"But what does the plague mean? It's life, that's all.”
-Albert Camus, "The Plague"
The doctor had not slept. He was beyond the point of exhaustion. Exhaustion was another state of being entirely. The secretary of defense had not slept either, not since the Senate's emergency confirmation vote, but she seemed to be holding herself together. She peered at the doctor over her glasses. "The most important thing to remember," the doctor said, "is that this is not like any other outbreak. In fact, it would be irresponsible to even call it an outbreak."
"What would you call it?" said the secretary of defense.
The secretary of defense didn't blink. "So the media are right calling this the 'alien virus'?"
"Well no," said the doctor. "For starters, it's not really a virus. It's more closely related to bacteria, but it's not even that, really. It's an entirely new kind of invasive microorganism. We don't have a word for it yet."
The secretary of defense grunted. "What else?" she said.
"You said, 'for starters.' What comes after the starters?"
"Oh. Well, it's not alien either. It's as terrestrial as you or me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Quite sure,” said the doctor. “The infection started on Earth. It started with us.”
Evangeline opened her eyes and saw the fly. It had settled on the edge of her eyelash as she slept and now it stared back at her with bulbous red eyes, buzzing half-heartedly. She caught it and crushed it without a second thought, and forgot about it as soon she'd wiped the stain way.
Her skin was clammy and the sheets were damp from sweat, even though it was winter and the heat was out. Am I running a fever, she thought? But no sooner was the question formed in her mind than she forgot about it. She opened the blinds and winced at the grey light. She realized she was naked and went to dress herself. By the time she had on panties and a tshirt she forgot what she was doing and never bothered to finish.
She went to the bathroom. The fluorescent lights set her teeth on edge. She had bags under her eyes. I must be sick, she thought, but then she opened the medicine cabinet and ceased thinking about it. It’s going to be a nice day, she thought. Her shaky fingers dropped the toothpaste. She paid it no mind.
“The infection is man-made,” said the doctor.
“Which men?” said the secretary of defense. “Who made it?”
The doctor looked stunned. “We have no idea,” he said. “We thought you would know."
He cleared his throat and shuffled his notes, taking a moment to recover his senses.
“Not that it matters," he said. "From what we’ve seen...there’s no way this could have been manufactured on purpose. It must have been an accident: Some culture mixed with some unknown agent, or some experiment gone wildly wrong."
“Why couldn’t it have been designed this way?”
“It would just be impossible. Its structure, its behavior..." The doctor fumbled for words. "For the human mind to even conceive something like this would drive it mad. And to then develop the method for such an idea..."
The secretary of defense made a note. The doctor could not read her handwriting.
“This is all good to know,” she said. “But I still don’t understand what you mean when you said it was an invasion.”
“It’s the nature of the infection,” said the doctor. “There are...patterns to it.”
“You’re beating around the bush.”
The doctor shifted in his seat and sighed, and for a moment looked at the floor, unable to meet the secretary’s gaze. “It's...smart. It’s thinking. In fact, it’s outwitting us. At this stage, I would hazard an educated guess that the infection is smarter than any person on the planet. Maybe every person on the planet.”
The secretary of defense made a little noise, one that the doctor had learned to recognize over the last few days. He smiled without humor, cleaning his glasses on the sleeve of his shirt. “Yes,” he said. “It does take your breath away, doesn’t it?”
The secretary of defense nodded.
Evangeline went to make coffee, standing by the pot and watching it drip. Only when it was done did she realize that she had forgotten to put any coffee in the filter. All she had was a pot of hot water. She poured it into the sink. She wasn't really thirsty.
She cracked three eggs into a pan, then shoveled them onto a plate. She tried to cut one with a fork but realized the eggs were still raw. She'd never turned the burner on. She threw the whole mess into the trash. She wasn't really hungry either. She wanted something, though. What was it?
"I heard a fly buzz..." she mumbled to herself.
Parvaneh bounced into the room, fully dressed and freshly scrubbed from the shower, drying her hair. She smiled at Evangeline. "You're up!" she said. "You were in bed all day yesterday. I almost called a doctor."
"I heard a fly buzz when I..." said Evangeline, staring at her roommate without really seeing her. How did the rest go?
"Eva?" said Parvaneh.
"Hm?" said Evangeline.
"I asked how you feel? You were sick."
"I'm not sick," said Evangeline. She was counting her roommate's eyelashes. She kept starting over when she lost track.
"Good," said Parvaneh. "Is there coffee?"
"I didn't want coffee," said Evangeline. "I wanted...something else."
"We're out of eggs?" said Parvaneh, sticking her head in the fridge. "I guess neither of us has gone shopping in a while. Do you think there's--"
Parvaneh swallowed the rest of her sentence as Evangeline pressed her half-naked body against her and pinned her against the refrigerator door, kissing her deep and hard. For a moment she struggled, more out of surprise than anything, but after a second of swirling confusion she leaned into it, letting everything else slip out of her mind.
"I hope you won't think I'm obtuse, but I'm afraid I need to ask for clarification again: What do you mean by 'thinking'?"
The doctor made a meaningless gesture. "We're dealing with something entirely new here, so these terms are necessarily imprecise. But for all intents and purposes, we should think of the infection the same way we would think of a person, even to the point of trying to predict its behavior. Because so far it seems to be good at predicting ours."
The Secretary of Defense tapped her pen against the arm of her chair again. Minutes passed. "Explain how the illness works, then."
"For the first 24 hours the patient is usually bedridden. Symptoms are similar to that of the flu. After 24 hours, the patient resumes their normal routine."
"They won't be sick anymore?"
"Oh no, they'll be at death's door," said the doctor. "But they won't realize it. It's the damnedest thing: They'll actually forget that they feel sick. And if anyone points it out, they just plain won't pay attention. They look like hell at this point, too. You should see it."
"I'd rather not."
"Mm. The point is, the infection alters the patient's behavior. Significantly. Once 24 hours are up, the infected person is...not quite themselves. I assume you realize what this all means?"
The doctor made the same ambiguous gesture. "Why would sick people get up and go to work when they barely have the strength to stand? Why would they drop their kids off at school, or go to the bank, or ride the bus when they have a fever of 104? And all without noticing? Why do any of it, what's the point?"
"Answers, please, not questions."
"They want to spread the infection!" the doctor said. He was almost smiling. "They want to maximize the chance of exposing other people to it."
"Why would anyone want to do that?"
"They don't," said the doctor. "The infection does. For lack of a better word, it makes them do it."
"So, 'for lack of a better word,' the disease is controlling the patient?"
The doctor sucked a deep breath in. "Yes. That's precisely what's going on."
Evangeline ran her hands down the sides of Parvaneh's body, tracing the outline of her figure. After a minute Evangeline broke the kiss off, and Parvaneh looked dazed. "Wow," she said. Evangeline went in for another kiss but Parvaneh fended her off. "Wait, wait," she said. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. Kiss me," said Evangeline.
"Eva, you have never once--"
Evangeline put her lips to the side of the other girl's neck instead, kissing, then licking, then nibbling. "Oh!" Parvaneh said. Her protests flagged. Evangeline shoved her roommate's hand down the front of her panties. "Touch me there."
Parvaneh looked wary. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. Touch me"
Evangeline's skin crawled with the detached loathing that came from a throbbing fever. She did not seem to fit in her own body, somehow. Even so, she guided Parvaneh's fingers to her clit. Parvaneh closed her eyes and smiled a little, rubbing in a circle. Evangeline encouraged her to speed up, and when she was not satisfied with the response she took Parvaneh's hand again and demonstrated, forcing her roommate to grind against her as hard as she could while Evangeline spread her legs. She was waiting for something. Her heartrate accelerated and her skin warmed. Then Parvaneh leaned in and kissed her collar bone, lips soft against Evangeline's burning skin, and Evangeline felt herself go wet.
She moved Parvaneh's hand lower. "Touch me there." Parvaneh had a look on her face that approached reverence as she slid two fingers inside Evangeline, a satisfyingly wet sound accompanying the gesture. Evangeline purred. Parvaneh kissed her again, lightly, pushing against her, and Evangeline rocked with the motion. She pulled Parvaneh's hand up, kissing the tips of her roommate's two fingers, tasting them, and then directing Parvaneh to do the same. She watched as Parvaneh's pink tongue lapped the wetness from her own hand. Parvaneh smiled, and blushed, and then slid to her knees, fumbling with Evangeline's panties, but Evangeline pushed her away. "That's enough," she said.
Parvaneh blinked. "Huh?"
"I said that's enough," said Evangeline. She walked past Parvaneh without giving her another look. She was already thinking about something else. Thirty days hath September, April, June...
"Eva?" said Parvaneh. She was still on her knees.
Thirty days hath September...except February...
"Eva, what the fuck?"
"I said that's enough. I'm going to my room now," said Evangeline. Her voice was flat and neutral. It was February now. It wouldn't be until...
She was aware, dimly, that Parvaneh was talking to her. "You can't jerk me around like this!" She ignored it. She went to her room and locked the door. Parvaneh yelled at her from the other side for a while, but eventually stopped. Evangeline thought she heard crying. She curled up on the floor, shaking and sweating, until Parvaneh had gone, and then she got her phone, thumbing the first number. Seth picked up on the fourth ring.
"Hi," said Evangeline.
"What do you want?" said Seth.
"Talk," said Evangeline.
"To talk, I wanted to talk. About, you know, things. Us."
"You sound weird."
"I'm not sick," she said. "Can I come over?"
Seth hesitated. "I'm not sure--"
"Please," said Evangeline. "I really need to see you."
"Well...if it's important..." said Seth.
"I'll be there in a few minutes."
She hung up before he could protest. Ignoring Parvaneh, Eva left the apartment. She was halfway down the stairs before she realized she was still not wearing pants and had to go back. She returned more or less fully dressed, though she discovered too late that she had no shoes on. The February fog froze her bare arms and the dirty sidewalks held hazards for her bare feet, but she didn't care..
People stared as she walked down the street. When she reached Seth's apartment she let herself in with the spare key she still had, the one he'd never asked for back. He was waiting for her, his face grave with concern. Or maybe not concern, maybe just exasperation, or boredom, or agitation. It was all the same to her. She sat on his couch, looking straight ahead. The TV was off and she saw herself reflected in the black screen. He stood behind her, obviously unsure what to do or say.
"Are you --" he started.
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," said Evangeline.
Seth blinked. He sat next to her and touched her forehead. At this point the pressure increased in her ears, and it became difficult to hear anything. She thought she picked up the word "fever" in his speech, but that was all.
"I never liked it here," she said. "Your neighborhood, I mean. I never liked to come here. I've always felt like I would die on 16th street."
Seth sat back, speechless.
"Don't ask me how I know. I just know. Ever since I was a little girl, I've known."
Her vision was double. Two hapless, confused versions of Seth put their hand on her shoulder. They both mouthed the word "doctor."
"I don't need a doctor," said Evangeline. She leaned into him. Their lips touched. He tried to pull away but she didn't let him. "I don't need a doctor," she said again, sliding her hand down the front of his pants. "I only need one thing. You know what I need. Give it to me, Seth. Please."
"This is a lot to take in," the secretary of defense said.
"It is for us, too."
"How bad is it?"
"The outbreak? Tens of thousands of reported cases, but the unreported ones? Maybe millions. Urban areas are the worst for it. Rural areas are more secure. Asia has it worst of all. I'll be surprised if we save anyone in Japan."
"I mean, how bad is the infection? What are its long-term effects?"
"We won't know until they happen. I dare say, it's not a question of diagnosing the patients, it's a matter of guessing the infection's intent. Whatever its long-term goals--and we're convinced now that it has them--those are what the long-term effects will be."
"You have no hypotheses?"
"Plenty. But we need more time before--"
"Just tell me happens to the infected?"
The doctor managed to look even more uncomfortable. "The primary symptom after the first 24 hours, when the patient becomes active again, is an exponential increase in libidinous urges and a compulsion to engage in sexual intercourse."
The secretary of defense blinked. "You're joking."
"I wish I were. It's what the infection wants, you see."
The doctor looked her in the eye. "Because that's how it spread. It's sexually transmitted."
Evangeline's pants were off again, and with a little cajoling Seth's came off too, and then he had his cock buried half in her while her back was pressed against the wall. He hadn't really wanted to, but she made him, and now he was resigned to it. Or maybe even eager? She couldn't tell. She spread her legs wider, trying to coerce him in. His cock was swollen, as always obeying an ineffable will of its own.
"Just fuck me."
"I don't have any protection."
The significance of this comment glanced off of Evangeline's understanding. "Just fuck me," she said again. She kissed him some more, her mouth swallowing his. She was so hot inside. She wanted Seth to drain the heat out of her and into him. The rough plaster of the wall rubbed her back. She wanted it to rub her skin completely off.
"Huh?" Seth said, looking alarmed. Evangeline cringed. She had not realized she'd said that out loud. To distract him, she stuck her hands under his shirt, running her nails along his back. He gasped and responded by pushing deeper. The feel of him going in up to the base gratified her. She scratched him again, by way of encouragement. He winced, but didn't complain. The muscles in her cunt contracted around him. She focused all her energy on that feeling, clenching tighter and tighter. She wanted him to have just barely enough room to move.
He seemed unsteady on the hardwood floor (his feet were bare), so they inched a little ways toward the door, so he could grab the frame for support. Every time he moved he moved inside of her too, and it made her twitch and moan. The heat had made her sensitive. It was like her nerves were on fire. Wrapping her legs around his, she twined her arms around his body. "Faster," she said.
"You hate it when I go fast."
"Not this time."
"I don't want to hurt you."
"You can't. Just do it hard. I like it hard."
"No you don't!"
"I do now. Shut up." She actually covered his mouth with her hand. So he did it hard.
She was sweating already, but soon he was too. Their bodies, hot and slippery, rubbed against each other. She was getting wetter, and Seth ground his cock against the inside of her in a way that sent electric fire zinging up her nerve endings. Her body was singing a chorus of new sensations. She pulled at Seth and he actually fell over, with her underneath. He gasped an apology and asked if she was okay, but instead of answering she grabbed the back of his head and pulled him down for a hard, tongue-stabbing kiss.
They rolled across each other and she came up on top, flexing her hips and pushed up and down on top of him, riding him back and forth. Even though her muscles screamed and her limbs felt ready to give way, she didn't slow. She was working herself into a frenzy, feeling his naked cock tremble and swell inside the confines of her body.
And then she stopped. Evangeline stood up, putting her tshirt back on. Seth lay on the floor, confused. "Hey?" was all he said.
"I'm going," said Evangeline.
"What? Hey, Eva--!" Seth tried to stand but his pants were tangled around his ankles, and he tripped. Evangeline stepped over him to the door and dressed in silence. She'd somehow forgotten how her clothes worked. By that time Seth was back on his feet, buttoning his fly. "What the hell is this?" he said.
"I'm going," Evangeline said again.
"You're unbelievable, you know that?" Seth said. He pulled his shirt on. "First you say you never want to speak to me again, then you call out of the blue and you show up looking like shit, then it's 10 minutes of sex and now you're just going again?"
"Yes," Evangeline said.
She was at the outside door by the time he dressed and caught up. "We're not finished talking about this."
"Yes we are," Evangeline said, slamming the door in his face. She walked home in a daze. The apartment was quiet when she got back in. She sat on the floor, counting hours, days, and weeks in her head. The sun crested outside, then set. The phone rang over and over, so she took the battery out. Sometime around nine o'clock, she heard Parvaneh's door open. She tottered into the room, bleary-eyed, half-dressed, pale.
"Eva?" she said. "I don't feel so good..."
Evangeline patted the floor next to her. "Come here," she said. Parvaneh sat, shivering. Evangeline put her arms around her, cradling her, rocking her a little. "It'll be okay," she said.
"My head hurts...I can't see anything..."
"It'll be okay," Evangeline said again, stroking Parvaneh's clammy skin. "It'll be okay..."
The secretary of defense seemed to be keeping her distance, but the doctor assured her there was nothing to worry about. "It's completely airtight," he said. "Nothing can get through. But even if it could, the infection isn't airborn."
"That you know of," the secretary of defense said.
"If it was, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Most of the world would have been infected by nine o'clock this morning."
The secretary grunted and approached the observation window. On the other side, a young man was sealed up in something that looked like an iron lung. The observation room was full of tired-looking people in white coats, too exhausted to even acknowledge her. "Who is he?" she asked.
"Seth Younger," said the doctor. "The CDC picked him up for us."
"Is he sedated?"
"Oh yes. We keep them all this way."
"How many do you have?"
"About a dozen altogether. More coming in everyday. But this isn't what I wanted to show you. It's the ones in the next room you need to see." He keyed a pad on the wall and ushered her through the door when it opened. She was startled to find a quartet of Military Police in the next room, with rifles and gasmasks. "Just a precaution," the doctor assured her.
"Oh no," the doctor said. "No real point. Even if a patient somehow got out, there's millions more like them by now. A drop in the ocean."
"Some of the staff are frightened of becoming infected. That's nearly impossible with all the precautions we have in place, but even so, the security detail has instructions to...deal with...anyone who asks them to."
Before she could react the doctor ushered the secretary into the next room. The secretary had a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. She almost hesitated before heading into the dark place beyond the secure door. If the doctor noticed, he did not say anything.
Parvaneh slept most of the next day, and Evangeline did her best to look after her. Only when she nearly fainted did it occur to her that she should eat, and as an afterthought she made sure Parvaneh ate as well, though the girl could barely keep anything down. Finally, around sundown, Parvaneh awoke, and although her fever had not broken (if anything, it had grown worse) she seemed to think it had. Her face practically glowed with sweat and she was visibly trembling, but she showered and dressed, and when she was done she seemed to be waiting for something, although she could not say what. But Evangeline knew.
The call came around eleven. Seth's voice was faint: "Hey," he said. "I think...I think I should come over."
"Yes, you should."
"I've got some other guys with me."
"Good. Bring them."
"Is there, I mean, can you, with everyone..." It sounded mostly like gibberish when he talked, but Evangeline grasped his meaning.
"Parvaneh is here too," she said. "Bring as many as you can."
So they came, Seth and two others. Evangeline did not recognize them, but they had the sweats. Evangeline, Parvaneh, Seth, and the two strangers all went to Evangeline's bedroom. At her indication, the men undressed. Evangeline felt the fire burning right down the center of her body. Oh God, it was time. The fever inside of her was like an engine that powered her as long as it kept burning and burning. She stretched out on the bed, naked, sweating, moaning. Her back arched and her naked, glistening breasts pushed up into one of the men (she still did not know their names) sitting over her, kneading her breasts in his hands while another squatted between her legs, with his cock penetrating her again and again. It felt so hard that she imagined it must be painful for him, a swollen, constantly rigid thing. She couldn't imagine how he dealt with it.
How long had they been at it? It seemed like everyone had just arrived, but they must have been going for some time already, because the other stranger was lying exhausted nearby, seemingly spent for the time being. Evangeline had a vague shadow-memory of him grunting and exerting himself over here, although how long ago it had been she couldn’t say. She leaned back and took his flaccid cock in one hand, lowering it to her mouth. He did not resist, although there was a look of cornered desperation on his face. She swallowed him in one go, sliding him to the back of her mouth and then applying all the pressure she could manage, milking him, swirling her hot tongue around and around. It twitched.
The room smelled like sweat. It was so hot that there were waves in the air. Outside it was freezing and the windows were limned with the fog of perspiration. There was not enough room on the bed, so Parvaneh and Seth were on the floor. Evangeline could just see them out of the corner of her eye. Seth had that look on his face, the one he used to get just for her. Parvaneh's gasping breaths were barely audible; she was moaning in a long constant warble. Seth's hands were all over her body. A memory tickled Evangeline's mind, a remembered conversation from months ago: "Are you seeing Seth behind my back?"
"Are you insane? I don't even date men."
"You used to."
"You had better not..."
What did it mean? She didn't know. Then the words were obliterated by the immediacy of the first strange man shaking and crying out as he emptied into her. It was warm on her insides, but she barely noticed. She kicked him out of the way with a bare foot and he slumped against the wall, panting, and then immediately began rubbing his cock in one hand, working to get it ready again. The second stranger was finally responding to her and he felt the full length of him in her mouth, ready to go. She popped him free and sat up, turning around and getting up on all fours, letting him take her from behind while she arched her head around, her mouth seeking the other man's cock.
Exhaustion was a distant memory now. Their bodies were automatic, movements calculated and executed by some other force, machines of flesh and blood and sweat and sex. When Evangeline's eyes were closed she saw a red-orange color and it throbbed, throbbed like the cocks of the men on either side of her, throbbed like the feeling between her legs. It was the fire, and they were feeding it.
Another moan, another shuddering body, another spasm inside of her. She pulled him out and then climbed off the bed, falling to the floor because she couldn't stand. Seth and Parvaneh were lying side by side, wasting time in inaction, so Evangeline picked Parvenah up and transferred her to the bed, where both men converged on her despite their pained expressions. Then she rolled Seth over with her bare foot and climbed on top of him. He reached out to touch her face, the way a blind man would. She rubbed herself against his cock, working at it until it began to harden again. It was slow going, but she was dedicated.
She pinned his wrists to the floor, leaning on him with all the force she could muster. It was something he used to like, back when they were dating, though for some reason he seemed embarrassed about it and would never discuss it outside the heat of the moment. It seemed to work now, though, as he twisted underneath her in that particular way, and eventually she felt him go hard again; it wasn't his most enthusiastic display, but considering how long they'd been going it bordered on heroic. She slid down on him, fitting him inside, and then she rocked back and forth, still holding him down. The way he moved made her think of a butterfly in the killing jar, twitching and jerking but still, somehow, already resigned to what was happening even before it began.
The two nameless men trapped Parvaneh between them, almost limp as they held her and took turns. Seth seemed to be losing steam as well, but he was still at least in good enough condition for her to finish. So she kept going, pumping up and down until her legs were ready to collapse but not willing to stop or even slow until the moment finally came...and when it did she fell back and all she could see was the hot, red-orange center of the fire inside of her, growing and spreading, a wildfire that would spread over the entire world, over everyone and everything and turn it all into spectacular, all-consuming heat.
Dimly, she was aware of more people in the room, strange people with guns and gasmasks who were taking the others away, hauling their limp, unconscious bodies along. But even when they put hands on her she was not really paying attention to them. She'd felt the shift, deep down inside of her. It had started. When they picked her up, she let blessed sleep finally take her. She dreamed of fire.
Two patients were here, both young women, both sedated. The secretary of defense almost recoiled from them, but seeing the casual way the doctor approached their bedsides she chastised herself and went in for a closer look. "What's so important about them?"
"We caught them with Younger and two others. They'd locked themselves in an apartment and had been going at it for probably days. Nearly killed themselves from dehydration."
"Why locked in? I thought you said this thing wants to spread."
"It does, but that's not what was going on here. Our guess is that all five were already infected before they even showed up."
One of the women stirred in her sleep, murmuring something the secretary of defense could not hear. The secretary of defense frowned. Aquestion had formed in her mind, but she was afraid she already knew the answer:
"Why would the infected have sex with other infected?"
The doctor wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "To reproduce" He sighed. "They're both pregnant."
The secretary of defense kneeled by young women's bedsides, watching them sleep, trying to imagine what was going on beneath the surface of their skin, and in their blood, and inside their cells.
"The resulting children will have been infected since the moment of their conception. The microorganism was part of the very first cells that formed the embryos."
"What does it mean?"
"My theory?" He paused. "They'll constitute a completely new organism, a blend of humanity and the infection. This is what it wanted all along."
The secretary of defense rounded and almost backed the doctor into a corner. "Why haven't you terminated these pregnancies?" she said.
"There's no point. There are thousands more out there by now, Soon there'll be millions. At least if we keep these ones we can study them. And we think they're probably some of the first, which means we'll have some time, a few weeks or even a few months, to study the newborns before, well..."
"Before the rest of them are born. Before they start to populate the planet."
The doctor nodded. His face was ashen. The secretary of defense looked at the sleeping women. Her mind reeled. "This is it," she said. "This is how the world ends."
"Maybe not," the doctor said, though his voice cracked. "We don't know what it intends. Maybe we can coexist."
"Coexistence is not my field, doctor. It's like you said: I know an invasion when I see one." She looked him in the eye. "You're sweating."
"Not it's not. It's quite cool, actually."
"Then why are you sweating?"
The secretary of defense started. She had not realized that she was. She touched herself; there was a warmth there, just under the surface.