chain-link fencing and razor wire. Jack held his youngest daughter’s hand for a tiny moment longer, the girl trailing after her parents, and then the man with the wand gently guided her back to her siblings. He produced the carrots and the kids tore into them. When they were finished, the last soldier guided them to the checkpoint, but they were routed toward a separate holding area.
“God speed,” Dad said, and the lead soldier nodded.
“My name is Captain James Perez,” he said. “We’re part of the security team here in the RZ. If you’ll follow me, Mr. Keane, I think we can get you set up with some modest accommodations.” He checked his watch. “Y’all must be pretty tired.”
“Thanks,” Dad said. “It’s been a long,” he exhaled heavily, “…a long couple of months.”
We walked with him to the checkpoint and passed through a series of chutes. We ate again with the soldiers inside and spent thirty minutes filling out paperwork. Vials of blood were taken. Our weapons were registered, our packs inventoried.
An hour later and a woman in a military uniform picked us up in a Toyota SUV. The streets there were well-lit and free of debris. Though the windows were dark, the buildings had been maintained. I pictured people sleeping inside, resting up for an actual day in the world.
“Welcome to the RZ,” she said after we were buckled in. She headed west on Burnside, toward the hills. “I’m Captain Delia Ward. I report directly to Dr. Camille. May I ask you a question, Mr. Keane?”
“Of course.”
“You and your children are healthy. Why did you risk coming into town?”
“Because we lost someone. We were hoping she might be here. Her name is Marjorie.”
If Captain Ward knew Mom, she didn’t let on. Her eyes alternated from the rearview, where she watched Billy and me in the backseat, and the road. “We’ll sort that out later, then. For now, let’s just get settled in.”
She hooked a left into a parking garage and we piled out, grabbing our packs. A pair of nondescript brick buildings slumbered in the Portland night, though a doorman in a military uniform stood watch outside the foyer of each.
Uptown Apartments a sign said outside the larger of the two buildings.
“Home sweet home, at least for tonight,” Ward said. “This way.”
 We followed her inside and took an actual elevator up to the third floor. It’d been so long that I forgot the butterflies you sometimes get when the lift gets going. We followed her down a long hallway and she let us inside a spacious apartment.
“Three bedrooms, so you can all have some privacy. Fridge is stocked, and there’s hot water if you’d like a shower. You have the run of the place until we figure out our next step.”
She smiled at us. “Again, welcome to the Reclamation Zone. I hope we can help you find your Marjorie, and that you feel at home with us here.”
“Thank you,” Dad said, the gratitude plain in his voice. Captain Ward nodded and departed, and Dad worked the dead bolt on the door. He put the shotgun in the corner of the room and collapsed to the floor with a sigh.
“We made it,” he said. “C’mere, kids.”
We went to him and he pulled us into a hug. I thought he might be laughing a little at first, stunned that we’d actually survived a trip into the city, but his thin shoulders instead shook with quiet sobs. Billy followed suit and what was left for me but to do the same? We cried for a little while, and then Dad got up and made us plates of cheesy eggs and toast. We took hot showers. When we were finished up and had clean clothes on—t-shirts and underwear and socks, pulled fresh from brand new packages!—we said our goodnights and went to our separate rooms.
It was early in the morning—probably after 3:00—and I said a prayer for Mom and fell into the deepest, most restorative rest I can recall since everything fell apart.
Dr. Camille visited us at 11:00 a.m. the following morning. Perez and Ward and two others we hadn’t met yet accompanied him. Dad made coffee and cooked up the rest of the eggs, and we ate while the doctor and his attaché filled us in.
“California is a wasteland. It’s much worse there than it is here,”
 Camille said. He was a tall, thin man with a neat beard and moustache and kind brown eyes framed by gold-wired glasses. He wore slacks and a dress shirt beneath a white coat—in other words, he looked the way a doctor should look. “Washington is a much different story. The blighted there are well organized. They call themselves the—”
“The Red Rising,” Dad interjected between bites of sourdough toast. “We know. We, uh…we heard one of their inventories on the radio. We’ve poked around a bit on the X-NET as well.”
Camille nodded. “You heard them on the radio, huh? Pretty morbid stuff. Signal’s coming out of Vancouver. So…you also must have heard one of our resident celebrities, am I right?”
Dad nodded. “What the heck is she doing here?”
Camille shrugged. “There are a few folks like that in the RZ. Two Trail Blazers live here with us. A pretty famous Portland director. An influential writer and some television stars. Miss Delilah. We learned a lot about California from her, actually. And her publicist was one of the first to survive the therapy. She’s still in quarantine, but we’re hoping the survivors of that cohort will remain stable and can join us here in due time.”
“How does it work?” Billy said.
“The treatment? It’s simple blood therapy. Athletes have been doing this for years to recover from injury. You take some of the patient’s blood, clean and concentrate the material bodies—usually platelets for athletes, but we’re taking both platelets and white blood cells—and re-inject the patient. In our case though, this is a pretty radical treatment. We cycle an entire supply of blood in forty-eight hours. It’s why our mortality rates are so high, of course. It takes a lot of strength just to make it through the first few hours. If you wake up on the second day, there’s a 95% chance that you’ll stick around.”
“But it’s worth it,” a short, stocky man with thick sideburns said. “It’s the only treatment currently showing signs of eliminating the blight.”
“This is Reiner Marshall, my lead research assistant,” Camille said. Marshall smiled and nodded at us. He seemed nice, and I sure hope he got away as well.
“And this,” Camille said, pointing to a rail-thin man with angular features and perfectly gelled hair swept back off his forehead, “is Bryce Owens. He’s my right-hand man. Keeps the lights on and the food in the fridge.”
Owens wore a nice wool suit. He smiled at us and it made me shudder a bit. His teeth were very long. He shook our hands, and his long, thin fingers were incredibly cold.
Sheesh. That man…
We ate while Camille talked about the RZ and the goals of his project.
“We’d like to reverse this in as many patients as we can before making any kind of exodus to the south. Portland is still wide open, but the blighted are pretty much camped on our doorstep. Captain Perez blew the Columbia River Crossing and the Interstate Bridge on our side, but we’re still vulnerable here. And it’s not like they don’t know about us. They just…they just haven’t mounted an offensive yet.”
“But we are expecting one,” Perez added. “We’re prepared if they come. But if we can get more folks like you—maybe get some of these cohorts back to help our cause,” he shrugged. “There’s power in numbers. I hope you’ll consider standing here with us.”
Camille nodded. “You are under no obligation to stay, but Bryce is doing a great job of running things around here. Not sure how he does it, but we have a steady stream of supplies. We actually enjoy a bit of the old life here.”
Owens grinned again. “We cast a wide net, Dr. Camille. My scouts are very resourceful.”
“And what about my wife? Her name is Marjorie Keane. Has she…has she made contact with you?”
Ward shook her head. “She’s not inside the RZ, but we have located her. There’s a synth camp up in Forest Park. We have visual confirmation that she’s there, and she’s definitely on the camp’s rolls. If you’d like to write her a letter, Mr. Keane, we can see that it gets to her.”
Dad wiped his eyes and shook his head, he was so happy. I thought I was going to faint. Man, talk about relief. Mom was alive! Not only that, but she was close!
“Is she okay?” Dad said. “Is she…what’s a ‘synth camp’?”
“She’s hanging in there, based on what we’ve heard. The’s just not very nutritious. I don’t think it will be long until your wife’s body begins rejecting it. It’s urgent that she come in for treatment, Mr. Keane.”
“But what is it? What is she actually doing to survive out there?”
“Synth is a liquid supplement. Remember Ensure? Well, this is the carnivore’s version. A man named Allan Planter created it for the blighted that refused to succumb to the virus’s barbaric side effects. He…well, he died a few weeks ago. The synth is usually a cattle derivative. Sometimes, it’s equine. The thing is, the patients can only subsist on it for a few weeks. Then the body rejects. If the user doesn’t want to indulge his or her urges, we’re talking about starvation here. The synth buys them some time, but based on everything we know, Marjorie’s at the end of her rope. She’s barely using right now.”
“Dad, we have to go see her,” I said. “We have to.”
Billy agreed but Dad silenced us with the palm of one raised hand. “I’ll have the letter for you this afternoon. How soon until you can get her in here?”
“If she’s willing to try treatment, we can admit her this afternoon.”
“We can see her today?”
Camille nodded. “Write the letter. We’ll take it to her and see what she says.”
The five of them stood and we shook hands. I felt a little better about shaking Owens’s hand the second time but, knowing everything I do now, I wish I’d followed my first instinct and said something to Dad and Billy about that guy…
They left and Dad asked Billy and me to clean up the kitchen. He disappeared into the back of the house for a long time, working on the letter, and when it was finished, we walked it down to the foyer and the soldier there called for someone to come and pick it up.
We thought we’d go out for a walk and so Billy and me…wait…oh, no. The walls are shaking. There’s dust coming out of the ceiling tiles.
Right now, as I type this, the walls are shaking.
Someone’s coming. We can hear them attacking the side of the building.
Someone’s coming…

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