Tynewear was a hustling, bustling city, its people possessed of all of the chaos and coordination of schools of fish, active and adventurous, safe in the throng. They weren’t feeling safe any longer. The city, ever blurred by fog, mist, snow, or rain, wasn’t scintillating like it should have been.
Empty street. Then another. Then another. The few dark corners that prevailed in daylight were darker than their usual with the city’s power cut off. Businesses had shut their doors, many hanging up sheets like the one the guard had used to seal off the one cell. The sheets and the quarantine symbol blocked off one in four of the doorways and windows nearby. Other doors had been left open; I saw scattered belongings trailing out those same doors, as if the families had been so hasty in collecting their things and running that they had let some fall. Trash that had nothing to do with the dropped belongings now blew in the wind or, more common, had found puddles to soak in, losing most of its buoyancy.
That wasn’t to say that we didn’t see any signs of life. People, ensconced in their homes, were looking out their windows. The ones that didn’t have quarantine blankets to seal off the outside world were putting up sheets and barricades.
Running, Jamie and I made our way down a cobblestone street wide enough for three wagons to pass by one another, with the entire street to ourselves.
Jamie’s foot splashed next to me. He had my jacket over his head, his hands tucked into his armpits, and ran while hunched over, his outer shirt removed and wound around his neck, nose, and mouth. He wasn’t really able to look where he was going. Not while he was running.
“If you’re leading me, don’t walk me into puddles,” Jamie said.
The trees weren’t glowing because it wasn’t dark, and with the power out, the views through windows obscured with white and gray cloths, it was as if the area had been robbed of color.
I was so focused on the city and potential threats that, as I saw the darkness of the liquid seeping out to wind its way around the cobblestones, I thought it was oil. I quickly connected the dots as we changed direction to move around a puddle, and saw the reflected face of a building. No, the darkness was creeping across the sky above us. Dark clouds, thick and unilateral enough in source that I suspected they were manufactured rather than natural, were now creeping across the sky.
“The Academy is sending some bad weather our way,” I remarked.
“Clouds?” Jamie asked.
“Looks like. Heavy ones.”
“Guess so,” I said.
“They seemed willing to burn the Marina earlier. Rain won’t help them light the fires. That means they really want the rain for something else.”
I looked up at the clouds. Jamie was right. That growing cloud had to be a big gun, if it was liable to make disposal harder, not easier.
I checked behind us. We weren’t being followed.
“We can slow down,” I said.
“Good,” Jamie said. “My calves feel like they’ve forgotten how to flex and have just settled into one very heavy, clumsy state.”
We slowed down. Jamie held the shirt in place as he raised his head, looking around.
I experienced an eerie moment, seeing the world as he saw it. He looked away for a few minutes, moved a few city blocks, and then raised his head again. Things were different. He knew exactly how things had been, exactly how they were different, from ambient temperature to overall lighting.
I think what I envied most was his ability to consistently track the tone of things. To take in the attitudes of people and see how they were shifting.
“People are scared,” I said, the thought spurred by my moment of envy.
“I’m a little scared,” Jamie said. He turned his head, looking through a window at a child that was helping his parents put up the sheet. Through the crack in the curtains, we could see the boy and the father’s legs as the father stood on a chair, the curtains wiggling in reaction to his work.
Then, with the same force of a slamming door, the cloth dropped, cutting off the view, with the pale face of the child left as only a vague afterimage in my eyes, details already forgotten, while that was another little thing that Jamie would remember perfectly until the very end.
“The shift in attitude,” I said. “It was fast. Faster here. Gut feeling is that the beat is wrong.”
I drew a knife from my belt. Holding the grip between finger and index finger, blade touching the base of my wrist, I tapped it against the wall, marking the beat.
“The rhythm. The flow of events?” Jamie asked.
“Something like that. I can’t put words to it, and we don’t know enough about what this disease is for me to really make guesses about how things are moving and why. But it feels like something moved through this area. In the wake of it, with only a few words or sentences exchanged between neighbors, we have this… I don’t know what it is. Unilateral agreement? Resignation? Controlled horror? Just something stark and quiet and suppressive rushing through this area.”
“It did,” Jamie said. “The wagon, a block back?”
“We’ll see others soon, I think,” he said. “They sent a wagon in, nondescript, but it held people, not goods. Recently, too.”
“They’re moving the infected in here?”
“Where are they?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Sy.”
He hunched over and drew my jacket further over his head as the wind picked up. I could feel the chill, and the sting of the cold as it felt like it was reaching into my injured arm and down to my fingertips.
“We’ve talked about this, but honestly, Sy, I think you like being miserable,” Jamie said.
“Wherever we go, you wind up losing bits of clothing, you get wet, you get messy…”
“Keep talking about me losing bits of clothing and people are going to get the wrong idea.”
“They’re not going to talk about that when it comes to you getting wet and messy, Sy?”
I gave him a weird look. Still hunched over, he angled his head up to look at me, arching an eyebrow.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
He snorted a little. A huff of a laugh.
“I’m just thinking… I don’t know a good way of saying it, but I feel sort of sorry for Lillian.”
“I really don’t get it.”
“I’d ask what you did with her, but I don’t think I want to go there.”
“Ohh,” I said. “I get it.”
“And I just opened the door for you to go there, and I told you I didn’t want to. Damn it.”
“I’ve gone three days without giving you ammo, then we get shot at, a crowd of bounty hunters after us, a plague dropped on the city, and no way out in sight, and I let my guard down for one instant, and I ruin my streak.”
“It’s okay,” I said, still smiling. “I know that might venture into touchier territory, so I’ll let it go, content to know I could use that ammo to torment you.”
“Sure Sy,” he said.
“You sound skeptical, you bastard. You don’t think I can be the bigger man?”
He moved his head, I raised my finger, pointing. “No short jokes.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said, sounding very self-satisfied.
“But,” I said, wagging my finger in his face, “I will have you know, sir, as a point of pride, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with my kissing technique. It is most certainly not messy nor too wet, of all things. I would even go so far as to say that I am…”
“Don’t say it,” Jamie said.
“Damn it! I forgot the word. Devilishly?”
“I’m not going to tell you the word, Sy. I’ll remind you once an hour at most. I swear that whoever wrote the details for that poster put that in there to psychologically torment me.”
I huffed, annoyed.
Down one street to our right, I could see where of the sick that had been carted in, as a group gathered and headed into what might have been a restaurant. There was a wagon nearby, and the wagon had one of the quarantine sheets over top of it, lashed down in addition to being sealed. One of the corners had come free and flapped in the wind.
One of the sick glanced in our direction. The markings streaked her face in an odd pattern. Around the cheekbones and eyes.
Then, after a few more steps, we’d passed that particular street, leaving the ailing behind. They would hunker down in the dark, out of the way, and pray for announcement of a cure.
I doubted that announcement would come very quickly. This was looking more and more like a weapon, and with all of the materials and ideas in the world, I doubted Fray or Mauer or whoever it was would make a plague that was easy to cure.
“Kissing, huh?” Jamie asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“I thought you didn’t want to know,” I said.
“I, uh, find myself sort of pleased and simultaneously feel very, very sorry for Lillian? It’s bittersweet, but not bad.”
“No need to feel sorry for her,” I said. I injected some smugness into my tone. “I’m a good kisser.”
“You frustrated her so very much over the months and years.”
“She likes being frustrated, you wagalilly-”
“Made that one up, and it fits you perfectly right now. And I made it up to Lillian. Take my word for it, on my last name as Sylvester Lambsbridge.”
“You remembered that bit, it seems.”
I continued without letting him change the topic, lecturing. “It’s important for us to trust one another. When we get into a bad situation, and we have to make a leap of faith, we need to know that the other is there to catch us. Like with the Lambs, but it’s just you and me now.”
“Okay, Sy,” he said. His tone was very tolerant. It reminded me of Mrs. Earles humoring one of the youngest children as they talked about their imaginary pets. “I will take your word for it. That you made up for all of the mockery, the little humiliations, the name calling, the poking, prodding, teasing, the fact that you looked up her skirt countless times-”
“You can stop now.”
“-and you did it while staying with her most nights over the course of month after month, and kissing her.”
In the silence that followed that, even with Jamie’s light tone and my very much enjoying the opportunity to boast, dull, vague thoughts rose up in the back of my mind. Moments with Lillian, the goodbye, the tears.
I looked back to double check there was no pursuit, and the only figure I saw was Lillian’s.
Black emotion battered and struggled against the box I’d confined it to.
“Now that that’s settled,” I started. I was aware of the fact that my tone had shifted a little, that there would be discrepancies I would have caught, if I were the one listening and not speaking. I knew Jamie would notice too. “…We can change the subject. Focus on this.”
“We’re heading east. In the direction of the Theater. If it’s airborne, it’s more likely to go down than to rise up. I can’t imagine a plague that scales cliffs,” Jamie said. “The plague started at the Marina. Based on the little incidents, it wasn’t heavy in the urban areas. Don’t walk so fast, Sy.”
I slowed down.
“Not just because my legs are tired. If I’m imagining this right, then we’re close to the bridge they’d be sending the wagons over.”
“Let’s take a detour,” he said, indicating a direction.
“If you think we should.”
He was more forward and aggressive than the old Jamie, so this cautiousness caught my attention. I was more than willing to play along, if he had reservations.
We walked around a set of buildings, then Jamie indicated an alley.
“Wait,” I said. “You suggested it wouldn’t climb?”
I pointed, indicating a set of stairs leading from the road to what might have been the upstairs half of a two-storey home that was divided into two apartments.
“Not sure what you mean, but lead the way. Remember I can’t see much while I’m swaddled.”
“Come on,” I said.
My interest wasn’t the stairs so much as the railing. I peered back in the direction Sanguine had been shooting from, gauging the intervening cover.
Would he have a clear shot?
To what degree would it matter if he had an unclear shot?
There were a row of these houses and apartment-houses, and they backed on what might have been a business, a taller, four-story building.
I carefully led Jamie up the stairs that ran up between the buildings, then up onto the railing that bounded the stairs. From there, with the assistance of a windowsill of the taller building, we made our way onto the roof. The taller building gave us some cover.
“Chance to stop,” I said. “Get the lay of the land.”
“Yeah,” Jamie said.
He pulled the jacket back and away, so he had a better view. I followed him, making sure he didn’t slide, and settled into position beside him, my arms folded at the peak of the roof.
We could see the area that Jamie had wanted to avoid. Eight wagons were there, and beyond those eight wagons, there was a crowd. A hundred individuals or so that had been rounded up were now milling about. A few broke away and limped or staggered away with some purpose into the quarantined neighborhood, but others clearly had no place to go. They remained where they were, hunching over, enduring the pain, some moving rhythmically, rocking in place.
Take it in in abstract. I might not be able to consciously spot the differences from one moment to the next and pick it apart for patterns, but my subconscious mind can. Look at this scene, look for the colors of it, the way the city is moving, the concentration of people…
I let my eyes rove over the city proper. I looked for areas that had been bleached of color as the power was cut, stained with the red that was faintly prevalent wherever the afflicted were gathering in number.
There. Another quarantine zone, closer to the theater. Too far away for me to see the red, but I could see how it was paler. I pointed.
“It’s already everywhere,” Jamie said.
It couldn’t be just these two spots. Up on the higher portion of the city, past the cliffs and behind Sanguine, it was possible, but I couldn’t see that area. In the other direction of the Theater, further down- The boatyard.
“Jamie,” I said, my voice tight.
He turned his head.
“Is that- where are Candy, Drake, Chance and Lainie?”
“They’re close,” Jamie said. “Close enough that they might have gotten caught and collected in that area.”
The hundred or so people that had been dumped here weren’t the first deposit. I refocused on the group. Something had caught my attention, and I had no idea what it was, which forced me to look for it. Something off.
Two people moved through the crowd. With the splashes of crimson that went with the various stages of the plague, I’d mistaken one of the figures for a victim. But when she moved, it was too smooth, too easy. Once I looked a little closer, however, I could see all of the details that were wrong.
A woman, pale, with no eyes in the dark sockets. Her skin was hard, like a doll’s, made of bone or ivory, while the red growths at the side of her head, from her bottom lip down to her neck, shoulders, and torso, and possibly her legs were something like horn, tinted blood red by whatever substance they were made of. I couldn’t see her legs because she wore a dress that was hooked into what amounted to a corset of that crimson horn material, festooned with spikes of the horn-like material.
She dragged an red-horn axe behind her that seemed too large for her narrow, bone-doll arms to lift. Even the people who seemed to be furthest into the disease were working to move away from her. She was eerie and intimidating. Even from a distance, I had a sense of why. She moved in a way that didn’t suggest muscle.
“Do you see her?” I asked.
“Yes,” Jamie whispered. “She has a friend.”
I was annoyed that Jamie had spotted the friend first. I was glad that I spotted him a moment before the woman revealed him, taking hold of him by the collar and dragging him off his seat on the wagon.
From the back, it was hard to see. When he was dragged around and faced our general direction, I could spot the alterations. It was as though someone had taken a caustic chemical and poured it on him. Flesh had melted, with large holes opened in face, shoulder, and ribcage. Something was within his chest cavity, and it had tentacles, reaching up through his neck -I could see the shadow and light as the tentacle reached up through the damaged throat- and out of his mouth and one eye socket. Others embraced his body.
The cigarette he’d been sitting on the wagon to enjoy dropped from his mouth, and it was one of the tentacles that caught it out of the hair, passing it to his fingers, so he might raise it back to his mouth. He carried a backpack, something closer to what a soldier would have than what a student might. Rugged, and heavily packed.
“Lillian said that red was a good indicator of iron,” Jamie said.
“The Iron Maiden?” I asked.
“That’s what I was thinking.”
“What about the man?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Jamie said. “What are they doing?”
As we watched, Iron Maiden dragged the man to the center of the road. People naturally backed away from them. The man put in as little effort as was humanly possible in following along, letting himself be dragged. The Iron Maiden let go of him, and he was so slack that he landed in a sitting position in a puddle.
The man pulled the pack off and gathered things from within. I couldn’t make out what it was until it was assembled.
He produced some special kind of match, one that produced a lot of smoke, then touched it to the assembly.
The stand he’d put together was a guide, to keep a small rocket in position. More smoke billowed, and then the rocket launched skyward.
A hundred feet up, it split in two.
Two hundred feet up, it detonated, with two poofs of black smoke staining the already darkening sky, the one closer to us and the pair first, then the other, off to the west.
The pair remained there, Tentacles swaying in the breeze as he sat there smoking, his other hand jammed into the coat of his winter jacket. Iron Maiden was rigid and utterly still. Both stared skyward.
A red streak crossed the sky, from the cliffs, over our heads, and then over the pair’s heads. A cloud of red expanded in its wake.
Iron Maiden looked down at Tentacles. Her mouth moved, but in a funny way.
“I can’t lipread her,” Jamie said. “But the man-”
“Yeah,” I said.
Tentacles said something.
“He doesn’t want us to stay, he thinks they’re here,” Jamie recited.
Iron maiden said something else.
The rain from the dark, expanding cloud reached the pair and began to fall around us. There were a few moments of a simple light drizzle, then downpour.
“Can’t lipread anymore,” Jamie said.
If I had to guess, and if the Iron Maiden didn’t have augmented eyes or something, then the downpour would hamper them more than it hampered us. The appearance of the Iron Maiden was stark, very white and very red. I could still make out her silhouette in the cold rain.
Tentacles, a little less so.
They had to have special passes, some level of guarantee that they weren’t affected by the plague. They could pass through the quarantines. Sanguine, I presumed, couldn’t, but he was capable of reaching us from where he was.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “Sanguine was that way.”
I nodded. Sanguine hadn’t moved far.
We slid down the slope of the roof, and I went first, dropping down to the railing to better help Jamie.
As he came down, however, his leg caught on something, and it didn’t serve to slow his descent. He skidded on the rain-slick shingles, slid right past the gutter I’d used as a handhold, and fell, hard, crashing into me.
For a long few seconds. We remained utterly still, lying in a heap, waiting for some cue or sign that we were being pursued. My hand remained close to the explosives.
A moment later, we were up on our feet, moving. Down the stairs, through the spaces between buildings.
The texture of the city was changing under the rain. The puddles became mud, and the mud became something thicker that pulled at my boots. If I hadn’t known better and been able to feel the rain itself, I might have thought that it was raining sludge.
Our path slowed as we exited one area, and found ourselves staring at a trio of afflicted. They, in turn, were hanging back, staring at another afflicted. As they saw us, they fled, ducking their heads down as if they were ashamed. Their clothes looked nice enough for them to fit in among the most upper class of Radham, but the bodies within were stained with red and what looked like veins standing out against their skin, their expressions contorted as they endured the ongoing pain.
They scurried off, and we ventured out into the street. Jamie slowed as he turned his head back to look at the fourth afflicted.
It was a young man, twenty or so, and he knelt on the porch in front of a house, legs sort of splayed out, while his body hunched forward. Both hands were against the door, one of them weakly rising, then falling, banging on the surface.
The windows inside all had the sheets and the quarantine symbols.
As we got closer still, I could hear him.
“Mom. Dad. Let me in. Mom.”
He pulled away, as if he was going to fall and lie down in front of the door. He couldn’t. The veiny, ivy-like growths on his hand had reached out, extending, and worked their way into the wood of the door. Bright red buds studded the growth, but had yet to unfold into proper flowers.
We should leave him behind, I thought. I touched the ring, then reaffirmed the thought. Even with conscience in mind, this was all too dangerous and unpredictable. There’s not much we can do.
I looked at Jamie, and my mind nearly changed. Jamie had more conscience. He had to live with his decisions for his particular definition of forever.
Then I started thinking about Jamie slowing down, complaining about his legs, the fall from the roof.
I had suspicions about what was happening, and those suspicions made the dark, horrific feelings inside of me struggle against their confines, reaching out to choke my throat and my heart, as if they could do the same sort of damage to me that Tentacles’ tentacles had done to him.
But if I asked Jamie, and then I thought about dealing with this person, in the light of the idea that Jamie might be sick?
That would be different. Harder to sell, maybe.
“Sy,” Jamie said. His voice got the afflicted’s attention.
The tone, the timing, it was like he was asking me to save the young man.
“Where are the spots?” I asked.
“The arm,” the man said, voice thin. “It happened so fast.”
“Yeah,” I said.
My eye roved over the door itself. It was hard to make out in the rain, but there were stems extending from the area surrounding where the hand met the wood.
Not just from afflicted to afflicted, but afflicted to environment.
I bent down, reaching, and I collected my knife. I double checked we weren’t being followed.
In the afflicted’s eyes, I could see a war of emotion. Fear was a big one. Hope was another.
I strongly suspected that hope was that I would sever the bond between him and the door, freeing him.
“Jamie,” I said. “You’re going to have to walk me through this.”
“You’ll get infected. We don’t know you’re safe.”
“If I’m not, I’m not,” I said. And if you are infected, like I suspect, I’m either going to get answers or I’m going to go to pieces anyway.
“That’s not very convincing,” Jamie said.
“Work with me,” I said. I turned to the guinea pig. “Just-”
“Sy,” Jamie said. He grabbed my shoulder, pulling me back and away. The darker emotions flared, the abandonment, the fear, and in the wholeness of each of those emotions, I felt very far from human.
I realized I was pointing the knife at a very still Jamie.
“Work with me,” I said, very firmly. “And stand back.”
Jamie nodded slowly.
I looked at the victim. “As for you…”
The confused hope in his eyes became fear and confusion as I touched the blade to his shoulder, instead of the ropy growth.
“…Try not to make too much noise while I’m cutting. There are people out there who would interrupt us, and you don’t want me to stop halfway.”