The guard with the white epaulettes puts his hand on my shoulder and presses down, not unkindly. “Sit.”
I ease myself down on the narrow bench. The courtroom is not as I’d envisaged it, from old movies and bad fiction. It’s small, and the judges’ desk runs almost from one end to the other, just as the dock does on the other side. What little space is left over in between is almost filled by the lawyers’ tables, so that the witness stand and the benches for spectators seem like an afterthought.
There’s going to be no pacing up and down, no histrionics in this court. For one thing, there’s no jury to impress. For another, there’s no space for that anyway.
I’m the only one in the dock. This is my trial alone. The monster deserves a trial all by himself, not like the others who were merely doing as they were told. Perhaps I should be happy about that. Fame at last!
The Butcher of Banabash, that’s what they’re calling me. It’s got a certain cachet about it, more impressive by far than my real name. In order to fit that name, I should probably be two metres tall and built like a professional bodybuilder.
I’m afraid that the reality of me will be a disappointment. Again.
“The media’s...divided,” my lawyer had said earlier in the morning, in the interview room at the prison. “They don’t have a unified view on you.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It means only most of them want to hang you by your intestines,” he’d said.
“And that’s supposed to make me happy?”
“Well, it could have been all.” The lawyer’s name is Kanarian, and he’s supposed to be very good. He just looks like any other lawyer to me, small, paunchy and balding. “At least the more highbrow channels and papers are reserving judgement.”
“In expectations that I might be acquitted?” I’d laughed bitterly. “Back when it was going on, these same people who’re, you know, condemning me now were screaming about how there had to be an extermination campaign, how we couldn’t take the risks, and anyone asking for restraint was a coward and traitor. You know they were.”
“Right, and if necessary, we’ll cite that in your defence, don’t worry.” Kanarian had risen to go. “Just remember, do exactly as I told you. Stick to the script.” He’d looked over his shoulder at the guard at the door, who was looking at his watch. “Don’t worry, the judges aren’t allowed to take any notice of what the media say.”
“Really? And they won’t? Then they aren’t human.”
Kanarian’s lip had lifted in an almost-smile. “Is anybody?”
There are three judges on the other side, behind the desk. Two are men, one tall and fat and the other very short and very dark. The woman is tall too, and cadaver-thin – so thin that the skin over her cheekbones seems stretched, as though about to split. But they all look the same in one way, as though they’re trying so hard not to let their feelings show that they seem incapable of any expressions at all.
I let my mind drift while the lawyers begin making statements. The fluorescent lights are too bright, glare reflecting from the polished wooden railings and the metal of microphones. The room has no windows, of course – for fear of snipers, I assume – but there are high ventilators which show slices of sky. It’s a grey day, and the clouds look dirty through the glass. Maybe if it rains they’ll be washed clean.
Kanarian nudges me. The judges are looking at me expectantly, as is everyone else in the court. “Your name and address,” Kanarian prompts in a whisper.
I stand and state my name and address. My current address is a jail cell, of course, but they know that already. I give my home address, the home I haven’t visited in eight or nine years now and certainly – no matter what happens here – never will again.
“You were the commandant of the, uh, quarantine camp at Banabash?”
“That’s right,” I say, noting with wry amusement the pause before the word ‘quarantine’. Back when the thing was raging they wouldn’t words like quarantine, they’d call it what it was, a bloody jail to lock up the beasties. And then they’d demand that they ought to be all exterminated, anyway, in case they ever got out and spread their filth everywhere.
Of course, nobody will admit to that now. Everyone’s hands are clean, except those of us who had to do the actual dirty work.
At the mention of Banabash, the media people in the spectator’s section all turn in unison to stare at me. This is what they’re here for, after all – to tell everyone how the monster is at bay, and will pay for what he did to all those poor people. They’d demanded TV coverage of the trial, too, but the judges had refused.
It doesn’t really matter. The TV cameras are outside, just beyond the line of security people, and hyperexcited news anchors must at this very moment be yelling into microphones about how justice is about to be done, or not done. Or something.
I wonder briefly what they’ll do in case I’m acquitted. There is, of course, about as much chance of my acquittal as the sky falling – someone has to be a scapegoat and it seems it’s going to be me – but just in case I am, they’ll probably hound me afterwards as the Monster on the Loose as long as I live, wherever I may go. I’d probably have to disappear.
The short judge is asking my lawyer something.
“My client pleads not guilty on all charges,” Kanarian says.
The trial has begun.
The first time I saw Banabash, the camp hadn’t even taken shape yet. Bulldozers were scraping a series of deep trenches round the edges of the town, while men with heavy gloves strung barbed wire rolls on posts across them. Soldiers with guns stood guard, but none of them looked particularly concerned. In the middle distance, several fires were burning desultorily.
“A couple of them were accidental,” the man in charge, who would become my deputy, said. He was a heavy-set career bureaucrat named Rajan who was only too happy to sink back into a subordinate position. “Short-circuits and upset kitchen stoves, things like that. The men set the others.”
“Why?” I asked, looking out over the town from the window of my new office. It was a maze of narrow dust-coloured alleys, bare brick-walled houses and open sewers; a huge slum, not a town at all. I couldn’t see anyone on the other side of the wire and trenches. “Just for fun?”
“No, no.” Rajan flapped his thick hands. “Not fun, not at all. The, uh...” He blinked a time or two. “The, um...”
“Inmates,” I offered helpfully.
“Inmates, yes. The fires keep them away from where we’re working. They don’t like the heat and smoke.”
“And suppose the fires burn out of control?” I asked, not really listening to the answer. The whole damn slum could go up in flames and still not be much worse than it already was. Instead, I mapped out the walls I’d build, the ones which would seal off the town from the outside world. They wouldn’t need to be particularly high, but they would need to be smooth. I didn’t want anyone inside climbing out. Nor did I want anyone digging out, so they’d need to extend at least a couple of metres below ground level as well, and be reinforced with steel.
I didn’t want anyone inside getting out in any way, at all.
“We’ll need gates,” Rajan said, when I told him about the walls.
“No gates,” I began, and then had a thought. We’d need a way to go in if necessary, and if we had to, to bring someone out. “We’ll have one gate. A reinforced, heavily fortified gate. One that nobody can break through.”
“We’ll have to decide where it ought to be.”
“Right opposite here,” I said, pointing through the window. “We can keep an eye on it from here.”
“How about, ah, arrangements for food supply,” Rajan asked. “We’re supposed to provide food, isn’t that so?”
“It’ll be supplied.” What it would be I didn’t know. Probably the market leftovers, vegetables gone off, stale bread, rotting fish and meat, anything that nobody else will touch. It’s not my responsibility. “Starting the day after tomorrow.”
“And how do we deliver it? Through the gate?”
I nodded at a crane which swung its giraffe-like steel neck ponderously across our line of vision from the window. “We’ll just swing it over the wall and dump it. They can share it out among themselves.”
“Ah, sir.” Rajan coughed. “These, um, inmates. They don’t share very well.”
“So what do you suggest we do?” I looked at him. “Go in there and hand each one his or her share, individually?”
He didn’t have an answer to that, of course. And so that is what we did.
Most of the time, anyway.
“I solemnly affirm that I shall tell the truth and nothing but the truth...”
It’s the second day of the trial, and the first prosecution witness is already on the stand. They must be under orders to hurry this along. All I’ve got from Kanarian are strict orders to sit still and stay silent. That I can do.
The first witness is a fat bureaucrat from the government, a middle-level official who’s been, basically, sent to tell us why the government itself isn’t to blame in any way for what happened.
“Could you tell us how the epidemic began,” the prosecutor, Sama, asks. I don’t like the looks of the prosecutor. In his black robe and with his long, pallid features he resembles a relative of Dracula. A younger brother, perhaps. “How it began and spread, and how it was contained.”
The bureaucrat licks his lips nervously. “The first cases were seen among people in villages along the southern coast,” he says. “As you know, there is a, um, considerable amount of illegal immigration from across the straits – or was, before this started.” Officially, the government denies this, but everyone knows that it’s true, and I see the judges nodding. “The villagers don’t have anything more to do with the government than they must, because they think...”
“Yes, yes, I think we can take it that the reasons are obvious,” Sama says hurriedly. “So the disease began in the villages?”
“Ah, well, perhaps in the villages, or perhaps it came over the sea along with immigrant boats. It’s impossible to tell. But by the time we got to know of it, it was already raging all along the coast. By that time even the villagers couldn’t see any way not to involve us.” He goes on to talk of dates and names. None of this is actually new, of course, everyone knows by now where the epidemic first began, but I suppose it has to be stated for the court. “And by that time the, uh, afflicted had already spread out of the villages and were heading north along with refugees, so we couldn’t contain it where it began.”
“And the disease began spreading rapidly?”
“Not quite as rapidly as it might have, fortunately.” The bureaucrat licks his lips again. “The territory just north of the coast is quite sparsely populated, so it was only when it reached towns that it began spreading quickly.”
“And what did you do when the disease began spreading in the towns?”
“We’d already come in contact with some of the afflicted by that time. I believe a police party came upon a few of them, and, thinking them to be drunk, stopped to question them and, um, take them into custody for their own protection if necessary.” I repress a snort at that. The cops would’ve recognised them as coastal villagers, known that they were probably without any documents to prove their citizenship, and scented the opportunity for a shakedown. This was one time when they’d have been better advised to pass on by. “Unfortunately, they were attacked at once, and of the five of them, three were killed on the spot. The other two, ah, died in hospital later. By that time they’d infected several more people, but we managed to contain the outbreak by evacuating the hospital and sealing off the area.”
“So you knew what to do when the disease reached the towns?”
“We knew that it was extremely dangerous and that we hadn’t any knowledge of how to fight it yet. And of course there were national security implications – ”
“Quite so.” Again the prosecutor cuts in hurriedly. “So what did you choose to do?”
“In consultation with local government bodies,” the bureaucrat says distinctly, making sure we all got the point that it wasn’t his idea and he didn’t deserve blame, “it was decided to evacuate the towns of their healthy residents, and herd the sick into certain designated areas.”
“But you said that the sick were moving north with refugees from the coast, so how did you separate them?”
“We couldn’t,” the witness says heavily. “That was an impossible thing to do. Even if we had the time to separate them, before the disease spread further, it would’ve been impossible.”
“I see. Could you tell me what you decided had to be done?”
“There was no alternative,” he replies. “We evacuated the townspeople we knew, could be certain, were healthy. As for the rest, and the refugees from the south – ” He pauses and glances quickly at me from his twin caves.
“Yes?” Sama prompts.
“We quarantined them all.”
Two days after I’d taken charge at Banabash one of the refugee groups arrived.
I stood on a low ridge south of the camp watching them. There were about a couple of hundred people in all, the dust swirling around their feet as they trudged, heads down, towards the town. From a distance one couldn’t make out features, but they were both sexes and all ages, from babies in arms to at least one old person carried along in a litter. They didn’t look up as they walked, intent only on putting as much distance as they could between them and the disease sweeping up from the sea.
That suited us. The southern side of the town was still open, without trenches or barriers, though I’d had temporary barricades readied for quick placement. As soon as they’d entered the alleys of the town, bulldozers pushed the barricades into place. Another group was penned, and without violence.
I’d have used violence without a moment’s hesitation if I’d had to, of course, but it was more satisfying when things went exactly as planned.
Did they try to break out? Of course they did, once they found they were stuck in the town. But none of them succeeded, because my troops were there, waiting.
I remember one particularly determined attempt. It must have been later that same day, just after dusk. As part of our equipment, I had a brace of drones which I normally used to scout the countryside for refugee groups. That night, I directed them over the town, to see what was going on and what the new arrivals were doing. The drones saw almost nobody in the streets in most of the town, which was quite strange. So I had them do a section by section search of the slum, and soon discovered where all the missing were.
A large group of them, perhaps three or four hundred strong, was accumulating in the alleys opposite the barriers to the east, obviously planning to try and break out during the night. I ordered all spare troops shifted from other parts of the perimeter to that side, as well as our three water cannon-equipped trucks to move opposite the barrier as well.
We had only just completed the deployment when they rushed the barrier.
I’d made a mistake, one which nearly cost us dear. I’d thought they’d try to cut through the wires in ones and twos, filter out in groups small enough to bypass the sentries. Instead, they charged the barrier with long wooden boards which they must have stripped from the buildings in the town. They threw the boards on the rolls of barbed wire, boards long and thick and heavy enough to press the wire down so they could run across it. Then they picked up the boards again and threw them over the trenches, which they could swarm across like rats.
They almost made it.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for the warning given by our drones, they most certainly would have succeeded. The normal guard would have been overwhelmed, especially since the breakout group had armed itself, as we later found, with iron rods and sharpened staves to use as spears. And they had enough determination or courage not to hesitate even when, at their first rush, we illuminated the entire area with floodlights and flares.
We slaughtered them.
I’m not proud of what we did, but there was no alternative. At first we tried to keep them back with the water cannon, and fired low over their heads. But though some of them were knocked from the boards into the trenches, and some others fell screaming into the barbed wire, the others came on. The first line was already across all the barriers and charging at us over the ground in between, armed with their makeshift spears and bludgeons, when we turned the machine guns on them.
Afterwards we shovelled the dead into a trench with bulldozers, poured in diesel, and set it on fire. Perhaps this sounds callous, but it was the only thing we could have done. We weren’t going to risk taking prisoners, or attempting to care for the wounded, who might have been infected anyway.
That wasn’t the only attempt to break out, of course, but after that first time they didn’t try it on a large scale ever again. And when the disease spread among them, as it soon did, they were no longer able to make coordinated attempts anyway.
The disease left them with no higher thought processes at all.
“You mean that the disease does not strip the infected of their higher faculties?” Sama asks, in a carefully incredulous tone of voice. “You mean they aren’t mindless?”
“I did not say that.” The witness is a biologist from the government, Doctor Professor something or other. I’d imagined only the Germans went in for double-barrelled honorifics, but apparently they do it here too. The Doctor Professor is a bald man with eyes set so deep in his head they look as though he’s peering out from twin caves. “It’s more complex than just saying they’re mindless, or not.”
Sama smiles. “Could you explain, please, Professor?”
“Of course.” The Doctor Professor’s domed head nods, his scalp gleaming in the fluorescent lights. “At first we didn’t have any way of telling, but the army captured a couple of specimens for testing and passed them on to us. Unfortunately, they were both deceased, but still fresh. From their, ah, brain extracts, we isolated the virus and inoculated it in rats.”
“As far as social behaviour is concerned, rats and humans are very similar.” The Doctor Professor speaks at some length about the ways rats and humans are similar. I have to concentrate to stop my mind from wandering. Outside the ventilators, the sky is darkening. They’re going to work into the evening, which means they’re in a hurry to finish the trial.
“It’s a political question,” Kanarian had said to me during the break for lunch. “The government wants this over with before people start blaming it.”
“The government wants me punished, you mean.”
“Or acquitted,” Kanarian had said impatiently. “Why do you keep assuming that you’re doomed?”
“Because that’s how it looks to me.”
“Rubbish. Either way the government is off the hook. If you’re guilty, then you alone are to blame and the government’s off the hook. If you’re acquitted, the government was right all along. It doesn’t matter how the verdict goes as far as the government’s concerned – just that it’s in quickly.”
“What is the virus like?” the prosecutor asks, as though he doesn’t know already.
“In some ways, it’s similar to the rabies virus.” The court has a screen up on one wall, and the Doctor Professor projects a series of photographs of what he says are brain cell micrographs on it. They look like lumpy grey potatoes with grainy spheres and hollows inside. “Here, as we magnify the micrograph...” One of the potatoes enlarges until it fills the screen. “...you can see these dark-staining bodies.” He indicates something that looks like a tiny, misshapen bean. “Those are similar to the Negri bodies we find in rabies virus infections.”
“And what are these bodies called, Professor?”
“Well,” the Doctor Professor says, his chest swelling with pride even as he tries to look embarrassed, “as a matter of fact, they’re named after myself...”
There was a respectful pause as everyone made a mental note of this.
“Can you tell us something about these viruses? In,” Sama adds hastily, “layman’s language.”
“It’s very similar to the rabies virus in a lot of ways. Like it, it causes a severe brain inflammation, though not of the same parts of the brain. In effect, though, the results are somewhat the same.”
“Somewhat the same?”
“If I might have permission to show you...” The Doctor Professor’s fingers move on the black box of the remote control, and the picture on the screen changes. “This, uh, Specimen J six six six zero, was injected intravenously with purified brain extract containing the virus. Here is what it looked like right after injection.” The large white rat on the screen peers out through the wire netting of its cage with its red eyes, pink nose twitching gently. “As you can see, at this point it resembled any other rat, like the control in the other cage here, D two six seven six.” The camera shifts to another cage, with a rat that looks almost identical.
“And what happened after that?”
The camera shifts back to the first cage. “This is eighteen hours later.” Specimen J6660 shifts back and forth in its cage, as though its paws hurt if it keeps them in contact with the floor. Its long tail switches back and forth like a cat’s. “The specimen was obviously uncomfortable, and...” – the rat turns sharply away from the beam of a torch – “...tried to avoid the light. Otherwise, at this time, it was still behaving normally in other ways.”
“How do you mean?”
“This particular animal was in the habit of playing with a toy.” The camera shows a wooden rod with a ball on each end, like a cartoon dumbbell. “See what happens when we put it into the cage.” The toy drops on the floor, the rat puts a paw on it and rolls it back and forth, and then turns it in circles. “It continued playing with the toy, as usual. And at this stage it was still eating and drinking as usual, too.”
The Doctor Professor glances at the judges for a moment and back at the screen. His fingers move. “This is sixteen hours after that. You’ll see that the animal looks quieter – at first.”
Specimen J6660 crouches in the far corner of the cage, its head turned away from the camera.
The cage top opens, the wooden toy drops in and thumps on the floor. For a moment nothing happens.
Then the rat moves, like a white streak of lightning, hurling itself on the wooden dumbbell. Its teeth crack down on the bar, splintering the wood, its feet scrabbling, and it glares at the camera, its red eyes blazing with fury.
I remember all too clearly the first of the Infected I saw.
It was the day we’d managed to put up the first section of the wall, on the north. At first I thought it was just another refugee, a young woman walking along the dirt street on the other side of the wire on the eastern side, her head down as she shuffled through the dust. I was watching her, wondering if she was planning to make a break for it before the wall came up on all sides, but she seemed unaware of where she was or what she was doing. Then one of my men on the construction crew dropped an iron beam, which hit the ground with a vibrating clang.
The woman’s head snapped up, her eyes glaring, her upper lip curled back like a snarling dog. A moment later, she’d leaped at the wire, scrambling over it even as it flayed the skin from her bare hands and feet. I was so surprised that I didn’t even go for the pistol at my belt, not even as she got through the wire, leaving bloody footprints as she ran at me, the rags of her clothing flapping around her as she came.
There was one trench between us, a short stretch of trench that she could easily have bypassed if she had her wits about her, but she didn’t. Instead, she tried to jump it, but it was too broad. She struck the near side at chest level, her arms scrabbling desperately for purchase and failing, and she fell.
Then, at last, the peculiar paralysis that had gripped me seemed to pass, and I got out the pistol from its holster as I stepped to the edge of the trench. She was crouching on the bottom, glaring up, and as soon as she saw me she leaped. It was a deep trench, about three metres, and her questing fingertips failed to get to the edge by a wide margin. She was still gathering herself for another try when my bullet crashed into her head and spread her in a bloody ruin on the dark earth.
I was still shaking when I got back to my office and made an announcement.
Until the wall was complete, anybody inside the camp seen within thirty metres of the wire barrier was to be shot on sight. It was a logical order, one that I had to make for the safety of my own personnel.
It was also the first of the orders which would later lead to my trial.
“Doctor,” the prosecutor asks, “could you explain how the virus works?”
The Doctor Professor gently clears his throat. “We’re still researching it intensively,” he says. “But from what we know so far, it is transmitted by the victim’s body fluids – the saliva, blood, sex secretions, even the tears and urine. If it contacts any cuts or abrasion in another person’s body, it enters through those. Or if it gets on a mucous membrane – let’s say the eyes, or mouth, or, um, vagina...”
“Or rectum. We can assume there have been cases of sexual transmission. It’s transmitted like rabies, and that has been transmitted before now by sexual contact.” The Doctor Professor clears his throat again. “Kissing could transfer it too.”
“So it’s just like rabies in all respects?”
“It’s similar in most ways, but has a few major differences. In any case, when it gains entrance to the body, it travels up the local nerves to the spine, and then to the brain. There it begins to spread, until it forms an infected layer below the surface of the brain, unlike rabies, which essentially infects the whole brain. And then it begins to spread down again by the nerves, until it’s everywhere in the body, including the salivary glands, from where a bite can spread it to a fresh victim.”
“How long does that take?”
The Doctor Professor shrugs. “We haven’t been able to observe the whole cycle in humans, obviously. If it behaves in the same way as rabies, and there’s no reason to believe it doesn’t, then it depends on a lot of factors, such as the individual’s immune system and the distance of the point where it was introduced into the body from the brain. For example, a bite to the calf or thigh would take much longer to get to the brain than a kiss which introduces it into the richly innervated mouth. And a taller individual, with longer nerves, would take longer to be infected than a small child, obviously. It all requires much greater research before we can say anything definite.”
“You said a kiss could transmit it. But nobody would kiss an infected person, surely?”
“As far as we can tell, this virus begins showing symptoms at a late stage, well after it gets to the glands. It’s the second major difference it has from rabies, which in humans doesn’t actually cause aggression at all. In this case, it’s only after it’s already being passed out of the infected person’s body that he develops the urge to bite.”
“Ah. Rather a sneaky tactic then. And why does the infected person bite?”
“ Well, though we need more research to be sure, this virus, as far as we can tell, dissociates the cerebral cortex – that’s the part of the brain that deals with cognitive functions – from the rest of the brain, the more, let’s say, primitive brain inside. And it does two other things: first, it removes all control the cortex has over the organism, and, secondly, it enhances the activity of the other parts of the brain.”
“What does that mean?”
The Doctor Professor sighs. Dumbing it down probably is irksome to him. “It means that the brain essentially separates into two entities – the cortex, which manages thought, language and the like, is separated from the parts within, which control such functions as territoriality, self-defence, and aggression.
“What this translates into is that the thinking part of the brain, the analytical one, no longer has a control over everything. In fact it no longer controls anything but itself. The entire body falls under the control of the deeper, more primitive layers, which are kicked into overdrive. The infected person loses the ability to use language, analytical and thinking ability, and all else that goes to make him – or her – human. He, or she, becomes a highly territorial and aggressive individual whose primary purpose is to attack anything that he or she deems to be a threat. The sensation of pain seems to vanish, speech entirely disappears, what is left is extreme hypersensitivity to stimuli, paranoia and aggression. Am I being clear?”
“Yes, thank you, Doctor.” Sama pauses dramatically. “But, surely that means that the person infected is no longer, in any sense, human?”
I frown. This is the sort of question that my lawyer should be asking, in cross-examination. If the infected were no longer human, obviously, that’s better for me. Why would the prosecutor be asking this, then? I glance at Kanarian, but he’s looking at his files and moving his lips silently.
“Oh, but he...” The Doctor Professor glances quickly at the woman judge. “Or she...is. You see, the virus has another major difference from rabies. Its action is temporary.”
“Yes.” The Doctor Professor’s twin tunnels of eyes turn briefly in my direction. “That’s why this is even more of a crime than it otherwise would have been.”
Kanarian is leaping to object, but the damage has been done.
It wasn’t long after the wall had been completed that the first tourists arrived.
They weren’t ordinary people, of course – ordinary people weren’t allowed to get anywhere near the camp, and in any case most of them didn’t even know where it was. They were the politicians, their well-connected media hangers on, and their friends in business. They came to see, they said, how the taxpayers’ money was being spent. But what they actually came for was to gawk.
I remember well one particular politician who crowded into my office, along with his retinue, and demanded to see the “zombies”. He was the only person I ever heard to call the infected “zombies”. Oh yes, we all thought of them that way, but nobody else had the tactlessness to call them that.
“They’re over the wall on the other side, sir,” I said, “They’re inside the town. They don’t like the light much, so they tend to stay indoors during the day.”
“I want to see them.” The politician had a wig which he kept fiddling with. “Get them out where we can see them.”
“I’m sorry. They don’t exactly respond to commands.” And if there were any uninfected still among them, they knew well enough to stay out of sight.
“You’re using government money to run this place. I demand that you show me that the money is worth spending.” He looked around at his lackeys. “Isn’t that so?”
“Yes, show the minister,” the lackeys said in one voice, as though choreographed. “He has a right to see.”
“I’ll do what I can.” We hadn’t yet delivered the day’s food to the inside of the wall – we normally dropped it over at night, when the Infected were more active – and it lay beside the crane, covered with tarpaulin. I called up the crane operator and watched as the metal arm swung over the wall and dropped the bundles over, one by one, on the dust of the street.
“Now what?” the politician demanded, as the last bundle thumped down and burst open, spilling slaughterhouse offal on the ground.
Fortunately, there were a few of the Infected in the nearest houses, and the smell of the blood brought them out. They came rushing across and flung themselves on the meat, almost rolling in it as they snapped at it with their jaws and crammed it into their mouths.
I stole a glance at the politician. His eyes were almost bugging out of their sockets, and he was breathing so hard I thought his wig might fall off. At first I thought it was with fear, but then I realised it was excitement.
“Will you look at that,” he said, pointing with a pudgy finger. “Just look!”
It was a superfluous comment. They were all looking. Their attention was focussed on nothing else.
“Everybody needs to see why our government is doing what it’s doing,” the politician said as he left. “I’ll tell all my colleagues they should come and see as well.”
And that was only the beginning.
The news was all over the media the next morning, complete with the photos of the “bloodthirsty madmen” eating. The day after that the backlash started, with demands that the “bloodthirsty madmen” be exterminated before they could get out and overwhelm us all. And the day after that the deluge of tourists arrived.
I realised quite early on that the sight of the Infected slashing at the food would soon pall with the tourists. For one thing, most of the time they didn’t snatch and tear like the first time with the politician. Often, some of them would ignore the food entirely, while others would only pick at it and wander away after a mouthful or two. Sometimes they’d eat it all, but quite slowly and methodically, taking their meals back with them into the alleys.
And a few times something happened that I, personally, found quite disturbing. Large groups of the Infected would gather round the food, take it, and sit in a rough circle, holding it in their hands and not eating at all. It was as though they were communing over it. They’d sit like that, always in total silence, well into the small hours of the night, and then move away one by one, still with the uneaten food in their hands.
It was as though they were setting up their own social structure of some kind. As though they could still think.
I did not talk to anyone about these episodes, and if anyone else noticed anything about them, they didn’t talk to me.
But, of course, feeding soon palled as an attraction. And I knew, even before it happened, what was coming next.
It was the hunting trips.
The first of the hunters was a former army general, now a businessman with contacts in the government. He didn’t beat around the bush. “Give me a chance to shoot a few.”
Though I’d expected that this would happen sooner or later, it was still a shock. “Shoot them?”
“That’s what I said.” He’d slapped a long, canvas covered package he’d brought with him. “Got my hunting rifle right here.”
“Why would you want to shoot them, sir?”
He frowned at me. “Do I even have to explain that? For heaven’s sake, you’ve seen these things with your own eyes. They’re an insult to humanity. Besides, everyone knows that they’re a menace in our midst. How long before they get out or the virus finds a way of spreading outside the gates?” He’d grinned under his thick moustache. “We’d just be putting them out of their misery, anyway.”
“I don’t think I have the authority to...” I began.
“Oh, I think you do.” The former general leant across the desk to stare into my eyes. “I think you’ll find you have the authority to do anything I order you to do.”
“Now, Doctor,” Kanarian says. “You say that the effect of the virus is temporary. What, exactly, do you mean by that?”
The Doctor Professor cocks his head as though studying a moderately interesting bacterium under the microscope. “The effect wears off,” he says. “After a period of time, if the organism survives that long, the virus becomes inactive and stops reproducing. Then the inflammation gradually reduces and the cortex resumes control over the body.”
“You mean that the, um, victim becomes a normal human being again?” Kanarian taps his jaw with a forefinger. “That seems unlikely, surely?”
“I don’t understand. Why should it seem unlikely?”
“Because these people have been killing others, sometimes even eating parts of them, they’ve been reduced to mindless beasts. How can they ever come back to normal?”
“How can a sufferer of...say, influenza, or malaria, or Japanese encephalitis come back to normal? It’s a disease. Once it wears off, the patient recovers. I mean,” he adds plaintively, “it’s been known for decades from serum antibody studies that substantial numbers of wild foxes and wolves have survived rabies and recovered. And this is a less damaging virus than rabies.”
Kanarian sighs. “Now, Doctor, Doctor, you said the virus wears off ‘after a period of time’. How long a period?”
“We don’t know yet.” The Doctor Professor looks mildly embarrassed. “It’s one of the things we can’t exactly study in the human, you understand, and lab animal tests can’t always directly be translated into human terms. But we’re still researching the topic.”
“And did you let the world know...during the time that the epidemic was raging...that the effects of the virus were temporary?”
“Of course we didn’t. How could we? We didn’t know it ourselves.”
Kanarian nods heavily. “Exactly. So, for all the world knew, the infected persons were mindless savages, ‘madmen’ as they were called in the popular media, or even ‘zombies’?”
“I’m not responsible for what appears in the popular media.”
“Of course you aren’t. But would you say that from the information available at the time, it would be a reasonable assumption that the infected individuals would never recover?”
“I would not say so.” The Doctor Professor raises a thick hand. “Let me explain. At no time did we in the scientific establishment say that the infected positively would not recover. In fact we made no statement at all except that we were researching the disease. And we still are.”
“And you think that just because the scientific establishment didn’t express an opinion, the popular media were irresponsible in what they said at the time?”
“Obviously. Science is the answer to all things, and speculation in the mass media has never had anything to do with science.”
Kanarian is silent a moment. “Doctor,” he says eventually, “when I think of an individual who’s suffered from such a horrific illness, who’s lost all self control, who has committed acts that his or her normal self would find unimaginably abhorrent, someone whose body has often been damaged badly and mutilated in the course of these actions...well, I find it extremely hard to believe that such a person can ever return to normal.”
The Doctor Professor’s lips rise very slightly at the corners.
“I’m not responsible for what you find hard to believe,” he says.
“My name is Uksia, and I’m twenty years old.
“I am a citizen of this country, not an illegal immigrant. I have no documents to prove this, but it is true.
“I was born in a village on the sea coast. It’s – it was, because it doesn’t exist any longer – a fishing village, where the men would go out every evening with their trawlers and nets, and come back in the morning laden with their catch, which we women and girls would help to clean and pack. It was a hard life, especially when the stormy weather came. Then the men could either not put to sea at all, or else they’d be at the mercy of the wind and wave and we would be desperately worrying until they came back safe. And even in the best of times the living was hard.
“But we weren’t really unhappy, not until the disease started. At first we heard rumours, that something bad had come up from the sea, something that was making people go crazy and attack others, like mad dogs. But we’d seen nothing of this in our village, and my father and the others told us not to believe in rumours.
“Then one day – it was early in the morning, and the wind was gusting, building up to a storm – I went down to the shore, to see if I could spot my father’s trawler and the others coming back. They had been out for three days that time, and I hoped they’d be back before the storm struck.
“It was just barely dawn, and the beach was empty, except an old man walking slowly towards me from the far end. I recognised him easily. It was Rehman, from the next village inland, and he often came to the market in our village and sold trinkets and cheap cloth. He was a kindly old man who used to joke and play with the children, but I had never seen him on the beach before, let alone so early in the morning. He was looking around as though searching for something, so I walked over to ask what he wanted.
“I’d almost reached him when I realised something was wrong. His lips were moving as though he was muttering something to himself, and he kept clenching and unclenching his hands.
“ ‘Uncle Rehman,’ I asked, ‘what’s wrong? Are you drunk?’ Though the idea of someone like Rehman being drunk was ridiculous, I couldn’t think of anything else.
“The sound of my voice seemed to turn on a switch in Rehman. Until then, though he’d been looking at me, I believe he’d not noticed me at all. However, as soon as he heard me, his head snapped up, his mouth opened, and he jumped at me.
“I’m an athletic girl, well used to battling the waves, and my limbs are strong and my reflexes fast. But I couldn’t move fast enough to evade that decrepit old man when he jumped at me. All I managed was to turn around and try to run, but he hit me in the back of the legs and knocked me down. Before I could kick him away, his teeth – worn razor-sharp – had bitten into the skin just above my ankle. At that time I barely felt it. As I said, I kicked him away, jumped to my feet, and ran away, leaving him lying in the sand.
“What did I do? I ran home. I had no idea why he’d attacked me. I thought, vaguely, that he’d tried to rape me. Of course I couldn’t tell anybody about this, not my mother, not my betrothed Kamran either. I couldn’t have told him about it anyway, since he was out with the boats – but rape is a disgrace among our people, and good chaste women don’t get raped. So I didn’t tell anyone.
“After I’d got home, I saw that there was a small cut on my foot where Rehman had bitten me. I washed it and forgot about it. It was only a tiny cut; I’d had many worse while mending nets and cleaning fish. My hands are covered with scars from all those cuts.
“Later, after others had woken up, I went down again to the beach with them. There was no sign of Rehman. I never saw him again and I have no idea what happened to him.
“The storm held off till mid-afternoon, and it was just before it broke that two of the boats came in – just two. One was my father’s, and the other was the one on which Kamran worked as a crewman while he saved up enough to buy one of his own, when we could finally marry. Of all the trawlers in the village, they were the only two that ever made their way back.
“And the people on board, even on those two boats, were not all right. My father, when he got off the trawler, had a wild look in his eyes, like I’d never seen before. He told us that the wind had blown the trawlers apart all night, and by morning they were widely separated. His own, and Kamran’s, were close by, but he could only see a couple of others, and there seemed to be something wrong with them.
“ ‘Something wrong?’ we asked. ‘What does that mean?’
“ ‘Neither of them seemed to be making way. They were both just wallowing on the waves. The nearer of the trawlers – that was old Amaan’s – was, as far as we could tell, completely deserted. We couldn’t see a single person on board. Beyond that one was Alam’s trawler, and I could just make out Alam himself standing at the stern. I shouted to him asking what was wrong, and steered my boat towards his, but he seemed to take absolutely no notice. And as I got closer, I saw marks on the hull, like splashed blood.
“ ‘And then, when we were quite close, Alam suddenly jumped off the boat and began swimming towards us.
“ ‘If I’d been only a little less alert, he would’ve got into the boat, and I don’t know what might have happened then. I saw at once that something was wrong. Alam, as you know, is a good swimmer, but he seemed to be moving like a dog in the water, paddling along with all four limbs as though he’d forgotten everything. I’d gone to the side to throw him an inner tube when I saw that his eyes were blank and his jaws snapping at me like a dogfish’s in the nets.
“ ‘What can I say for what I did? Can I excuse myself? I rushed to the wheel, jammed the throttle open and steered the boat away from him as fast as I could. For a moment his fingers hung on the edge, and then they slipped off. I don’t know what happened to him – I did not look back.’
“None of us said anything. We remembered, all at once, the tales we’d heard of the disease that was spreading along the coast, and all of a sudden I remembered, too, about old Rehman. But, even then, I’d almost forgotten that he’d bitten me. Even if I’d remembered, it was such a trivial thing that I’d probably have failed to mention it.
“The next day was bad. The storm raged, as though determined to wash our village to sea, and we could hardly venture out of our houses, let alone down to the sea. And the next night, when the wind was slowing down and we might have normally hoped the rest of the fleet might come in, the real trouble started.
“I remember my mother shaking me awake. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘We have to get ready to leave, right away.’
“Get ready to leave? Why? I didn’t know, and my mother would not explain. Nor was my father in the house. All I could do was put some things together in a bundle, tie it up and sling it on my back as my mother was doing. The village itself was in an uproar, people rushing about. Then my father came in and ordered us to leave it and come along quickly, without further delay. That was how we left the only home I’d ever known – in the dead of night, with the wind still blowing rain across our faces, all that I still had in a small bundle on my back. I didn’t even have sandals on.
“Later I found what had happened. That night, my father had been summoned by the village elders to explain why he had left Alam to drown. The atmosphere was hostile, and they’d not been ready to accept father’s explanations. But even as they talked, all of a sudden there was a sharp screaming from one of the houses nearby. And a moment later, a man came wandering into the elders’ meeting hall and stood looking around.
“He was nobody they knew, my father said. Tall and thickset, he might once have been good looking, but his eyes were blank and his jaws were working against each other while saliva dribbled down his face. One of the elders’ men took a step towards him to ask what he wanted – and he jumped at the man and buried his teeth in his shoulder.
“After that there was total confusion. It wasn’t just the one man – there seemed to be a wandering group of them who’d entered the village, and was attacking anybody they could see. They didn’t seem to be afraid of anyone or anything, my father said. Even being struck by a gutting knife hardly slowed them down. That was when he decided that we had to leave at once if we were to survive.
“ ‘Kamran?’ I asked once, after we’d already left the village.
“ ‘He’ll be on the way out, too,’ my father said tersely. ‘We’ll probably be seeing him sooner or later.’
“There were about fifty of us who found each other in the morning, all refugees from the night’s mayhem, and we struck out together northwards, away from the sea and the village. We didn’t really know where we were going – just that the further we went, the greater the chances of safety. And the further we went, the more small groups we accumulated, both from our village and others, so that all together we must have numbered over a hundred.
“Two days after leaving the village, utterly exhausted, we made camp for one day, in a clump of trees. My feet were cut about and I couldn’t have walked much further anyway without a rest. Kamran found us in that camp. He’d been slowed down from looking for me, he said. We sat together without speaking for a while. He took my feet in his lap and began massaging them.
“ ‘This is the end of everything,’ I said at last. ‘The end of our lives as they’ve ever been.’
“ ‘Perhaps,’ he said. ‘But we can build better lives, newer lives, together, where it’s safe.’
“ ‘There’s nowhere safe,’ I wanted to say, but looking at his head, bent over my legs, I decided not to utter the words. ‘You’re probably right,’ I told him instead.
“The next day we continued our walk north. We walked on for days, making camp when we could, when we were too tired to go on further.
“It was during one of those halts that Kamran and I made love for the first time. We were frightened, exhausted and desolate, we had a measure of privacy because everyone else was too tired to know or care what was going on, and we simply didn’t see the point of waiting any longer. Now, though I was happy then about the pleasure we’d given each other, I regret it. If I could have done anything to change that I would have. But I didn’t know what would happen.
“Two days later we came to a town. It was Banabash, though I didn’t know it then.
“By that time I was beginning to feel ill. It started as a slight burning sensation in my ankle, and soon became more intense. Each time I put my foot down it sent a shivering sensation up my lower leg, as though it was made of jelly. I also began running a low grade fever.
“I didn’t, of course, tell anyone about it. There was nothing they could do, and I didn’t want to worry them more than they already were. Besides, I put it down to the stress, exertion and exposure we’d been through. I didn’t at the time connect it to Rehman’s bite at all.
“Banabash was still open when we got to it, and we hadn’t the faintest idea that it was a quarantine camp. By the time we discovered that it was an open air prison, and we couldn’t leave, it was already too late.
“My family, and Kamran, had occupied a small house in a side lane. It was only a single room with a tiny kitchen and a bathroom, but it was enough for us. By that time my fever had increased, to the point where I could no longer keep it a secret. In fact I was so ill that I barely knew what was going on around me.
“Somewhere during the three or four days that I lay ill, my father disappeared. I have no idea what happened to him. I could never locate him afterwards. Perhaps he’s still alive, somewhere, and he’ll find me. I still have that hope.
“At times when the fever abated for a while, I’d grow a little aware of my surroundings, and see my mother or sometimes Kamran sitting over me, fanning me with a piece of cardboard. They’d give me a little water to drink, and persuade me to eat a little, whatever was available. And then I’d slip into the fever again.
“And then one night I woke up, and there was no fever, the heat was all gone. In fact, I could barely feel anything at all. I lay on the thin mattress they’d put me on, staring up into the darkness, willing my limbs to move, to get up and tell everyone I was all right. And then I heard a faint nose, and saw a shadow. It was my mother, who’d been dozing in a corner and had got up to check on me.
“Even now, I can still remember how my body seemed to get up entirely by itself and leapt towards my mother, how I knocked her to the ground and bent over her, biting savagely at her face and hands. Her screams simply spurred my body on, until she began choking on her own blood and couldn’t scream any longer. Then I jumped over her and ran into the night.
“I can’t describe in detail what I did over the next days. My body took me to dark corners, where I crouched, waiting away the hours of daylight, which caused my eyes pain. Sometimes, if anyone came too close, I – that is, my body – attacked them. If there was a sudden noise, my body jumped to fight or flee. And all this time my mind sat, screaming, unable to do a thing to help.
“I remember this little boy, four or five years old. He must have got away from his parents, and probably come looking for somewhere to play, like little kids will. My body was in a niche in a wall, sitting with my knees drawn up to my chin, and I saw him from a good distance away. My body watched as he came closer and closer, muscles slowly tensing, while my mind screamed at him to go away, run away as fast as he could. But I couldn’t make a sound, and he came closer until he was suddenly too close – and my body sprang.
“One day I saw Kamran. I saw him from a distance, too far for my body to take him as a threat, so it didn’t move. But from the way he was walking, the aimless motions back and forth, reminded me totally of old Rehman on the beach, and I knew he, too, was one of them now – one of us. And I realised too that it was almost certainly from me that he got the disease, when we’d made love. Either then, or when he’d sat up over my sickbed. Either way, I was to blame.
“Soon, there seemed to be fewer and fewer people our bodies thought of as threats any longer. Once we realised that someone else was also in the grip of the disease, our bodies seemed to accept that they were, if not friends and allies, at least like us. We wouldn’t be attacked by them, and by the same token we wouldn’t attack them either.
“And then it was that the hunting started.
“My body was walking through the town one night when they struck. It was just after the feeding, and I was carrying a chunk of food of some kind – I no longer recall what it was – eating it slowly, when there was a roaring noise from the next street. My mind recognised it instantly as a car engine, but as far as my body was concerned it was a totally new phenomenon, and it didn’t react at all at first. It was only after the first bullet cracked past my face and smashed into a wall that my body threw itself to one side and began, frantically, to run.
“They hunted us for what must have been for hours, tracking us through the streets. When we’d hide in a house, they’d throw noise bombs and shine searchlights through the windows, and because our bodies couldn’t stand the noise and lights we’d run out, either to get away or to attack the cars, and they’d shoot us then.
“I remember seeing the lights of one car pass over another. It was open topped, so they could see to shoot, and everyone in it was masked – except one person, the driver. Yes, I recognise the one unmasked person. It was the quarantine camp commander, whom they’re calling the Butcher of Banabash. No, I didn’t know then who he was. I can say that he was the only one with no gun in his hands, the only one who wasn’t shooting anybody.
“At last they went away. And the next day dawned, and our bodies took us into dark corners again...those of us who were left.
“Within a few days I seemed to develop a sixth sense about when one of the hunting trips was coming. Those nights my body did not feed – it didn’t go anywhere near the feeding area. I’d find a dark place to hide, and curl up there, my arms wrapped tightly over my head, blocking out the lights and noise so I wouldn’t be startled into flight. I wasn’t the only one. Most of us who survived developed this sixthj sense quite early.
“Kamran wasn’t one of them, though. I found his body one morning, near the feeding area, after the hunters had gone. He’d been shot several times. My body didn’t pause to look at him, so I couldn’t even kneel down and mourn and cry over him as I so desperately wanted to do.
“Of all the things that happened, that is the one I find most impossible to forgive – that I couldn’t even hold Kamran’s ruined body and weep for the things that should have been.
“And then one day I began to recover. I felt it first in a return of sensation to my fingertips, a sensation as though after months of wearing gloves I’d finally taken them off and begun to feel again. I still didn’t realise what had happened until an insect, I think a bluebottle, came buzzing too close to my face. It was obviously not a threat, and my body would normally have ignored it as too trivial; but my mind was irritated by it, and wanted to shoo it away – and in obedience to it my arm rose and shooed the fly away.
“What is to say about what happened next? I got better. Those of us who were left – those who were not too desperately hurt, or starved, or destroyed by other, concurrent, diseases, did, too. When we were sufficiently recovered to be able to speak, a group of us – eight in all – walked out near the wall and called out to the guards, telling them that we were disease free.
“What did they do? They fired on us. Three of us were killed right there, and two more died later after we’d dragged them back to shelter as best we could. Somehow, I still wasn’t touched.
“And it was a week or so afterwards that they finally opened the gate and came to set us, as they said, free...
“Freedom is only a word for me now, though. My mother and lover are dead. My father has vanished. My body is ravaged by what it’s gone through, and the doctors tell me I shall never recover fully. And worst of all, I’m pregnant, and I don’t know – nobody does – if the baby will be born healthy or not...
“I am not here for revenge. I am only a woman who has been through hell, and I am here to describe what happened, and to say that justice has to be done.
“For the sake of my parents, for Kamran, for me, Uksia, and for our baby which will be born any day now, I ask this court to see that justice is done.
“Thank you for giving me this opportunity to state my case, to tell the story of my family. That is all I have to say.”
“You know the girl’s testimony sealed it,” Kanarian says. “After that, everything we could do was just damage control.”
“You know it wasn’t my fault,” I reply bitterly. “It was the politicians and the army who went on the hunting trips. They were the ones who built the camps in the first place!”
“We’ve been over all this before,” Kanarian says wearily. His eyes look tired, his face puffy. “Look on the bright side. At least they aren’t going to impose capital punishment.”
“Big deal, if I’ve got to rot in a cell for the rest of my life. I’d almost prefer the firing squad.”
“It won’t be that, I don’t think.” Kanarian blinks, looks away. “I’ll be back later,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of things to clear up.”
“What...” I begin, but he’s left already.
I feel a tap on my shoulder, and turn round. It’s the guard with the white shoulder straps and another one, bigger and in a black uniform.
“Let’s go,” the black uniformed guard says.
“You’ll find out soon enough.”
The Doctor Professor’s laboratory is long and white and the overhead lights gleam off his head as though it’s a mirror as he bends over me.
“You should think of this as a positive thing,” he says.
I want to laugh, but can’t trust myself. “You call this positive?” I’d have gestured, but strapped down naked on this board, I can’t move my arm. “Really?”
“Of course it’s positive. You could have been in jail a long time. This way, a few months, and you’ll be out good as new.” He presses his lips together. “Well, if you survive, of course, but the chances of that are excellent. After all nobody’s going to hunt you.”
“Look,” I say desperately, as he raises the syringe. “The epidemic’s over. Why are you doing this?”
He pauses a moment, and cocks his head at me. “There’s all the knowledge we’ll get out of you,” he says. “The opportunity to study an infection in the laboratory, from start to finish...it’s going to answer all the questions we’ve got. And besides, it’s your duty.”
“This is the only country in the world with a stock of this virus.” The Doctor Professor raises the syringe again. “You know what that means, don’t you?”
“No,” I answer, trying fruitlessly to free myself.
“It’s a question of national security. You should be proud of your part in keeping this country strong and safe.”
There is a sharp pain as the needle slices through my skin, and the overhead lights dim and go out one by one.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015