Joanna hated the way they looked at her as she passed the cages. All pleading eyes and begging gasps. She couldn’t help them, even if she wanted to. They were doomed the moment they became ill. Letting them out now would do nothing but help spread the disease. At least here they would be part of a cure, even if they weren’t exactly willing participants. She did what she always did, she looked forward and didn’t allow herself to even glance at anyone in the cages. That was a bad idea, especially since there was a chance she’d see someone she knew again. That was always the worst, listening to someone screaming your name as you just continued walking, trying not to run back, to offer comfort. She had to remember that they weren’t people, not anymore. They were just sacks of disease that would wander around and infect everyone else. They needed to keep themselves detached, removed. It was the only way.
Joanna was in the lunchroom when they came, the men in their thick uniforms. They stormed into the room, yelling and screaming, waving their guns around. Joanna didn’t wait, she dropped to the ground, hands on her head. She didn’t know who they were here for, but she didn’t want to be another casualty. She couldn’t see who they were after, but she could hear him. Benny, shrieking and screaming how he wasn’t sick, there was some kind of mistake. Joanna felt a chill move down her body. He had the vaccine, they all had. They thought the vaccine would keep them safer than those who hadn’t gotten it. Sure, there was a risk, there always was but it was supposed to keep them safe. Only the direct line staff, world officials and those rich enough to afford it had it. If it didn’t work, or if the virus had mutated. Joanna closed her eyes, trying to block out the screams.
As quickly as it began it was over. The large double doors boomed shut blocking out the shouting. Someone was helping her up, she didn’t get a chance to see who it was before they moved onto the next person. The room was filled with quiet and nervous muttering.
Joanna took a deep breath in the hopes it would steady her hands, but nothing was working. She was on edge, had been for a while. Probably since Benny had been taken from the cafeteria. No one had seen him after that, not even in the cages which is where he was supposed to go. Rumours spread quickly, despite managements attempts to quash them. Was he removed for being in someone’s way? Was he actually sick? Was he bribing someone? Was he just outright killed? Joanna made sure to keep a bit of extra distance between her and the cages, now she walked directly down the centre, making sure not to stray too close to either side. It was hard to look at them and remember that they weren’t really people now. The cages were cleaned out once a day but it didn’t seem to be enough. The entire room had the stink of unwashed bodies and waste and it was only getting worse. Some of the more spirited prisoners had taken to throwing bodily fluids at passerby. Though it was seldom, everyone knew the punishment for it. Hung from meat hooks above the cages so everyone could watch as they died in agony. It was a cruel solution, but Joanna had to admit it was effective.
Joanna sat in her office, head in her hands. She couldn’t keep doing this. She didn’t care what they said, they were still people, inside and out. They were frightened, terrified people. She had seen what the disease did, watched as it took away mental faculties one by one until they were nothing but a drooling, shambling mess. But that was at the end stages only. Before that they were still themselves. She had heard whispers from her co-workers, that they had been doing their own tests, that the disease wasn’t as bad in the early stages as they were saying. There was even a rumour that not everyone in the cages actually had it. It made a sick sort of sense, once you were in the cages that was it, you were done. No one would let you out, no one would listen as you claimed you weren’t sick. That’s what they all said after all. You could take out almost any number of people in a time like this, when everyone was panicked and not thinking clearly. Who would notice? Who would know?
Joanna sat into her car and after a moment started driving. As she left the facility she realised she would never be back. She couldn’t do it. She thought she could, she thought she was doing the right thing, helping the sick get better, helping find a cure before this damned disease wiped out everything and everyone. But she couldn’t. She could see them, every time she closed her eyes, emaciated bodies covered in filth, their wide, shining eyes, still hopeful. The stink of them clung to her now, she couldn’t escape it, it seemed to have settled into her skin, her clothes, she knew it would follow her for the rest of her life, she would never be able to forget it.