It wasn’t that Honal had brought the boy back with her. Sanctuary was Sanctuary during an outbreak.
It wasn’t even that she hadn’t told anyone that he was her brother, because that was none of anyone else’s damn business.
It was that she’d said she’d racked him at the clinic on Twelfth and she hadn’t. And he’d taken her word for it. And now they were trapped in Sanctuary with a goddamned Immune.
Braw pressed the tumbler against his mouth. Not because he wanted to drink or not to but because the glass-shard stink of the brandy could almost chase away the cloy of blood, and if he tried to focus on the ripples of the liquid as it wallowed back and forth with the huff of his breath he could almost – almost – banish the image of Honal’s body: flayed open down the left side, one eye pulped and the other staring, and her jawbone on a bookcase on the other side of the room.
The boy was nowhere to be found. Braw couldn’t even remember his name.
Twelve years ago he’d have been out there searching with them. The third outbreak had taken care of that.
(Miriel, if only we’d known)
It had taken them until after the second outbreak to discover that the anthropoids on this godforsaken planet were immune to the Rot, and until just before the third to find out why. If they hadn’t lost so many of their medical people in the first outbreak it might not have taken them so long. If they’d still had an immunologist.
(Miriel, if only we’d)
If they’d still had an immunologist they could have had a vaccine instead of the actual immunity-conferring disease, which would have been better, but the four-day fever, terrorising delusions and agonised paralysis were better than nothing. It wasn’t a perfect solution. Some people had permanent nerve damage. Others lost limbs. Everyone had nightmares. Still, no-one died and afterwards almost two-thirds of them were immune to the Rot and that was what mattered. And not all of those who were immune – Immune – to the cure had succumbed to the outbreaks since. They could find a safe place outside a Sanctuary, and wait it out.
“The cure’s worse than the disease,” he’d flat-joked when sanity had reasserted itself, still half-blind and favouring his tortured nerve endings.
But it wasn’t.
He was still contemplating his brandy when the comm chirped to tell him that they had the boy cornered in a supply tunnel. He limped to the secure cabinet, laid his good hand against the panel, retrieved the flamethrower but left the energy rifles. As an afterthought he took the baseball bat from its stand on his desk and pressed it through his belt. It wasn’t like the boy was human anymore, and Honal had been a friend.
It turned out, of course, that they only thought they had the boy cornered. It had been three outbreaks since they’d had to deal with an Immune and they’d forgotten the drill. No-one really knew what the Rot did to the brain beyond the hallucinations, but every Rotted Braw had ever come across had shown a cunning far beyond anything they’d ever had in life. Three of the security team – only two of whom were still recognisable – were down and the others were spooked.
As they inched forwards, he realised that he could smell the Rot. He’d forgotten the smell – putrefaction overlaid with an animal-musk stench that was nothing human. The Rotted couldn’t be far away; not out in the open, it would cling to the shadows in the hope that it could hide. And then he realised that he could see it – very close and standing very still between a ventilation pipe and the wall. Small. Braw reminded himself that this was no longer a human child; he could see the rash on its face. Once the rash appeared, the person inside was gone.
The Rotted attacked, its eyes wild with fear, but he was ready and it happened fast. The bat snapped its head sideways to give them time to back away and then the flamejet embraced it, joined by two other jets that he barely noticed, and his fingers didn’t so much as waver on the release valve as the Rotted –
(Dorian, his name was Dorian)
– stumbled and fell inside the flames.
And then it was over.
The tumbler was waiting for him when he got back to his desk. He picked it up and pressed it against his mouth, inhaling until the overstretch in his lungs made pinpricks of light bloom behind his eyes to blot out the image of Dorian’s terrified face.
The cruellest thing about the Rot was that what it did to the brain made the afflicted believe that the people around them were the monsters. He no longer allowed himself to think about what he might have looked like to Miriel, just as he no longer allowed himself to think about how he’d tried not to look at the ruined cheek, eaten away so that bone and teeth gleamed through it, a part of her beloved face that he’d never wanted to see. How he’d tried not to think about their excitement – so long ago now – at being chosen for this opportunity, their happiness in that first year before their new paradise had turned into a rabid hellhole that put the old one to shame.
(Miriel, if only)
How he’d levelled the flamethrower at her and tried to remind himself that she wasn’t Miriel anymore and how his fingers had frozen on the release even as he’d known that this was the only way. How she’d been on him before he could bring himself to do it.
He downed the brandy in one desperate gulp, allowed himself to think of its sickly sting. They only had five more years to get through until help arrived.
In his more cynical moments Braw had his doubts about whether it was a rescue mission at all, whether instead of an evacuation fleet they should be expecting a single ship that would throw a few quarantine beacons into orbit and drop an atmospheric incendiary into the stratosphere. Even in his less cynical moments, he thought it might be a mercy.