Still

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“Oh my god. I’m in love. Hey baby! How about it?”

“Johnson, I wouldn’t do it with you if you were the last man on earth.”

“Come on, Jackie. At the rate things are going around here, I will be soon enough. And all you poor lonely ladies will have to fight over me. You should get in on my action while the getting is good.” He smiled to himself at the thought of himself as king of the entire world. It didn’t last long–the Zombies soon came back.

“If that happens, I’ll take my chances outside the fence.” She set down the pile of gauze and two tubes of antibiotic, turned on her heel, and left the infirmary.

“Ouch,” said Driscoll when she’d gone.

“She’ll come around soon enough. I can see she’s weakening. There are subtle clues.”

“They must be pretty subtle. That’s the fourth time this week and twenty-sixth since the beginning of the month.”

Driscoll didn’t blame Jackie for the rejections, either. Nobody in the Blue Zone was particularly beautiful anymore. Everyone had a bit too much dirt, grease, bad breath, and malnutrition. Johnson had three of the four. Somehow, in spite of the months of hunger, Johnson remained as wide as he was tall. Johnson always blamed it on his “slow metabolism.” Driscoll, a biochemist, based it on the giant headstart his massive friend had on the rest of them. He had been kicked off the last plane to leave Hancock so that three lighter people could take his place. Johnson never seemed to mind. Driscoll thought Johnson was too stupid to be unhappy. Intelligent people would always be unhappy. It just made sense. Driscoll liked things that made sense.

Biochemistry had made sense. He could mix chemicals and perform spectrum analysis and publish papers occasionally in the Proceedings. He loved lab work. He used to anyway, back in his old lab at the University. He had gotten his doctorate at Harvard and done his postdoc at Hopkins, but not even the position at the University could grant him social grace. He was as awkward as the day that he started as an undergraduate at Yale. He worked beside Krezner in the medical department, but his lack of bedside manner and medical training kept him from seeing patients. Krezner addressed him as doctor, but he insisted on everyone else calling him Driscoll. He got sick of explaining that he “wasn’t that kind of doctor.”

People saw the test tubes and the Erlenmeyer flasks that he’d had the looters retrieve from his laboratory, and they jumped to conclusions. Entirely the wrong conclusions. He had not been able to isolate Solanum and he was as far from finding a cure for the outbreak as he was on the day that he started. He couldn’t tell if it was the lack of equipment, the lack of power to run the equipment that he had, or the nature of the virus. It refused to be cultivated and it seemed to outsmart him at every turn. The longer he went without results, the nastier he became. People didn’t bother to ask him how his experiments were coming anymore. His long, technical explanations had become cursory sneers. Save Johnson, he had no friends in the Zone.

“Dude, we’re failures.”

“Speak for yourself. I am a highly successful medical waste technician.”

“You change dirty sheets and clean up bandages, needles, and sutures for Krezner. You haven’t gotten a girl to swing at one of your pitches in months. You’re as far away from getting to first base as I am from isolating this virus.”

“You know, my old man had a special way of dealing with his failure. He’d drink it away. Worked great for him–he went from being a minor failure to a major one. Didn’t work out so well for the rest of us, though.”

“Just what we need. More failure. But there’s no booze left around here. I guess we’ll just have to fail all on our own.”

“Can’t you make some? You’re the mad scientist.”

“No. It would be way too hard. We’d have to use a giant supply of grain. We’d have to culture the right form of yeast. We’d need sterile conditions and constant temperatures. It would take weeks. We’d be guessing at recipes, where one misstep would mean starting over again at the beginning. If we got it right, we’d still need a means for fractional distillation. Gods, Johnson. You’re a genius.”

“Don’t go getting all nasty now. I thought you said we couldn’t do it.”

“But we can build an Internet.”

“Dude, I’m not following you. Can you explain it to me in nice, easy terms?”

“Well, Brooks used to be a plumber, right? I’m going to go talk to her now. We’re going to make a system of tubes.”

***********

It took four days to assemble the parts. Materials management complained about having to give up the copper. Maintenance complained about giving up the butane. The looters complained about the mission to a Toys-R-Us for marbles. Everyone complained about giving up their buckets. Corpse Corps complained about having to stand guard duty in the cold around a bunch of farmers. Not even the signed order from Brooks would stop the grumbling until the squad leader saw what the farmers were doing with the drills.
**********

It was an ugly thing. Johnson had made a comment about how he wasn’t really into metallic gratification devices, but he had seen some pictures of this chick on the Internet once who… Driscoll told him to stow it and held a cup under the tube to catch the first drops. He waited for Johnson’s cup to fill. They clinked glasses and downed the contents in a single gulp.

“Jeez. It’s hot.”

“I could get used to drinking that.”

“Delicious.”

“Like what water should taste like.”

“Could you imagine what it would be like if we ran it through a coffee filter? With actual coffee in it?”

“And if you think that’s good, just wait until we get to what’s left in the bottom of the pot. I’m thinking waffles.”

“Pancakes.”

“Crepes.”

“Snob. I’ll just drink it straight.”

Their maple-fueled fantasies were interrupted by the sight of Jackie approaching. She seemed different. Tentative. She approached them slowly, not sure what to say anymore. “Hi…Johnson. I hear you’re not working in medical anymore.”

“Nope. I’ve moved up. I am now head of the Maple Syrup Project. Very, very prestigious. It’s Brooks approved. I’m a mover and a shaker, and I’ve got sweet, sweet calories. We’ve got plans to expand, too. One day, we’re going to make a really big still for drinking water and maybe a smaller one for more secret projects. What’s the point in having a still if you can’t make hooch? Nowhere to go but up. Want to go out with me?”

She regained her composure quickly. “You need calories like the world needs more zombies. You’re disgusting and I am not going to sleep with you. Ever. But I wouldn’t mind working for you. I’d like to get out of doing delivery and into something a little more interesting.”

Driscoll said, “Hope you don’t mind sexual harassment. He can’t seem to stop himself.”

Johnson interrupted. “You’re hired.”

She said, “There’s just one thing I don’t get. Why are you running maple sap through a still when you could just boil it down in an open pot?”

Driscoll answered. “That’s easy. The botanical source guarantees a Solanum-free product. By capitalizing on the byproducts of our process, we…”

Johnson interrupted again. “Are able to team up with some looters for some supplies. Coffee, filters, and bottles. Remember back before the Panic how much people would pay for tap water in plastic bottles and pretentious coffee? I think the prices just went way up.”

“So you guys haven’t just created a still.”

Driscoll took this one. “No. We’ve created a combination water purifier and espresso machine.”

Driscoll caught the way that she looked away from Johnson and let her eyes pass slowly over him. “Who’s your skinny friend, fat man?”

Whoa. This could get a lot more interesting.

Things were definitely starting to look up around the Blue Zone.

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