by Kaylie Night
The white-coated doctor didn’t have to say it aloud. Tripp could see it in her eyes, in the way she clutched her tablet a little too tightly with one hand and brushed her hair behind her ear with the other. He let his head fall back against the cold wall of the windowless examination room.
It was a positive test result that had gotten him thrown in prison, and now it was a positive test result that would get him out—in a body bag. A ten-year sentence escalated to capital punishment in a moment.
His pulse pounded in his ears, slow and steady and hard, but he forced his expression to remain blank, and he paced his breathing. Death was the only predictable thing. There was no reason he should greet it as a simpering coward.
The doctor glanced down at the handcuff that bound him to the bench and chafed his wrist, then she looked him in the eyes. “Milo, I’m Dr. Eleanor Carroll.”
“I’m afraid the nano plague has infected you. Without treatment, you would have five days to live. Under the circumstances, you understand what must be done.”
“There’s no cure, no treatment, you have to kill me before the stupid little robots in my brain get out and infect other people, blah blah blah.” The words were coming out too fast. He shifted his weight, and the waxy paper covering beneath him crinkled.
Dr. Carroll’s brow furrowed, and she set down her tablet on the too-clean white counter. “I’m so sorry, Milo, but you are correct. The Last Resort Act is quite absolute.”
“I get it.” He wanted to wipe that fake sorry look off her face. He didn’t need anyone’s sympathy, real or fake. For years, he’d seen death every day: rotting starved corpses on the streets, freezing men and women who had died of exposure. The bodies felt no cold, no hunger, no pain. Tripp had been through worse than being dead. So why was his stomach turning somersaults?
Dr. Carroll picked back up her tablet and pulled up a rolling chair across from his bench. “Milo, what do you know about the plague?”
He stared at her, studying her face, but she kept her eyes on her tablet. Finally, he let his breath out. “Uh, not much. Just what I heard on the holos. Scientists were trying to make little robots to replace brain cells, but turns out they kill you in a week, and they’re contagious.” Half the world population, gone in a couple of months. The apocalypse had come, and Tripp had watched it happen from behind bars.
He wouldn’t have minded—it might have even been easier this way—except that he had no idea what was happening to Jemma.
“Close enough,” Dr. Carroll said. “The plague is a rogue self-replicating microdroid, but if you prefer the term robot—”
“I prefer the name Tripp.” He was filled with a sudden overwhelming desire to get this over with. “Why are you still here? Forget your lethal injection? You can go get it—I’ll wait.” He held up his handcuffed wrist.
Dr. Carroll continued to swipe and tap on her tablet. “I’m not here to kill you.”
“Then go test someone else. It’s the end of the world. You don’t have time to chat with a dead man.”
Her stony gray eyes pierced his. “You’re not going to die, Milo.”
Despite his best resistance, some piece of him dared to hope. “Really.”
“We have a treatment. It’s a drug that renders the cells dormant and unable to reproduce for twenty-four hours, essentially. Forget to take it for a day, and you’re contagious again. Forget to take it for seven days—any seven days, consecutive or not—and you will die.”
“And the catch . . .”
“We can’t mass produce the drug yet, and even if we could, it has to be injected into the spine every day.”
“It’s not a cure. Got it.” Couldn’t just trust people to take their meds, not when a single forgotten day made them contagious again.
Dr. Carroll raised her eyebrows. “But we’re willing to make you a deal.”
“Loving the irony.”
“Come work for us and we’ll give you the shot each day.”
“We’ll give you food and lodging in a quarantined environment. The work is easy and you’ll be helping a lot of people.”
He took a deep breath, in and out. The antiseptic smell stung his nose. “Fine, I’ll bite. What’s the job?”
“Can’t give a lot of particulars, but—”
“Cut the crap. What’s the job?”
“Cleanup and disposal.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re in.”
“I’m out.” He’d learned from the last time he’d accepted a job without knowing what it was. Then, it had been Jemma’s life at stake. Now, it was only his.
Dr. Carroll’s eyebrows raised. “Milo, the alternative is—”
“Good old-fashioned death.” There were much worse things than death. Plenty of them happened under crazy scientists with everything to hide.
A long pause. “Alright, if that’s your choice. I’ll order a lethal injection and it will arrive within the hour.”
He nodded slowly, letting his eyes fall closed. After so many years of watching death, thinking about death, running from death, it was finally his turn.
“Are you sure you won’t reconsider?” Dr. Carroll asked.
“Won’t really get a chance, after I’m dead.”
“You know what I mean.”
He looked her straight in the eyes. “There is nothing you could say to get me to work for you.”
She nodded slowly, her brow furrowed. “It’s just, we thought you’d take the position.” She picked up her tablet and turned to go. “Your sister did.”
Tripp’s fingers went numb.
Death wasn’t on Tripp’s list of top ten fears, because his top ten fears were all of things happening to Jemma.
Jemma had hit sixteen a couple of months ago, and she’d dropped out of high school to get a job. She didn’t need Tripp’s drug money anymore. They’d fought on the night she packed up and left, but she’d come back to visit since then, and they’d been on good terms until Tripp’s arrest. She was smart and resourceful, and she had friends. Whatever happened to him—prison, death, or worse—he was at peace knowing she would be safe.
Down the prison hallways, out of the police station, and down the road to the police car, an armed officer guarded Tripp to the left, the whitecoat to his right, his handcuffed wrists behind. The high security all felt rather pointless to Tripp. If he ran, he would die, leaving Jemma in their hands.
The inside of the cop car smelled like sweat and blood, and the cold cuffs pressed hard into his back where the doctor had injected the drug. Tripp tried to keep his eyes on the road, but their surroundings kept catching his eye. A few of the larger buildings were covered in transparent plastic and surrounded by electric fences. They must have been quarantine centers. Tripp’s mouth tasted foul. Those people were as imprisoned as he was, except they had done nothing to deserve it.
They passed the ice cream parlor where his parents had taken him when they were still alive. Leftover shards of the brightly colored window glistened in the rising sun. The walls of the school he’d walked Jemma to every morning when she was little were mostly black and gray ash now. Broken furniture and garbage littered the sidewalks, and the only bodies in the streets were unmoving. Tripp thought he recognized a couple of them, but it might have been a trick of his imagination, which—to be fair—was spinning out of control.
His eyes stung. It had been a cruel city, but it was home. He blinked a few times, taking deep breaths. There had been no compassion for him as a free man, or as a living prisoner; he expected none as a dead slave.
The police car pulled into a parking garage and descended the levels, deep underground. Tripp’s ears popped twice before they came to a stop. The officer helped Tripp out of the car, and they made their way through a cement door, through several airlocks, and then through a long hallway.
The whitecoat opened the door to a dim conference room. A few people were slouched in the rolling chairs around the long wooden table, and a woman in khaki pants and a white t-shirt stood at the head of the table, tapping at a tablet. The police officer shoved Tripp into the room and shut the door behind them. “Last of the recruits for today, Maddox,” he said.
“Thank you,” the woman in khakis—Maddox—said.
The officer raised his eyebrows at Tripp and nodded toward the table, crossing his arms and remaining by the doorway. The whitecoat took a seat at the far end of the table, and Tripp glanced from face to face around the table. Many faces were covered in scars or tattoos. Tripp was sure he had seen a couple of them at the prison before. He swallowed, recognizing the hardened look in their eyes—they were all convicts. But that meant Jemma . . .
One of the recruits kept her chair swiveled, faced away from Tripp. He could just make out the side of her slender arm and a few strands of her dirty blond hair.
“Alright, let’s get this started.” Maddox set aside her tablet and faced the room. “I’ll cut to the chase. There are over a billion bodies out there. Every one of them is contagious. The microdroids don’t survive long outside of a human host, but they live and multiply on the dead at an astounding rate. Your job is to fix that, and since you’re already infected, you’re the only ones that can.”
Tripp clenched his teeth as the words cleanup and disposal took on new meaning.
Maddox reached down under the table and pulled out a glass jug with one hand and what looked like a cattle prod in the other. “We’ve devised a multistep disposal process. We use an electromagnetic pulse to shut down the microdroids, take the bodies to a burial site, pour acid over the remains, then light them on fire. And we pray that’s enough.”
She walked through each step, showing all the parts of the EMP generators, walking through safety precautions.
“Finally, very important. You’ve got this opportunity because you were going to be imprisoned anyway, not because you deserved to live more than the people outside the prisons. Run away, and we’ll catch you and kill you before the disease gets a chance. Try to enter an uninfected zone, and you’ll be dead before you touch the building. Any questions?”
A long pause. The boy next to Tripp—he couldn’t have been more than fifteen—asked, “Why couldn’t we have just blasted ’em all with an EMP when we had a chance?”
Tripp had been thinking the same thing.
Maddox shook her head. “A strong enough pulse to kill the droids would kill the host. Incidentally, that is what we normally use to neutralize the infected before they can spread the disease to anyone else. And it’s what we’ll use on you, if we must.”
The room was silent.
“If there are no other brilliant ideas about what we should have done weeks ago,” Maddox said, “let’s take you back to your dorms. We start work first thing in the morning.”
They all stood, and for the first time, Jemma turned to face Tripp; her eyes met his. The color drained from her cheeks.
He barely managed a smile before she ran up to him, punched him hard in the shoulder, then collapsed into his arms, sobbing.
The prisoners’ common area was little more than a wooden shack, lit with a few bare incandescent bulbs, and sparsely furnished with couches and chairs that weren’t in much better condition than the overturned wreckage in the streets. It was hot and muggy and smelled like sweat, but it was better than prison.
Jemma sat on the front edge of a torn beige couch, while Tripp sat on a folding metal chair across from her. “I thought you were dead, Milo! Almost everyone was. You couldn’t have gotten me a message just to let me know you were safe?”
“You hadn’t come to visit me in two months. I thought you’d moved on, found a better life.” He glanced around the room at the pacing prisoners. “Thought you were better than this.”
Her glare grew venomous in a way Tripp had never seen in her before. “Don’t give me that look. You were gone. I did what I had to do.”
“You got recruited?”
“I didn’t deal drugs. I stole money. No, don’t you dare give me that look, either! I took in a couple of kids off the street and took care of them. For all the good that did.” She pressed her lips together and looked down, wringing her hands. “I’m guessing they’re all dead now.”
Tripp didn’t dare reach out to try to comfort her. “Have you seen Aunt Mary?”
Jemma rolled her eyes. “Why would I do that?”
Tripp shrugged. Aunt Mary had taken them in after the accident that killed their parents. She’d never hurt them physically, but two days after the accident, she had forbidden all tears, berating Jemma for being ungrateful for the roof over her head. A week later, she had demanded they call her “Mom.” Her emotional abuse escalated until, at eleven years old, Jemma tried to kill herself.
Fifteen at the time, Tripp packed and snuck her out in the middle of the night. He hadn’t seen her since, but he’d thought Jemma might if the alternative was stealing or starving, especially since their Uncle Cato had always been kind to them.
Jemma sighed. “Never mind the past, okay? What day are you on?”
It took Tripp a moment to figure out what she meant. Dr. Carroll had said he would have five days to live without the treatment. If the disease killed in a week . . . “Day two.”
Her eyes widened. “So you don’t know what it feels like.”
“The microdroids?” He winced. “Do they hurt?”
Her jaw dropped. “You really don’t know!” She just stared for a moment, then shook her head. “They work just like the scientists meant them to. The more the droids take over, the more your brain works like a computer. Your reflexes are instant; you don’t even need sleep. You have access to the world’s databases, so you know everything without looking it up.” She smiled, staring off into space. “It makes ordinary life feel like a dream.”
“What day are you on, Jemma?”
Her face fell, and she looked down at her feet.
He leaned forward and gripped her arm. “Tell me what day.”
She took a deep breath. “Six.”
Hot adrenaline flooded his veins.
She grimaced. “I know, but it doesn’t matter. The only way I’ll miss a treatment is if I refused it, and if I did that, they’d kill me before the disease got a chance.”
Tripp knew she was right. Still, it felt like the difference between watching his sister stand on the very edge of a cliff, as compared to a few steps back from the edge. She wouldn’t jump, but it still set his nerves on edge.
“Anyway, we should get some rest.” She stood from the couch. “Work day tomorrow.”
Tripp followed her out of the common area and into the dorm, where bunks with thin, plastic-covered mattresses lined the walls and little cockroaches scurried across the floorboards. They wouldn’t be here forever. They couldn’t be. Once they got out, Tripp had time to fail once or twice or even five times before the disease took him. Jemma had no time at all.
The scientists had created the microdroids without knowing what the consequences would be. Tossing and turning on the hard mattress in the darkness, the soft snores of the other convicts piercing the silence, Tripp couldn’t help but worry about what else they didn’t know.
Dr. Carroll came by the dorm early to administer treatment to each of the infected prisoners. Tripp kept his eyes away from the others receiving the injection, and hoped they kept their eyes off of him as he failed to keep a straight face—she injected into the same place she had the day before, which was more painful than he had expected.
Breakfast was stale bread and lukewarm orange juice. Despite not having eaten in twelve hours, Tripp didn’t have much of an appetite. His mind kept anticipating the day. He’d seen lots of dead bodies, but he’d never touched one.
They filed out of the common area, each picking up a generator as they passed through the doorway, onto the sidewalk, then into a rusty bus. Maddox stood just outside the bus wearing a gas mask and a full Hazmat suit. Jemma’s face was blank, but she hung close to Tripp.
A mild, almost glittery fog obscured the rising sun. He hadn’t noticed it the day before, but a fine dust coated the buildings and streets. Tripp squinted and ran his finger along one of the edge of the bus as he neared the door. The gray dust that coated his finger sparkled.
“They’re droids,” a boy behind him said—the same one who had asked about EMP’s the day before.
Tripp turned to face him. “What?”
“The dust is mostly dead microdroids.”
Tripp held out his finger. “You’re saying this is the plague.”
“Most of it.” He shrugged. “There was plenty of microtech before the plague—replacements for most of the cells in the human body, repair bots for machinery, some weaponized droids. Not enough to be seen in the air until someone decided self-replicating droids were a good idea. Believe me, I protested it.” The boy held out a hand. “I’m Axel, by the way.”
“Tripp.” He brushed the dust off his finger before shaking Axel’s hand, then he followed Jemma onto the bus.
It was a short, quiet ride to a little suburban cul-de-sac. Maddox barked orders from the front of the bus as they pulled up. “When you find a body, you zap it with the generator before you drag it off. If you can’t lift it, get someone to help you. We’re taking them to an empty community pool on the corner of Lake and Park—that’ll be the grave.”
The brakes squealed to a stop, and Tripp found himself leaning forward a little, though Maddox seemed unaffected.
“A team before us has neutralized all of the locks. You should have access to every house. Leave no door unopened.” she said. “One infected body leftover could mean the plague restarts once we release the uninfected. We have to get every last one. You copy?”
A few mutters of assent, then the prisoners began to file off the bus with the generators. Tripp could see Jemma’s shaking in her hands.
The group fanned out—some in pairs or threes, some individuals—and entered the different houses.
Tripp swallowed hard. He shouldn’t have assumed the riots would affect every neighborhood the same, but it was difficult to believe all of these perfect, undamaged houses contained rotting corpses.
Jemma stood, frozen, beside Tripp. He would have to be the brave one. He forced his legs to step towards a little white house with green trim he hadn’t seen anyone else enter.
“Wait, wait.” The boy from earlier that morning—Axel—came running up from behind them. “Can I go with you?”
Tripp let his breath out. He couldn’t blame the kid for not wanting to be alone.
He pressed a hand against the dusty hand scanner, and the door clicked open. He braced himself for the smell of decaying flesh, but there was nothing—it just smelled musty. Some laundry was strewn across the couches in the living room, and a few dishes sat in the sink. Mold grew over the food remains on the dishes.
Tripp crept down the hallway, Jemma and Axel following close behind. He swung open the first door in the hallway.
An older lady—maybe sixty or seventy—lay on the shaggy rug beside the bed. There was no blood, no injury, and her eyes rested closed. Tripp would have thought she was asleep except that she wasn’t breathing.
“I’ve read about it,” Axel whispered. “The microdroids stop the body from deteriorating.”
“How?” Jemma choked out, her eyes wide and staring at the body.
Axel cleared his throat. “No one really understands why—it’s not like we’ve been able to run experiments. The infected dead are as contagious as the infected living, maybe more so.”
Tripp glanced around at the pictures over the pink-and-white wallpaper. The woman whose body lay on the floor smiled out of some of them, holding children on her lap or standing beside younger adults, but many of the pictures were young families—he assumed, her children and grandchildren.
Tripp wondered where they were now. Maybe dead; maybe not. She didn’t deserve to be found like this by strangers. She should have been mourned and buried by her family. But there were just too many bodies to feel for each one.
They all stood in the doorway of the bedroom. Tripp took a deep breath and stepped just close enough to the body to touch the arm with the prod from the generator. He turned the knob all the way up to high. The generator hummed, the prod buzzed, and the body vibrated. Tripp counted to five, then he turned off the generator.
“Help me out.” He grabbed the arms of the body, and Jemma and Axel grabbed the legs. Axel’s face paled, Jemma’s eyes shone, and Tripp’s stomach turned, but they would get used to this. If he had learned one thing from his years of cold nights on an empty stomach and unreasonable demands from a violent boss, it was that people could get used to anything, if they had to.
They carried the body out of the house and down the street, following the line of prisoners led by Maddox to an empty, molded pool around the corner. The flames that consumed the pile of acid-soaked bodies smelled like nothing but fire.
Days blurred together. Tripp soon lost count of how many bodies he had electrocuted and carried from their homes. Each morning and afternoon meant a new neighborhood, but otherwise there wasn’t much to distinguish the time passing.
They couldn’t take a day off. Every day they spent was a day the uninfected waited in quarantine. Tripp had to assume there were other teams working on cleanup, because at one neighborhood a day, it didn’t seem like theirs was making much progress.
And what if they did? He couldn’t imagine what the endgame was supposed to be. Remove all of the dead bodies from the streets, hope they didn’t miss any? The goal seemed to be to destroy all existing microdroids. What would they do with the living infected once there was no use for them anymore?
One day, about a month after Tripp and Jemma had started their work, the bus pulled up to a neighborhood he recognized. It was their own—or rather, it was where they had lived with Mary and Cato.
Jemma grabbed onto Tripp’s arm as they pulled up. “Milo, I don’t want to . . .”
He bit his lip. They’d left a lot behind at their aunt and uncle’s house, things their parents had left for them. He had left behind all pictures of their parents, his ignorant fifteen-year old mind fearing they might trigger Jemma’s depression. He couldn’t help but wonder what Aunt Mary had thrown out and what Uncle Cato had managed to save. Even if they couldn’t take much back with them, it would be nice to see their parents’ faces again.
More concerning was the thought that one or both of their bodies might be in the house. He recalled, with some guilt, his feeling that the first body they found should have been buried by loved ones rather than strangers. They hadn’t left off on good terms with their relatives, but they were still family. Tripp just wasn’t sure if he would be able to stomach it.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter whether it was a good idea for them to enter the house. It didn’t even matter whether they wanted to.
“I don’t want to,” Jemma whispered as they exited the bus and began the long trudge up the street. “But I think we have to.”
“Hey guys!” Axel ran up behind them. “Did you hear this was one of the first towns to be infected? Yeah, the bodies here are almost two months old. I’m not sure why we didn’t come here first, but then, I don’t know what kind of system the disposal team is using to decide in what order the towns are cleared. Just, of all the bodies we’ve disposed of, these are by far the oldest—”
“Axel,” Jemma said, “this is the house where our family used to live.”
Axel froze in place, nodded slowly, then walked away.
“Thanks.” Tripp nudged Jemma on the arm. “Whatever we find in there . . .”
Jemma’s brow furrowed as she stared at the door.
Tripp sighed. “Let’s just go.”
Jemme nodded, and Tripp pushed the door open.
Six years hadn’t changed the house much. The maroon leather on the couches was no less pristine, the hardwood floors no less shiny. There was still that little pile of mail by the flower pot in the kitchen, the one Aunt Mary had shouted at Tripp for touching. Still that smell of disinfectant, the oppressive silence.
Jemma had frozen. Tripp put a hand on her shoulder. She nodded, and they kept walking.
They crept down the hallway, and Tripp was careful not to scuff his feet, even though he knew Aunt Mary couldn’t scold him for it now. He hesitated before opening the door to his aunt and uncle’s bedroom, but the room was empty, the bed made.
They turned to the door across the hall—Uncle Cato’s study. Tripp pushed the door open, and he jumped back. Jemme gasped.
It looked like Uncle Cato had fallen asleep at his desk—but of course, he wasn’t asleep. His eyes were closed, his sandy hair tousled. A thin layer of glimmering dust coated his skin, clothes, and hair. Axel was right about the bodies in this neighborhood being older than any they had seen before.
“He looks so young,” Jemma whispered.
Tripp took a step closer. Cato and Mary were a lot younger than his parents. Uncle Cato hadn’t been forty yet when he died, and maybe it was seeing his dead body that made his young age so striking to Tripp.
But he didn’t just look young. He looked well. Healthier than he ever had in real life. Those last few days of life, living with the microdroids’ aid, must have been exactly as Jemma had described.
“Come on.” Tripp flipped on his generator. “They’ll be wondering what’s taking us so long.”
Jemma nodded, and Tripp pulled back the chair from the desk. Uncle Cato tipped over and fell out of his chair.
And then Cato jumped to his feet.
Jemma screamed. Tripp leapt in front of her and held the prod from the generator out in front of himself. “What are you?”
Cato held his hands over his head, eyes wide, trembling. “Milo? Jemma? But you—”
“What are you? You’re not Cato.”
True confusion filled his eyes. “I—I know you’re upset, and I deserve that, but I—I’m still Cato. Just Cato.”
“Milo.” Jemma’s gentle hand rested on his arm. “I don’t think he knows what happened.”
“What do you mean?” Cato’s hands trembled.
“Uncle Cato, where’s Aunt Mary?”
He shook his head. “She caught the plague before I did. They took her off to an experimental facility, they tried to treat her, but she didn’t make it.”
Tripp’s teeth clenched. He wasn’t convinced this person—creature?—wasn’t hiding something. He turned the voltage on his generator down to lowest power, then he reached forward to touch Cato’s arm.
In one swift motion, Cato jumped forward and grabbed the generator and prod from Tripp’s hands.
“I—I’m sorry.” Cato looked down at the generator with a furrowed brow. “I’m not sure . . . I didn’t mean—”
“The droids do that.” Jemma stepped forward and gently took the generator from Cato’s hands, switching it off and setting it down on the desk. “They make your self-defense reflexes almost instant. I wasn’t used to it yet, by the time they started treating me.”
“There’s treatment for the plague?” A relieved smile broke across his face. “You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that. I don’t have long before these droids kill me.”
“When did you catch it?” Tripp asked.
“Well, I don’t know exactly, but I haven’t slept in four days, so maybe a week ago? The eleventh?”
Cato’s brow furrowed. “February, of course.”
“Oh.” Jemma turned away, covering her face.
May was almost over. Tripp stepped closer to Cato, though he cringed. “You don’t know, do you?”
Tripp winced and took a deep breath. He had to just say it. “You’re dead, man. You’ve been dead for months.”
Cato was still in a state of shock—jaw dropped, gaze distant—by the time Maddox’s whistle sounded, calling all of the prisoners out of the houses to return to the bus. There was nothing they could do to snap him out of it. Tripp had even tried slapping him—Cato’s hand caught his arm, though his eyes never turned toward it.
“We’ll have to drag him out.” Tripp grabbed one of Cato’s arms and gestured for Jemma to grab onto the other. “Maddox’ll know what to do.”
Jemma took a step back, her eyes wide. “You want to tell Maddox?”
Tripp loosened his grip on Cato’s arm. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, he probably still has the plague.”
Tripp’s heart sank, but they didn’t have many options. “What do you want to do?”
Jemma pressed her lips together, looking back and forth from Cato to Tripp and back. “We have to protect him.”
“But they’ll kill him!”
“They’ll kill you if you try to hide him, Jemma! You’re the only family I’ve got”
Jemma grabbed hold of Cato’s hand. “What about him, Milo? He’s family.”
Tripp held his hands out in front of him and stepped back. “No. No. I don’t know what this thing is, but it’s not our uncle. I don’t even think it’s human.”
The whistled sounded again.
Tripp grabbed Jemma’s arm in one hand and Cato’s in the other. “Jemma, we’ve got to get back. And we can’t just leave him here.”
A light creaking, and the door swung open.
Axel stood in the doorway. “Hey, guys. Are you coming?” He squinted at Cato, as if trying to remember if he was one of them.
Jemma’s eyes met Tripp’s. He shook his head, drawing his hand across his throat, but she glared at him and turned back to Axel. “This is our uncle. Cato.”
“Um, hi.” Axel kept staring at Cato.
Jemma cleared her throat. “Axel, you always seem to know more than we do about what’s going on. Uncle Cato caught the plague . . . a little over three months ago.”
Axel raised his eyebrows. “He’s in treatment?”
Realization spread across Axel’s face, and he gestured for Tripp and Jemma to come into the hallway. He closed the door, leaving Cato inside, still in a daze.
“I’ve always wondered,” Axel said.
“Wondered what?” Tripp’s voice was louder than he’d meant it to be.
Axel turned to face Tripp. “The microdroids are pluripotent. That means they have the potential to become any kind of cell They essentially learn how to be brain cells by learning from other brain cells. But if they ran out of brain cells to replace—”
“They could start replacing the others?” Jemma asked.
Axel nodded. “And when the process was complete . . .”
“Wait.” Tripp brought his hands to his face. “You’re saying he’s made of the plague.”
“It’s a hypothesis. But if he was dead, and the droids just kept replacing his cells—”
“He would come back to life,” Jemma whispered.
“No.” Tripp threw his hands down and took a couple of steps back. “He’s not a zombie. I’m not even sure he’s alive. If he’s made out of robot cells, he’s a computer. At most.”
Axel winced. “I don’t know about that. Lots of people get microdroid treatment for one organ or another. What percentage of a person’s body would have to be made up of droids for you to say they weren’t human anymore?”
“But for Cato, every cell in his body—”
“Where do you draw the line, Tripp?”
Tripp squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t know! Okay? Do I have to know? If he’s completely made of robot cells, he’s not human!”
Jemma grabbed his arm. “Tripp, did you even see him? He’s scared—I mean, that was real fear. He’s still a person if he can still feel.”
Axel scratched his head. “Well, I’m not sure about that. Philosophically, it’s an interesting take, but—”
Jemma dropped Tripp’s arm and smacked Axel’s. “You’re no help!”
A loud knocking sounded through the house.
“That’ll be Maddox.” Axel hurried toward the front door, but it slammed open before he reached it.
“Didn’t you hear my whistle?” Maddox barked. “Get to the bus!”
Tripp and Jemma exchanged a glance. She shook her head, just a tiny bit, her eyes pleading, but Tripp couldn’t leave it to chance. “There’s a bit of a situation here, ma’am.”
Maddox crossed her arms. “What kind of situation?”
Jemma didn’t even look at Tripp for the whole ride back to the dorm. She stared at the window, her nostrils flaring, despite his appeals and apologies.
Cato sat up at the front of the bus beside Maddox, a gray blanket draped over his shoulders. His trembling, the cracking of his voice as he asked Maddox a question, the lines of his face and white-knuckled grip of his hand on the side of the seat as the bus turned a tight corner—everything about Cato seemed so human. The power of the deception only made Tripp angrier.
Maddox hadn’t said aloud what would be done with Cato. She didn’t have to.
The prisoners filed out of the bus and towards the dorm, but Jemma stormed past the open door of the building, around the side. Tripp pressed his lips together and followed her.
She whirled around to face him. “Uncle Cato is human. I don’t care what you say, he is. And you killed him.”
Tripp shook his head. “Cato was already dead.”
“Maybe! Maybe you’re right. Maybe you can’t really call that guy Cato, if all of his cells were replaced with microdroids. But whoever he is, he has all of Cato’s memories. Including caring about us!”
Tripp looked away, the hazy air shimmering in the sunset. It would have been one thing if the robotic cells had replaced the human ones, simulated a human nature, but not pretended to be Cato. Like Aunt Mary had pretended to be their mom. “He’s an imposter, then. Why do you care what happens to him?”
“Because it’s not his fault! He’s a victim, Tripp!”
Tripp’s eyes locked onto Jemma’s. There was a long silence.
Finally, Tripp let his breath out. “If you had tried to hide him, they would have killed you. They were going to kill him either way.”
Her eyes flashed. “You’re glad he’s dead!”
His breath caught in his throat. “I don’t know, Jemma! This whole thing scares me. We don’t know what he is!”
He reached out for her, and she stepped away, shaking her head. Her eyes glistened. When she finally spoke, her voice was little more than a whisper: “If you don’t know what something is . . . you don’t kill it.”
Tripp said nothing more about Cato for the rest of the evening, and neither did Jemma. His eyes burned with the image of Maddox leading Cato around back of the cabin, generator in hand . . .
Tripp would have been more than happy to keep the incident between them, but of course, Axel couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Tripp could have throttled him. Over dinner and for the rest of the night, it was the only topic of conversation amongst the other prisoners:
“A person made of robots? So he’s, like, a computer?”
“Wait, so he was dead of the plague but he came back to life?”
“That’s what people be saying, zombie apocalypse and all.”
“So what’s gonna happen to us if we run out of treatment? We gonna turn into zombies too?”
“Poor sucker, what happened to him?”
“You didn’t see? Maddox took him out. Zapped him with a thousand volts and burned him in acid like they do all the other bodies.”
“Good thing, too. Don’t wanna be messin’ with that stuff.”
“Really, man? He was a person. Did you see him?”
“Yeah! He was a robot. His eyes were all glowing, like a computer screen.”
“Man, you makin’ stuff up.”
Tripp kept trying to catch Jemma’s eye, but she avoided him. He knew her tactic—trying to guilt him. It was working—it always did—even though he didn’t have anything to be guilty about.
Tripp lay awake staring at the moldy ceiling for most of the night. It wasn’t as if he liked the fact that Cato had died. He’d been a good man, even if he hadn’t been brave enough to stand up to Aunt Mary—who was? That creature Maddox had killed wasn’t Cato.
Whatever he was, human or robot or zombie or something else, Jemma wasn’t wrong that the creature was a victim. But he was a victim that looked like Cato, and Tripp wasn’t sure if he could have stood that for long.
The alarm bells pierced the air what felt like moments after Tripp had nodded off. Jemma maintained her silent treatment throughout the morning, though Tripp couldn’t think of anything to say anyway. Trying to convince her he’d only been trying to protect her would only make it worse—she’d proven time and again she could take care of herself.
The morning treatment had become so routine he hardly noticed it—the pain was the same each day, but knowing exactly what to expect made it easier to take—but today he focused on the sharp prick in his skin, the dull burn in his spine. It didn’t help with the guilt.
As usual, the bus pulled up to a new neighborhood, and the prisoners filed out into the open air. This neighborhood had been hit a little harder by the riots, or maybe it had been in bad shape to begin with. The streets were ripped up, many windows broken, and a few houses looked like they had been partly burned.
Tripp found himself frozen. He couldn’t take a step toward any of the houses. Jemma stood on one side of him, Axel on the other. Tripp paced a bit, his feet shuffling in the gravel and ash, and glanced around him. The other prisoners were doing the same, exchanging looks with each other, staring at the ground.
“Move it!” Maddox barked from beside the bus. “Work to be done!”
Axel grimaced, clutched his generator tighter, and hurried off to one of the houses. A few at a time, the other prisoners nudged themselves and each other into action, spreading out.
Maddox stepped between Tripp and Jemma and placed a hand on his shoulder. For the first time Tripp had heard, her voice was gentle: “You two doing alright?”
Tripp nodded, but Jemma just kept staring off in the distance, squinting a little.
“Take five if you need to.” She slapped Tripp on the back, a little harder than would have been comforting, and continued down the sidewalk.
Tripp swallowed hard. “We’ve got to keep going, Jemma.”
Jemma looked up at Tripp, and he reached for her hand. She jerked away, but followed him into the house on their right.
Despite the roughness of the neighborhood, this was one of the nicer houses they had been in. The décor in the living room was modern and sleek, the kitchen looked newly remodeled—and a woman in a blouse and pencil skirt lay on her back on one of the couches, her body so perfectly preserved by the plague that she might have been asleep.
It had been awhile since a dead body had fazed Tripp, but after watching Cato’s remains jump to their feet, he found his hands shaking and his knees unsteady as he stepped toward the body.
The quicker they began their task, the sooner it would be over. He flicked on the generator and began reaching the probe toward the body.
“Wait!” Jemma cried, and Tripp almost dropped the generator.
“What?” He found himself breathing hard.
“What if she’s not dead?” Jemma knelt down beside the woman and shook her shoulder. She touched her neck, pressing her fingers in deep.
Tripp shook his head and flicked the generator off. “Jemma . . . she’s dead.”
Jemma stood up and whirled around. “For how much longer, Tripp?”
He flinched. She’d never called him by his street name.
“How long was Uncle Cato dead?” Jemma stepped closer to him. “Three months? Then the droids finished their work, and he came back.”
He set down the generator. “No, Jemma—”
“What if everything we’ve been doing, all the ‘cleanup and disposal’ . . .” Her voice rose and sped up. “Milo, they’re not dead! They’re just sleeping; they would have woken up and been alive! What if we’ve been killing them?”
He shook his head and gripped her shoulders. “Look at me, Jemma. Look at me. We haven’t killed anyone. We’ve put down dead bodies. That’s all.”
Her eyes shone. “And what about Cato?”
He clenched his teeth and let go of her shoulders.
She buried her face in her hands. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t, I can’t.”
Tripp took a deep breath and turned toward the woman’s body on the couch. She’s dead, he kept telling himself. Completely dead. Even if the body would get up and walk in a few weeks, the girl would still be dead. Very slowly, he bent down to pick up the generator, flicked the switch, and stepped toward the body.
Jemma gasped. “What are you doing?” She ran toward Tripp.
It was pure reflex. He lifted the probe out in front of himself.
She screamed as the electricity coursed through her arm, then she dropped to the floor.
Legs numb and chest pounding, Tripp half led, half carried Jemma onto the bus, his arm under her shoulders. Her pulse had been weak in the minutes following the jolt, and she was still mostly in a state of unawareness as they walked, but Maddox said she’d be fine in a few hours. “It happens from time to time amongst the prisoners,” she said. “She got lucky. The generator hadn’t quite warmed up, and it looks like she didn’t make contact for long.”
“Would it kill any of the microdroids?” Tripp had asked.
Maddox shook her head. “A strong enough jolt to kill the plague would have killed her.”
Tripp helped Jemma onto a bench and slid in beside her. Maddox stood in the aisle as they file in. She breathed in to speak, and Tripp braced himself for a hard lecture on electronics safety, but she shook her head and let her breath out. “Let’s get you two back to the dorms. The bus’ll come back for the others in a bit.” She nodded to the bus driver and stepped out of the open door. The door slid shut, and the brakes hissed their release.
Tripp half smiled and stroked Jemma’s hair. Her eyelids fluttered open. “Hey,” he said gently. “I’m so sorry, Jemma, I didn’t mean to—”
Her eyes widened, and she sat up straight. “What happened to that woman?”
Tripp glanced out the window of the bus. All around the bus, prisoners carried bodies through the street. His eyes skimmed the sidewalks for a white blouse and a navy blue pencil skirt, and found it all too soon. He grimaced as he turned back towards Jemma.
Her eyes filled with rage, and she pushed him away. She turned to face the window, wrapped her arms around her knees, and buried her face.
Once again, they were both silent on the ride back to the dorm building. Tripp kept his expression calm, but his thoughts were anything but. Maddox had been surprisingly patient with them so far, but it couldn’t last long. They were receiving treatment as payment for assistance with cleanup and disposal of bodies. If they didn’t keep working, the Last Resort Act would apply to them as well.
They would have to. He didn’t like it, and he wasn’t sure if he would have been able to electrocute someone whose microdroid conversion had completed—Cato had just looked so human—but during those months between . . . there was no question in his mind. Those people were dead. Those still alive had to make sure they stayed that way.
Upon their return to the dorm building, Jemma refused Tripp’s help getting back to her bunk. She buried herself beneath the covers, her head beneath the pillow.
“Jemma.” He knelt beside her bunk and put a hand on her pillow. “We should talk about this.”
“They killed her.” Her words were only just recognizable beneath the muffling of the covers. “You just let them kill her. You don’t even care.”
Tripp hung his head. There would be no convincing her tonight. He’d have to pick this back up tomorrow, after she had some time to cool down. He sighed. “Get some rest. We’ll talk in the morning.”
He stood, and all at once it struck him how heavy his eyelids were. It seemed like it had been days since he’d slept. The fear, terror, and guilt gave way to grief and exhaustion, and he trudged to his bunk and collapsed into it.
Tripp didn’t wake until the next morning. His stomach ached with hunger, and a heavy weight still rested on his chest. Little rays of sunlight penetrated the cracks in the walls of the cabin, but the alarm bells didn’t sound yet—the room was silent, save the soft breathing and snoring of the other prisoners.
It would be a long day, but the worst part would be over as soon as he could convince Jemma to return to work. He forced himself out of bed and tiptoed over to her bunk.
It was empty.
He felt his heart drop. He tore aside all her blankets, but she hadn’t left so much as a trace. The mattress was cold—she had left long ago.
His eyes darted around the darkened room, desperate for any hint as to where she might have run to. He stumbled into the common area, and his gaze settled on the corner of the living room, where Dr. Carroll had administered the plague treatment each day.
Tripp’s eyes fell closed. Jemma had said she was on day six of the plague. If he didn’t find her in the next twenty-four hours . . .
He pressed his lips together and crept over to the cabinet where Dr. Carroll had stored the little vials and syringes. The cabinet was locked, but he’d seen where she kept the keys.
He shoved two vials and two covered syringes and needles into his pocket, took one last look around the common room, and slipped out the front door, jogging as soon as his feet hit the pavement.
Maddox’s team would be after him, or maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe that was just an empty threat. He’d never seriously considered running away, and as far as he could tell, neither had any of the other prisoners. Why would any of them have wanted to run away from their only source of the treatment that was keeping them alive? And why would the cleanup and disposal team waste precious time coming after a dead man, when it would be so much easier to find his body if they just waited a few days?
The team wouldn’t welcome back a flight risk, though. More likely than not, if he and Jemma tried to return, they would be killed.
Like Cato. Like any other patient found to have the disease. Anyone except them, the wretched prisoners who least deserved a second chance at life.
Tripp fingered the two syringes in his pocket. Running was a death sentence for him, and there was no way he could catch up with Jemma before the disease took her. But how could he keep himself from trying?
There was only one place she would go, even if she didn’t want to be found—though he suspected she did. She would find their parents’ old house and hide out there.
It was miles from here. An hour’s drive, but he’d be on foot. Jemma would be at an advantage—with the droids active again, she wouldn’t tire, she’d be inhumanly intelligent, and she’d be able to cover her tracks.
As the sun rose further into the sky, as the hours passed since the cabin had been invisible from view, and as Tripp’s legs tired, he felt something of a stirring in his own mind. It seemed like his thoughts flowed more freely, like his muscles worked more efficiently, and like everything was a little clearer. The plague cells in his brain were waking up.
He blinked a couple of times. This was day three of the plague, for him. It wasn’t quite as powerful or life-altering as Jemma had described, but he could see what the scientists had been attempting with the microdroids.
He pushed the thought aside. It wasn’t worth considering now. Besides, there would be a long road ahead—he’d take any advantage he could get.
Like Jemma had said, Tripp didn’t have to sleep that night. He alternated between walking and jogging down the abandoned streets long after the sun had set. By the time he reached the house, the sun peeked out from over the horizon. He sprinted down the final block to reach the house.
The house looked almost exactly the way he remembered it from the outside, though the paint had chipped a little. The new owners had removed wallpaper in the kitchen and living rooms, but the floors and counters were the same, and the rooms were still in the same places.
She sat in the corner of the room that used to be hers, though it was furnished more like an office now. A stack of books sat on either side of her, one book in her lap. Her eyes flicked back and forth at speeds Tripp had never seen, and she turned a page every other second.
He knocked on the wall beside Jemma’s door. She looked up, and just for a second, a smile filled her eyes. “You found me.”
She set aside the book and stood. Her skin was pale, and deep dark shadows had darkened beneath her eyes, but otherwise she looked quite alert, and not the least bit tired. “Those droids are something, yeah? I haven’t had to sleep.”
Tripp nodded. “Come on, Jemma. You don’t have much time.” He stepped closer to her, holding out the syringe.
She stepped backwards. “Over my dead body!”
He shoved it back into his pocket. “I will, though! I’ll inject it into your dead body.”
She shook her head, a mirthless smile on her face. “You remember what the drug does? It inactivates the droids. You don’t want them to be activated after I die—they keep the body from rotting. They’ll bring me back if you let them.” Her smile fell, and she looked right into Tripp’s eyes. “Please let them. I don’t want to die.”
Tripp took out the syringe again. “Then take this—”
“No!” She pushed him back, and the syringe dropped to the floor. “I’m not living like that anymore! They’ll make me kill all those people.”
“Being made of robot cells isn’t a life worth living!”
Her jaw dropped. “Oh! Is that so? Did you ever even ask Cato if he wanted to live? He didn’t even know what had happened until we told him. We didn’t talk to him at all! We don’t! know! Anything!” With each of the last three words, she shoved him back further.
Tripp’s back was pressed against the wall. He found himself cringing as Jemma’s eyes burned holes in his, because even if she was wrong about everything else, she was right about this. They had barely talked to Cato. He’d been in a state of shock, and they had left him alone until Maddox came to get him.
So many questions remained: what was death like? What did the droids feel like? Did they leave any trace? What did they make a person capable of? Or did they simulate humanity perfectly, with nothing to distinguish the walking computers from people? If they had thought to wait and listen, they could have learned so much.
Maddox had taken the whole incident with Cato in stride. It occurred to Tripp for the first time that she had probably seen it happen before. He wondered if she’d ever talked to any of the other people who had come back. Again, they hadn’t bothered to ask her.
Tripp turned to look Jemma in the eyes. “I’m sorry. We should have listened to him.”
She nodded slowly, but her breathing came ragged. Her forehead had broken out in a sweat, and she dropped to her knees.
“Jemma, no!” He knelt beside her, grabbed onto her hand, and wrapped his arm around her.
Her eyelids fluttered closed, and her lips curled into a soft, serene smile. “Looks like you’ll get another chance to listen.” A single tear streamed down her cheek. “Hide my body. Let the droids bring me back.” Her brow furrowed, and her eyes met his one last time. “Or you can let them find me and electrocute me.”
“No, no, Jemma—here!” He let go of her hand and reached again into his pocket for the syringe. She shook her hand and pushed it away. There wasn’t much strength in it, but he caught a glimpse of her forearm—a dark burn mark marred her skin, from the generator—and his muslces went numb. “Jemma, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I know,” she whispered. She let out one last shuddering breath, and her body went limp.
Tripp’s throat froze, and ice coursed through his veins. Hot tears flowed, and his shoulders shook as he wrapped both arms around her.
The sun’s glaring rays shone through the blinds in Jemma’s old room and burned Tripp’s eyes, but he still couldn’t bring himself to move. His back leaned against one of the legs of the wooden desk, and Jemma’s body sprawled across his lap.
He hadn’t brought a generator with him. There was nothing he could do to protect her from becoming a zombie. But judging by the past couple of days, Jemma could do with a little less of his protection.
If the cleanup and disposal team had been tracking them, they would have arrived long ago. So they really were just going to look for the bodies. With effort, Tripp considered his options. There weren’t many.
He could bring her body back to the cabin. With that measure of good faith, the team might take him back. They’d dispose of her body, and he would live out a meaningless existence until he outlived his usefulness—or for another few decades, if the cure was ever discovered and released. That didn’t worry him, since it had always been true, but if he brought her back and they killed the droids, she would never come back. She would really be dead.
The pain of such a thought blinded him. It felt like his chest was caving in, like the whole world was caving in. He pushed it aside. She had to wake up. She had to.
He could always hide her body, somewhere they’d never find it, and return to the cabin alone. He could say he had never found her, and if he sold it with tears, they might even believe him. Maddox had proven she could be understanding, but the fate of a prisoner who had escaped might not be up to her. She might have procedures to follow and bosses to obey. Most people did.
They’d kill him if he came back alone. He’d have to bring her body, if he was to return. It wasn’t that he had few options—he only had one. Unless . . .
His heart pounded. Unless he didn’t return to the cabin.
He could just wait. Take her body to a hiding place and hide himself and let the plague take him. Wake up as a computer. Figure out what to do from there, with the assistance of a trillion genius little computer chips working in unison.
He never could have brought himself to think of the chips as genius the day before, no matter how technically true it was. Maybe the plague was brainwashing him, making him more receptive to it as it grew. Tripp didn’t care, if it meant Jemma wasn’t gone.
He stood, lifting Jemma’s cooling body over his shoulder. He wouldn’t have had the strength to do it if he hadn’t been hauling bodies for the past month. If his memory served, there was an underground train station a half mile from the house. A half mile was a long way, but he had four days to live. There would be no trains running, and he was fairly certain the cleanup and disposal team would never think to check the empty tunnels—who would have been stupid enough to hide out there?
Unlike Cato, Milo and Jemma would wake up knowing what had happened to them, so they wouldn’t spend their first few minutes in a state of shock. They could get up and run. They could live. Jemma would wake up a few days before him, but she’d know what to do.
They wouldn’t be human. Or maybe they would be. He would have to find out.
Kaylie Night has been writing novels, short stories, and poetry since her preteen years. Her work has been published in Daily Science Fiction and Deep Magic, among others. You can find updates on her writing and other adventures at kaylienight.com.
This is a fascinating concept and so well structured. I really enjoyed it.