Plague sits on the corner of the building with his eyes closed. He listens to the silence of the city. In five days, his virus has sickened more than half the city's population. The baffled CDC has quarantined the entire city. Panicked citizens have caused riots as they try to flee the city and are stopped at roadblocks by police in riot gear and HAZMAT suits. The National Guard has been called in to help out with the roadblocks and to try to enforce the mandated curfew. The virus still spreads.
So far, only a handful of people have died. The very old, the very young and the very ill. Plague doesn't feel bad about those deaths. Better to get those out of the way first. That's the nature of any virus, to take the weak first. The healthy ones linger, and doctors cling to a false hope of finding a cure. It's all for nothing, and Plague wonders when they'll stop wasting their time.
He's listened to the so-called experts from the CDC and WHO, and they've done a fine job of assuring the public that there will be a cure and a way to prevent future outbreaks. What they haven't been able to do is explain what the virus is. That tiny lack of information turns the virus into a monster. Plague feels bad for the virus. It's doing what nature designed it to do. So he nudged it a step or two along its evolutionary path. That doesn't make the virus evil. He's the one who's the monster.
Snicker and Snacker scamper across Plague's shoulders and up and down his arms, chattering in agitation. He's thinking too much, and they don't like it. It's not his job to think. He's only supposed to follow orders. Something on the roof catches the rats' attentions, and they stand on Plague's shoulders, screaming.
Plague stands up and turns around. There's an angel on the rooftop. It isn't Phaedra. "What do you want?" Plague asks.
"To help you," the angel says.
Snicker and Snacker snarl and bite at Plague's ears and neck. "I don't need your help."
"Why are you lying? Because of them?" The angel nods at Snicker and Snacker.
"No. Because there's nothing you can do." Plague grabs both rats by the tails and holds them over the edge of the building. They struggle to get out of his hands. He drops them.
The angel raises an eyebrow.
Plague shrugs. "They'll be back."
"I know how to kill them."
"No thanks." Plague turns away from the angel and looks down at the quiet, dark street. He can almost hear Snicker and Snacker shrieking at him.
The angel moves to stand beside Plague. Plague shudders when the angel's massive wings brush against him.
"Don't waste your time," Plague says.
"Then why are you here?"
"Your sister asked me to come."
Plague grunts and crosses his arms. He looks down at the darkened street. The rats' red eyes gleam as they make their way back up the building.
"She doesn't blame you, so why are your torturing yourself?"
"She doesn't have to live with it. I do."
"It wasn't your fault. I know you don't believe that right now, but it's true. And I know you don't want to be taking all these innocent lives."
"It doesn't matter what I want. I'm just doing my job. I don't have the luxury of remorse."
"You're wrong, Neil."
"No, you're wrong. So fuck off."
Plague pushes the angel off the building. The angel falls several feet before he recovers from his surprise and opens his wings. He looks up at Plague for a moment, and then he slips from view as if he's passed through an open door in the air.
Snicker and Snacker make it up to the ledge and race up Plague's legs, biting and scratching as they go. They settle onto his shoulders and chatter.
"It's okay, boys," Plague says. "The big scary angel is gone now."
Snicker and Snacker nip at his ears, and Plague turns away from edge of the building to hide until his next assignment.
* * *
The first time was easy. Neil had tried to refuse the demon's offer, but it became apparent quickly that refusal wasn't an option. He had never dealt well with pain. He let the demon take his name and was reborn as Plague.
"Plague can mean many things," the demon said. "Diseases of all kinds, insects, invasive species destroying a native one. It's a much wider field than most people think."
"And I have viruses," Plague said.
The demon grinned. "You have viruses. All the ones that are, the ones that were and the ones that will be."
It was hard to admit it, but he was, just a little bit, excited about the ability to control viruses. After all, that was what he had devoted his life to, to cataloguing and countering, to understanding their ways as if they were sentient, and, ultimately, to controlling them.
It was a small thing, that first one. He plucked it out of his blood, cupped it in his hands, marveling at how intimately he could feel its structure and know its potential. He tucked into a glass tube and took it to a place of poverty and squalor, where diseases were rampant. He fed the virus to a duck. The duck sickened and died within a day. The duck's corpse was tossed to pigs. The pigs, after consuming the diseased duck, were much slower to sicken and much slower to die. From pigs, the virus made the jump to humans. The humans got sick within days. They died in about three days, drowning in the soup the virus was making of their lungs.
The virus didn't spread far. It didn't have to. After having adjusted to birds, then pigs, then humans in such quick succession, it was something new and terrifying because doctors were slow to identify it. Years later, they still couldn't find a cure.
"I like it," the demon said, admiring Plague's work. "Elegant and effective. What is it, exactly?"
* * *
Plague watches his boss pace while he sits on his narrow, sagging bed in his narrow, greyish room. Snicker and Snacker are quiet and still. This is the most nerve-wracking performance review Plague has ever had to endure.
His boss is checking things off on a piece of yellowing vellum and nodding to itself. It doesn't look at Plague, and Plague is glad for that.
"I have to say, I am terribly impressed," the demon says. "This is by far your finest work."
Plague's throat is dry, and his mouth is sticky. "Thank you," he says.
"I understand, though, that you've been confronted by a couple of angels."
"Yes. My sister tried to stop me at the airport. The other one ... I don't know who he was."
"Well, I do know. His name is Ely, and he's no minor angel like your sister. You couldn't have known that, of course. I won't count it against you, but now you do know. I expect you to be more cognizant of it."
"I want you to spend a few more weeks here. Observe your virus's progress, assess the calamity, contemplate another round of infection."
Plague nods. He doesn't want to stay. He wants to leave, get as far away from his work as he can.
"Anything else you might like to add?"
Plague considers for a moment. He looks up at the demon. "Why are we doing this?" he asks. "What are we trying to accomplish? Do you want chaos? Do you want death? I'm not questioning what I'm doing. I just want a better reason for what I'm doing than because you said so."
"A fair question. But there's no answer. We do this because this is what we are. If that's not acceptable ..."
"It is. It's fine. I just ..."
"I know. You're still a scientist. You still want answers."
"Would you tell me if you did have an answer?"
"Probably not. You're on the wrong end of the food chain for that kind of knowledge. So am I. If you want answers, you have to figure it out on your own."
3. Face Turn
Snicker and Snacker scramble up to Plague's shoulders as he makes his way up to the roof. They bite his ears and neck as ferociously as they can. Plague grunts in pain and tries to shrug them off. They don't let go. They know what's coming.
Plague isn't surprised to find Ely waiting for him on the roof. He hesitates to approach Ely. He knows that what he's doing will get him killed, and he's not sure he's ready for that.
"Change of heart?" Ely asks.
"I don't know," Plague says. Snicker and Snacker redouble their biting efforts. Plague grabs them by their tails and yanks them off his shoulders. "I'm getting a little sick of these bastards."
"I see that."
"You said you know how to kill them."
"Put them down and step away."
Plague ties the rats' tails in a knot and drops them to the roof. They thrash, snarling and hissing. Plague trots over to Ely before Snicker and Snacker can figure out how to operate all knotted up. Ely steps in front of Plague and spreads his wings. They aren't like normal angel wings. They're black with odd white patterns. Or maybe white with odd black patterns. It's impossible to tell. Plague wonders exactly what kind of angel Ely is. He doesn't ask. He figures it would be rude.
He sees only the faint corona of the blue-grey light that flares in front of Ely, but he's grateful for the protection of Ely's wings. Judging from the way the rats are screaming, even indirect exposure to Ely's power might have done serious damage.
When the light fades and the screaming rats fall silent, Ely turns to Plague.
"Thanks," Plague says.
"You made your choice. You know what you have to do now."
Plague looks down at the street. A police cruiser slides past, lights flaring and siren off. He does know what to do, but his questions aren't answered. "Why ... why ..." He can't finish the thought.
"Why are we here?"
"I guess that's close to what I mean."
"Because if we weren't, someone else would be, and there's no guarantee they'd do it right."
"But that's ... that's not an answer."
Ely shrugs. "Faith is the answer. You have to trust that everything is as it was meant to be."
"But that implies a certain level of fate, and fate implies that free will is false, and --"
"Neil, don't go down that road. It's messy. I've been there. I know. It's not as simple as it sounds, and it's not as complicated."
"I'm a scientist. I don't deal well with mutable definitions and contradictions."
"Do you trust yourself?"
"No, not yet."
"What I did to myself ... what I've been doing to other people ... I don't know if I can be on your side now."
"We're all agents of the same thing eventually. It's a tricky balance, though."
"My boss is going to kill me."
"I won't let that happen. Just concentrate on your next move, and let me worry about the rest of it."
"Redemption is that easy?"
"Hardly. This is the first step."
"So ... do you have a special area of expertise? Like an angel of second chances or something?"
"Doorways, opportunities and yes, second chances. The way is open. Use it well."
* * *
They looked up at him as he walked through the dusty village. He didn't know if they could see him. They were close enough to death without his help that maybe they could. Their eyes didn't follow him as he passed. He tried not to look at them. He kept his eyes on his feet and the little puffs of dust he made with each step.
The assignment was no different than any of the others, but Plague didn't feel right about it. Up until then, he hadn't been using human hosts to manipulate his viruses. It didn't feel right. He felt like a murderer, the way he had when Phaedra had died, the way he had when he had turned her virus on himself.
He huddled in the shadows of the tiny mud and twig hut where his first victim had died. The smooth dirt floor was grey with the girl's ashes. No one had bothered with any kind of ceremony. They had burned her where she lay, too afraid to touch her.
"What's the matter, Plague?" his boss asked, melting out of the shadows on the other side of the hut. "You look distressed."
"I'm taking people's lives," Plague said.
The demon laughed.
"I'm not a murderer."
"You said yourself that you are."
"I can't do this. It's not right."
"It's no different than anything else you've done."
Plague didn't answer. He knew it wasn't different. He knew that none of what he had been doing was right, and yet he did it anyway. He hadn't felt bad until this one. The guilt was almost unbearable. He sifted his fingers through the dead girl's ashes.
"I sense that you're feeling guilty."
"Because I remember what I was before, and I remember how I felt when Phae died."
"I'd rather let you torture me again than keep feeling this way."
"There's no need for that. We can fix this problem."
The demon's voice was closer when it spoke that time. Plague looked up, and the demon pressed its palm against Plague's forehead. It felt as if he were a stalk of wheat, good grain getting separated from the chaff. The memories faded. The emotions were dim. Nothing really went away, but it was all so distant that he couldn't connect with it.
"Better?" the demon asked when it stepped back from Plague.
"Good. Let's not have this conversation again."
* * *
Plague paces by the parking garage elevator, flinching every once in a while in anticipation of bites from Snicker and Snacker. He doesn't quite believe that they aren't there any more and wonders if he'll ever get used to their absence. If he does, it'll be just in time for something even worse to replace them. Fleas or bedbugs, maybe. Or a cloud of mosquitoes laden with malaria and West Nile virus. Or something worse. He doesn't know what would be worse. He hopes he doesn't have to find out.
Little by little, his memories and the associated emotions are growing sharp again. The balm of their bluntness, he realizes slowly, is all that had been keeping him from becoming a raving lunatic. He fights the guilt. He doesn't want to deal with it just yet. He will, but he needs to focus. Save the city first and then save himself.
The elevator dings, and the doors slide open. Kelly steps out, looking down at her keys. Her eyes are bloodshot and underscored by dark rings. Her shoulders sag, and she walks gingerly, as if she's been physically beaten.
"Kelly," Plague says.
Kelly whirls towards him, holding her keys out like a dagger. She staggers back a few steps, and Plague catches her elbow. "Who are you? What do you want?" she asks. She tries to fight out of his grip, but she's too exhausted. He lets go and backs off, holding his hands up. "You want money? I don't have any cash."
Plague shakes his head. Kelly doesn't recognize him, and why should she? Neil is dead. There's only Plague.
"My car? Here. Take it." Kelly holds her keys out towards Plague. "It's that one right ..." She trails off when she spots Neil's white Mustang.
"Kelly, I need you to listen to me."
"That's Neil's car."
"There are millions of white Mustangs in the world."
"But I know that little crack in the windshield. Who the hell are you?"
She looks at him, her eyes wide. He doesn't know if it's fear or disbelief.
"I know what this virus is, and I know how to stop it."
"How can you know that? No one can even figure out what the hell it is."
"It's the virus that killed Phae. More or less. It's the vaccine I made for her. When I injected myself, it turned into this. The cure's in my blood."
"I don't understand. What are you saying? You're not ... Neil's dead. You're not --"
"I'm Plague. Don't try to make sense out of it. You can't, and there's no time for me to explain it. Do you want this virus stopped or not?"
"Of course I do. But --"
"Then get me to a lab, and let's get to work. I don't have a lot of time."
"I'm dreaming. That's what this is. I'm dreaming this. Or I've had way too much coffee, and I'm having caffeine-induced hallucinations."
"Kelly. Focus. Cure."
Kelly runs her hands over her face and takes a deep breath. "Okay," she says. "Let's go."
-- Mel Trent