by R. A. O’Brien
That wasn’t our code.
Fright rushed through me. He’d never forget our code, never make a mistake with that. I had to be sure. I hit replay.
“The events are straight-forward, Daisy Mae. A gibbous bat bit me, and now I’m immortal. I’ve only been resurrected a few days, but it’s wonderful. An amazing opportunity.” Carston leaned forward in his chair, his on-screen gaze fixed unflinchingly on the viewer. His eyes had been gray, but now they were black.
“A little over a week ago you were a normal person, Professor Carston, and now you’re here, an immortal, and with the eyes of the world on you. How does that feel?” Daisy Mae blinked her long, blonde eyelashes.
“Embarrassing, humbling. I’d gone outside after dark. That’s against all advice, advice that I—an expert on the bats—had given. But the sun had only just set, and the moon was nowhere near full. I thought the odds the bats would be hunting were low. So much for what I knew, eh? But then, my recent experience has led me to debunk a number of beliefs about the bats.
“I felt the brush of fur against my neck, and I knew immediately that I’d been bitten. I didn’t feel the bite, mind. The actual wound is painless, and that’s a good thing. No one need be afraid of any pain. There is none.
“I put the rubbish in the bin. Such a normal domestic chore. When I returned to the house, my wife, Anh, was standing in the living room rocking our baby son while our four-year-old daughter played teddy-bear tea parties under the table. Most parents with young children have a secret phrase they can use to convey the situation without alarming the children. I hugged Anh and said Don’t forget to check the gates against the night. That was our code.
“Now, I deeply regret having frightened my wife so badly, but at the time I thought I did the right thing. Anh’s face turned white. She clutched our baby so hard he started screaming. I kissed her. I remember hoping it was goodbye. Then I walked out into the night and drove away. I thought, if I went far enough, I would die in the desert.”
“You were brave, Professor Carston.” Daisy Mae sounded breathless.
“No, Daisy Mae, I was foolish. The only thing I can say in my defense is that I was ignorant. But no longer! What I have experienced can, and I hope will, help us all.”
“You’ve lost contact with your wife and children, haven’t you? They fled from you.”
“They fled because I told them to, because I thought the bite would turn me into a monster.”
“What do you say to your wife now, Professor Carston?” Daisy Mae fluttered her eyelashes again.
Carston looked deep into the eyes of the viewer. “Anh,” he said, “come back to me. All is well. I want so much to share these glorious events with you. Come to me.”
“That’s it, people. You’ve seen all the news tonight on the Monday Show. We’ll be back tomorrow with the Tuesday Show.” Daisy Mae did her wind up, blinked some more at the camera, then the credits started to roll.
I reached out and hit the power button.
No way was I going to him. That wasn’t my Carston. I hadn’t misheard. That wasn’t our code.
Think. . . Think. One word. Force thought. Force, pushing. Push. Harder. Push. Don’t think shut, think check. . . Check, check. Don’t forget to check. Think, think. Gates. The gates against the night. Imagine gates. . . Hard, strong. Gates, wooden rails. Drag. Push, push. Not. Door. Not door. There. The words came out. Spoken.
Exhausted. As much as I can do. Anh, Anh.
Carston. We met in first year uni. He studied biology. I was doing cultural studies, or I would have been if I’d showed up for any of the lectures instead of hanging out with him. As a kid, he’d raised a couple of orphaned fruit bats, and his honors project examined variations in bats’ ability to see. I wasn’t surprised when he started a PhD on bats. Can’t say I really understood his thesis, but it had something to do with the organization of vision in bats and it involved neurons and brains. That was before the gibbous bats.
I haven’t missed the irony that Carston was an expert on the bats. On the day he was bitten he’d delivered a paper on gibbous bats at a rare conference in Melbourne. He’d beamed in by video. Most of the conferences were held in Alice Springs. Bat research facilities had transformed the town. The place crawled with bat wonks. But first, it was full of bats. The presence of extremely large gibbous bat colonies had changed Alice from being the most remote town on the planet to being the most careful.
The bats don’t look fearsome. I know because I’ve seen them. In Alice, they’d hang in the bushes outside the windows, peering in. They appeared much like any ordinary and completely inoffensive bat, only scruffier. In a good light, they could almost have been cute. Mostly they looked as if they’d been constructed from stuff found in an old basement. They didn’t appear terrifying, but their gaze was disconcerting. Clever, intelligent. They seemed to stare in at us.
Hold, hold, hold. Slim line, slipping. Must hang on. Must. Anh, Anh. Must hang on. Can’t let it. Hold. Hold. Must not. It must not win.
We’d argued that evening over something stupid. He would never have gone outside after dark if we hadn’t been raw with each other. I blame myself, my harsh words.
He insisted on taking the rubbish out. When he came back inside his face was white and I knew, I just knew. He came to me and said our secret words, our code for the end of the world.
“Don’t forget to shut the door against the night.”
He kissed me quickly.
“Move out tonight, don’t leave an address.”
He tossed his house keys on the table and walked out.
Daisy Mae had done the flutter thing with her lashes as the Tuesday Show opened. The ratings went up every time she batted them. The show’s man on the ground jabbered into a microphone in front of the parliament building in Canberra. He’d probably practiced his frown before they turned the cameras on—authoritative and concerned, speaking to the nation.
“Australian Government senators today convened in emergency session to hear what Professor Carston has to say about his experiences since being bitten.”
The intro must have been pre-recorded because the vision cut immediately to an inside-view of the Senate chamber and of mic-man, seated in the crowd.
Carston was standing at a lectern. He sounded pompous. He must have been reading his speech. He never sounded pompous when he just talked, but he’d never acquired a good reading style.
“Thanatodon ecaudatus. Tail-less death-teeth; a name that reflects our fear. We have been afraid. I am here today to tell you that we can put aside our fear. That now, finally, we know enough to go forward without terror.
“Thanatodon is an anomaly. Seven years ago, it suddenly and inexplicably appeared in great numbers across the Australian continent. This massive and sudden appearance, together with its unusual method of reproduction, has meant that there has been debate about whether the gibbous bat, as Thanatodon is commonly known, is a true bat or something else entirely. The animal is humpbacked—hence, gibbous—has brown fur and two injecting teeth. These two teeth lack enamel and they remain needle sharp. Its closest relatives appear to be the South American vampire bats. Thanatodon has the saucer ears and echo location abilities typical of bats. It also has good eyesight. These capacities, together with thermoreceptors on its nose, make it a highly successful hunter. It will fly during the day if it must, but it usually hunts only after dark and when the moon is close to full, hence also, gibbous bat.
“That’s the scientific information, ladies and gentlemen. Minus the details. But we are not here to talk about scientific details; we are here to talk about events.
“As you know, after the gibbous bat appeared, Australia’s borders were closed. This wasn’t something we chose—it was imposed on us. An alliance of other nations, fearful of the bat and its reproductive process, set a ring of armed ships around the edge of our continental shelf. They called themselves the Coalition for Salvation.
“For nearly seven years the Coalition has monitored our air and our waters. They have torpedoed our boats and shot down our planes. They shoot to destroy and they collect no survivors. Who knows how many Australians have died through these aggressive and unwarranted actions?
“I am here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that the terror that led to the Coalition for Salvation was misplaced. Those deaths were unnecessary. The bats are not a threat to us. That I am standing here today is proof of that. They are a marvelous opportunity. I believe they represent the next step in the evolution of our species. Immortal man! Who could have foreseen this?
“There are voices who will counsel you to go slowly. They will say there is more to learn, that we don’t know enough. Of course there is more to learn, and in time we will gain that knowledge. But, ladies and gentlemen, while you wait, people are dying. People who could be amongst the first to live forever.
“I appeal to you, and to the citizens of the world who see a telecast of this speech. I am the first of the immortals, but I don’t want to be the last. Let the people come to me. The future of humankind is here for the taking. We will be immortal. We will live forever. Thanatodon, far from bringing death, has brought us eternal life.”
Daisy Mae came back. I heard her say the Senate had referred the matter to a panel of eminent scientists. She started with the lashes and I cut her off, mid-flutter. The power of the off-button.
The thing that troubled me was this: Carston flipping from bat scientist to born-again bat-lover didn’t add up. I’m talking about the man who spent five years working out how a tiny bundle of bat visual neurons worked. Carston didn’t do conversion experiences. He also wouldn’t forget our code.
So who was that on TV?
I’ll never be able to tell Anh I’m sorry. The day of the bite, I was a bloody idiot. And all because she asked me to deal with the rubbish. The baby was teething and fretful, and our little girl wanted attention. Anh was snowed under. I made some smart-arse comment because I wanted to finish a paper. Then I noticed how tired Anh looked and I felt guilty. I did something dumb. I went outside. I got bitten. And then I left. In the swiftest action of bat toxin ever observed, it took only half an hour before the victim was thrust into stage two. I wasn’t taking any chances. I climbed into the Jeep and floored the accelerator, speeding out from Alice as fast as I could.
Outback Australia is one desert after another. They pretty much stretch across the continent. Alice Springs sits in the middle. I wanted distance and I wanted it quickly. My hasty plan was to head north out of Alice then to turn west onto the Tanami Track. The Tanami Desert is flat and red. The track is decent. I knew I’d gain distance rapidly. Trouble was, the track carried traffic. I might die out there, but I couldn’t be sure of that. If I could hold the toxin at bay long enough, I’d turn off between Yuendumu and Chilla. From there I’d go overland into the Great Sandy Desert.
The Great Sandy is vast and empty, even of place names. Once there, I could just head straight; it ran all the way to the sea. No water, no fuel, scorching temperatures. Bugger-all people. I would die out there. With luck, I’d die alone.
The whispering in my mind started earlier than I’d hoped. Like static on an old radio. At first it was faint, so faint and far-back that it crept up without me noticing. The initial stirrings of the Other.
Whhhheeerrrrrroooooo. Ohhhhhhhh. Scrrratch. Whooooo. Shhhhhhhhh.
I drove into the night. Mad, crazy, driving. Full bore, pedal to metal. Slewing around corners. Normally, I was careful. Normally, there was something to live for. But I still had to take a little care. Eventually it would be okay if I crashed. But not yet, not yet. Way out in the desert, so far out I couldn’t get back to my family. It would be okay then.
Wwwwwweeeeiiiirrro. Oooooooo. Ssssssscccraaaatchhhhhh. SCRAAAAATCH. SCRATCH.
The background static became shrill screaming.
I bit my tongue to keep from scratching. Scratching would increase the toxin’s rate of dissemination and would cut my time short. I needed time to get further away. Dying in this country was easy, but not with the toxin on board. The toxin wanted me alive and captive. I wanted me alive and escaping, because I wanted to die.
Later I looked in the rear-view mirror. I saw my skin starting to darken, the necrosis beginning to spread outwards from the bite site on my neck, reaching upwards towards my brain and down over my shoulder towards my heart. I knew the bat’s venom would race ahead of the necrosis. According to theory, tissue death is the body’s last-ditch attempt to defend its occupant and avoid transformation. It’s a strategy that never works.
Hours passed. Dark passed. Dawn. I don’t remember much, only glimpses. Random images seared onto my eyeballs—the kangaroo I missed, a desert oak. At some point I noticed the Jeep surging up sand dunes, then hurtling down the other side. It heaved its way through loose red dirt and over hummocks of spinifex grass. I was no longer in the Tanami.
Run. Go. Fly. Rush. Flee. The thought I clung to.
When I saw that my irises had turned black, I knew that the toxin had reached my central nervous system and the Other had gained sight through my eyes. I was reaching the end of stage one.
Finally, I was overtaken. My mind went dark. An absolute darkness. By then, I had bitten through my tongue.
The Wednesday Show contained a brief report on Carston. There wasn’t much happening to sustain the news story. The panel of scientists was assembling. Carston would appear before them the next day.
Absent new developments, Daisy Mae went petulant. I guess she felt she had to keep the story alive over the intervening day. Anyway, Ms. Flutter-by fluttered, pouted her bee-stung lips, and pointed out in a lisp that Carston hadn’t explained all those deaths from before or how he alone had survived the bat’s reproductive process.
Daisy Mae played the silly woman cliché perfectly. A viewer wouldn’t guess she had a doctorate in chemical engineering. I knew her background; the scientific community gossips. But her performance slipped there. Her questions were spot-on. I couldn’t work out how it had taken so long for someone to ask.
Every child knows the rhyme. We teach it to our kids before they can read, before they can understand what it means. It is an essential part of nursery life—Twinkle Twinkle, Humpty Dumpty, and the stages of change in the Bitten. It even has a jingle and a dance.
First the whispers and the dark.
Next the loss.
Third the spark.
Fourth the cross.
Last, the resurrection.
Everyone, everyone without exception, hopes to die before the resurrection.
I don’t know how we know there’s a resurrection, let alone how we know to fear it. TV Carston says he’s the first immortal, the first to survive to the fifth stage, and he might be. Prior to this, I don’t think we’ve had a survivor. Not one that’s been publicized, anyway. Funny thing is, my Carston would’ve been able to tell me. He’d have known what we know and how.
And here was this Carston. Gesturing with furred hands. Looking at the camera with black eyes. Apparently resurrected. Seemingly not having come to harm. Telling us all what a wonderful opportunity it could be. How was that so?
One thing I was sure of, my Carston understood the bats and he’d never have believed TV Carston.
The first time I came to, I couldn’t move my fingers or toes. I wanted to scream, but that would attract attention. I tried to concentrate on staying calm.
I drifted in and out of awareness. I don’t know how much time passed before I woke up properly. I remember fragments. Nightmares, I hope. When I became fully aware, I discovered I couldn’t hear a thing. No sound at all. And I couldn’t move. I was deaf and paralyzed.
Stage two is characterized by extended unconsciousness and temporary sensory loss. I knew what stage I was in. I focused on breathing, on trying to stop the panic that quivered in my throat. The only advantage I had was that I could think. I had to assess the nature of my loss; I had to plan to work around it.
I concentrated on what I could sense. The first thing I noticed was smell. Fusty. The air smelled old. I hadn’t lost smell. I hadn’t lost feeling, either. I knew I lay on a hard, rough surface. My back was aching from the bumps digging into me.
Could I still see? I cracked my eyes open, only the tiniest margin. Black. I opened my lids bit by bit. Gradually I noticed a pale, thin glimmer coming from somewhere beyond my head. I still had sight.
My hearing would return. My paralysis would dissipate. Sensory changes were transitory. Other changes were not.
I fell asleep. The other physiological changes were massive, and I was exhausted. Man to latent. That’s what we’d decided to call individuals emerging from stage two. We didn’t have a word, any word. So, latent. Penis or clitoris changed into ovipositor. Human gender made irrelevant. Stage three transforms latent into parasite or thrall.
I woke again.
When I felt the brush of a furred hand across my groin and instantly had a raging erection, I knew I had hit stage three.
My thoughts were like clothes in a spin-dryer. I needed to unwind. In the days since my husband had been bitten, I’d moved my family to Perth, found a place to rent, enrolled my daughter in pre-school, and started looking for work. I was rapidly running out of cash. I’d emptied our bank account before leaving Alice, but we hadn’t exactly been flush, and the move wasn’t cheap.
I’d had our furniture trucked to Adelaide and unloaded and reloaded there. I’d used BiteFlight, a company that specialized in moving the family and loved ones of the Bitten. BiteFlight was expensive, but they didn’t just move your stuff, they hid where they’d moved it to. The Bitten frequently show a preference for seeking their human loved ones and infecting them. The infective Other imprints on the memories that the Bitten holds—that’s the theory, anyway. With BiteFlight there was no paperwork, no overlapping staff, no record that would lead from Anh de Silver, wife of Professor Carston Severs, living in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, to Anh Decimer, widow with two children, living in Perth, Western Australia.
Perth is hot, dry, busy, cosmopolitan. There is a sizeable expat Vietnamese community, so my looks and name don’t stand out. Best of all, Perth is big. Way bigger than Alice or Darwin. Two million people have to be enough to hide in.
I turned the TV on. Surfed channels. I found a documentary about insects. I watched the brilliant and beautiful jewel beetles the doco opened with, then I fell asleep.
Twenty-five minutes later I woke up, the television still on, the presenter burbling about insect morphology. Some insects use an ovipositor for laying their eggs. Ovipositors can be used to burrow into ground, penetrate wood, or slit open plants.
I watched in a sleep-induced haze as the presenter introduced Australian spider-wasps. The female spider-wasp digs a hole, then finds a spider—the bigger and meatier the better. The spider knows it’s a fight to the death. It rarely escapes. The wasp wins when she stings the spider. It becomes paralyzed, and the wasp drags it into her nest. There she pierces the spider with her ovipositor and lays an egg inside its abdomen. When the egg hatches, the larva eats the spider from the inside out, leaving the vital organs to last, so keeping its protein source alive and fresh for as long as possible. The spider eats nothing while it acts as a wasp incubator.
I ran to the bathroom and threw up.
Third the spark. Spark is a euphemism, one used with small children. The Other raging in me took control.
I hadn’t expected the explosion of lust, or that it would annihilate thought and send me whooping and screeching, thrusting into him, riding him like a bucking bronco. My Other defeated his. Later I realized it was a him. Once was a him. I tore a vagina in him, I thrust so hard. Vagina? I can’t even think the words right. I nailed him with my ovipositor, right deep inside. I am his parasite. He is my thrall. The bat in me screamed and hollered with delight. It ballooned. It grew stronger. It engorged. My first partner. My first, but not my last. Penetrated, inseminated, egg-full incubator.
Reproduction amongst the Bitten is a fight to the death. This time I survived. Am I ‘I’ anymore?
Oh, Anh. I am so sorry.
As my bat progeny mature, it will be possible to see their wings moving inside the abdomen of my dying thrall, fluttering under his skin until they eventually break through and fly, leaving a hollowed-out husk behind.
It’s not enough to inseminate once; stage three rolls into stage four: Kill or be killed, betray or be betrayed, cross and double-cross. There is a rule of five. Survive five matings and you have survived the fourth stage. So I no longer have hope—I haven’t died, I have survived. The fourth stage ends with transition into the fifth, the last. Last, the resurrection.
After my fifth mating, the borders of the toxin expanded, a rising tide that forced me into an ever-tinier space inside what had once been my own mind. I fought back. I won a corner, a handspan to stand on for a moment. The Other had won what it wanted: Immortality.
On Thursday night I turned on the Show. Daisy Mae was prancing around in heels half as tall as herself, speaking with her faux lisp, breathing in through every word, batting those lids. Daisy Mae was agog. Something unexpected had happened.
The scientists had assembled in Canberra. Every one of them eminent. I gathered there’d been a bun-fight about who’d get on the panel. In the end, they had a mix of beamed-in international experts and local ones. All men; there’s a surprise. The fields they were drawn from included biology, medicine, zoology, and physics, plus one philosopher and one man of the cloth. How he got on was anybody’s guess. Probably knew someone.
Carston sat behind a table and answered questions all morning. The thrust of his argument was that previous deaths were due to the Bitten struggling against their transformation. Some people, he asserted, had even died of fright. He was here to bring such deaths to an end. They were unnecessary. A waste of life. And as for surviving the bats’ reproductive process, well, his story was the same. Those who approached the experience in a spirit of acceptance would come to no harm. It was we ourselves who were our own worst enemies. The storyline was clear.
The afternoon session was a different matter.
Carston was answering questions about the predilection the Bitten have for attacking their loved ones when he began to twitch and wriggle. The panel member asking the questions—the cleric—suggested that a true test of Carston being able to participate in normal societal functions would be for him to be in a room with his wife and show normal, civil interactions. Carston started making clicks and squawks. These became progressively louder. Carston tried to continue speaking but it became impossible; he was writhing and his speech was entirely disrupted.
Suddenly he stood up and leaned forward on the table, his hands balled into fists. He threw his head back and let out a roar of sound, as if a wall of water were rushing from his mouth. A massive tidal wave. Something pent up.
“Anh, help.” His voice sounded as if he was shouting from deep down and far away. It boomed and reverberated.
This wasn’t the voice he’d used with the scientists.
He stood stock-still staring into the camera, then he fainted.
I knew then I had to go to him. Carston, my Carston, was still there. Trapped. I had to free him.
So when Daisy Mae came back on and announced that they were offering to fly me to Canberra to meet Carston on the Saturday Show and all I had to do was get in touch, I was already packing for the children.
The question about Anh hit the Other in its weak spot. I had been locked down tight, but for a fraction of a second, a slender moment, it was off balance. That was the opportunity I’d been watching for. I pushed back, keeping it off balance, tearing at its restraints. It was like forcing my way from a grave in which I’d been buried alive. The weight of earth. For an instant I had freedom. A heartbeat. A space long enough for two words: Anh, help.
That night I lay awake. I had no idea how I could kill an immortal. Maybe there wasn’t a way. The problem was too big to get a handle on; I decided that reframing it was the thing to do. What did I really want to achieve? I wanted to set Carston free. Where was Carston? I wasn’t going for metaphysics here, but if Carston was anywhere, then he was in the thing’s brain. There was no reason to suppose that his mental faculties, his ability to be himself in any deep sense, had moved from his brain. God knows how the Bitten work, but if Carston was still trapped inside, then the best bet for killing him would be to destroy the thing’s brain.
I reckoned I could take a shot at that.
There are lots of guns in the Territory. They’re needed there. Snakes, feral boars, crocodiles, kangaroos. Primary producers, pest exterminators, animal welfare officers, police, recreational shooters—they all have guns. More guns per capita in the Territory than just about anywhere else in Australia. Whenever I traveled any distance from Alice, I always had a firearm in the Jeep. It was the outback. Frontier country. People looked after themselves. The biggest threats were from the Bitten and from Homo pestis sapiens—the boondocks, red-necked kind.
I gave up on sleep and started researching on the web. I needed a plan. Hours later, I had one.
Abasiophilia is a fetish. Some people find impaired mobility a turn-on. Appliances like leg braces, casts, and wheelchairs help them get it up. I didn’t care how people came to be fetishists, I just wanted to know if I could buy suitable equipment. I could, and in Perth. That was my middle-of-the-night discovery.
On Friday morning, I put my children on a plane to Broome. My mother would care for them. The airline didn’t want to take them unaccompanied. I put their tickets and a note with my name and my mother’s name and phone number on the counter. I sat my daughter on the floor and placed the carrier holding my son beside her, and then I walked away. What else could I do?
It was tight, but I made it to the friends-of-abasiophilia outlet, got what I needed, and was back at the airport in time. I checked my gun at the departure counter for special carriage on the aircraft. My first flight took me from Perth to Melbourne, where I caught a second plane to Canberra. It was late when I arrived at the hotel. Too late to see the Friday Show. I asked at the desk whether anyone had seen it. They had. What had happened? Not much, the show is searching for his wife. I didn’t miss anything then? No, nothing exciting.
I ate. I slept. Early in the morning I rang the Saturday Show. I told them who I was and said I’d be there for the Show that evening. They’d be doing it live. Could I be early for makeup? No, I’d arrive shortly before the start. Could they send a car? No, I’d get myself there.
I walked from the hotel strip along Northbourne Avenue into the shopping precinct. There are several large shopping malls in Canberra, and I needed to purchase a disguise. There was a reasonable chance I wouldn’t survive the evening’s interaction, but if I did, I wanted to be unrecognizable afterwards. That would help me and my babies survive. I had to think of them, too.
I bought a full skirt, 1950s rock-and-roll style, and a pair of dark sunglasses with over-sized frames. The sunglasses hid my eyes and part of my face. I also wanted a wig. That was more difficult. After a couple of hours searching, I located a green curly one that looked like an escapee from a clown show. I kept searching. I was about to give up and go back to buy the green thing when I found a wig that looked more natural. Light brown, wavy, shoulder-length. Different from my waist-length, straight, black hair—and it didn’t shout disguise. I’d watched a YouTube video showing how to don a wig. The woman in the video used a wig net and five wig caps to hold and flatten her long hair. I figured that, within reason, more was better. I bought the wig, a net, and six caps, then took everything back to the hotel.
I spent some time practicing—I needed to get used to wearing the metal caliper splint I’d bought in Perth, and I had to get good with the wig. It took a while, but I got the hang of it all.
After that, I was in count-down mode.
I rested. I had a meal. I went down to the hotel lobby and paid for my stay. I said I had a super-early flight and wanted to get away with the minimum of fuss the next morning. I packed. I thought if I made it through the evening, I’d come back and pick up my luggage. I might even rest briefly. I had a flight out from Canberra booked for the morning. Nothing like being an optimist.
When I arrived at the studio, it was only a few minutes before the show started; I reckoned by then they’d be panicking. I’d anticipated they’d have security screening in place, and I was right. I pointed out my caliper splint and told the guys doing the screening it would set their metal detector off. They examined the caliper, and we experimented and saw that it did set the alarm off.
I was still on the unsecured side of the gate when I told them my injury made me incontinent and asked if there was a ladies’ room nearby because I really, really needed to go. I batted my eyelashes. I simpered. I’d been taking lessons. They nodded me down the corridor. I knew the toilet was there—it’s amazing what you can find out on Google.
Once I was inside a stall, I took the gun from my bag and clipped it under my skirt onto the top of my caliper, then I went back to the screening area and put my bag through the x-ray inspection. They didn’t check my caliper again when the alarm went off as I passed through the gate. That’s what I’d been banking on.
I followed directions to the studio and walked in. Daisy Mae had just begun apologizing to viewers for my absence. When she saw me her face split open, a smile so wide I thought her teeth would fall out. Poor woman, this wasn’t going to be an easy evening.
The bat-thing was standing at a lectern in front of a white wall. When I stepped through the door, it riveted its gaze on me, an unwavering stare.
I pulled the gun from the clip on my caliper and aimed it at the bat-thing.
Everyone in the studio stopped moving. Complete silence fell.
The thing that was not Carston smiled, a wolfish, hungry smile.
Then it started to twitch and jerk as it had with the scientists.
She walked in. As soon as she appeared the Other fastened its gaze on her, so for a breath I could simply look, fill up my eyes with her. She’d come. I knew she would.
Then I started to push back against the Other, push to make some space for speech. I had to get the words out, the words that would give her release and keep her safe. I had to chisel them from my mind and force them through my larynx, make my lungs work, give them air, make my mouth open. I knew she couldn’t kill the immortal thing. It needs nothing. But she could kill me. I knew Anh. I knew she’d come for this.
The broken, strangled sound came from Carston.
Wresting control, even to speak two words, seemed extraordinary. I wanted to say something to him. But there were no adequate words.
I pulled the trigger.
The shot blasted through the studio. Deafening. I kept my eyes fixed on Carston. I couldn’t have looked away, even if I’d wanted to.
I’d aimed for the head. Not the thing they say to do in self-defense. This wasn’t self-defense. The shot had ripped half his head away. Blood, flesh, bone, and brains sprayed over the wall behind him, over the equipment, over the lens of the camera closest to him. Over Daisy Mae. She started screaming. A rising crescendo of sound.
I bent, put the gun on the floor, then stepped well away from it.
The bat-thing was immortal. It kept standing. After a passage of time—a few seconds probably, but everything was in slow motion and time seemed to be running in some kind of loop where I kept seeing the bullet strike and the bullet strike and the bullet strike—after a passage of time, the bat-thing started walking backwards and forwards, pacing near the lectern, keeping itself oriented by running its finger along the wall, tracing a pale line through the red.
The cameras kept filming, recording everything.
I knew Carston had gone. I could feel it somehow. Mostly, I was relieved.
Inevitably, the police came. There was some talk of charging me with Carston’s murder but, since the body was still walking around the whole idea became way too conjectural for the police. Besides, he’d asked me to kill him. Or something had. And on national TV. The cops knew a murder charge wouldn’t make it through any court, so they dropped the idea.
Instead, they decided to charge me with carrying a concealed weapon.
That was before we left the studio and started driving to the police station. It seemed that everybody in Canberra had been watching the Show and they’d lined up along the route, three, four, or five deep. As the police car drove by, people started to clap. Slowly at first, but then in a manic wave of claps and cheers. The cops knew rejoicing when they saw it, and they knew it wasn’t aimed at them. It took a few hours, but, in the end, they just let me go.
I went back to Perth. I changed flights, disguises, and clothes several times. I hoped for anonymity.
The next day, I picked up my children at the airport. It was the last time I used my name. Since then, I’ve been Anh Decimer, a woman with no apparent connection to Carston. My mother guessed I’d have to disappear. She sent a note with the children. It said: Goodbye darling. You loved him well.
For weeks the debate raged about what to do with the bat-thing. The crims in the jails promised to riot if it were imprisoned with them. One newspaper suggested using an asylum. Perhaps the politicians remembered that the insane don’t vote because, in the end, the alive-body that was once Carston was incarcerated in a high-security institution for the criminally insane.
Four years have passed. The Coalition for Salvation has been strengthened. We have begun to call them the Maintenance of Damnation. They still monitor our air and waters, torpedo our boats, shoot down our planes. No shipments, trade, or transport are allowed. No one in; no one out. What we have is what we can make or grow. People help by giving us information. The internet, phones, video-links. YouTube, email, satellite hook-ups. But we are infested. They will never let us out now.
I understand their fear.
Some countries think we should be nuked. Perhaps they’re right. Maintaining the cordon is a massive burden. All I can say is that I’m glad I’ve had this time with my children, grateful the Bitten haven’t found us.
I don’t watch TV any more. Instead, I keep my hands busy with needlework. I’m stitching a large panel and I’m almost finished. It reads: Love is stronger than death, or it will do when it’s complete. I still have death to go.
What’s that? I think I heard something outside. Dusk is falling. I must go and shut the door against the night.
R. A. O’Brien is a social scientist who has worked in universities and in government. She has written and published a serious scientific paper with a Martian as well as articles and reports with more conventional co-authors, but stories are the thing that drive her. She writes speculative fiction, often influenced by her PhD on unconscious learning and by her experience in the labyrinthine ways of government. R. A. O’Brien hadn’t had any of her fiction published when she sent us this story.