Chapter 9: A Hundred Demon Eyes
What I actually say: “I don’t remember.” When I woke up, Atherton was standing at the foot of my bed. There was this look on his face, like he had discovered some sense of peace in watching me sleep. I have always felt an odd sort of kinship with him, but that was before he sent a spider crawling through my brain.
“You have sleepwear made from the finest silk in Europe. Why do you sleep in that ratty old sweatshirt?”
I forgot I was still wearing the thing. Sitting up in the bed, I slide the hood over my matted hair and hug my knees.
Atherton scoops up the book I rescued from Greymore’s apartment. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. “You really enjoy this old first draft literature?”
Atherton has never been in my living quarters before. What does he want? Conrad must have informed on me about the conversation I had with that detective. Does he know about those two scavengers sticking me with a needle? Does he believe me responsible for the outbreak among the first drafts?
“What’s the subject matter of this story?” he asks, flipping through the pages between the leather-bound covers.
“It’s about a girl who makes a mistake. She’s forced to wear a symbol of shame as punishment.”
“How does it end?”
“She goes about her business, does good things. People begin to see it as a symbol of honor, instead of judgement.”
“It’s a mark of shame. Why would they view it as anything other? It should express no ambiguity. That’s the purpose of a mark. There’s more to the story, isn’t there?”
“Maybe you’ll understand if you read it,” I reply, trying to blunt the edge to my voice. I want to bury my anger the way Camilla told me, but that box is getting awfully crowded.
Atherton drops the book over my dresser. “Conrad tells me you spoke with a first draft from the police. Will you brief me on the conversation?”
“He said there’s an infection spreading among the first drafts. And our DNA may be the source.”
“I’ve looked into this man, Fallkirk. He has a history of slandering powerful coder families. His vendetta is a personal one. We need to be careful, Tessa, and we need to look out for each other.”
“He seemed genuine to me, but these matters don’t concern me. I work in the dollhouse.”
“I know the work doesn’t suit your disposition. How long have you been there now? Six months? Would it please you to hear I’ve initiated a dialogue with your former supervisor about returning you to the lab?”
I smile and keep my eyes level. Atherton doesn’t give without taking. He wants something from me.
“You’ve gone about your business, done good things, but I need you to prove your loyalty.”
“I don’t trust the police. I need someone to go to the city and examine the infected patients on behalf of the family. You know the first drafts, you spent weeks among them. It should present no difficulty.”
“Plenty of us have spent time among the first drafts. Truth speak, why me?”
“I don’t believe Tearcatcher genes to be the source of the infection, but if I’m wrong, there’s a high probability it was leaked by someone in our DNA lab.”
“And it can’t be me, because I’ve been exiled to the dollhouse.”
“Shall I make the arrangements with Conrad then?”
“No, Atherton,” I say without hesitation. “I have no desire to return to the world of first drafts. It was hard enough leaving the first time. I’m sure you’ll find someone else.”
“Your fondness for lesser beings is known throughout the estate.” Atherton shakes a container full of mice I once smuggled out of the lab. “The first drafts clearly mean something to you. Eighty of them lie in the morgue, and twice that number are dying in a hospital. This family blessed you with a great many gifts. You could be their salvation.”
You’ve got to hand it to Atherton. He knows which nerves to press. Guess I’m going back to the city. Better run a comb through my hair.
“Just one more item,” Atherton says. “If you remove your biosensors again, I’ll pour acid down your throat.”
Thick layers of ice weigh down the trees all around me, their limbs frozen in unnatural poses like warped crystal sculptures. The wind blows snow off the hospital roof, parading it through the yellow beams under the street lamps. The city looks different through the frozen lens of winter. It was spring when I left. Its pulse is much weaker now. I wipe a snowflake from my cheek and rub my bare arms. Conrad grabs my hoodie from the backseat of the limo and offers it to me. I rip it from his hands, making no eye contact. We drove here in silence. Every time I look at Conrad, I see him lighting that book, and flames brushing the walls of Greymore’s apartment. Not anymore, that’s how he responded when I told him that people called the building home.
The wind picks up again, making the ice over the branches crack like glass bones. I walk ahead of Conrad, toward the entrance. A ghostly light sweeps over me, painting the doors in front of me red. A face stares back at me on the other side of the glass. I’ve seen it before somewhere. It’s colder than I remember. The eyes narrower. The features less distinct. A second later, the reflection disappears. Next to me, a siren chirps. The red light washes over me again. Conrad grabs my elbows and pulls me from the path of the ambulance sailing past.
There’s a different tempo to life among the first drafts, one that’s faded from my memory. In the lobby, Conrad tells the receptionist we’re looking for the infectious diseases ward, but there is no infectious diseases ward, according to her. Conrad mentions the right name, and fifteen minutes later, a doctor with a stack of credentials clipped to his lab coat is taking us up a private elevator to a floor that doesn’t really exist.
You have ten minutes, the doctor says, and you’ll have to observe the safety measures. The doors slide open, and he leads us into a grey room. When I worked in the lab at the estate, stepping into the grey room was a sacred ritual. It’s where instruments were cleaned, gloves and goggles pulled on, contamination levels checked and rechecked. I always thought of it like being an opera singer, getting into costume and running through lines backstage minutes before the curtain rises.
I stuff myself into a yellow biohazard suit, rinds, we used to call them. The doctor slides the helmet over me, twisting the neck until it locks into the suit. He’s saying something, but all I hear is the sound of my own breathing. I point to my ears and shake my head. He reaches around my visor and fiddles with controls on the side of my head. Static screeches through the suit, and the outside world rushes back to my ears.
“Did you hear what I said?” the doctor asks. “Don’t get too close to them. Can you breathe okay?”
I nod my head, but judging by the look on his face, it’s not getting through.
“We can hear you,” he says, irritation raising the pitch of his voice. “Say yes or no”
“Yes!” I stare through the wall of protective glass. Dozens of patients float above the ground, a mesh of wires and synthetic veins tethering them to the machines on either side. “Why keep them suspended in anti-gravity?”
“The inflammation is unbearable. Even a soft bed beneath them feels like a knife piercing their skin.” The doctor taps my helmet. “Don’t worry, this suit will keep you from drifting away.”
The doctor plants his thumb over an access panel. The glass wall sucks up into the ceiling. The doctor touches my back, ushering me into the air shower. A few bursts later, I’m as clean as a baby’s conscience. The second door slings open. I grip the injector gun and step into the clean room.
“We’ll be watching you,” Conrad says. I turn in a half circle and stare back at him through two panes of thick glass, three if you count the mask. Does he mean it as a comfort or a warning? Either way, I get the message.
The room smells black to me. Like burning leaves. It even sounds black. Nearly silent, but not quite. I’m certain I can hear a few ultrasonic frequencies. The narrow bands at the bottom of the spectrum. The kind that repel vermin. The kind that precede floods and earthquakes.
The sound of a nightmare.
I step between the two rows of patients, if you could call them patients. They’re more like prisoners here, just like the air particles. The room isn’t a zero particle chamber, not like the one I’m used to. Most likely, this place only gets fifteen air changes per hour, leaving plenty of dangerous particles trapped in the air. I just hope they don’t seek refuge in my lungs.
Walking in this rind is like trudging underwater. Ten minutes is all I have. It feels like I’ve used half that just getting to the first subject. I’m not certain what I expected to see once I got here, but nothing could have prepared me. The skin over the patient’s face is withered and grey, the tissue decomposing before she’s even dead. Breathing is quite the feat, even with the machine, and her bony chin juts at a skewed angle, upwards and to the left. She knows I’m standing here beside her, but she can’t move her neck to look at me. She rolls to her side, until the cords catch her wrists, then slides her blood red eyes in my direction.
“What’s going on in there? Your vitals are all over the place,” Conrad’s voice blasts in my ear. “Just draw a blood sample and get out of there.”
I can feel my breath shortening. Darkness creeps in around the edges of my sight, and I grab my knees to steady myself.
“I don’t know why this happened to you, but I want to help” I say, bringing up the patient’s chart over the holograph projection to distract myself. With a twitch of my finger, I scroll through her data: female, 28, admitted just three days ago with a fever, headache, and altered mental status. Now she’s in septic shock, her organs starved of oxygen and nutrients by tiny blood clots.
Her cracked lips part. Air whistles in and out of her throat. She whispers something to me. I bend forward and turn my head, bringing the microphone closer to her mouth. As I lean, something on her chart catches my attention, an entry at the bottom I missed before. She wasn’t brought in voluntarily. The police took her to the hospital after responding to an incident in which she – wait, this can’t be right – attempted to eat her own child.
Something cracks in my ear. I draw away from her, but I’m stuck. Twisting my body, I glimpse the woman’s teeth clenched tightly around the neck of my suit. I brace myself against her arm and push away from her. Her back arches as muscle spasms ripple through her body, but it doesn’t loosen her grip on my rind any.
I reach behind me and jam the release button. The cords unspool from her body, retracting into the machine. The woman’s black teeth snap at me, dampening my visor with lines of spit as she drifts into the air. Smoke rises off my face plate, and air hisses out of my suit from the gap chewed in the shoulder. Her tortured eyes stare down at me from the ceiling. She looks so helpless. I’ll see this in my dreams, I know it. When I close my eyes tonight, her face will be there under my eyelids.
Static barks in my ear, followed by Conrad’s voice, “… hear me, Tessa. I said, the room’s tainted, get out of there!” The panic I should’ve been feeling right away finally seeps into my brain, quickly routing through my body. Microbes are slipping down my throat. The room is clean for neither of us now.
I run for the air shower. On the other side of the glass, the doctor waves his arms. “You have to get her back in those restraints, or she’ll make a meal of the other patients, or one of us,” the doctor pleads.
“Absolutely not, you’re exposed,” Conrad interrupts. “Get back in here, now.”
The woman is on her hands and knees now, skittering across the ceiling, her neck still warped in an upturned position. What have I got to lose? If the infection is airborne, I’m already dead. “What do I do?”
“You see those drawers anchored to the wall?” the doctor asks.
“I see them.”
“The top one is filled with sedatives. Load one into your injector gun and stick her in the side of the neck,” the doctor tells me, showing me with his finger, as if I needed an illustration. “Her skin’s necrotic. You’ll have to make it a clean shot.”
“This a bad idea, Tessa,” Conrad says.
I’m full of them lately. My hands shake so hard the first vial slips out of my gloves, drifting up to the ceiling. I tear off my gloves, letting them float past my face, and jam the next one squarely into the chamber before it gets away from me. The woman crawls toward the far end of the room, leading me further into a labyrinth of the sick and dying. I peel off my suit and swim through the air. When you’re in zero gravity, there’s no such thing as being overweight. Wish it could stay this way a little longer.
I hover behind the woman, forcing the injector nozzle against her thick neck. She spins just as I pull the trigger, breaking off the needle, propelling me away from her as she screams.
“That won’t do it,” the doctor informs me. “You have to get it deeper.”
I brace myself against the ceiling and drive the heel of my boot into the needle tip lodged in her skin. She paws at her neck, spinning in an endless circle, but unable to reach the needle. Her body twitches a few times before going still. Relief washes over me. I grab her by the back of the gown with one hand and use the other to pull us back down along the cabinets. The bottom of her gown gets hung up on a control panel over the wall. I tug a couple of times, until the levers release her, bouncing us both softly over the floor. My hand grasps for the rind, while doing my best to keep the woman pinned to the floor beneath me.
“Tessa, get out of there, right now,” Conrad says. The calmness in his voice feels a little too rehearsed. He’s practiced in the art of crisis, so that’s what this must be. I glance over my shoulder – the cords restraining the patients have all been loosened, the machines reeling them back in like twine. The infected drift free, their eyes all snapping open at once. “You hit the safety release. Get out.”
I let go of the woman, letting her body float away, and strap my suit back on. The patients glide towards me, their bony hands scratching at the air. I jam my arms into the sleeves, forgoing the helmet, and scramble across the room as fast as the bulky rind will allow me. One of the patients scrapes my shoulder. He hovers above me, his spit dripping to the floor, sizzling and melting the tiles all around me.
I trudge to the air shower, through a gauntlet of scarred fingers and gnashing teeth, but they float out of reach in two perfectly even columns before ever touching me.
Conrad pounds the glass ahead. I come to a dead stop just short of the air shower. One of the infected has a fist around the back of my neck. I drop to my knees and crawl the last few meters, towing the patient behind me as I smack the glass with my palm. The doctor shakes his head. Conrad points to a shelf beside me. “There’s a surgical laser lashed to that tray,” he says, his voice sapped of all emotion.
I kick and claw at the arm of the infected, but his grip only tightens. Above him, a legion of rotting flesh and cracking jaws inches across the ceiling.
“Use the laser!” Conrad orders.
“No, I can’t.”
“He’s won’t need two arms, Tessa, he’ll be dead in a week. You will be, too, if you don’t use the laser.”
A hundred demon eyes roam my skin, their hollow cries sending shockwaves through my frontal lobe. Spit drips from their mouths, singing the backs of those beneath as they swim over top each other towards the glass, waiting to pull me up into their darkness. You’re next, they seem to be saying. My hands fumble with the clasp. The infected draws lines of blood over my back with his fingernails. I finally get the laser unhooked, sending it spinning through the air.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him, the words softened by my huffs. Even if he can understand me, the words will carry little weight, given what I’m about to do. I hear the sound of the laser charging, followed by a shriek at a register nature typically reserves for gazelles who wander into the hunting ground of lions. The flash from the laser ignites his eyes a hazy blue.
I pull away, and his brittle arm breaks from his body, leaving vapors of black dust hanging in the air. The glass door shoots open behind me. I scurry into the air shower, the man’s severed arm still snared around my neck. The patients fleck the glass with burning saliva as the door between us drops. Jets in the wall blow clouds of air in a circle around me.
And just like that, I’m clean again.