Neil stared at the ceiling of his dorm room. He wanted to sleep, but he couldn't get comfortable. His muscles ached. His throat was raw. His abdomen was tender now that the virus was making his spleen swell. His fever was backing off, but he could still feel it lingering. He had been sick before with miserable colds and the flu. He remembered how awful his bout with chickenpox had been, but none of those illnesses compared to this. He wasn't sure what the difference was, but something about this particular virus didn't seem normal.
Kyle came back from his late class some time after seven. Neil had lost track of time. He might have fallen asleep, but he wasn't sure. Either way, he wasn't too happy about his roommate's return. It wasn't that they didn't get along. They did but not well enough to consider each other friends.
"What's wrong with you?" Kyle asked. He dropped his backpack next to his desk and sat down to take off his shoes.
Neil struggled to sit up and grab the bottle of water next to the bed. He only glared at Kyle. He wasn't in the mood for conversation.
"What? Did you get what I had?"
"Yeah, I did. And it's not fucking strep throat either."
"But you knew that already."
Kyle grimaced. "Shit."
"Why the hell didn't you get the blood test done? Not that it would have done me any good, but you'd at least have known what you had. Have you infected anyone else?"
"Did you know that the virus that causes mono has been linked to two types of cancer?"
"I'm afraid of needles, all right? I'm sorry, but I am. I had to be sedated to get all my shots when I was a kid. I can't even handle having my finger pricked. Drawing that much blood ... I would have passed out."
"Big fucking deal. So you pass out. It would have been better than denying what you had and causing a fucking epidemic."
"Epidemic? What --"
"The virus doesn't go away. Ever. It's a member of the herpesvirus family. It could reactivate at any time. Without symptoms, too, so you could spread it and never even know what you were doing."
"Okay, you can stop now. I already feel fucking stupid about the whole thing. You don't need to make it worse."
Neil turned over on his side, facing the wall. The effort he put into being angry at Kyle wore him out.
"It's okay. I'm just --"
"I know what you are. I know what this means to you."
Neil said nothing. What an odd statement. Maybe he just heard it wrong.
"You'll thank me for it one day."
* * *
The front door of the building slams open, shaking everything like a mild earthquake. Plague flinches and moves deeper into the office. He crouches behind the dusty desk. The office will be the first place Famine looks for him, so he doesn't have much time.
"Where the fuck are you, you bastard?" Famine says. "I'll find you. You know I will. Come out now and make things easy on both of us."
Plague doesn't move.
"What did you do to me? Whatever it is, you better come out here and undo it before I make you starve to death."
Famine tears the office door off its hinges. She heads right for the desk, as if she knows exactly where Plague is hiding. He stands up and shoves the desk towards her as hard as he can. For a moment, he has her pinned between the desk and the wall.
She smashes the desk and comes at him through the splinters. She takes the front of his shirt in both hands, lifts him off his feet and shoves him against the back wall with such force that he leaves a small crater in the plaster. She steps away and lets him fall. Chunks of plaster rain down on his back.
"You can't get away from me," Famine says.
Plague struggles to get to his feet. Burning pain spreads through his right side. He bends over, hands on knees, breathing shallowly until the pain stops. He's never broken any bones before, but he's pretty sure that what he's feeling are cracked ribs. "Wasn't trying to get away," he says. He looks up at her. She looks confused.
"Boss said you were crazy, but I didn't think he meant that crazy."
He grins. "Boss has no idea what he's up against."
Famine snarls and comes at him again, her meaty hands reaching for his throat.
He stands up, too quickly, and for a moment, he thinks he might pass out, that she'll get her hands on him and take him to the boss and that everything he's been through will be all for nothing. He bites down on his busted lip. Blood flows into his mouth. He feels cold and lightheaded, feels the blood rushing out of the cut, just like when he had mono, and he feels the second virus he's called on in his blood as well.
Famine wraps her hands around his throat. He's suddenly crushingly hungry. His stomach feels like it's trying to collapse in on itself. Every muscle in his body weakens. He can't keep his head up, much less try to fight with Famine. The virus-laden blood pooling in his mouth rolls to the back of his throat. He coughs. A fine spray of blood and spit hits Famine's face. It won't be enough to infect her. He has to swallow the rest of his blood before he chokes on it.
"You were trying to make me sick, weren't you?" Famine asks.
Plague doesn't bother to answer.
"You did give me something. What is it? How do I get rid of it?"
"HIV. You can't get rid of it."
"What? No! You have to be able to stop it. That's what Boss said. You can stop any virus."
"I didn't say I couldn't."
Famine snarls. "Son of a bitch!" She shoves her left hand against his mouth, fingers and thumb digging into his jaw as if to rip it off. The crushing hunger intensifies.
Plague can feel his body begin to turn on itself, searching desperately for sustaining nutrients. His viruses panic as the cells they need to survive begin to die. No, no, my friends, he thinks. It's not over yet.
The thin flesh between Famine's thumb and forefinger is pressing against his lips. He opens his mouth and bites down as hard as he can. The second virus he selected to fight her rushes to the open wound from his saliva and from the still bleeding split in his bottom lip.
Famine shrieks and yanks her hand away, tearing the delicate skin he's got between his teeth. He spits it to the floor and watches her stumble away from him. She staggers out of the office. She won't get very far. HIV has demolished her immune system. Cytomegalovirus, taking advantage of the lack of defenses, has taken up residence in her retinas and made her blind.
Plague sinks to the floor. The hunger is gone, but it's left him weak. On top of the pain of his injuries, it's too much. He closes his eyes and lets himself fade into darkness.
3. A Quart of Wheat for a Day's Wages
Plague wakes up to a low grumbling that he thinks is thunder and the smell of coffee. He's still for a moment, listening. The next time he hears the thunder, it very distinctly comes from his belly. He sits up. He still feels weak from Famine's assault, but he gets up anyway and follows the smell of coffee to the cozy kitchen in Ely's rooms.
Phaedra is sitting at a little round table flipping through a stack of photographs. Gershom is pacing the length of the kitchen, sipping coffee from a huge mug. He pauses every once in a while to pluck a sour candy from a dish on the counter and pop it into his mouth.
"Good, you're up," Gershom says when his path faces Plague.
Plague rubs his eyes. "I'm not sure about that," he says.
Gershom grins. "You're fine. Once your body realizes it doesn't need food, the hunger will go away."
"Did you get her?"
"I wasn't sure --"
"You did great. She's completely blind, which is good. I'm not sure I could have fought her either. If she'd gotten her hands on me ..." Gershom shakes his head and goes back to pacing.
Plague pours himself a cup of coffee and sits down across from Phaedra.
Phaedra slides the pictures towards him. "Surveillance," she says. "We found War."
Plague looks through the photos. The warehouse in the shots looks familiar, though he can't say why. "Where is this?" he asks.
"Where do you think?"
Plague looks up at Phaedra. From the expression on her face, he gleans why he feels like he should recognize the place, but thankfully, those nightmare memories don't come rushing back. Not yet. He pushes the pictures back towards her. "Where's Ely?" he asks.
"Questioning Famine," Gershom says.
"I don't know yet. He wanted me to wait for you to wake up so I could take you to the lockup."
"Why does he want me there?"
"You were one of them."
Plague sips his coffee and wonders about that.
When Plague and Gershom arrive at the holding cell, Ely is leaning back against the door. His shoulders and his wings sag, and when Gershom draws Ely into his arms, Ely looks as if he could fall asleep propped up against Gershom. Plague is glad to see them return to their rituals of affection, but it doesn't mean that everything is all right.
Ely pulls himself out of Gershom's embrace and turns to Plague. "Are you okay?" he asks.
"Yeah," Plague says.
"Are you getting anything out of her?" Gershom asks.
Ely shakes his head. "I don't think she knows everything, but she knows something. I just can't get it out of her."
"Do you want me to try?"
"No. I want Plague to talk to her."
"Why?" Plague asks. He's not sure he'll have any more success than Ely's had, but as soon as he asks, he knows why.
"You've got the best bargaining chip."
* * *
Neil stood in the far corner of the shower stall. The water was too hot to stand under, but the billowing steam felt good. He took deep, slow breaths and pressed his temple against the cool tiles. He felt almost well as long as he stayed right where he was. He would run out of hot water if he stayed too long, though, and he didn't look forward to having to leave the comfort of the warm mist.
He was exhausted all the time and had done little but sleep and trudge to classes in the last three days. He felt like he could sleep for a month straight and still wake up tired. He wished his symptoms were worse so he'd have an excuse to stay in bed, but the sore throat and fever were fading, leaving him with the worst parts of the illness -- the loss of appetite, the exhaustion and the congestion that seemed to be turning to concrete in his nose and lungs. He wondered if the idea of zombies had arisen from observing people with mild cases of mono.
He thought about the virus as he inhaled steam. He researched it in the scant moments when he wasn't sleeping or in class. It was a nasty thing, like all the herpesviruses, capable of long periods of dormancy and asymptomatic activation. It could help cause cancers and maybe even multiple sclerosis, or it could do nothing at all. And almost everyone had it.
Why, he wondered. What did the virus get out of it? It had to be something, didn't it? Aside from the endless, mindless cycle of replication and infection. It didn't kill, at least not en masse. There was no point in killing -- the virus needed a living host. So where did it come from? Why did it decide that the human body was its prime real estate? Why did humans throw up their hands and live with it rather than trying to eradicate it like polio or small pox?
He thought about what Kyle said to him. I know what you are; I know what this means to you.
And that meant what, exactly? Just the fact that he was devoting his life to studying viruses? No, it was more than that. I know what you are. That implied ... something else.
Neil took a deep breath and tried to stop thinking. He was tired, and his train of thought was nothing more than a worn out mind chasing logic where there was none. He closed his eyes.
He could see the virus. Not memories of the electron microscope photographs he had looked at. This wasn't a static image. He could see inside the virus, watch as it infected the cells around it, turning them into viral assembly lines and pumping out more viruses to attack more cells and start the whole process again. He watched, horrified and fascinated. It all went by so fast, and he wished it would slow down so he could get a good look.
The virus listened.
Neil watched the slowed down viral life-cycle, thinking that it was just his imagination combined with his existing knowledge and the chaotic mess the illness was making of his mind. What else could it be?
He heard Kyle's voice in his head again. I know what you are.
What am I? Neil thought. Then, watching the virus, I can make you stop.
And it did.
* * *
The light in the cell comes from nowhere and encloses Famine in a cone of harsh white light. Famine sits chained to a metal chair inside the cone. She lifts her head when she hears the door close, her milky eyes darting around her darkness.
"Who's there?" she asks. Deprived of her sight, her size and strength are ironic. She's terrified. Plague almost feels sorry for her but only almost.
"Why are you here? Haven't you done enough?"
"Ely asked you as nicely as he could to tell him what the Boss's plan is. Now it's my turn."
"The Boss doesn't have a plan."
"The Boss's boss then."
"I don't know."
"Who is the Boss's boss?"
"I'm not telling you anything."
"Even if I take my viruses back?"
Famine says nothing.
"The damage they've done will go away."
"But you'll still kill me."
"You can always choose redemption."
"I'd rather stay sick and blind."
"I can't help you if you don't help me."
Famine drops her head. She says nothing for such a long time that Plague gets tired of waiting and heads for the door.
"Wait," Famine says.
Plague stops and looks over his shoulder.
"I'll be replaced."
"Yeah, we kinda figured that part out already."
"I don't know where the Boss's orders come from. All I know is that this is what the Boss's boss wants."
"I was never told any reason."
"Why does the Boss want me back? I've already been replaced."
Famine grins. "You're special."
"But not irreplaceable."
"Pestilence is a cheap imitation."
"How am I any different?"
Famine begins to giggle.
Plague tries not to get annoyed, but the sound of Famine's laughter makes him feel like someone's strumming his nerves like an out of tune guitar. He clenches his jaw and moves towards her. "How?" he asks again, grabbing the front of her shirt and jerking her forward as hard as he can.
Her head snaps forward, and she stops laughing. Her blind eyes search for his face. "You said you'd take them back," she says.
Plague lets go of her and takes a step back.
"I told you what you wanted to know. It's not my fault it isn't enough."
"How do I know you told me the truth?"
"Because I want back what your fucking viruses took from me."
It's a simple enough answer. He sees in her face, in her sightless eyes, that if she knew more, she would tell him.
He bites open a hangnail on his index finger and shoves his finger into Famine's mouth, hooking it over her bottom teeth and pulling her jaw down so she can't try to bite him. Her saliva pools around his finger. His blood threads into it. He calls his viruses back to him. They stream into his blood and flow upstream to the open wound in his finger.
When all the viruses have left Famine's body, Plague steps back and waits. Famine slumps in the chair.
"Why does the Boss want me back?" Plague asks.
Famine looks up and grins. "You're not like the rest of us," she says.
Still grinning, Famine strains at the chains that bind her to the chair. The chains snap like old rubber bands. Plague scrambles for the door, but just before he can get there, she clamps her hand down on the back of his neck. Hunger weakens him instantly. He struggles in her grip, trying to jab his still bleeding finger into her eyes or her mouth. He can't lift his arms or scream for help. He doesn't even know if Ely and Gershom are still outside the cell.
Famine giggles. "Not this time," she says. She throws him against the wall as hard as she can.
The impact dazes Plague. He thinks his ribs might have snapped again, but his fear has numbed his pain. He has to get up. He has to either escape the cell or incapacitate her again. Otherwise ...
Otherwise, Armageddon goes on.
By the time Plague gets to his feet, it's too late. Famine is on the floor, curled into an absurd fetal position and giggling. She's turned her power on herself and Plague can only watch as she withers. Her starved body eats fat, the muscle, leaving her dark skin draped on her bones like a velvet curtain. Her bones begin to weaken and collapse under the weight of her skin. Her skin turns ashen, the whites of her eyes yellow, and her irises fade to flat grey.
Plague slides down to the floor and puts his head in his hands. He wonders what makes him different and what makes that difference so special that a demon wants to get its hands on him. He tries to remember what the Boss said to him after he woke up in hell, but he can't. He remembers instead what Kyle said to him.
I know what you are.
The maggots in the scars Pestilence left begin to stir.
-- Mel Trent