The girl tread lightly between the cots of the dying and the damned. The neon tubes dangling from the ceiling had dialed back to fill the room with a dim, flickering light, marking the fall of night above ground. Not that her charges ever slept- they lay in a continual haze of pain, feeling but not fully cognizant. One man made a choking noise as she passed by, though he didn’t seem to see her. Black blood bubbled in a dark froth from his lips.
“It’s okay,” the girl said. “The worst will be over soon.” He’d be dead within the hour. She had seen enough victims of the Chimera Virus to know the signs. The ones who started to drool blood never lasted more than an hour- well, almost never- but what a miserable hour it was. They would shake, their eyelids pulled back in pain as blood hammered against their skulls, squeezing its way out of every crack and crevice in their body. Their bellies would bloat as their innards bled out, and then they would shrivel into empty sacks of skin. She shuddered, then fetched a wet towel and mopped up his forehead. It was the most she could do for him.
She continued her circling round of the ward. The boy in the far cot was dead- no longer breathing, his body rigid and cold. He had lasted nearly a week. There had been a day where she had thought his fever might break, where he might do the impossible and survive the plague ward. Then his brow had pooled with feverish sweat, his eyes had turned red, and she had realized it was too late for him. Staring at his shriveled body, she felt maggots squirm in her stomach, eating through her insides, pressing up against her ribcage. Nause roiled in her stomach. Had she caught something? She had lasted longer than Hark had ever expected, and she hadn’t felt this sick since the first few corpses, an eternity ago…
If he had lived, I might not be alone here, with these bodies that stare at me and yet see nothing at all…
Her eyes stung as if worms were trying to wriggle out from behind her eyeballs. She tried to blink the sensation away as grabbed the handles of his cot with practiced efficiency and dragged him down the ward, down to the black door at the far end of the hall. There were black doors on either end- one where the doomed came in, and one where they came out.
She opened the far black door. Staggering heat blasted her face, searing the tears off her cheeks and charring her eyebrows. There was a ten foot drop below, leading to a fiery pit below, which crackled like the depths of hell. She tipped the cot, toppling the boy’s crumpled body into the pit. It was only a shadow when it hit the flames.
She returned the cot to its former place. A new body would come to fill it, soon enough. She wandered back to where the man who drooled black blood lay shivering. She covered him with the boy’s old blanket, but his shivering didn’t cease.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, sitting back onto her heels and looking him in the eye. His gaze were drawn away from some distant place and settled on her.
Maybe he had a daughter. I wonder what it would be like, to have a father…
He gurgled something. She leaned close enough to feel the labored rhythm of his breath in her bones.
“Help,” he gargled. The muscles behind his cheeks spasmed, and he pursed his lips tight in pain. Blood seeped out of the seams of his eye sockets and ran like tears down his face. The next word was almost inaudible, but it was etched clearly enough onto the pained creases of his face.
She reached out and grabbed his hand. It was burning with a heat on par with the furnace. He tried weakly to wrest it from her gasp, his eyes widening in shock.
“The Chimera Virus almost always kills. Almost. Some people survive it.”
She took a deep, shuddering breath. Her next words were a shaky whisper. “I did.”
His eyes widened fractionally, then his brows furrowed with and his expression became questioning. His eyes flicked to the black door, and back to her.
“It’s not a story I like to visit, but I’ll tell it, if you like. I fell sick a way from here- well I don’t really know. The time before I was thrown in a quarantine camp is all a fever haze. I remember the camp well enough, though. I lay drowning in my own sweat and foggy delusions while people vomited their guts out on either side of me. Then there were the nurses in yellow suits that hid their faces. They talked to me, sometimes, but their words were all a buzz. After my fever broke and a chill closed around me, they all gathered around my cot, prodding me, talking to each other, drawing my blood. I was too weak to care. I didn’t realize I had survived until they moved me to a different ward and started bringing me real food. I barely believed I had made it, when so many others had perished. A furious joy lighted in my chest, along with a guilt that ate at my stomach like acid. I had no idea what was to happen to me. Some men in white lab coats visited me, but they never told me anything.
"Then one night, one of the shift nurses- I never saw her face, but I assume it was a woman because she wasn’t much taller than me- dragged me from my cot. My skull felt stuffed with cotton at the time. I was groggy, disoriented. I couldn’t even get the questions out of my mouth.”
The man clenched his eyes shut briefly in pain. A single thought bubbled up from deep inside the cavity of her chest. Please live. She chanted it silently, almost like a prayer. Pleaselivepleaselivepleaselivepleaselive.
When he opened his eyes, she was unsure if to continue, but he looked at her attentively and she carried on. “I tried to reach for the stuffed doll I had with me- a ragged thing really with buttons for eyes and its head half-ripped off, but it was the only thing I had. The woman in the yellow suit with mesh holes for eyes, she smacked my hand away. Then she dragged me through a lot of dark corridors- I hit my head a few times- before stuffing me into this box. I could barely breathe through the choking scent of sawdust in soot. I was in the box for a while, I think, but I blacked out more than once.
“The next thing I remember I was in a transport of some sort. I was out of the box, but my hands and feet were tied. The ride was bumpy, and I kept getting jostled around. My bony elbows crashed painfully into the walls of the transport. The taste of metal dust filled my mouth and I started coughing. Somebody opened the back of the transport and loomed over me, grunting at me to shut up, but he didn’t seem too eager to get close to me. I rushed forward, and to my surprise he backed off, but then another woman all in back stepped up and flung me onto my back. I was too weak to fight- it was a miracle I could stand. She bolted the door shut, hissing threats at me, but before she did I caught a glimpse of flickering lights, and I swear they were stars. That, or drones, perhaps, but there was something ethereal about their light. A warm hope sloshed around inside my belly. They drove for a long while, stopping erratically. Once they reached their destination, I was dragged by my neck through a series of narrow halls and tossed in here. Hark bought me to tend to his plague ward. If I keep the bodies moving in and out, he tosses me a few scraps of food. Maybe even a book, if he’s feeling generous. I can read to you, if you want. . .”
He nodded, and she fetched a book from the stack in the corner of the room and began to read softly. Her voice was so calm it was almost alien. Out of nowhere, he squeezed her hand with newfound strength, so hard she thought he was about to snap her fingers.
“Please…” he said, gargling through a trickle of blood that spilled from his lips. “Promise me.”
“What?” she said, leaning so close she could feel the fever heat radiating from his skin.
“When the pain takes my mind . . . kill me.”
“No!” she said, terror clawing at her throat, shredding her insides into tiny ribbons. “You’re going to live. You have to live”
A sad smile touched his lips. “The book…”
When she began to read again, her voice rang empty and emotionless to her ears. Inside, she felt as if she was the one who was bleeding out. As she read, her mind drifted elsewhere, and her heart pulsated to the endless chant of pleaselive. She was only pulled back to the plague ward whenever he made a pained grunt. Every time, she would look down to find his eyes fixed on her face. His grip, however, was losing strength by the minute. His hand soon lay limply in hers now, his pulse throbbing faintly beneath his skin. When she reached the halfway mark of her favorite book and looked down, his eyes were glazed over with both pain and blood. His pupils blazed wide, staring off into some far away crevice.
“Hey,” she said, giving his hand a little squeeze. He didn’t respond. Blood was trickling from his nose and his ears, dirtying the thin blanket.
“Come on, come on, come on,” she said, grabbing his shoulder and giving him a gentle shake. He didn’t respond. Her throat burned, yet her gut prickled with cold as if studded with shards of ice.
She glanced at the black door. No, I can’t. I won’t. When she looked down, all that was left in his eyes was pain.
He could survive.
He’s going to die in agony no man should ever endure.
She would know. She had endured it, not too long ago. She remembered it all so vividly… I thrashed about in my own sweat and blood, so cold, warmth beyond reach, relief beyond reach. My eyes ached for sleep, and my body was so tired. Pain coursed through my muscles as a thousand raptors tore away at my insides, eating me alive.
But I survived.
Reality weighed as heavy as a sack of steel on her shoulders.
Choking back tears, she pulled his cot from its place on the floor and dragged it towards the black door.
He could survive.
He won’t. You promised…
She wrapped her arms around him. His breath came unsteady against her shoulder. His pulse throbbed weakly in his neck. A little blood smeared her clothes, but she didn’t care. She turned and released him from her embrace, into the flames.
There was a whirring behind her, on the opposite side of the room. A slot opened in the door and a new body slid through.