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January 23, 2023

Plague 1: Patient Zero

By Mel Trent

1. Just a Job

Plague is tall and terribly thin. His clothes don't fit him right. He wears faded black jeans and a thin grey tee-shirt that might have been black once upon a time. His thick-soled motorcycle boots are worn and dusty, and his yellow-brown overcoat has probably seen better days. His skin is pale and vaguely jaundiced, his eyes and cheeks sunken and hollow. His black hair is messy, as if he hasn't bothered with a comb or a bottle of shampoo in years. His eyes are black or brown or green or blue or grey. It's impossible to tell. It's too hard to look at his eyes long enough to guess their color. Once upon a time, he might have been handsome, but that time was ages ago. Now he looks like what he is -- disease and death.

He stands at a corner on top of a building and looks down at the city street. Traffic crawls like molasses and blares like an angry, out-of-tune brass band. A black rat crouches on his left shoulder, a white rat on his right. They chatter to each other, and Plague ignores them.

He used to pity humans, back when he could still remember what it felt like to be one of them. The suffering in their eyes used to remind him too much of his own suffering. He had tried to save them once. He had disobeyed his orders, and instead of unleashing an outbreak of yellow fever on a tiny African village already decimated by AIDS, he had turned the virus on himself, just like he had with the virus that had killed his sister after he failed to save her.

What had followed were harsh reminders of his position. Pity isn't in the job description. Nor are mercy or kindness or compassion. He has one responsibility. The consequences aren't his problem. The rats, Snicker and Snacker, are there to keep him in line. Plague has learned to ignore his human weaknesses, but those traits never died.

Snicker and Snacker chatter louder as Plague stands above the city and hesitates. "Shut up," he tells them. "I know what I have to do. There's still time."

Snicker, the white rat, bites his earlobe. Snacker flicks its tail in anticipation. Plague ignores the small stabbing pain and the tickle of blood. That he's still able to bleed and feel pain gives him hope. Hope for what, he's not sure any more. He smothers his hope the way he sometimes has to smother the screams he hears in his nightmares.

Plague checks his pockets. Three vials, three targets, three hours until midnight; the city will greet the new day with the discovery of an epidemic.

* * *

"Excuse me, Dr. Coburn."

Neil Coburn glanced up at his secretary, closing the file he had been studying. "Yes, ma'am," he said.

Dottie didn't blush. She always blushed when he called her ma'am. Her face was grim. "Your brother-in-law is here," she said.

Neil's hands went cold. "I'll be right out."

Dottie nodded and turned away.

Neil tried not to think of all the reasons Jeff might have for a personal visit. It couldn't be anything good. They were good friends, and Jeff worked only a few blocks from Neil's lab. They met for lunch at least twice a week, but Jeff always called first. Neil looked at his watch. Lunch was still a good three hours away.

He remembered, with sudden, awful clarity, the dream he had had the night before. When he woke up, all he remembered was how disturbing the dream had been. Jeff's appearance jogged his memory. The dream had been about his sister. Something had happened to Phaedra. Something bad.

Neil was trembling by the time he got out to the lobby where Jeff was waiting. He could tell from Jeff's expression that whatever had happened, it was worse than Neil's dream.

"What is it?" Neil asked, foregoing their usual brotherly embrace.

Jeff's eyes swelled with tears. "Phae's in the hospital," he said. "She collapsed this morning. Some kind of virus, the doctor thinks, something she might have picked up in Europe."

"But that's ... she got all her shots when she left. She was fine. She was fine when she came home. She's been home for a month now. A virus wouldn't be dormant for that long. What kind of treatment are they giving her?"

"Some kind of anti-viral cocktail. I don't know exactly. She's still unconscious and not responding. It's ... it's bad." The bubbles of tears in Jeff's eyes burst and spilled over his cheeks. "She's dying."

Neil held Jeff while Jeff sobbed on his shoulder. He was only barely holding himself together. If it was a virus, though, maybe he could save her.

* * *

Plague hits the city's water treatment plant first. While the virus he carries isn't waterborne, a tainted water supply goes a long way towards contributing to the overall chaos of an epidemic. He wonders if his boss is more interested in the chaos. There are better ways to cause chaos than this, he thinks.

Snacker squeaks and scratches Plague's shoulder. Irritated, Plague snatches the rat in his fist and flings it against the wall of control room. Snicker sinks its teeth deep into Plague's neck. He plucks Snicker from his shoulder. It takes a chunk of his flesh with it. Plague drops Snicker and kicks it to the wall where Snacker is shaking itself off. Both rats stand on their back legs and chatter at him.

"Fuck off, you little bastards," he says.

They hiss, showing him their nasty little teeth.

Plague ignores them and turns his attention to the equipment and the safe, treated water gushing through the pipes. He crouches, reaches through the railing that surrounds the trough and dips his fingers into the water. Where he touches it, the water turns murky. When all of the water is an unhealthy shade of grey, he stands up and turns to glare at the rats.

"Happy now?" he asks.

They sneer and scamper to him to climb back to their appointed positions on his shoulders. Their claws poke holes in his overcoat, his shirt and his skin.

"No, of course you're not happy," he says. "The job's nowhere near done."

Plague crouches beside the grey water and empties one of his vials.

* * *

"For God's sake, Neil, your sister is dying," Dad said. "Stop being a scientist and just be her brother."

"But Dad, I --"

"Just be my son."

Neil said nothing.

Dad shook his head and walked away.

"Your dad's right, Neil," Dr. Kelly Scoffield said. "Phae's getting the best care we can give her."

"I can't just stand here and watch her die."

"Look, whatever this virus is, it's fast, and it's going to be lethal. Even if you could figure out what it is, you don't have time to do anything about it."

"It doesn't make any sense, Kelly."

"I've never seen anything like it either."

"What if it reacted to the darkroom chemicals? She just started developing her film yesterday."

"That's ..."

"Impossible?"

Kelly nodded.

"I have to find out."

"Neil, just stop. You don't have time."

Neil looked down at his feet and blinked tears out of his eyes. He didn't know which was worse -- the helpless grief or the inability to put aside the drive to find a cure. His family needed him, but if he didn't at least try to come up with a vaccine, he would feel like a murderer.

* * *

Plague drives a white Mustang. In the scarce moments when he can recover his sense of humor, he finds this hysterically funny. He keeps his mirth to himself. His watcher rats wouldn't like it. They sense something as it is, and their tails thrash in agitation.

He has free will, he reminds himself. He could drive himself, the Mustang, the rats and the vials into a brick wall or off a bridge. He won't. It won't stop what's happening. If it isn't him, it'll be another one just like him. As much as he hates his job, he's obligated to see it through. No matter how many times he balks, he'll finish it.

No regret, Plague thinks. No time for regret.

In the city's second largest hospital, Plague leans against the glass door of the large refrigerator where trays of vaccines are kept. He feels such great affection for the coolness of the glass against his palms, for the neat little trays and their neat little rows of glass tubes filled with drops of viruses that will be used to help people suffering from those very viruses.

"Amazing," he whispers to the glass. "Amazing, beautiful little viruses." It brings tears to his eyes.

Snacker scurries down his arm and bites the back of his hand, hard. Plague slams Snacker against the glass. It squirms, trying to bite him wherever it can. He lets it go, and it scrambles up his arm inside the sleeve of his overcoat, biting him as hard as it can while it goes. Snicker chatters savagely in his ear.

Plague smashes the glass door with a desk chair. One by one, he plucks up the would-be vaccines and lets them fall to the floor, shattering the glass tubes. It breaks his heart. He has to laugh at the wretched cliché of that if only to strangle the bruising sorrow of it.

He had loved those efficient and nasty little darlings once. Still does, but now his life's work is warped. Once upon a time, he had been able to make viruses save lives instead of take them. He can't remember, really, what changed. It's the one touch of grace his boss has shown him. If he could remember, Snicker and Snacker would be useless.

With all the vaccines and viruses smashed, Plague climbs a desk to an air vent and opens his second vial.

* * *

Phaedra opened her eyes and drew in a shaking, wheezing breath. "Neil, what are you doing?" she asked.

Neil smoothed the bandage over the tiny needle prick in Phaedra's elbow and then stripped off the rubber gloves. "I'm going to find you a cure," he said.

Phaedra smiled and closed her eyes.

Neil took her hand in his. She seemed so frail and somehow old. Her skin was papery and translucent, her muscles threadbare. He couldn't make himself look at her vitals. "Wait for me," he whispered.

Phaedra nodded slowly. "Right here."

* * *

The airport is busier than Plague expects. He almost hesitates. The virus will spread much faster in the crowd. Maybe that's for the best, though. It will be over quicker. Then he can grieve in private until the next time. There's no good reason to hesitate.

He reaches into his pocket for the third vial. His fingers close on it, and someone bumps into him. A warm hand clamps down on his wrist.

"Don't do this," the angel says.

Plague pulls away from her, but she doesn't let go easily. Snicker and Snacker chatter and hiss and scurry along the length of his shoulders.

"Don't," she says again.

"It's too late," he says. "Even if I don't break the last vial, it's too late."

"How could you do this? What about your work?"

"My work never mattered."

"Yes, it did. You saved lives. You did amazing work. You could have done more. Why did you turn your back on it?"

"Because I couldn't save the one life that meant the most to me. It didn't matter how smart I was or how innovative and creative. It didn't matter how much money I got for my research. There wasn't enough time, and you died."

Phaedra takes a step back and slaps Plague across the face as hard as she can. The blow doesn't do much to him, but the way their spirits resonate makes him feel as though she just laid his face open with a flail. "How could you be so selfish?" she asks.

"I was scared," he says. He hates the sound of his voice as he says it. Snicker and Snacker bite him hard now, on the neck, on the shoulders, on the ears. He swats them away. "I told you I would save you, and you didn't wait for me. You left me and made me a failure. You made me a murderer. So I used your vaccine on myself, and it did exactly what I thought it would do. I became an incubator. It grew. It mutated. And now ..." Plague pulls the final vial from his pocket and dangles it in front of Phaedra.

"But you don't want to do this!"

Plague shrugs, jostling the agitated rats. "It's just a job."

"You can fight back."

"I tried that. It hurt too much. Remembering makes it hurt. My boss knows that. So I'm a puppet on a string. Aren't we all?"

"I don't know you any more. You aren't my brother. My brother would never do this."

"No. I'm not your brother. I'm Plague."

He drops the last vial to the ground and walks away.

2. Performance Anxiety

Plague sits in his grey room and thinks. Snicker and Snacker sit on his knees, watching him. Thinking is the most dangerous thing he could be doing. He can tell that from the malicious gleam in the rats' red eyes and the way their noses twitch when he thinks too close to a dangerous thought.

He stretches his legs out suddenly. Snicker and Snacker tumble to the floor with indignant squeaks. Plague grins at them. He pulls his legs up onto the bed before they can climb up again. It won't stop them from getting to him. It's just a moment's reprieve, and he enjoys playing the game.

He lies back on the bed with his hands behind his head. He stares at the water stains on the ceiling, which for some reason remind him of his great-grandfather. Padrig Callahan had been Irish Catholic to the core and fixated on the Book of Revelation. He could have been one of those doomsayers who wander the city streets, but he couldn't wander too well with two smashed up kneecaps that had never healed right. His children and grandchildren had kept a close eye on him as he slipped further under the dementia brought on by the rapid approach of his own end of days.

Plague remembers being fascinated by the old man and his stories. Phaedra had been, too, so much so that one of her early photography projects had been a search for modern day signs of Armageddon. What she had found had been shocking -- bodies of water as red as blood, dead fish littering shorelines, skies painted in unnatural colors, unchecked disease, war and famine. Armageddon had seemed to be well underway.

Of course, there were scientific explanations for every phenomenon. Algal blooms had turned the waters red and sucked all the oxygen out of the water, suffocating the fish. Dead fish attracted flies that brought diseases, and so forth. That didn't stop the fear and the implications. While everyone else had gasped in shock and murmured in terror, Grandpappy Padrig, hobbling around the gallery and grinning like a madman, had sighed and mumbled, "God's good work. Right under our noses."

God's good work. It was harsh, yes, but it had to be a thorough cleansing for it to do any good at all. And isn't that what Plague has been doing, helping viruses act as purgatives?

Plague wonders if it's possible for him to do good. He had never considered it before, but after seeing Phaedra in the airport, after she had tried to stop him from doing his job, he's been doubting himself. Why had he let this happen? Was it really fear, or was it laziness?

He sits up. Snicker and Snacker, having made their way back onto the bed, scurry to his ankles and bite him. He kicks them off and heads up to the roof. They scamper after him.

* * *

"Why am I here?" Neil asked. He felt tiny hooks in his flesh. If he moved, they pulled at him. It wasn't painful. It was terrifying. He trembled, and the hooks shivered in anticipation of pulling his flesh to ribbons.

"You know why you're here," a dim, pacing figure said. Its breath carried a rotten egg stench. It leaned a little closer, grinning, and Neil flinched in fear and disgust.

Neil opened his mouth, but he couldn't speak. His tongue was leaden. His mouth was so dry that his lips stuck to his teeth. His skin split when he opened his mouth. Hot, coppery blood lubricated his mouth, but he said nothing.

The figure before him began to pace once more, clasping its hands behind its back.

It's some kind of demon, Neil thought. It's a demon, and I'm in hell. He twitched involuntarily, as if he wanted to run. The hooks tugged at him.

The demon laughed. "It wasn't your suicide itself that got my attention," it said, tasting Neil's terror as he quivered on the hooks. "It was the manner in which you took your life."

Neil didn't ask why. He didn't need to. The demon had plans for him; he felt that as clearly as he felt the hooks in his skin. He closed his eyes as sweat ran from his forehead to sting his eyes. Then tears slid down his cheeks, carrying sweat with them, and they mixed with the blood in his mouth. He tasted flowers. He wished he could choke on the blooms.

"You had, in your life, a measure of brilliance reserved for only the greatest of thinkers," the demon said. "You had potential and ambition, and there were the highest honors in your future. Nobel prizes. Rich grants. The right kind of fame and fortune." The demon paused, thinking, daydreaming maybe. "You also had some darkness in you. All it took for me to realize what you could be was the manner in which you chose to take your life."

A deep sob wracked Neil's chest. He fought it off, but it convulsed him, jerking at the hooks again until he let it out. "I let my sister die," he said.

The demon didn't care about that. It didn't even care that Neil had died by his own hand. "Oh, you poor, poor thing," it crooned. It knew that its mocking would only break Neil more, and Neil wailed in the agony of his guilt and the threat of being skinned by his own movements. "Did you ever think that she wasn't yours to save?"

"I could have worked faster!"

"Now, now. Don't take it so personally. Let it go. That's in the past. Let it stay there. Look to the future with me, Neil."

"What do you want from me?"

"I want you to work for me."



To be continued ...

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-01-26
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