Epidemic

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Coercion

The rebounding crash of a boot kicking in the front door broke the stalemate. Thomson lowered the gun with a grimace. Cole stepped away from the bed, his own gun down by his side. His head moved from left to right.

“We don’t have time to get out of here.”

Thomson smiled. “We don’t, which means we’ll have to fight.”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Cole growled. “You can see.”

Rolling his eyes, Thomson checked the magazine in his gun, keeping an eye on the door.

Whoever had broken in hadn’t announced their presence, which probably meant they were the men Heidi had called before she’d been shot. Scarily enough, I was eager to see them appear in the doorway. I didn’t care how many were shot, as long as enough were left to take Cole and Thomson down.

In fact, to help it along: “we’re up here! In the master bedroom.” I shouted. “Cole and Thomson are here too, and they’re both armed. Thomson’s got his weapon trained –”

Thomson pointed his gun at me. “Shut up.”

“Never mind!” I told the home invaders. “It’s on me, now.”

I strained to hear any sound. I wanted to know where my rescuers were in the house. How were they being so quiet? They had to be wearing armour, with combat boots and heavy weapons, like a S.W.A.T team. And wasn’t someone supposed to be shouting orders? Why were they being deliberately quiet? We knew they were downstairs, and they knew we were upstairs.

A silver canister rolled into the bedroom. Thomson and I stared at it.

“What?” Cole asked, picking up on the sudden tension in the room. He raised his gun to his face. “Where are they?”

A wisp of smoke was the only warning we had before the canister detonated. The room, within the space of three seconds, was flooded with grey smoke that made my eyes burn. Thomson’s silhouette bent at the waist. Something was bunched in his hand. He was trying to cover his face with his shirt.

Cole started coughing, which triggered my own fit. It felt like I was hacking up my injured lung, which I probably was. My bonds seemed to tighten as the fog infiltrated my body, every muscle slackening against its will and leaving me slumped and helpless. A thud broadcasted Cole’s own collapse. Thomson wasn’t faring much better – he was down on his knees, his shirt falling from his grip.

Then my muscles weren’t the only things to give up the ghost. I felt the circuits in my brain halt, as if they’d stopped at a red light all at once. Unconsciousness seeped into every part of my mind until my last spark of awareness surrendered to the appeal of oblivion.


The first thing I noticed when I woke was that my right arm, from the elbow down, was gone. Despite telling myself at Vaux’s that it was nothing more than a dead limb, shock assaulted my mind nonetheless. There was something fundamentally wrong with going to sleep and waking up with one less body part.

“Sasha?” A muffled voice drew my attention. There was a woman in a white uniform standing over my bed, a face mask hooked behind her ears. From her neck down, there wasn’t a single speck of exposed skin.

“Where’s my arm?” I asked (rather stupidly).

“Our surgeons weren’t able to save it, honey. It was deprived of blood for too long. But,” she took a clipboard from the foot of my bed and showed me the front page. All I saw were scrawls and numbers. My confusion must have shown on my face, because she set it down by my feet. “We managed to stabilise your other injuries. We were pleasantly surprised to see that you’d staved off infection. And your stitches weren’t too bad. You certainly saved our doctors some trouble.”

“My ma was training to be a nurse,” I said. “She taught me a thing or two about infections.”

With a gentle tap on my ankle, she moved to the IV drip on my left. “Your mother was a smart woman.” Without making eye contact, she checked the tube which ran into my left arm. “I’m sorry to hear what happened to her.”

I scoffed. “I didn’t hurt her, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“I know you didn’t hurt her,” she assured me, moving on to my heart monitor. “And the people you did hurt,” she said, looking down at her feet, “well, none of that was your fault.”

“Are you trying to say you blame yourself?”

Stepping away from the machines around my bedside, she finally brought her gaze up to meet mine. I was startled by the tears in her eyes. They seemed so…out-of-place. They certainly didn’t belong in my hospital room. “Of course I blame myself, Sasha. Fortis was my brainchild. I did this. Others might have helped me isolate the formula and produce it, but the idea was mine and mine alone.”

You invented Fortis?”

Her throat bobbed as she swallowed. “I was tired of seeing pain in people’s eyes.”

“And fear? What traumatic memory made you want to get rid of that?”

"Who doesn’t dream of being fearless?” She said in a small voice - one I could barely hear through the fabric over her mouth.

“Is that why you became a doctor?” I asked her.

“No,” she replied.


Days passed in a numbingly boring pattern. Nurses in full body coverage would wheel meals into my room three times a day and feed them to me. The rest of the time I slept, contemplated my life or asked to speak with Hannah, Fortis’s creator. Sometimes she’d grant my request and we’d talk for hours, and sometimes she’d ignore me completely. I enjoyed our conversations as far as I was able – I found it fascinating to hear about the circumstances which had motivated her.

When she was five years old, her father had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a condition which had grown progressively worse as she'd grown up. By her fourteenth birthday, he couldn’t get out of bed without crying from the pain. One day when her mother was working late and her brother was at a football match, she’d come home to find him dead in bed. He’d overdosed on his medication.

The loss had crippled her family, and she’d escaped into the army at sixteen. She’d trained as a nurse, and when she was qualified, she’d accepted assignments all over the globe. She’d treated bomb victims, people with bullet wounds and stab wounds, soldiers who’d been tortured. Her twenties had been nothing but a bloody parade of people needing her help. She’d saved some and lost others, but every pair of eyes, dead or alive, showed her the same thing: fear. And over the years, she’d grown to despise it. She despised the dignity it took from people, the peace of mind, the faith. Fear became the enemy she was fighting against, and every time a patient was rolled into her ward with it in their eyes, her hate for it would grow. It grew until Fortis replaced that hate.

I’d asked her if she’d destroy Fortis, given the chance. Wipe it off the face of the earth as if it’d never existed. She’d bitten her lip. Our whole discussion had proved to me that, despite mourning the consequences of her ambition, she hadn’t learnt a thing. Five years from now, if the world survived this outbreak, she’d be cooking up something else.

When Hannah denied me her company, I wasted time watching the sun move across the sky and fantasising about the world below. I fancied that I could hear protesters outside, demanding that the scientists execute us to contain the outbreak. I imagined the overflowing infection camps, filled with doll-like individuals starved of their ability to feel. I recalled everyone I’d met in the last couple of weeks, and wondered what they were up to: Saeed and his family, Jack, Shooter, the family I’d attacked in the layby, Justine. I thought about the people who’d died at my hand, or because of me: Ma, Saeed’s girlfriend, Jack’s parents, Vaux, Robert and Heidi. I felt no emotion as their faces flickered across my memory, but I contented myself by pretending. I conjured guilt, sadness, joy, anger, jealousy and grief. They were hollow, two-dimensional fictions but they amused me for a while.

On the fourth day, when the sun was high in the sky and I was preoccupied with a stain on the ceiling, Hannah let herself into the room with excitement in her eyes and a capped needle in her hand. She stopped by the foot of my bed and waved it at me.

“We’ve done it. This formula will negate Fortis’s effects.”

Turning away from the stain, which reminded me of a tea bag, I crooked an eyebrow at her. “And what? You want me to be your test subject?”

My sulkiness didn’t deter her enthusiasm. “This is it, Sasha. If we can cure you, we can cure everyone who has been infected by this damned drug.”

“What if I don’t want to be cured? You can’t force me. That goes against my human rights.”

She must have realised that I was serious, because her delight finally dulled and she frowned at me. “Why don’t you want to be cured?”

“Would you?” I demanded. “I’ve slaughtered people in cold blood. I’ve lost the only family I have. I’ve sustained so many injuries that I’m going to spend the next few months bedridden. Why on earth would I want to feel any of that?”

“Sasha –”

“No. You don’t get to look at me with sympathy, or guilt, or anger. You might have done this to me, Hannah, but you didn’t force me to do those things. What I did, was all me. And I have to face that if you bring me back to myself, and I don’t want to. God, I don’t want to.”

Her eyes crinkled at the corners. “Are you scared, Sasha?”

Silence spread before us like a gaping chasm. I peered over the edge of it, curious about the drop, but a gushing torrent stood between me and admitting my true feelings. Whatever I felt, truly, was buried under the riverbed, and if I tried to dive deep into the water to retrieve it, the current would sweep me away. Fortis would sweep me away.

“We all have to pay the Piper his due. And we’re all scared of that.” Hannah, probably meaning to comfort me, put her hand on my blanket and rubbed my leg. It felt strange.

“I’m not scared. I can’t be scared. It’s impossible.”

“For all we know, it’s not. Fortis is an experimental drug. We can’t know everything about it, including how long it remains in the system. What you’re feeling might be the beginning of it leaving your system.”

I blinked at her. “You really think that’s possible?”

“Anything’s possible,” she said. “Fortis was created to last for twenty four hours, with a decreasing level of efficiency over that time. Our clinical trial with you and the others was the first time the drug didn't do what we were expecting.”

“Where are the others?” I asked.

“In their own rooms.”

“Have you asked any of them to try your new formula?”

Her answer, when it came, was a hesitant “no.” She must have noticed the suspicion that that conjured in me because she hurried to explain herself. “You’re a special case, Sasha. The others…are at differing levels of infection.”

“In other words, I’m the gullible one?”

“I have to think about my staff’s safety, Sasha. Cole head-butted one of my nurses. Thomson spat on one and infected him.”

“You have Grey, and Emma, and the Filipino.”

“Her name’s Dahlia.”

“Why not use them?”

“You are the most far gone, Sasha. If this,” she showed me the needle in her hand again,“can bring you back to yourself, it’ll save everyone. It’ll save the world.”

“I don’t trust that, and I don’t trust you, Hannah.”

“You’re still refusing?”

“And I’ll keep refusing. I am not your guinea pig.”

“No. You’re our prisoner.” Turning to face the window, and its view outside, she put her hands in her pockets. “I can’t pretend to know how your brain or body is functioning. If the situation weren’t so dire, I’d be doing every test I know. Learning as much as I can about Fortis, and its effects, and its benefits. But I don’t have that luxury. If we don’t mass-produce a cure in the next few days, the world will fall.”

“There are millions of scientists in the world. Don’t you think it’s big-headed of you to believe that you’re the only one who can mix up a cure in your test tubes?”

“I know Fortis. I know every ingredient, every reaction, and every chemical in its make-up. My knowledge of it is so intimate that I could reconstruct it with my eyes closed. And I refuse to share that knowledge, because one day, Fortis will be perfected and it will save this earth and I’ll be damned if someone else gets the credit.”

That torrent in my head splashed the sides of the chasm, and for a brief second I could see the ground it sped across. It exposed a surge of indignation and disbelief to me, emotion so strong that my words, when I spoke, were almost a shout. “How can you be so selfish? You have crippled the world with your drug, and you’re going to let us all die because you don’t want to share the glory? I have news for you, Hannah. When the public realise that you’re responsible for Fortis, you’ll get your recognition. Right before they rip your face off.”

I’m selfish? Here I am, offering you a cure, and you’re refusing to take it!”

“It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s exactly the same thing. Neither of us wants to surrender. You don’t want to face emotion, and I don’t want to lose to fear. Not again.”

When I made no attempt at replying, she lowered the mask from her face, revealing pomegranate red lips and a scattering of freckles. The exposure of her whole face made her look like a child who’d wandered into the wrong room.

“Sometimes we have to do the right thing, even when we don’t want to. And the right thing, Sasha, is you taking this cure. We both know it. Your mother would have known it, and if you refuse to take it, we both know you’d be disappointing her.”

Don’t mention her again - my mother is dead. What she’d want me to do doesn’t matter any more.”

“Of course it matters. She might be dead but she’s in your heart, watching over you.”

If that was true, deciding to take this cure would hardly make a difference -not in the grand scheme of things. Violence had always horrified her, and I’d indulged it without consideration for the consequences. She’d never forgive me for that, no matter what excuses I gave.

“You’re a hypocrite, Hannah,” I said. “You’re telling me to do the right thing, yet you won’t share the genetic formula for Fortis because you don’t want someone else to make it better, or to make a cure. You want the credit when you announce that you’ve cured us all. And five years down the line, when you’ve ironed out the kinks and the world has forgotten about this near miss, you’ll announce that you’ve perfected Fortis and you’ll get another bout of credit.”

“Why shouldn’t I get the credit? I’ve spent years toiling over its formula, testing it, begging for grants, refining it, being at the behest of my superiors. I deserve to share my invention with the world after everything I’ve been through to create it.”

How could I argue with that? With her? She was too far gone. On the surface, she was attempting to reverse the damage Fortis had done, and that was all people could see. No one cared about her true intentions, especially not if she cleaned up her mess. I could have screamed until nurses came rushing in, and told them everything, but there was no point. There was no point to anything. Not really.

I had two options: remain as I was, or accept the cure. If I remained as I was, chances were she’d find another test subject and I’d be cured somewhere down the line regardless. But at least it’d be a proven formula by then, whereas if I took the chance now, anything could happen. My blood could boil. My heart could stop. I could lose something even more precious than my emotions – my life, my reasoning, or my sanity. The risk wasn’t worth it. I didn’t care about the well-being of the world – I only cared about my own health, and she wanted to compromise that.

“Nothing you say will change my mind,” I said, overriding whatever self-righteous crap she’d been spouting. “You don’t have my permission to inject the cure, and you never will.”

It took her a moment to catch up with the turn in the conversation. She’d probably thought her sob story would win me over. That I’d appreciate her honesty, and put my trust in her. If my emotions had been up and running, I would have.

“Think about this, Sasha, please.”

“I am. And my thinking assures me that I shouldn’t trust you.”

Her mouth opened and closed. Her lips pressed together. A light flickered in her eyes – an animation unlike anything I’d ever seen. It was scary in its intensity, as if it’d reach out and burn me to a cinder. It reminded me of Thomson’s vehemence, and Cole’s hatred. It promised that I’d regret this, that my permission wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, that I’d best sleep with one eye open.

“You have to be the most selfish girl I’ve ever met, Miss Burns.”

“Don’t be so pessimistic, Hannah. You’re giving me a run for my money.”

She strode to the door and poked her head outside. My danger sense started tingling when she brought her head back inside, closed the door and locked it with a key from her pocket.

“What are you doing?” I demanded, as she walked over to my bedside.

With a smile, she retrieved the capped needle, took off its lid and pierced the IV tube. My heart pounded like a hammer as the milky liquid tainted the intravenous fluid. I didn’t feel it enter my body, but my brain was convinced I could.

“You can’t do this,” I told her. “It’s unethical, and I have rights.”

She scoffed. “You’re a murderer, Sasha. You have no rights.”
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