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August 15, 2022

Plague 4: Suffer the Little Children

By Mel Trent

1. Righteous Anger

Neil Coburn was half asleep on the couch when someone pounded on the door of his apartment. He sat up, startled, not sure if he had imagined it. There was only silence as he blinked at the TV screen. A few seconds later, the pounding came again. He jumped a little.

"Dr. Coburn? It's the police," a stern female voice said.

Neil rubbed his eyes. He wasn't sure he had heard her correctly. Police? What the hell did the police want with him?

"Dr. Coburn?"

"Just a minute."

Neil glanced at his watch. It was only ten o'clock, but he hadn't slept in more than twenty-four hours. It had been a long week, starting with an early morning flight to New York for a conference on Monday. Jet lag and too much coffee in an attempt to compensate had ruined his sleep cycle. He rubbed his eyes again and went to the door.

He expected uniformed officers, following up on unpaid speeding tickets (he hadn't had any tickets in the last five years) or attempted break-ins at the lab (rare but it had happened). He couldn't even begin to formulate a reason for plainclothes officers to show up at his door at ten o'clock at night.

They showed badges. "I'm Detective Mika Harrell," the woman said. "This is Detective Lane Sandburg."

Neil watched the badges as they flashed and vanished back into pockets. He didn't see the detectives' faces or take in many details about them. Mika was five feet tall if she was lucky, and Lane had thick, glossy black hair. That was all that Neil could process. The rest of his brain was trying to figure out why they were there.

"We're sorry to be visiting so late, but we'd like to discuss something with you," Mika said. "May we come in?"

"Discuss what?" Neil asked.

"We'd like your assistance in a homicide investigation."

* * *

Plague looks down on the warehouse from the roof of a nearby apartment building. "Why here?" he asks himself. He doesn't have an answer. He doesn't really want one. He's afraid to make the connections.

The windows of the warehouse glow with faint orange light, and every so often, shadows flicker past. Someone or something is inside, and Plague has no plan beyond walking in the front door. He spent too long doing the Boss's bidding for any plan to surprise a horseman.

When he's satisfied that he's as ready as he can get, Plague turns to head to the stairwell door. A boy is standing in his path. His skin is paper white, and his pajamas are warning light red. Plague shouldn't be surprised to see War as a child, but the sight shocks him all the same.

"You didn't think I was gonna sit down there and wait for you, did you?" War asks.

Plague shrugs. "Woulda been nice."

"Famine went easy on you."

"Hitting me with a car wasn't exactly gentle."

"You still have all your limbs."

"True."

"You won't when I'm done with you."

"We don't have to --"

Before Plague can finish his thought, War barrels towards him. Plague has nowhere to go and no time to move if he could. War moves like a cannonball and hits as hard. Plague takes most of the impact on his knees. It shoves him backwards. He can't regain his balance before his feet are over the edge of the roof, and he falls.

* * *

Neil didn't know what to expect as the detectives drove him to the scene. Mika had provided sketchy background on the case, but she had no words that would prepare him for what was about to happen.

He went over the details in his mind as Lane drove in stony silence. Two days ago, a warehouse owner had called the cops, complaining about a strange smell coming from the empty warehouse across the street. Figuring that a homeless person had gotten inside and died, a couple of patrol officers went to check it out. Instead of one body, they found fifteen, all of them children ranging in age from two to eighteen. Another section of the warehouse was cordoned off with hanging sheets of heavy plastic, and there, they found laboratory equipment and an industrial sized refrigerator stocked with vials of viruses.

Autopsy reports weren't yet complete on all the victims, but the ones that were all indicated that the victims had died of acute viral infections. So far, the virus hadn't been identified, but it appeared to be slightly different in each victim.

Neil didn't like the implications of that. It was bad enough that the victims were kids, but using a virus as a murder weapon was unconscionable.

Only when the car stopped in front of the warehouse did Neil wonder why they had taken him there instead of to the police station. Surely all they needed him to do was look at paperwork -- read over the coroner's reports, study the evidence logs, maybe try to determine a motive or a suspect. He started to ask, but Mika spoke first.

"This way, Dr. Coburn," she said. She opened the door and ducked under the yellow crime scene tape.

Neil followed with Lane close behind him, and he wondered if he were the suspect.

* * *

Plague catches the edge of the roof with his fingers and slips a little, fingertips and fingernails scraping on the cement. He finds something under his feet. He can't tell what, but he can tell that it won't support his weight for long. He gets his arms over the roof's edge just as his foothold gives way. He looks down and watches a piece of rusty gutter fall.

A sharp pain in his left arm jerks his attention away from the plummeting gutter. War has plunged a stiletto knife into his forearm. He starts to lose his grip and reaches out to grab War with his right arm.

War yanks the knife out of Plague's arm and steps out of his reach. "It's only five stories," War says. "It shouldn't kill you. Boss wouldn't like it too much if I let you die now."

War comes at Plague again, slashing his blade across Plague's hands before pounding the tip into his shoulder.

Plague loses his grip. He can't stop himself from falling, but he does everything he can think to do to take War with him. War stays just out of his reach and looks down as Plague falls.

"See you on the ground!" War says.

Shit, Plague thinks.

He closes his eyes and waits for the impact. It never comes. Instead, he's engulfed in bright light, and though he continues to move downward, he isn't falling. He opens his eyes and sees the street rush up at him from between gyrating rings of green fire. He flinches. When he feels solid ground beneath him, he looks up. Gershom, in his vessel now, holds his hand out to help Plague stand.

Plague takes Gershom's hand and pulls himself up.

"What the hell are you doing?" Gershom asks.

"I was falling off a building," Plague says. He tries to pull his hand out of Gershom's grip. Gershom won't let go.

"Did you think we wouldn't know where you went?"

"That wasn't the point."

"Then what was?"

Plague shakes his head and tries again to pull away from Gershom.

"What was the point of taking off without telling us?" Gershom jerks Plague forward, increasing the force of his hold on Plague's hand. They would be nose-to-nose if Gershom's vessel were taller.

Plague tries to keep eye contact with Gershom, tries to be strong and brave and certain, but he can't. He drops his gaze to his feet. "I don't know," he says.

"What did Famine say to you?"

"Nothing. It doesn't matter."

"Damn it, Plague, we're on the same fucking side here, okay? No one's gonna walk away from you for any reason. Got that?"

"Even if all this is because of me?"

Gershom's hold on Plague's hand turns almost gentle, and he narrows his eyes. "What did Famine say to you?"

A child's shriek tears through Plague's silence. He and Gershom both look towards the warehouse.

"We're not done with this conversation," Gershom says.

Plague nods, already forgetting what they were arguing about as he begins to remember more of what he saw inside that warehouse.

* * *

The bodies had been removed, but the warehouse still stank of death. Neil put his hand over his mouth and nose. The detectives didn't seem to notice the smell. They walked past rows of Army surplus cots, most of them stained with bodily fluids. A number of them were untouched, grey wool blankets folded up at the foot of each under a stark white pillow, waiting for patients.

They kept walking until they came to the plastic sheeting. Mika took hold of the edge of a sheet and turned to face Neil.

"This may be difficult to look at, Dr. Coburn," Mika said. "Are you ready?"

Neil felt his heart flutter and snatch at his breath. "What am I looking at?" he asked.

Without answering, Mika pulled back the plastic.

Neil stepped into the makeshift lab. The first thing he noticed was not the high quality equipment but that the walls were covered in pages from scientific journals. He moved closer to the wall. The pages were all from one of his published papers.

He turned around to face Mika and Lane. "What the hell is this?" he asked.

"We were hoping you could tell us," Mika said.

"Am I a suspect?"

"No, not at all."

Lane took a few steps forward. Neil instinctively backed away. Lane moved like a snake, and the air around him was cold. Not sinister, just devoid of warmth. He put his hands on Neil's shoulders and turned Neil to face the wall.

"You wouldn't need your own papers for reference," Lane said.

It wasn't a question, but Neil shook his head anyway. He started to skim the text in front of him.

"Your work seems to have inspired a mass murderer."

"No. That's not what this is at all."

"Fifteen kids are dead, Dr. Coburn. Do you need to see the bodies?"

Neil shook his head again and turned to face Lane. "That paper is purely hypothetical. I was asked to write about how it might be possible to genetically engineer a perfect virus for use in biological warfare. It has nothing to do with any real viruses. It's fucking science fiction."

Lane moved back towards the plastic barrier. He nodded once, slowly, so slowly it was hardly a recognizable gesture.

Mika began to walk the perimeter of the space towards the refrigerator, her arms folded across her chest. "So you never made any attempt to make the virus your paper proposes?" she asked.

"No. Combining different species of viruses doesn't work. It's like trying to cross-breed a pig and a penguin."

"And that's what you conclude in the paper? That viral warfare is highly unlikely?"

"Yeah, at least in the scenario I was given to work with."

Mika reached the refrigerator and yanked it open. "Then how do you explain this?"

Neil went towards the refrigerator, hoping that the vials inside were anything but what Mika was implying. He reached for one of them but stopped when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

A boy, maybe ten years old, wearing red footed pajamas and dragging a stuffed tiger by its tail, shuffled into the lab area. He was rubbing his eyes and didn't seem to notice that the three people standing in front of him were strangers. "Daddy, I don't feel good," he said.

2. What Child is This?

Gershom bursts through the warehouse door first and immediately turns back to grab Plague and shove him out of the path of an on-coming barrage of knives. The tip of one catches Plague's chin. He stumbles backwards, crashing into a pile of empty boxes before falling on his rear. When he looks up, Gershom is already gone.

The impact of the concrete floor sends a shock wave through his body. The still-healing injuries from his bout with Famine begin to ache all over again. It's harder to stand than he expects, and he's still for a moment, doubled over and taking shallow breaths until the pain passes. He hears the child's scream again. Chills swarm down his spine.

He grabs hold of four of the knives, two in each hand, and yanks them out of the wall. He's not sure what he plans to do with them, but he knows he wants something more than his viruses when he faces War.

He runs towards the back of the warehouse. The curtains of plastic sheeting still ripple in the wake of Gershom's passage, pieces of it fluttering to the floor where Gershom has cut through it rather than simply push it out of his way. Plague slides to a halt next to Gershom, sparing a second to glance down at the massive sword in Gershom's hands. He feels inadequate with his thin little borrowed knives and tiny viruses. I couldn't stop it before, he thinks. What makes this time any different?

* * *

Mika and Lane instinctively drew their weapons. Mika kept hers aimed towards the ground, but Lane drew a bead on the boy's head. Neil had no idea what to do. The kid looked up. Tears sprang instantly into his eyes, and his chin puckered.

"Where's my daddy?" the boy asked.

Lane looked back at Mika. Mika tucked her gun away. "We don't know, sweetie," she said. "We're looking for him."

"Are you cops?"

"Yes, we are. Do you know where your dad went when he left you here?"

The boy didn't answer her. He looked at Neil and pointed. "He's not a cop. He's Dr. Coburn. Daddy says he's really good at his job."

Neil didn't wait for any instructions from Mika and Lane. They didn't know what was going on. All they knew was that someone had killed fifteen kids. They couldn't even begin to figure out why, but Neil understood. He understood all too well.

He went towards the boy and crouched down so he could look the boy in the eyes. "What's your name?" he asked.

"David. You are Dr. Coburn, right?"

"Yeah. You can call me Neil. So you don't feel good, huh?"

David shook his head. "I'm hot and achy."

Neil put his hand on David's forehead. If there was a fever, it was mild enough for his chilly hands to miss it, but that was a good sign. "Anything else? Headache? Tummy ache?"

"No, not really. I threw up a lot yesterday."

"Did your dad tell you what you've got?"

"He said it was a special germ and if I got sick first, I wouldn't get sick later."

"Special germ?" Mika asked. "What the hell does that mean?" She started to walk towards Neil and David.

Neil stood up and turned to face her. "No," he said. "Stay back."

"What the --"

"Stay back. He could still be contagious. You need to get out of here, call the CDC and get this place quarantined. Now."

"And leave you here? What if this guy comes back?"

"I'm sure he will."

Mika looked at Lane. Lane had put his gun away and was staring at Neil.

"We don't have time to waste," Neil said. "Get out now. I could be infected already. I don't know how the virus spreads. What I need from you is to get the CDC down here now and get me any lab notes you took in for evidence."

"I'll stay," Lane said. "If he comes back --"

"I'll handle it. I need as few people exposed to this as possible. Just do what I've asked. Please. Or is this not why you came to me for help?"

There were no arguments after that. Mika and Lane trotted towards the front door, and Neil turned his attention back to David.

"Is your dad's name Dominic Brand?" Neil asked.

David nodded. "You know my daddy?"

"Yeah, I do." What he didn't say was that he wasn't surprised that Dominic would experiment on his own son.

* * *

War holds a little girl in front of him, a syringe aimed at her neck. Big tears cascade down the girl's cheeks.

"Let her go," Plague says.

"Why? So you can let her die? That's what you're good at, isn't it? Letting people die."

Plague takes a few steps forward. He doesn't know what he intends to do, but standing there doing nothing is no longer an option.

War touches the tip of the needle to the girl's neck. She shrieks. "Don't come any closer."

Plague stops. He tightens his grip on the knives between his fingers. "What do you want? You wanna take me back to the Boss? Let the kid go, and I'll come back."

"Plague, no," Gershom says. "You can't --"

"You don't really have a say in the matter, Speedy," War says.

"It's okay, Gershom," Plague says. He hopes that by saying so, he can convince Gershom and himself, but it doesn't work.

"This is bullshit," Gershom says. The standoff is starting to irritate him. His true form begins to blur the outline of his vessel.

"Get the girl somewhere safe, and tell Ely what happened."

Gershom says nothing further. His sword vanishes.

"You made the right choice, Speedy," War says. He lets go of the girl and steps back from her. She runs to Gershom.

Gershom scoops the girl into his arms and looks at Plague as he turns to go. "I will come back for you," he says.

"You won't need to," Plague says.

3. Dr. Brand's Monster

There was a limit to what Neil would be able to do in the makeshift lab, but it was a start. He took a blood sample from David and got David back into his cot in the office behind the lab. When he found the virus in David's blood, he turned away from the microscope and pinched the bridge of his nose. He felt like he was dreaming. What he saw couldn't be real. It wasn't even possible -- shouldn't be possible. He turned back to the microscope and looked again. Possible or not, there it was, the perfect virus, all the best parts of a number of existing viruses, like Frankenstein's monster.

Neil was still studying the virus, half in horror, half in intense admiration, when a back door banged open. He flinched, nearly punching out his eyes on the eyepieces of the microscope. He stepped away from the workbench. He wasn't sure if he should run or stick around to face Dominic. He didn't get a chance to make that decision. He saw Dominic rush through the plastic sheeting with something in his hand. Neil heard a loud bang, and a blast of cold pain tore through his shoulder. David began to scream. Sirens wailed in the background, slowly growing closer.

Neil didn't remember falling, but he was on the ground when he felt Dominic standing over him. He tried to scoot himself back towards the wall, but the pain in his shoulder was too much. He put his hand to the wound and looked down. The amount of blood soaking his shoulder made him feel cold and queasy.

"You weren't supposed to show up so soon, Dr. Coburn," Dominic said. "I knew the police would consult with you, but I didn't think they would bring you to the crime scene right away."

"What did you do?" Neil asked.

"I shot you. I thought that was obvious."

"The virus." Neil wanted to shout but was afraid the effort would do more harm than good.

Dominic laughed. "Something you were never able to do."

"It's not --"

"Possible? Oh, anything's possible, Dr. Coburn. When you have the right people on your side, anything's possible."

Neil felt the door of the refrigerator against his back and tried to relax. Deep burning pain pulsed from the gunshot wound. He was certain he would pass out soon, and the sirens didn't sound like they were getting any closer. He saw David peek around the corner, the tail of his stuffed tiger in his mouth.

Dominic looked at David. "Go back to bed, son. Daddy's got everything under control," he said.

"Why'd you hurt Neil?" David asked.

"Go back to bed!"

With Dominic's attention on David, Neil looked around for a weapon. The only thing at hand was the refrigerator. He pushed himself along its side, and when he had room, he shoved the door open with his foot, slamming it into Dominic's face.

Dominic stumbled backwards, swearing. He steadied himself and took a few shots in Neil's general direction, one hand to his nose and his eyes nearly shut.

Neil flinched as each bullet slammed into the wall around him. David was screaming again, and that time, the sirens were closer.

Dominic staggered towards Neil and pressed the barrel of the gun to Neil's forehead. "I thought you'd understand," he said. "I thought you'd want to help me."

"Why the fuck would I help you murder a bunch of kids?"

"For the greater good of millions of other children. I can inoculate them with the master virus. No virus will ever sicken them. Then no matter what our enemies come up with, our children will be safe."

"But you killed fifteen kids."

"Eggs broken for the omelet."

Neil tried to turn his head away in disgust, but Dominic pressed harder on the gun.

"You don't have children, Dr. Coburn. You can't understand how fierce the desire to protect them can become." Dominic crouched down in front of Neil, still pressing the gun to Neil's head. "But then, you have your viruses, don't you? You love them more than you ever could a child, even your own flesh and blood."

Police in biohazard suits swarmed into the warehouse and surrounded the lab. Dominic turned to face them. One of them barked orders for Dominic to drop the gun. Dominic only stared at them, the gun raised in his wavering hands.

"Dominic, don't be fucking stupid," Neil said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw David peeking around the corner again. "Drop the fucking gun!"

Dominic looked over his shoulder at Neil but otherwise made no move. The cops were getting restless.

"Look, if you want me to help you with this thing, I will," Neil said. "But I need you alive to tell me what the fuck you did. I can't waste time trying to figure it out for myself."

Dominic turned to face Neil, and Neil flinched when the barrel of the gun swung towards him again. "Oh right," Dominic said. "I go to prison, tell you everything and you get all the glory. I don't think so. This is my virus, my baby. I'm going to save the children of this world, not you." Dominic aimed carefully at Neil's head.

Neil closed his eyes. He didn't want Dominic's crazed expression to be the last thing he saw, and it wasn't. All he could see in the darkness behind his eyelids was David's face. He heard the crack of a rifle and the thud of Dominic's body as it hit the concrete floor, but he didn't open his eyes again for a long time.

* * *

"I'm surprised at you," War says once Gershom is gone.

"Why?" Plague asks.

"You change your mind more often than a fickle teenage girl. First you want to do what the boss tells you, then you get all righteous and change sides, and now you're willing to come back. Over one whiny little brat? That doesn't make a lot of sense."

"I'm a complicated guy."

"You just don't know what's right or wrong."

"Is the Boss gonna come here, or do we have to go to him?"

"He's on his way. You might want to drop those knives. I wouldn't want to get the wrong idea and have to hurt you. Or worse kill you. In self-defense of course."

Plague lets the knives fall from his fingers. He wonders how long he has before the Boss shows up. He hopes the wait isn't long. He doesn't want Gershom to come back and save him or, even worse, come back with Ely in tow, not if giving himself up will stop the end of the world and get him some answers.

"You look sad," War says. "Remembering old times?"

Plague shakes his head. "Just wondering ..."

"What?"

"If I can control the viruses in my blood, what about the viruses in your blood?"

For a fraction of a second, War looks terrified, but he buries his fear under a sneer. "Don't even try it. You don't have time."

"I don't need time."

"I thought the Boss wiped your memory."

"He did, but the forgetting was as much mine as it was what he did to me. I'm getting things back. The important things. All the pieces of the puzzle of what makes me so fucking special."

"You're not special. It's just a trick to get you back."

Plague grins. "No, it isn't." He takes a few steps towards War. He's more frightened of what he's about to do than War is. He's not even sure he knows what he's about to do.

War takes a few steps back, sliding knives into his hands. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

Plague shrugs. "I have no idea."

"He'll be here any minute."

"Good. By then, either you'll have killed me or I'll have killed you and escaped. One way or another, I win this round."

"You're crazy."

"And you're not a ten-year-old boy. You're War. You wear a body that seems to fit because of what your father did to you. He fought an imaginary war in your blood, and you still have the weapon inside you."

War is backed up against the wall by then, and Plague gazes thoughtfully at the light patches where his article had been pinned. War takes advantage of Plague's momentary distraction and lunges.

One blade punches into Plague's gut; the other catches only his shirt. Plague can't feel the pain. He remembers the gunshot wound instead and the anguish of watching David suffer and feeling so helpless through all of it. He realizes now that he had only pretended to be helpless. He could have changed the outcome of the whole fiasco at any point he chose. But he didn't.

Plague looks down at War as he staggers a step back. War is still within reach, and Plague presses his palm to War's forehead, latching his fingers into War's hair. War struggles, lashing out with his feet and his knives, but Plague ignores the blows. He closes his eyes and looks for the virus in War's blood. He finds it waiting for him, anxiously obedient, as if it knew all along why it was there. He commands it to break. It shatters into its disparate parts, and the viruses, released from the unnatural combination, instantly reform into their true selves. War shrieks.

Plague lets go of War and backs away. He watches War crumple to the floor, twitching and groaning, and then he turns away.

He gets only a few steps before he stumbles. When he falls, someone catches him.

"Hello, Neil," Death says.

-- Mel Trent

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-09-14
2 Reader Comments
Anonymous
09/14/2009
01:33:40 PM
i love the idea of the two story lines and symbolism of plague, war, etc. however, i'm having trouble seeing the parallel. if neil is plague, why is david war? it just might be that this is either written beyond my comprehension, or it needs a little tweaking for clarity.
Anonymous
09/15/2009
10:42:30 AM
oops. i didn't realize immediately that this was part of a series. i should read from the beginning and maybe i'll be able to fill in some blanks.
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