I’m the one who killed thirty million people.
I spent eight days in the bunker to avoid the radioiodine fallout, and an additional four because I didn’t want to see what had happened to the world above me. When I finally emerged, I stepped out onto a barren expanse that had once been greater Los Angeles.
Twelve million people had lived here. One third of the dead.
I met Kemal Vekiloglu that afternoon. He was standing next to the pumps of a deserted gas station, aiming a hunting rifle at my chest as I approached.
I stopped. I didn’t bother to put my hands up; I hadn’t decided yet how being shot ranked on my list of options. “I don’t want to fight you.”
The man lowered his gun, but he didn’t loosen his grip. He had no eyebrows or eyelashes, and only a few clumps of hair remained on his scalp. There were blotches of red beneath his skin from internal bleeding. But he had no obvious signs of Circe’s Sickness or the neurodegenerative diseases that sometimes accompanied it.
“Do you have food?” I asked him. “Water?”
He started to raise the gun again.
“I don’t want to take yours,” I said, sliding the pack down off my shoulders. His trigger finger twitched, but I moved with exaggerated slowness, letting the pack drop and removing a canteen. “Here.” He hesitated, so I took a drink first and handed it to him.
After I told him I was headed north, he agreed to accompany me.
“My name is Richard Thompson,” I told him as we walked.
“What do — what did you do?”
“I’m an epidemiologist.” After a long pause, I added, “I was at Genocorp. The biotech firm.” He didn’t betray any recognition, but he must have heard the name before. It had been all over the news and social media for weeks.
I learned a bit about Kemal as we followed the highway northwest. He had been an advertising executive who had started his own firm. He was unmarried, but he had a sister and a nephew in Michigan.
An hour or so later we came to another town. Cats were curled up lifelessly in the street. Men and women were sprawled on the asphalt and slumped against doors, frozen in place.
At one point, Kemal stopped and shouted. No one answered.
“Who could have done this?” he hissed. I didn’t answer.
Kemal’s pace slowed after that, and he needed to rest more frequently. I tried to distract him from his pain by talking about my life. I spent more time on Lauren and our engagement than I wanted to. In between the stories, I imagined saying the things I wanted to tell him.
“Kemal,” I would say, “I’m the one who caused this. Powerful people helped me, but I inputted the targets.”
He would look at me in in horror and disgust. “Why? How could you have done such a thing?”
Everyone knew about CR-C1, the cortex recycle-caudal virus, and how it ate away higher brain functions but left its fearful victims compliant to simple commands. Everyone knew how quickly it spread.
He didn’t need to know the other details. He didn’t have to hear that Lauren smashed our bathroom mirror in terror of her own reflection. He didn’t have to know what it was like to find her body. I hadn’t realized she’d had enough self-awareness left to take her own life.
“We had to stop it here, draw the line, or in another month there wouldn’t have been anywhere left to draw it.”
Maybe Kemal would say, “I understand. It was worth it.” Maybe he would simply nod as he absorbed the terrible choice I’d had to make.
Every time I wanted to stop I imagined that nod, that look of understanding, and it kept me going.
Finally, at dusk, Kemal sank to the ground. “I need a break.”
Later, in front of the small fire, I looked at him and said, “I’m the one who caused this.”
He stared at me. “Caused what?”
“This. The deaths. The air attacks.”
His rage was like a mask dropping down over his features. He grabbed a burning branch from the fire and roared as he thrust it toward me.
I jumped back and landed sprawled in the dirt. He came at me, swinging the flaming branch. I kicked and the branch flew out of his hands. He turned and went for his rifle.
I’m not a fighter. I didn’t know what I was doing, only that I had to do it before he did whatever he was planning. I pushed myself to my feet, snatched a log from the fire pit and charged. I swung the wood and hit him in the back of the head. He fell.
“Kemal?” I dropped to my knees beside him. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
I trudged far enough away that I couldn’t see him and spent the night with my back against a tree. In the morning I returned to Kemal and buried him. Without the proper tools it took a good portion of the day, and even then I’m not sure I got all the way down to six feet. That afternoon I continued north.
I hadn’t done a good job of explaining myself, I realized.
“Kemal,” I should have said, “the CR-C1 virus was pandemic. Something had to be done.”
“Is that why the attacks were launched?” he would have asked.
“Yes,” I would have said; “I was a part of that. We didn’t want anyone to have to die. It was a terrible tragedy. But we may have preserved humanity.”
He might have been silent. He might have considered this. But sooner or later he would have said, “That must have been a hard choice. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to do it. But I’m glad there was someone who was.”
He would have understood. He would have forgiven me.
I kept walking.
This is Aaron Emmel’s fourth story for Every Day Fiction. His stories have also appeared in MYTHIC, Empyreome, Starship Sofa, and other publications.