Epidemic

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Apathy

Hannah dragged a chair over to my bedside and sat vigil for hours. Every small motion or word, every breath or hiccup, she took note of. Her questions and observations were endless, and I didn’t answer a single one. I wouldn’t give her that pleasure.

She insulted us both by apologising for her rudeness, for her breach of behaviour, for her hypocrisy. Every attempt she made to start a conversation with me was rooted in desperation, and the stink of it disgusted me. She disgusted me.

It dawned on me, gradually, that disgust was an emotion and I was feeling it freely. I didn’t tell her that – God forbid I let her have hope that her cure had worked, but I explored the realisation mentally. I recalled everything I’d done systemically; each decision, each injury, each victim, and self-disgust rose within me like a tide, threatening to swallow my consciousness in a flood of self-loathing and hatred. I could smell the emotion, like burnt meat and Christmas pudding (a food I’d hated since I was little), and felt it running through my fingers like sand.

I dived into the torrent at the bottom of the chasm, and tried to take other emotions from the riverbed -happier ones-, but my fingers met with pebbles and mud. And as time trickled on, each second like a war bell clanging in my head, promising a return to darker times, the torrent became faster, and colder, and harsher, and soon the riverbed was lost to my sight. The promise of other emotion was snatched from me until only disgust remained.

“You can’t mean to sit here in silence,” Hannah said, shattering the stillness with an aggrieved exhale. “I know I breached your trust, but it was all I could do. You’re the only candidate I could have tested the cure on, and regardless of me injecting it against your will, the only people you’re hurting if you don’t talk to me are the people outside of this facility. The ones you and your friends infected.”

“If you think I’m going to give you the satisfaction of –”

Her eyes bulged. “This isn’t about satisfaction, Sasha. I know I messed up and that Fortis is my fault, and I know you don’t believe me when I say that I want to help people, but it’s true. It doesn’t matter that I won’t share the formula – I made a cure, didn’t I? A cure I will share with the world, no holds barred. But I can’t share that cure if it doesn’t work, and I won’t know if it works if you don’t talk to me.”

“It doesn’t,” I grumbled.

With an eagerness she made no attempt to hide she leant forward in her seat, clipboard at the ready and pen poised, and nodded for me to go on. The disgust I felt for myself, and for my actions, motivated me.

“I felt it the minute you injected it into my veins. It felt like it…burnt my blood. And I can feel, but only disgust at myself, at what I’ve done, at who I’ve hurt.” Her pen scribbled. I watched it bob for half a second. “The emotion isn’t the same either. I can…smell it, and feel it.”

Without looking up from her notes, she asked: “what do you smell? And feel?”

“It smells like burnt meat and Christmas pudding, two things I couldn’t stand as a kid. The smells alone made me feel sick. And it’s like sand in-between my fingers. I keep letting it fall, hoping it’ll all slip away, but there’s too much. It never runs out.”

“Disgust is the only thing you can feel?”

I described the chasm to her, and the riverbed. I told her that I’d tried to retrieve happier emotions, things that I’d welcome and want to keep, but that my fingers hadn’t been able to find anything but stones and dirt. That seemed to fascinate her.

“This chasm, and the torrent below, seem to be your brain’s way of acknowledging what’s happened to you. It’s like you’re telling yourself that your emotions aren’t gone, only buried, and that they are retrievable if you can find a way to survive the fall and fight the current.”

“The fall isn’t the problem. I…appear down there when I decide that I want to feel. But the torrent doesn’t ease, not even when I want to reach the bottom.”

“Fortis must be the torrent,” she said, before abruptly straightening. “Maybe I’ve gone about this the wrong way. The cure I gave you was supposed to stabilise the blood stream until Fortis left your system. But that didn’t work, because the Fortis in your body has mutated. It’s not leaving. I need to give you something which destroys the Fortis already in your body. It hasn’t destroyed your emotions, so when it’s gone they’ll come back exactly as they were.”

“Why am I feeling my emotions? And smelling them? That’s not normal.”

“You’ve been deprived of them for weeks. Your brain’s probably struggling to acclimatise to their sudden reappearance. It’ll pass.” Her answer was half-arsed, since she was already on her feet and heading for the door. Obviously her epiphany had convinced her of the urgency of the situation, and she didn’t want to waste a minute.

“What if there’s another reason?”

With a sigh, she stopped and turned to face me. “Like what?”

“I don’t know. You’re the doctor. But shouldn’t you run more tests? Isn’t there a thing where people smell certain smells when they have tumours, or certain illnesses? This is uncharted territory. What if the drug does something else?”

“I’ll have a nurse watch over you,” she said dismissively. “If anything happens, he’ll come and get me.”

“And if you’re too late?” I asked, but she was already gone.


The nurse she appointed was a judgemental prick. He stood with his back to the wall next to the door, and barely spared me a glance. When I called him out on it, he told me I was a “vile example of humanity” and he hoped “I rotted in hell, where I belonged”. I wanted to stick my tongue out at him, tell him how little his opinion meant to me, but the disgust in my veins stopped me.

It told me he was right; I’d done appalling things, and I deserved to be hated, and condemned, and punished. I wanted to wrap my fist around it and squeeze the life out, but it was intangible, and any attempt I made to capture it ended in failure. When I eventually gave up, it piped up immediately with a slideshow of all the horrendous things I’d done. It was like a teacher torturing their students’ with homework over the holidays. The Fortis in my system deprived me of my ability to fight against its whispers. Every time disgust flashed a picture up in my mind of something I’d done, any logic I could have used to justify it was snatched from me. I couldn’t use anger to excuse my actions, because I no longer felt it. I couldn’t use grief, or vengeance, to defend myself. I’d been cursed with emotion, but only one, and it was destroying me.

“I need to speak with Hannah,” I told my guard.

He ignored me.

“Are you deaf? I need to her. Something’s wrong.”

“She’s busy.”

“I don’t give a damn. She told me to ask for her if anything happened, and something’s happening.”

He scanned me, head-to-toe. “You look fine.”

“Something’s happening in my head!” I hissed, struggling against the blankets covering my legs. “I’m remembering everything I’ve done, but I can feel it. I can feel it too much.”

A scoff slipped from his lips as his whole body relaxed, and he smirked at me. “You’re feeling guilty, you mean. The cure worked.”

“No. I don’t feel…guilty. I feel…disgusted.”

“Join the club.”

I frowned at him. “Could you not? I know you hate me, but get the hell over it. We’ve all done stuff we regret.”

“But you don’t regret it. You don’t regret anything.”

I opened my mouth to dispute his accusation, but no words came. It should have been a startling realisation -that I didn’t regret my actions-, but I wasn’t surprised. If I could feel, I’d beat myself up, but I couldn’t. One emotion did not make me a functioning human being.

But I would be, if Hannah got her way. I’d have to face everything I’d done, because she wouldn’t give me a choice. She’d said it best herself – I had no rights tied to this bed. I’d be inundated with her concoctions until one of them worked, or until my heart stopped. They wouldn’t release me, or reunite me with the others. The only human contact they’d grant me was with them. If I stayed here, I’d become dependent on their comings and goings, on their whims.

How hadn’t I seen it before? That was why Hannah had shared so much of her life story, why she’d tried to endear herself to me, why she’d played on my smothered emotions in an attempt to force my compliance. She didn’t care what happened to me after her precious cure was perfected – I’d rot in a cell somewhere for the rest of my life, if one of her nurses didn’t euthanise me first.

“I need Hannah,” I reiterated to the nurse, “and you’ll fetch her, unless you want to explain why you let her test subject die.”

While he didn’t look particularly happy about it, he left the room to summon his superior. I took advantage of the privacy his exit allowed me and set about freeing myself. My efforts to free my legs renewed, but even with the blanket dislodged, my ankles were strapped down. My left arm wasn’t much better – my wrist was handcuffed to the bed rail. But my right arm, what remained of it, was unrestrained. Obviously, Hannah didn’t think I could do any damage with half an arm. Boy, was she wrong.

I rolled onto my side, ignoring the tug in my ankle as it was twisted into an awkward position, and put my stump against the handcuffs to hold them steady. Then I pulled my left wrist. Hard.

The first time, I lost my grip and the cuffs rattled. The second time, it happened again. By the third, I was checking the doorway in case the racket had attracted attention. My wrist grew bloodier and bloodier as the pressure I placed on it increased. Skin sloughed off, coating the bed covers and cuff. White bone was exposed on my fourth attempt, but it proved to be a precursor to success. I contorted my fingers, listening to them click and rattle, and tugged with all my might. My broken hand came loose, trailing bodily fluids in its wake. I didn’t care. I was one step closer to escaping this hell-hole.

I undid the buckles on the straps around my ankles, and clambered down from the bed. I must have been close to breaking point, because I could feel the agony of the movement and the complaint of my body as I forced it beyond its endurance. I no longer cared about my own health however, not if preserving it meant submitting to Hannah and her experiments. I would not let her strangle me with her leash.

There was an empty vase on the windowsill. I chucked it through the window, and broke off a shard from the broken glass to use as a weapon. Prick chose that moment to run back into the room. When he saw me standing by the window, he drew his gun from his holster. Or tried to. I charged him before he could get it completely loose, and the collision sent us both flying out of the open doorway and into the hall.

He shoved me off him, sparing no force, and stripped off his scrubs with manic efficiency. My blood was smeared on them, and on his chin, but I didn’t bother telling him about the latter. He’d realise eventually.

I walked over to his gun, which had slid across the laminate floor, and he watched me go suspiciously, until he realised what I was heading towards.

“No!” He shouted, already scrambling to his feet, but he wasn’t quick enough.

I scooped up the gun by its barrel, adjusted my hold, and shot him. The force of the blow sent him back into the wall, a spider web of blood marking the paintwork and his bare chest. The wound was tiny, - so small that I doubted its ability to kill him, but a moment later, he wheezed his last breath and closed his eyes, dropping to the floor like a stringless marionette.

“Wow,” I said, weighing the gun in my hand. “You’re going to come in handy, aren’t you little fella?”


I shot two nurses and a doctor. They were all armed, and I took advantage of that by stripping the doctor out of his lab coat and putting the pilfered guns in its deep pockets.

News of my ruthlessness must have gotten around, because the guards outside the room I stopped in front of retreated with their hands in the air and left me to my own devices. I let them go.

The door required a pass card, which I didn’t have, so I fed it bullets instead. When the door eventually swung open, allowing me access, Emma pouted at me from her hospital bed, where she was unrestrained and reading a magazine.

“Was that really necessary?” she asked. I cocked the gun in reply, and her eyes shot from my face to my stump. “What happened to your arm?”

“Restricted blood flow.”

Her brow crinkled. “I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not.”

She tilted her head, a cheeky smile at the corner of her mouth. “I assure you, I am. But you can’t help but appreciate the irony. You took Cole’s eyes, and someone took your arm.”

I stared into her blue eyes and frowned. Her pupils were massively dilated.

“What’s wrong with you?”

When she didn’t reply, I checked the clipboard at the bottom of her bed for information. Hannah’s scribbles were all over the paper, explaining an extraction procedure. From the sounds of it, she’d had her nurses draw blood out of Emma while a fresh supply was pumped in to replace it. Had it been successful? I couldn’t tell from the girl in front of me.

I waved the board at her. “What happened with the operation? Do you feel different? Can you feel, at all?”

With a carefree giggle, she buffed her nails on her hospital gown. When she’d finished, she bit her lip and giggled again. “They didn’t take all of the old blood out of me before they put the new stuff in, so Fortis infected it before they’d finished the transfer.”

“Do they know that?”

With a raised eyebrow, she got to her feet and gestured to the restraint-less bed. “What kind of idiot do you think I am? I’m done being a prisoner in this place. In fact, I’m ready to leave, if you’re offering me a way out.”

“There are guns in my coat. Take one.”

She did as I instructed. Her handling was clumsy, and she seemed to have no idea what part of the gun was which, but I solved that swiftly. By the time I’d finished my tutorial, she knew the basics and was confident enough in her abilities to aim her gun at me. I crooked an eyebrow.

“I’m not ready to go yet,” I said, “but do what you want.”

“You’re going to show me the way out,” she said, “and then you’re going to distract them while I get away.”

I laughed. “Am I? I didn’t know I was so accommodating.”

“Don’t joke with me, Sasha. I’m not in the mood.”

“Neither am I,” I said, before pulling my own trigger. The bullet went into her stomach and lodged there. She looked down in surprise, taking her eye off the prize, and I tackled her to the floor. The gun went flying.

“You shot me,” she whined from beneath me as I sat on her prone body. Her blood stained my legs from the knees down, and I scowled at her, pissed off with the turn of events her rescue had taken.

“I hurt the people who betray me. Ask Thomson.”

With a suddenness that belayed her drama queen nature, she stopped rolling on the floor in ‘agony’ and started battering on my chest with her little fists. When I backed up, keeping my weapon trained on her, she sat up and straightened her gown. “Thomson’s here?”

I nodded. “They took all three of us – me, Thomson and Cole.”

With a toss of her head, she smirked at me through her hair. “On second thought, I might tag along with you. Thomson and I are due a reunion.”

“Why the hell would I trust you at my back after what you just did?”

“I’m impulsive,” she said unapologetically, and with a shrug.

“So am I.” With a dead beat in my heart, I put the gun to her temple. “I might even impulsively put a bullet into your brain.”

She made eye contact, and refused to release me from her stare. “Do it if you want to. But you came into this room for a reason, Sasha, and if you kill me, where does that leave you?”

“On the lookout for better allies, obviously.”

Disgust chose that moment to rear its ugly head; it looked down its nose at my trained weapon, and at Emma, and snorted. It saw my motives as shallow and selfish, and my actions as thoughtless and destructive. I told it to take a hike. Killing Emma was a logical reaction to the progression of events – she’d turned her weapon on me the minute I’d lowered my guard. That turncoat spirit wouldn’t leave her. If I kept her on my team, I’d be dancing with disaster any time I left her unsupervised.

Despite that sound logic, my finger wouldn’t press the trigger. Emma must have realised that I wasn’t going to kill her, because she retrieved her gun and patted me on the shoulder.

“We don’t have to trust each other, Sasha. The world doesn’t work like that any more.”

“And if you shoot me in the back?”

“Then you’re dead. I’m not making any promises, and neither are you. If my only way out is to shoot you, I’ll do it in a hot minute. And you'd do the same thing, so don’t frown at me. This is the new world order. Survival of the fittest.”

“But it’s not survival of the fittest. It’s survival of the most ruthless.”

“Aren’t they the same thing?”

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