Despite his evident seriousness, I laughed in his face. I laughed so hard that I strained the stitches in my back. Thomson jabbed a finger at me.
“We can’t disappear, Sasha. Our faces are splattered across every news channel, our personal information has been made public, and there’s surveillance everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before they find us.”
“They? The government?”
“MI5. Snipers. The FBI. This goes beyond the United Kingdom. Do you really think America isn’t going to intervene in this outbreak? Fortis can bring about the apocalypse, which means no one will show us any sympathy. We’re dead people walking.”
I straightened the collar on my coat. “Why does that bother you? We don’t feel pain, and we don’t fear death. Any tests they do, any samples they take, any treatment they inject us with, won’t hurt us. At least not in a way that matters.”
“And if they stop our hearts with one of those injections? If they decide we’re not worth the risk? We both know they’d kill six people for the sake of the world.”
“I imagine anyone would,” I told him.
“My point is, the thought of what would come after capture doesn’t bother me. I’m angry that they want to lock us away in the first place. They made us into this. It’s not our fault they screwed up. Where’s their punishment? A scientist will get a slap on the wrist, and we’ll spend the rest of our lives in a facility somewhere, dead to the world. How is that fair?”
“And your plan is to infect the general populace, to take the attention off us?”
“Exactly.” He unscrewed the cap on his vial and waved it under my nose. The smell made me recoil. He shrugged his shoulders indelicately. “It doesn’t smell particularly nice, but it’ll do the trick.”
“Is that yours?” I demanded, looking him over for any open wounds. Taking note of my curiosity, he hiked his left leg onto my chair and rolled up his trouser leg. Above his ankle was a laceration, ugly and festering. My hand hovered over it, tempted to touch, but the heat it was emitting convinced me to keep away. I might not feel pain, but I couldn’t take risks with my health, not if I hoped to survive the year.
“It’s only the latest cut.” He informed me proudly, setting his foot back on the floor. “I’ve been cutting and leaving my blood everywhere I can while I’ve been tracking you.” Gesturing me closer, he whispered in my ear: “I even peed in a swimming pool, which had to infect at least fifty people, most of them kids.” When he drew back, he was frowning. “That was before the broadcast. I can’t go anywhere openly ever since they showed the public my face. I’ve had to be covert.”
I sucked my bottom lip, doing nothing to hide the disgust that’d spread across my face. “You’ve purposely been infecting people?”
“We both have, so don’t get all high and mighty with me.” He snapped. “All it takes is a touch. Fortis isn’t only in our bloodstream, it’s on our skin. Everyone you’ve come into contact with, everything you’ve touched, has been infected. I’ll bet you’ve turned almost as many people as me.”
Denial instantly had me shaking my head. “You’re lying. The drug couldn’t have transferred to our skin: it’s internal.”
“Fortis explores uncharted territory. No one knows what it’ll evolve into. We might wake up tomorrow, and our very breath will be enough to infect those around us.” That disturbing notion would have been enough to give me nightmares (if I hadn’t already been suffering from them).
I grabbed the vial from his hand and buried it deep in my coat pocket.
“It won’t make a difference. I only have to brush past someone to put Fortis into their system.”
“Why bother with blood at all then?”
“You have to be out in public, risking someone spotting you, to infect enough people to make a difference. But with blood, I can hide and watch from afar. I’ve been pouring it into and onto everything I can find: sewers, sinks, toilets seats, taps, door handles, unattended drinks. I even dipped a baby’s dummy in some.”
“That is disgusting.”
He smiled like a guilty child caught stealing from the cookie jar. “You say tomatoe, I say tomato.”
“Why on earth would I help you?”
This time he was the one to laugh as if his sides were splitting. I watched him with impatience, and smothered the urge to smack him upside the head. When he finally calmed down enough to speak, I regretted not thwacking him. “Do you think you’re better than me? Is that why you’re acting like a prissy, little girl? I’m not wanted for four counts of murder, one of the victims my own mother! I’m not the monster. I think you’ve earnt the right to have that term all to yourself.”
My mouth opened, and an attempt at justifying my actions threatened to spill out, but the words stuck in my throat. Why did I have to prove myself to him? He was a judgemental, little prick who believed the world was out to get him. He’d deliberately spread Fortis, fully aware of the chaos it would wreak. At least I’d inflicted misery that was deserved.
“I am better than you, Thomson, and I don’t have to explain myself.”
“No, you don’t. And neither do I.”
The bus coasted to a stop, and he yanked on my sleeve. “Let’s get off here. I don’t like the way those kids are staring at us.”
The kids in question had wide eyes and tightly closed mouths. They’d either recognised us, or heard every word we’d said and were hoping that by holding perfectly still, they wouldn’t get infected.
With amusement battering at my brain, I followed Thomson off the bus, bumping into one of the kids on my way out. It was fun to watch the panic grow on his face as we got further and further away. By the time the bus set off again, he was on his feet racing to strip off his jacket.
“Those kids heard every word we said,” I said to Thomson.
“And they’ll pass it on,” he replied, “causing mass hysteria and an environment of paranoia, panic and suspicion. A place ideal for us to hide ourselves in.”
A realisation hit me. “That’s what you’ve been doing. Every time you move on, you leave behind stories. You tell people that you’ve infected them to encourage their panic.”
“I must confess, that isn’t my only motivation. I love the looks on their faces when they realise that they’re infectious. Some of them cry.”
“You’re a very sick man.”
With a graceless shrug, he peered over his shoulder at me. “I was always scared to be this way before. I knew society wouldn’t accept me for who I was, and nothing scared me more than being shunned. Now?” Clenching his fists, he brought them to his mouth and kissed his knuckles. “This drug has changed my life. Made it better. It’s bringing the truth back into play. It means that I don’t lie to anyone, or to myself any more, and they don’t get to lie to me. My bitch of an ex-wife found that out for herself. You make that face,” he said, “but you’ve realised the same thing. The people that could hurt you, that had power over you, don’t have the upper hand. Fortis has freed us from their whining, and their guilt trips, and their incessant need to be right. We’re above them now. Is it wrong that I want to elevate everyone? Bring the world up to our level?”
“Yes,” I said, “it is.”
We made camp for the night in an empty store with a to-let sign in its broken window. The air was cold and the floor was hard, but I bunched up all the clothes I had and used the duffel as a pillow. Thomson lay down at my back, but I told him to move so he was in my line of sight, and he did it with a knowing chuckle.
“You know I’m right,” he said into the darkness.
“The world is full of innocent people. People who don’t deserve to be infected. To lose their ability to feel fear and pain. Look at what it’s done to us. We’re both on the run, eating scraps and sleeping rough in a building where I swear I can hear rats scurrying past my head. Why you would you want to inflict this on someone, let alone on the world? Who hurt you as a child to make you so bitter?”
The sound of him grinding his teeth made me shiver. I snuggled further into my makeshift sleeping bag, trying to escape from the sound. My efforts meant that his voice was muffled when it did come.
“My older siblings used to sneak into my room at night. One of them would hold me down, while the other one had their fun, then they’d switch. I tried to tell my mother, but she wouldn’t believe me. And my father was barely around. He worked late nights and early mornings. It was only eight years after that, when I was fourteen, that I mentioned it to my aunt at a Christmas meal, and she got me out of there.”
“And the world deserves to suffer because you did?”
I heard him pick something from between his teeth. “I spent my childhood terrified. I was abused at home, ignored in school because I wasn’t some child prodigy, and I stopped trusting that adults could actually make things better. My faith in humanity was shot by the time I was eight years old. I want to spare other kids, and other people, that pain. That loss. If no one can feel hurt, or fear, then no one has to go through what I went through.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. It wasn’t a selfish wish –not at its core. Thomson and Fortis had corrupted it. He’d been offered the opportunity to stand up to his bullies, and he was finally taking it. But his definition of standing up would send the whole world into chaos. How could I reason with that? With his self-destructive desire to see the world burn? Sense wasn’t left in his repertoire. Not anymore.
Which left me only one option: I had to kill him.
I lay awake, listening to his erratic breathing with a paranoid ear. He snored, he sniffed and he shuffled, but I wasn’t certain that he was actually asleep. Every now and then he’d time something too perfectly, and my hackles would rise. By the time I was certain he was dreaming, the sky outside the shop’s window was a mirage of pastel shades, and noise was returning to the world: birds, builders, engines.
Thomson’s ankle was already in a bad way – if I re-opened the wound and deepened it, he’d bleed out. And if he didn’t slip away fast enough, I could always slit his throat. I’d had practice with that method of execution.
It had to be done now, if I was going to do it. I had no way of knowing if this building was scheduled for renovations, or if a contractor was on their way to install a new window. Then again, maybe that was exactly what I needed. If I disabled Thomson long enough for him to be discovered, the police would be alerted and he’d be placed in quarantine with Emma, Grey and the Filipino. Problem solved.
I didn’t like it quite as much as the slit-throat idea – it left a lot open to chance, but I knew which one Justine would favour, and despite her betrayal, I didn’t want to disappoint her. Not when another life on my hands wasn’t necessary.
I sat up, packed away the clothes I’d used as a mattress into my duffel bag and took a drink from my water bottle. Thomson did not move a muscle. He didn’t react when I cleaned my wounds and changed my bandages either.
His stillness bolstered my confidence, and as I loaded my first aid kit back into the duffel, I retrieved my knife and rested it against the fabric of his dirty trousers, just above the exposed skin of his ankle. His leg jerked, and I paused, waiting for him to glare at me with scornful eyes, but he did no such thing. I slipped the tip of the blade into a patch of clean flesh and yanked upwards, drawing a thin, but deep, slash into his leg. Not a sigh, snort or cry slipped from his lips.
“I’m doing the world a favour,” I told him, before burying the knife in the wound on his ankle. It went into bone – I felt the reverberation in my hand.
His eyes shot open, but there was no pain in them. Only curiosity. “What are you doing?”
“With a knife in my ankle? Aren’t there more efficient ways?”
“You’re bleeding out, with a knife buried in a severe artery, and you’re critiquing my technique?”
“I’m saying that if you’re going to kill someone,” he reached down and withdrew the knife from his foot, watching with interest as blood glugged out from the hole it left behind, “you should do it in the quickest way possible, to guarantee that you actually take them off the playing field before they can retaliate.”
He jammed the knife into my right thigh. I gaped at him, then at the knife.
“Are you that immature? I hurt you, so you hurt me?”
He shrugged. “You reap what you sow.”
“I can’t let you infect anyone else, Thomson. I won’t.”
“But you’ll let yourself?” I bit my lip, and he nodded sarcastically. “I thought so. One rule for me, and another one for you.It doesn’t work that way, princess. If I’m going down, you’re going down with me.”
“And what if I’m ok with that?”
“If you were ok with it, you’d have turned yourself in when you realised what you were doing to the people around you. You like to think you’re different from me, that you’ll always do the right thing, but that’s bullshit. You like the freedom Fortis gives us. The gratification without the consequences.”
“There are consequences, Thomson.”
“Pictures on the TV and a name in the back of your mind. Hardly a pressing reason not to do something. We’ve ascended to another level of being, and I’m going to bring everyone else up to that level. I’m a generous god. I have power and I want to share it. I am Prometheus.”
“Then I hope someone crawls out of the woodwork and chains you to a mountain,” I snapped. “An eagle eating your liver is something I’d pay to watch.”
I stitched my latest wound with the last of my thread, and swaddled it in a bandage.
Thomson watched me. “Aren’t you going to do mine?”
“I’ll bleed out.”
With a raised eyebrow, I slipped the kit back into my duffel and zipped it up. “Should that bother me?”
“I don’t have my own supplies. At least leave me with something I can use to stop the bleeding.”
I gestured towards his clothes. “You’re wearing something you can use.”
He pinched the dirty fabric of his shirt. “I can’t use this. It’ll infect the wound. I’ll lose my foot.”
“What a pity.”
“Please,” he reiterated, pouting pathetically up at me with the ugliest puppy dog eyes I’d ever seen.
Once upon a time, I’d have caved to his pleading and cared for his injuries. No doubt he’d have used that distraction to impale me, or to rob me. I was smarter now – I knew not to trust apparent helplessness. I maintained a suitable distance from him and kept my belongings on my shoulder, out of easy reach.
“I’m going to leave you here,” I told him. “In five minutes I’m going to scream, and I’m going to tell the nearest person that I’ve found one of the bad men off the telly. Nice men in white suits are going to come and take you away. They’ll treat your wounds, give you a change of clothes and they’ll stop you from destroying this world, no matter what your motivations are.”
I left the shop, mindful of my own injuries, and did exactly what I’d promised, and by the time the first sirens blared in the distance, I’d jumped onto the nearest coach, paid the fare and taken a seat near the back. My destination was King’s Cross Station, in London.
I fell asleep on the journey, my duffel bag on the seat beside me. When I awoke, it was overcast outside and we were on a stretch of motorway, cars speeding by in the right hand lanes. I felt slow and grungy, and blood stained my jeans where Thomson had stabbed me. The bandage must be saturated, which meant I’d lost an awful amount of blood. Blood I couldn’t afford to lose.
I needed to find somewhere to lie low and recover – somewhere I could stash food and medical supplies, and disappear for a while. London wasn’t the ideal location, so I’d have to cut loose from the trip when we stopped for petrol and a bathroom break (if I hadn’t missed it during my nap time).
There was a head in front of me. I could make out black hair.
“Excuse me?” I called out to them, and was pleased when they turned to face me immediately. It was a middle-aged woman with a pixie cut and crinkled eyes. She had a phone to her ear, so I asked my question quickly. “Sorry to bother you, but I wanted to know if we’d stopped for the bathroom break yet?”
She shook her head. “Another hour yet, honey.”
A breath of relief escaped. “Thank you.”
With a nod, she turned back around and continued her conversation.
Like everyone else on the coach, I escaped the vehicle with enthusiasm and bee-lined straight for a fast food outlet. When I’d stuffed myself with carbohydrates and processed meat, I visited a shop to re-stock my first aid kit, and then locked myself in the disabled stall in the bathroom to deal with my thigh wound. The stitches were jerkily stretched, and the skin they were supposed to be holding together gaped like a bobble that’d lost its shape.
With shaking hands, I snipped the stitches and tugged them loose. It made a mess, as blood trickled onto my legs, the toilet, the floor and the sanitary bin, but I persevered. I used my new spool of thread to redo the stitches, this time closer together, and I cleaned the wound vigorously.
The allocated time to meet back at the coach came and went. I took care of my other wounds, checking their cleanliness, and how they were healing. My skin was ashen and cold, and I was trembling, but nothing looked infected, so that was something. I changed clothes and left my old ones folded behind the sanitary bin.
To be certain that the coach had indeed set off without me, I crept out of the bathroom once I was finished attending to my injuries, careful to stick to large crowds of people, and made my way to the extensive car park. The coach park had four vehicles in it, but none of them were the one I’d been travelling on. I let out a sigh of relief. And then I heard it.