"Anxiety and Action Amid the Plague," by Lucy Diavolo

It was a cold, clear night on the bay as the boat headed south from Oakland. Athena, seated at the front of the small vessel, steadied her nervous knee with her hand. She told herself the chill was what made her shiver, but she wasn’t cold in a hazmat suit, even as they sped across the water. Whether or not she’d admit it to the two comrades also on board, her leg was quivering in time with the pulsating nerves tangled up in her guts.

The plans for this heist had been in the works for months at the Collective, as it was a dramatic violation of the truce they’d reached with the National Guard. Like many cities with large municipal governments, San Francisco proper had asserted independence amid the madness of the pandemic. But everything from San Mateo south was controlled by either the Guard or, the further one went into Silicon Valley, the U.S. Army—dangerous territory for Oaklanders after the rebellion.

The plague had brought death, but also the end of livelihoods. Wise minds had warned about what would happen to the homeless and incarcerated, but they went unheard by those with authority. The horror led to hardship, the hardship led to riots, the riots led to the Guard’s intervention, and that sparked the rebellion. The rebels had beat Sacramento’s forces back across the bay and established the Oakland People’s Collective. While there was always some messiness in organizing, they had saved lives no one else with any form of power seemed to deem worthy of saving.

By the time the Army showed up, the OPC had established an uneasy ceasefire with the Guard, and the feds were happy to take over the valley’s tech assets and leave the people to their own devices. The president even gave a speech from the Oval Office the night the guardsmen turned Google’s headquarters over to the CIA, conveniently neglecting to mention the Collective.

While Oakland was liberated, the plague was not ended. And that, truly, was the only thing that could’ve brought Athena this far south in the dead of night on an old boat with just two (admittedly, well-armed) companions. They could organize their people and save lives, but they couldn’t beat the virus, so they were going to steal the vaccine.

A big pharmaceutical company called Omekead had been bragging about a finished formula for a month now, but distribution was held up by the company’s lawyers, who were trying to secure assurances from the state and federal justice departments that intellectual property law would be enforced so the company could sue anyone who tried to reproduce the vaccine without licensing it. That had, predictably, sparked outrage from the opinion pages to the timelines, even in a viral meme about re-mobilizing the forces that had “raided” Area 51. 

But now, Athena was here in the bow of a small craft coming under the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge as part of not a massive raid, but a covert infiltration effort.

As they passed through the shadow of the bridge, Glory cut the engine at the stern. A wound-up fringe of their magenta hair stuck out from under their black beanie, and a suppressed Uzi rested on their lap. As the engine quieted and the boat continued its drift, Athena looked back at her old friend, who gave her a gentle nod. The duo had met at a pride party before the pandemic and danced to a Whitney Houston song before dancing was only possible from six feet away.

From the middle seat, broad-backed Huey took up the oars, dipping them into the water as the boat’s momentum began to slow. His shoulders moved like a steady tide as he propelled them onward. Athena thought of how the same arms now carrying them across the water had carried her through a cloud of tear gas during the rebellion and felt all the more reassured for it. Under his seat, she knew an AK-47, bolt cutters, and a blowtorch were all safely stowed.

“Can you see the facility from here?” Glory asked in a hushed voice from the back of the boat.

“I think so,” Athena answered. For Huey, she directed, “Hard to port.”

In the cold, wet bay air silent but for the rhythmic dip of the oars into the water, Athena’s mind was screaming. This was nothing new; the screaming had been with her for her entire life, long before the homeless outreach program where she’d volunteered started wearing gloves and masks, before she saw the people she’d delivered supplies to slowly disappear. The screaming had gotten louder as she saw the hospitals overrun, the mass cremations, the famine, the riots, the rebellion. 

Her brain was always screaming about the struggle. That was true before the plague and she feared it would always be so. The only thing that quieted her mind was action, so she tried to focus on the plan: get in, find the labs, find the formula and a sample, and get out. Simple enough, but easier said than done—like so much of life.

The shoreline slowly swelled in size in front of her. She could see the facility clearly now. Over her shoulder, she whispered to Huey, “Steady on. It’s just ahead.”

Not long now, they’d hit the shore and the trio would spring into action. Athena would be first off the boat, guiding it onto the beach. The coming hours could determine the fate of humanity. Athena might not live through the night. Even if she did, she would likely become one of the most notorious criminals in the world. She could be a hero and matron saint or a villain and martyred fiend.

Athena knew that whatever happened happened. It was never living through things that scared her; it was waiting to see what would come to be. The anticipation, the anxiety, the uncertainty—that’s what ate away at her and drove her to act.

She felt her spine turn to cold steel as she pulled her gas mask down over her face. The boat hit the shore, and Athena jumped over the side. As her boots hit the sand, she smiled—her knees weren’t shaking anymore.

Lucy Diavolo

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