DRAFT TWO - 1001 words
District 5's Distribution Center rolls behind on the left. The last stop on my courier route. I'm supposed to return to Raina after, but today is a very special day and that calls for a very special stop. I make it to 23rd Street before my palms are too slick to grip the wheel. The cab smells like oil and lubricant and it calms my nerves. Some of them.

My mother died this morning. That damn plague took everything. First my father, then part of my leg, and now my mother. My world was over and I went to work like normal because I didn't know what to do until after my shift at IX.

I brake for an old wagon drawn by some giant horse and a dinky mule. The driver is a tanned merchant with a wide flat nose and tiny lips, and she spits in my direction on her way past. I avoid eye contact.

Just past 23rd is the Outback. A flaky shanty exterior with a lounge interior for the local vigilante gang. I spent all my life looking after my mother, putting up with vigilante extortion and trying to be a good person in this forsaken marshy pit, but all I got in return was more and more fees and more jobs to cover them.

I pull up to the side of the shack, knuckles white on the steering wheel. No, they weren't going to both me anymore. I should have done this sooner.

I trudge to the back of the bus. There's one more barrel left and I roll it to the front and down the steps. It bounces and sloshes and thumps into the grassy lot.

I roll the barrel to the front door. Nobody challenges me. Nobody's home. I knock just to be sure. Nothing. I walk inside – moldy sofas, one of those big metal fridges taking up the back corner, the back wall with little custom windows punched into it. The entry way creaks a little bit, and I can feel it give through my boots.

"Anyone home?" Do I even care if there is? No reply.

The barrel sags on the floor even more, a horrible moan slipping from the boards. I kick it over and pry the stopper off. Gasoline gulps out of the hole, spewing all over the floor and speckling the nearby sofa.

I pull out a pack of matches with two matches left and light one. I toss it at the oil and suddenly there's a orange glow and a roar. The gasoline fumes spike and I can feel it sting the back of my throat and nostrils and eyes as I stumble back. I return to the bus, back it into the empty street and sit on it's steps, watching the flames through the front doorway.

The first sirens whine up a couple minutes later, as the smoke flume rises dark and thick, an acrid beacon. I stand up as the firecar comes into view, leaning in my bus door and watching as the fire licks out through the doors and windows.

The firefighters spend little time wasting water, even unpurified, on the blaze. I watch them sling red powder over the grass and plants nearby.

"It's flame retardant and sand."

I look down at one of the firefighters who wandered over and was trying to be helpful. He's a solid guy with a bit of grey in his groomed mustache, no sign of plague, either. I glance around and there's a few other bystanders watching the fire. One vigilante yelling at another firefighter who isn't acknowledging the fit. Of course this one picks me out of the crowd. Must be the reek of gasoline. I never notice the smell anymore.

"What do ya think caused this?" I ask.

The firefighter shrugs. "Don't know. Been a dry summer, lotsa heat. I'll bet it's one of them vigilante's, tryin' to get pity for th'selves, burning down their own home. Lotsa fires this year too, like the government tryin' to keep the population down er to force people to move to other places."

I don't understand what I'm hearing. The government? Burn it down themselves? Is this guy serious? Or crazy? "Never thought of it like that. Maybe the government is trying to clear space for something." I test the foundation with my own follow up as flames peak on the roof, some of the walls starting to warp and collapse. Embers scatter into the air as part of the roof caves in.

The firefighter nods slowly, latching onto the idea. "You think so? I've a few ideas about what they been doing myself. You hear about old broken doctor's boat, yeah? The one dropped all that cargo in the river? I think the government do that too. Make the crew drop supplies in the river so people can't get the medicine to get better. Then claim it's broken, scrapped."

I haven't heard about the barge. Medical supplies just dropped in the river? "Seems like a waste for all that to just go to the riverbed."
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Something inside the husk of the Outback pops and fizzles. The fire is still going, but lower, more smoke and less flames. I feel a lot better.

Talking to this firefighter, I am less angry and more...like me.

"Exactly!" He seems honestly excited by my interest, stroking his mustache. "What I think, they have some large metal and plastic suit, and send a person down in the river to get supplies. Or maybe they not do that yet, but they could. Supplies are safe in the river, since the plague makes it so no one will touch the water. Signs too. Bet there is whole trove down there. With no way to get at. Like the lies they tell about how to live with the hydroplague."

"Yeah. Not at all. Can't just do good things to survive."

"Nah, gotta take precautions, avoid the plague. If you get it, you get burned."