Careen Catecher was just a few steps from the front door of the history building when a wave of panicked students poured out, driving her back into the quad. Someone’s backpack knocked her coffee mug out of her hand, and a guy she didn’t know grabbed her roughly by the elbow and spun her around without breaking stride, dragging her with him as he ran. “Come on! Didn’t you hear? We’re supposed to go to the Student Center.”
“Why? What’s happening?”
The first wail of the disaster siren drowned out his answer, and she cringed as they fled across campus in the growing stampede, thinking in a detached way that she’d picked the wrong day to be late for class.
A frightened crowd gathered outside the university’s student center, pressing toward the doors and shouting over the siren. Careen fought to keep her balance in the undulating mob. The shrieking siren cut off abruptly, and in the unnerving silence, phones all around her pinged with incoming messages. She dug hers out of her back pocket.
“Campus alert. Shut up--it’s a campus alert.” The murmurs spread and seemed to calm the crowd. Hundreds of phones played the voice message in near-unison, magnifying the audio so it was easily heard:
“The Office of Civilian Safety and Defense confirmed that a chemical weapons attack against the United States is imminent. Terrorists have released a latent cocktail of poisons into the atmosphere, where it can remain, inert, until such time as they choose to detonate it. You are directed to report to a designated distribution center in your area to receive an antidote that will protect you. Weekly allotments of this antidote will be provided free of charge for as long as the threat persists. The OCSD expects the terrorists to mount repeated attacks, so it is essential that you take the recommended daily dosage. Compliance is a small price to pay for your safety.”
Every face turned toward the cloudless, blue sky as someone’s sobs cut through the silence.
Careen fidgeted as she stood in the slow-moving queue. She’d been anxious to get inside the building and away from the danger that lurked overhead, but the informational video playing in the vestibule did nothing to quell her fears. According to the video, an attack could occur at any time; when it did, there would be no flash, no warning, no odor…and no place to hide. But taking the Counteractive System of Defense antidote would render the poison ineffectual. According to the video, the OCSD had the situation under control, and there was no reason to worry.
But Careen could think of plenty to worry about. For starters, she worried that, unlike her, most of the people in line seemed to dismiss the danger after they watched the video message. A group of girls behind her were chattering like they were at a party. She could hear people all around her telling each other not to worry, it’s just another attack. It’s no big deal. We hear about them all the time. They wouldn’t say that if they’d ever been in real danger. They honestly don’t believe anything bad can happen to them.
The workers distributed the antidote so slowly that Careen feared the attack would be long over before she made it through the line, and though she hoped she’d be done in time for her afternoon classes, she knew she had no choice but to wait. Denying the threat wouldn’t help, and a 4.0 GPA wouldn’t save her.
“Our protest might even get coverage on PeopleCam! My mom has a friend whose daughter knows a guy that works there. They’re probably sending a crew over.”
Careen looked around in amazement. “What are you protesting? Are you against taking the antidote?”
The girl wrinkled her nose. “No! We’re protesting against terrorism. Terrorism should stop. Right. Now. So once we take our antidote we’re going to stand outside and sing songs and show those terrorists that we’re not afraid. Like the flower children in Vietnam a hundred years ago.”
“Umm…wow. Some of the pertinent details aside, Vietnam was still a totally different situation.” Idiot.
“We can make a difference if we ask all the terrorists to give peace and understanding a chance.”
“Oh my gosh! I bet none of our leaders ever thought to try that. You ought to call the president.” The girl looked smug, and Careen, already on edge, exploded. “Have you been living in some kind of reality-free zone? What do you know about protesting or terrorism—or anything, for that matter? You might as well be a herd of sheep.”
The girl turned away and spoke loudly to her friends. “Did you hear what she just said? She’s an authority on terrorism.” Several people were staring in their direction, and one of the distribution workers patrolling the lines looked Careen up and down and noted something on her clipboard. Defiantly, Careen got out her own notebook and scribbled a few lines, mimicking the woman’s actions. Soon the woman dropped her gaze and moved away, leaving only the buzz of quiet conversation to fill the void.
Careen tried to shut out the memories that replayed in her head, but she’d never forget the way shards of glass and other debris had rained down on the café table that sheltered her. How her ears rang from the blast and her eyes watered from the cloud of smoke and dust that lingered. Most of all she remembered the blinding flash of light and her father’s hands on her back as he shoved her to the floor, hard. She hadn’t seen that attack coming. She’d been a kid. Now that she was on her own, she had to take care of herself.
She was startled out of her unpleasant meditation by an exasperated voice nearby.
“But what’s in it? Is it safe? Can you at least tell me if it’s been tested?”
A young couple was at the front of the line. The man leaned toward the distribution worker, palms planted on the table. “My wife is pregnant. She’s not taking anything unless we know it’s safe for her and the baby. Let me talk to whoever’s in charge here!”
The people around Careen began to shift and crane their necks to get a better view. She stood on tiptoe, hoping to hear the answer to his question, and watched with growing horror as a security officer grabbed the man and forced his arm back into a painful hold. His wife burst into tears as the guard shoved him through the crowd. He tried to twist free, but more guards surrounded them. Careen heard the thwack of a nightstick—once, twice, three times. Two guards dragged him toward the exit, while another took his sobbing wife by the arm and forced her to follow.
The door banged shut behind them, and the remaining guards returned to their positions along the wall. No one in line made a sound. Careen clutched her notebook to her chest and bowed her head.
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