The delivery room lights have been dimmed. The windows have been painted black. Newborn babies have always preferred darkness. To be ripped from warm shadow and flooded with cold bright. . . all they can do is cry.
Outside the Meseracordia Hospital, stars twinkle. The moon shines a sun-reflected crescent. To the east, the sky blushes with the coming dawn. And, like the babies, all of mankind looks upon this celestial radiance and weeps.
Albert Einstein was the first to suggest that light travels through space possessed of more than just one personality, existing both as a particle and as a wave. Who could have known a variant form of this heavenly force might hold within itself another, more foreboding, persona?
And so the obstetrics ward lies in shadow. Nurses skitter nervously, silently, down sanitized halls, past armed guards. Gone is the joy most often associated with childbirth. The midwives won't deliver babies anymore; they can't bear to see the innocent little ones, their eyes gleaming a cosmic curse.
A cry goes up, a newborn's bubbling squawl. Nurses jerk to a standstill, their faces pale. From delivery room "D", three soldiers stride into the hall. The middle one carries a squirming bundle, its wails muffled by bloodstained linen. The nurses look away.
Flanked to right and left by guards armed with assault rifles, the soldier cradling the seconds-old baby marches a familiar path to the stairwell. Two flights to the basement. Past a sentry post to the incinerator. Without ceremony, the crying bundle is tossed to hungry flames.
In delivery room "D", a should-be mother sobs. Doctor Henry Noble tries to console her. But he's said the words too many times. And now the placenta is coming. He tugs at the umbilical cord. The bloody organ slips out. Doctor Noble doesn't bother to examine it. The form he has to fill out doesn't care what condition it's in. The doctor will write down the names of the parents. A tick mark in a box will indicate the baby's fate: Coded 13—infected and properly disposed of.
Doctor Noble understands the need for such cold-blooded expediency. He knows what would happen if the infected baby was exposed to sunlight. . . .
The Soviet States no longer worry about Chernobyl. Much of China smolders. The Baltics burn. Cairo lies not in the heart of a sandy desert, but on a cracked plateau of twisted glass. Britain and the European Union beg for billions in disaster aid—they cite their quick warning to the Americas as reason for recompense.
It has been suggested the flash from the explosions could be seen from the farthest edges of the solar system. And, of course, those light waves, those particles, speed through space. Spreading the infection.
The accepted theory is this: the light seeks out sentient beings, those in utero, somehow invades and infects pre-born flesh. Then baby's first glimpse of solar rays sets into motion new laws of physics only vaguely understood by scientists who still balk at the implications. Touched by sunlight, that force human beings think of as "soul" is transformed into pure energy. The resulting explosion is brilliant, measured in megatons. But, thankfully, a clean burn. No radiation.
So Doctor Noble slops the placenta into a garbage can marked for biological waste. He pulls rubber gloves from his hands, tosses them on top of the placenta, heaves a sigh, then trudges out into the hallway, past guards, into delivery room "F" where another woman screams against contractions. A nurse is telling her to push.
Nineteen-year-old Michael Bodrey clatters his garbage cart off the elevator and onto the obstetrics ward. He holds up the yellow card that hangs from a lanyard around his neck. The yellow card says he's allowed to be here; he's got a job to do. Soldiers look at his card, his pimples, and his long, stringy hair and frown. Michael thinks the soldiers with all of their guns are cool. He adjusts the volume on his iPod, turns it down. He wants to hear what's happening. Somewhere, a woman screams in childbirth.
"Gnarly," he tells himself.
One room after another, he empties the garbage containers. The woman continues to scream. Then Michael hears a baby's cry. Maybe he'll get to see it. He's heard the rumors—the infected babies have eyes that glow like hellfire.
A nurse sees Michael loitering in the hall. She shoos him away. She's old and in a foul mood and Michael whispers, "Bitch" under his breath. Frowning disapproval, she watches him get on the elevator. She'll probably report him. Oh, well, if Michael loses this job, he can get another with International Clean-up. They're always hiring, will be for decades. Michael could travel, see what's left of the world.
The elevator descends to basement level. Michael has biological waste to dispose of. He's supposed to use the incinerator. But as soon as he steps off the elevator, a guard approaches, tells him to wait. Three soldiers march down the stairs next to the elevator. One carries a crying bundle. Michael tries to look around the elevator guard, to catch a glimpse of the infected baby's eyes, but the elevator guard lifts the barrel of an AR-15 rifle into Michael's face. The baby-toting guards march to the incinerator.
Michael should wait until they're done, then properly do his job, but it's time for his break and he's hungry, so he wheels his cart away from the elevator, past the stairwell and down a hallway that leads to the big garbage dumpster out back of the hospital. Outside, he glances up and notes that the sky not clotted with clouds stained a sickly brown is almost blue today. Scientists have been encouraged that the atmosphere is steadily clearing of the dust and dirt that had for months threatened the onset of a global winter.
At the dumpster, Michael props open the lid, then plucks garbage bags out of his cart one at a time. He opens the ones containing biological waste, peers inside to ogle the bloody, meaty bits and chunks. "Gnarly," he says, then tosses them into the dumpster. Leaving the lid propped open, he goes on break whistling.
Michael didn't see what Doctor Noble didn't see. He also didn't hear it. Now lying exposed on top of the dumpster's garbage heap, something is stirring in the placenta from delivery room "D", something that chokes and coughs, then begins mewling like a kitten. A stunted twin whose sibling has already been reduced to ash. Weighing no more than a pound, the baby barely resembles a human being. It lacks a leg, and the arms are only buds, but it has a twist of blond curl on its head, and the genitals of a girl.
The little baby girl is viable. Tiny lungs suck oxygen. Despite the early morning chill, she could live for hours. She has in her perfect angel's face two eyes that blink open. Gleaming within the misty black of her dilated and unfocused pupils, a red, pulsating glow.
Waves and particles.
And something else.
The morning sun winks over the horizon. Sunbeams flash in hospital windows, reflect into the dumpster, teasing.
Anticipating daylight's kiss, the baby girl squirms and cries.