While the doctors worked on figuring out this thing, I stayed with my family, waiting. I know I got a call forwarded to me through the Directory. The first time, it turned out to be Venus. When I heard her voice, a laugh forced itself from my mouth. Just a short one, then I hung up. I’d originally intended some sort of crafty lie, but why fucking bother? I didn’t even pick up the next times. Should have just told the Directors not to even bother, but I couldn’t be bothered. So I just hung out in the palace. I think Qiang and Max realized something was wrong. Qiang asked a couple of times. All I told her was “Nothing, honey,” and set her on my lap.
I didn’t get much sleep, and what I did, I got in Qiang’s bed. That first night in particular, I stayed awake thinking of vengeance. A Dimension Bomb on a dead man’s trigger. An eternally replicating grey goo swarm. Nuclear attacks on the ice caps to drown the world in a nuclear flood. Or even just disperse all the infected around the globe to make sure this disease took out everyone else. I thought of setting the world ablaze to serve as the funeral pyre for myself and my loved ones. Like I’d tried to do before.
In the dark there, I remembered those times I’d read about during the Cold War. There were a couple of times when the Russians believed the Americans had launched on them and they almost launched in retaliation for what turned out to be false reports. I’d wondered on occasion about that situation. Knowing the nukes are coming, unstoppable, and will wipe me out and my people. What do you do, eh? Do you launch, and kill everyone else on Earth for the sake of people who are about to be ashes?
I could. It’d be so easy. Really, anyone capable of turning a key, pushing a button, or giving an order could. Capability of destroying the world is easy. The question on my mind as I nuzzled my daughter’s head and tried to keep her hair off my lips, is would I?
I paid Psychsaur a visit in the middle of the night. As I’d suspected, the Claw really was the sort of enterprising but paranoid evil overlord that he’d construct testing rooms capable of negating whatever invisible whammy makes telekinesis and telepathy happen. I found Psychsaur laying on a floor made up of overlapping squares of thing wire strands. I didn’t go in, but instead stood at the observation area, the cameras giving me a view inside, and looked down at a red button. “Oooh, what does this button do?” I asked no one, pressing it.
The floor crackled and sparks flew underneath Psychsaur, jolting her awake and into a jump. She scrabbled at the smooth, reinforced walls, unable to find purchase to escape the shock from the floor. I hummed a short tune before looking down at my finger still pressing that darn button. “Oh dear, look at that. Totally forgot about that.” I let up and instead pressed the button for the intercom. “Hello Psychsaur.”
“Hello Gecko. Please let me out. I need to find out-”
“I’d have left you to the chief interrogator, who is excellent at his job, but we’re having something of a labor shortage now. Lots of people out sick. Lots of people helping to move the bodies. That’s why you have the pleasure of my personal attention.”
She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. Look at that, someone turned down the temperature in the room. “I don’t know what’s going on. Let me help you! Let us help you!”
“Is that what this is? Another gambit to make me dependent and controllable? You’d be happy to help so long as I surrender myself to your custody and give up my powers? You’d have a much better chance of that if you sick bastards hadn’t gotten my daughter infected.”
Her jaw gaped open and her knees collapsed under her. She sobbed to herself. “I’m sorry about your girl. Just, please… please, please, please, how is Venus?”
“Venus? How should she be?” I asked, figuring now we’d gotten to the good stuff.
“He said it started at the party. She’s probably infected too. Oh God, and if they’re infected, it must be all over Empyreal City by now.”
I looked at her, crying there. “I’m sorry about Qiang,” she said, her voice croaking. “I’ll do whatever you want, just let me see my Venus again before she…”
She didn’t finish the sentence. I let a breath out and moved my and over to push a button.
The door opened.
She looked up as I stepped into the doorway, my armor on except for hood. It hung off the back above my cape. “Come on. I had to be sure because of what’s at stake.”
She got to her feet shakily, snorting at a nose stopped with mucus. “I’m free to go.”
I shrugged. “You can be. I’d rather you stay and help me, but you’re not the enemy. You’re just as infected as everyone else, though.”
“When is it going to get me?” she asked, moving toward the door. I stood back to give her room to leave, figuring she’d rather not get too close. Instead, she grabbed my arm and leaned on me.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “For all that in there. But I don’t know. Qiang’s not affected so far. Hardly anyone is.”
I hardly believed it either, but I escorted her to the bio lab team for a better idea of what we were facing. They’d managed to get a secure line out that let them continue monitoring the island and North Korea, both of which had maintained a quarantine. I sent off for food and drink while we were on the way, and they met us there to help Psychsaur regain her strength. While she sat in the lab chowing down on a bowl of rice and chicken, I gestured to Dr. Smith, who had been caught scratching his prominent, beaklike nose. “Explain to our guest here, whose motives I believe to be honest, what seems to be going on.”
His smile was awkward and apologetic. “The vast majority of those infected are having no adverse response that we can detect. There is the odd reaction similar to the officer in the other room, and we have collected those for further study. If you don’t mind, miss, we’d very much like to do a more in-depth scan of your brain.”
“Why?” asked Psychsaur from behind a cup of coffee.
Smith looked to me, but I gestured again. He continued, “The infection as we’ve seen it appears to be spread out across the brain. We’re still learning, and every data point we obtain helps us determine why some are having this adverse reaction, and how common it is. Is it inevitable, or a fluke?”
I butted in here. “That may be her choice, but I insist she have time to see to herself first.” I turned to Psychsaur. “I believe you wanted to check in on Venus? Maybe get a shower or some proper rest in a proper bed, right?”
She practically sprinted out of the room before she had to stop and ask how to get back out of there. I pointed to the same person who brought the rice and coffee. “Show her out and call a car to take her to my palace. Thank you,” I nodded to the man, then to Psychsaur, who smiled at me. The one I returned wasn’t quite so enthusiastic, but then I’m a pessimist.
I sent her off for rest and to make her call.
Smith came over, talking quietly around everyone. “You trust her, Empress?”
I nodded. “She was worried about her girlfriend even over her concern for a child she believed might be dying. It’s selfish. If you’re pretending to not be involved, it’s the last thing you want to do. If you aren’t involved, it’s a reasonable reaction. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”
“Now that she’s gone, I should inform you we have determined more about the nature of the illness.” He tapped a tablet in his hands and a hologram projected out to show an image of the human brain with red dots around it, most concentrated at the base. “Red indicates the full extent of the infection.”
“Multiple places? Does that alter our idea of who has it?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am. Instead, watch what happens when nanites are directed to engage them.”
A see-through holographic body appeared around the brain. The view zoomed in close to the red at the base of the skull. A cloud of blue dots appeared, one detecting the red and pulling the rest to it. Zooming in even further, I could see blue-highlighted nanites land on red growths. That was about all they had time to do before the red opened up and wrapped around the nanites, capturing the nanites and breaking them down.
Smith spoke. “We’ve taken samples the conventional way. It’s bacterial, and engineered specifically to fight off your nanites.”
I nodded. “Not a parasite?”
He shook his head. “No. It wouldn’t manage this rate of airborne infection even if it was. Our tests have shown something else of interest. The bacteria causes acute, temporary strain on the body as it reproduces enough to spread to anyone nearby. This all started at a party, so it’s likely that’s why no one noticed at first. From what we see, it spends little time reproducing before going dormant. The infection in your officer didn’t. I must stress my assessment will become more accurate with more data points across a greater range of infectees, because I currently believe going dormant is how it is meant to function. The officer’s reaction is atypical.”
“If someone’s engineered this stupid thing, I wonder what the point of the typical reaction is,” I said. “It’s good work, and I thank you for it. I know I’ve placed a lot of importance on this, but now we know it isn’t trying to kill us all, remember to take a break. Catch a nap of your own, and something better to eat than stale coffee and sandwiches, ok?”
He nodded and said, “Thank you,” then looked back to his team. “I have something I want to finish up before I can take a moment, but thank you.”
I nodded and headed out. Creeper caught me on my way out though, moving with the assistance of a crude exoskeleton covered in the brown patina of case-hardened steel. “Psycho! You have heard the news, ja? The disease is not meant to do to us what it did to the unfortunate man they carried in here?”
I nodded and reached up to rub my eyes. “Yeah. Great news, so far. I’ve told the team in there to ease up a bit. Don’t want them too tired or hungry to think up a cure.”
He nodded. “Of course. But I have another idea. Do you know the status of the infection outside of our borders?”
I shook my head. “We ever figure that out?”
“Nein, but it would be child’s play to sample the bacteria and modify a strain. It would be a poetic weapon to unleash as payback against the world for our fates. If we are to die slow, horrible, agonizing deaths at the hands of this epidemic, that is.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Creeper, I want any samples we take now to be used for finding us a cure. That’s the only thing I want us doing with this disease.”
“But what if we die?” he asked.
I closed my eyes as I answered. “Then we die wronged and we die containing it from the rest of the world. Take care of yourself and your people, Doc. I’m going to go catch a nap and make some calls. We’ve got a disease to kill, then we can focus on whoever did this to us. We wouldn’t want to be too tired to have our fun with them, now would we?”