It's the age of the home-made virus, and humanity is dying. It just doesn't know it yet. In Prague, a young woman named Eva returns home to escape the plagues, only to find her mother missing and the police blaming her for the worst outbreaks in recent memory. Events are complicated by the appearance of a Healer - a merciless Chinese agent - sent to neutralize a new strain that may bring Prague to its knees. With only days until the launch of a super-virus, Eva must navigate a hostile city and escape to safety before she becomes another faceless victim in this global, slow apocalypse.
Paint peeled off the swing set in the front yard, yellow flakes drifting like sunburnt snow to dead grass. No wind for some time. The air smelled of rank summer sweat, still and stagnant, seeping out of the parched soil. There were no birds in the barren trees.
A nightmare had come to town.
It walked down the road with methodical pacing, long cloak swaying gently with each footfall. The worn machete on its belt clanked against armoured gloves. No hint of skin or hair suggested it was human: overlapping layers of cloth, metal and rubber took care of that. The mask over its face hissed softly, taking in air to process. In every way, inhuman.
From behind cracks in shuttered windows, anxious eyes watched it pass, breaths held until it was safely out of sight, superstitiously certain it could smell fear in the air. There weren’t many to see it this day. Some houses had long-open doors, others were boarded shut with black paint splashed from afar.
A ghost town, by will or fortune.
The chain fence around number 37 was untouched, a lone tire leaning precariously against its gate. The closest anyone dared come. From a tiny half-frosted window in the door, Kurt saw the thing pause at the end of the walkway. He swallowed slowly, adjusted his view to see better.
It was staring right at him.
It rolled the tire away, carefully leaning it against the fence post, and unlatched the gate. Halfway up the interlocked stone path, the thing stopped, turned, stared at the cross in the lawn. Four graves beneath its soft shadow, all roughly dug in the cold November soil. Nothing moved for some time, and Kurt gripped the trim round his small portal with bloodied fingernails, waiting.
Finally, the thing turned away from the graves, climbed the steps to the porch, and without a pause, opened the front door. Kurt stumbled backwards into the foyer, falling against the banister as the dark figure stopped before him.
“Are…” Kurt stammered, his voice weak and creaky. “Are you…”
The thing looked at him without emotion. Air hissed.
“Are you a Healer?” Kurt gasped.
It watched him a moment, then carefully bowed a ‘yes’.
Kurt collapsed down on the steps, covered his head with his frail empty arms, and began to sob. He heard the soft crunch of thick boots grinding dirt into the Persian rug. He hesitated, looked up, saw the mask, his reflection in the dark oval goggles. He looked so worn.
The Healer held out a hand to him, and he took it, stood, let himself be led into the living room. He sat in his father’s soft armchair, awkwardly, like a stranger in his own home, being hosted by someone who’d only just arrived.
The Healer sat on the sofa to the right, and removed two cloth packages from a pouch on his belt: one blue, one black. He placed them gently on the coffee table, and unrolled the black one to reveal a small plastic device, and an assortment of vials.
Kurt closed his eyes, shuddering.
The Healer put a long vial into the base of the device, clicking it into place. Kurt studied every move with his arms pulled close to his chest, like a child expecting a shot at the doctor. When it was time to draw his blood, Kurt’s face was already streaked with tears.
The Healer didn’t force him, but it was clear there was no escaping it.
Kurt exhaled loudly, held out a trembling arm, and the Healer’s hand gripped his elbow firmly. A quick sting shot through him as a tiny blade hit, and he yelped, closing his eyes tightly as his blood filled the vial.
His elbow jerked free, a cotton swab pushed against the wound. The Healer slid a panel down on the device to reveal a small LCD screen.
Kurt looked out the front windows, saw the tip of the cross on the lawn, and just stared. It was like the room was empty again, and he was alone there, sitting, watching, waiting for a resolution.
The creak of rubber beside him shook the daydream away.
“They… they died because of me?” he asked, not so much a question as a need for confirmation.
The Healer didn’t shift his gaze from the device, and the callousness of it pushed Kurt into hysteria: he grabbed the monster’s wrist, thick with metal, shook it, and got the attention he needed.
“They died because of me!” he shouted.
The Healer placed a hand atop Kurt’s, squeezed gently, and he calmed, his breathing ragged but slow.
“W-w-was it me?” he whispered.
A moment passed where neither moved, as if the answer had to be read from the air rather than repeated as fact.
But then, the Healer nodded.
“No!” Kurt screamed, curling against the chair. He cried again, till he had no air in his lungs at all, and gasped a horrible raspy breath against the floral fabric, like he was drowning out of water.
He felt the cold tap of metal against his neck, a hiss and a sting, and his eyes shot open at the shock of it. He pushed his face into the cushions, stopped his theatrics, and started to mouth a prayer in his few last seconds.
A fire shot through his veins, and he flailed back, onto the floor, and convulsed so hard he bit the edge off his tongue. He gagged on the blood.
A strong hand pushed down on his chest, keeping him from rolling, and in the moments before his vision gave out, he saw the Healer over him, an expressionless mask, watching.
“Not your fault,” it said to him in a rough, processed voice from the darkness.
On his way out of the house, the Healer closed the door quietly, respectfully. As he made his way past the graves, he paused as harsh static struck his ears.
“Home to Green Four,” came a voice, Mandarin Chinese distorted by an overcast sky, as if spoken through a digital waterfall. “Do you copy, Green Four?”
The Healer took the heavy satellite phone from his belt, unfolded the antenna, then let it hang by his side again.
“Green Four to Home,” he said, fluent in his native tongue. “Sigma5 is neutralized.”
A pause. Static again.
“Understood,” said Home. “We will send you the co-ordinates of a safe location to leave the blood sample.”
The Healer nodded to the empty air.
“Your next assignment is identified,” said Home, without a hint of emotion. “You will be leaving at once.”
The Healer turned west, the afternoon sun nearly invisible in the haze.
“Understood,” he said again.
“Profiles and identification algorithms will be sent to you en route. We have intelligence indicating a living host at the Motol Hospital in Prague.”
The Healer stiffened slightly as the line devolved to static. He turned around, straight behind him, and stared into the darkening sky, back where night was already falling. He turned a bit more, south-east.
“Home,” he said carefully, deliberately. “I am already west of Prague. Please confirm.”
Static. The faint sounds of a discussion away from a microphone.
“Confirmed, Green Four,” came the reply. “Maps and speaking guides will be relayed before you cross the border.”
The Healer glanced back towards the setting sun, then stared headlong toward his objective. A weak wind tugged his cloak, and a speck of rain hit his mask, between his eyes. His suit whined faintly, warning of moisture contact, gently quieting as the drop slid down and away. He did not react.
“Understood,” he said once more.
Another raindrop glanced off his shoulder.
He was stirred back to life at the sound of the incendiary grenade exploding in the house behind him. He retracted his steps down the interlocked path, opening the front gate as the black smoke started to pour out of the windows, and into the sky above. He left the tire as he’d found it.