Darwin’s skin crawled as if millions of tiny insects writhed and squirmed on his bare flesh. Heat seared his body in waves, rubbing out sane thought as easily as tide washes away a sandcastle.
Groaning, he whipped the sweaty bed linens aside and leaped to his feet. His heart cracked against his ribs.
Where were they?
His wrists prickled, then his temples, before spreading down his spine. He pressed moist palms against his head and moaned softly. The last attack had been weeks — no — months ago. Maybe.
It was impossible to keep clear track of time here. Each day was a schedule of injections to hold back the progress of the disease. Soon, he would not have enough mind left to know days had passed.
Where were they?
Whirling, he paced restlessly in the small room. It was bare, almost sterile, but then again, he would not occupy it long. He would either leave it cured, or in a body bag.
A nightstand bore dark letters etched in erratic lines over its worn surface. Initials, notches for days, weeks, months.
Shivering, he looked away from the scarred table. How long would he linger here, before death swooped in to finish what it had started?
A surge of dizziness swelled within him. He leaned and swayed like an old man. Anger welled up in him. It was hotter than the coursing flames. Throwing his head back, he cursed the disease, and what devilish whim of Fate had placed it upon him.
He shuddered. The progress would drag inexorably on. It was only a matter of time. Darwin grimaced. He needed that injection.
Where were they!
A headache throbbed along his scalp. Agony snaked across his forehead. The room brightened. No, anything but that! He hobbled away from the table and toward the bathroom, pausing before a mirror with eyes averted.
His hands clenched. A trickle of blood leaked beneath his fingernails where they dug fiercely into his palms. He looked into the mirror, but did not look into his own eyes.
How much had the disease robbed from him? How much of the real Darwin remained? Revulsion tightened the pit of his stomach. He wanted to pull away with disgust. But he had to look. He had to know.
Taking a deep breath, he jerked his gaze up. Another man — another creature’s eyes looked back. The pupils were impossibly wide. Flecks of white speckled his eyes. Faint light gleamed behind each iris.
Screaming in horror, he flung himself at the obscene eyes of the monster. Glass shattered, the tinkling fragments tearing jagged arcs in his wrists. Pain did not exist. A mad desire seized him. Scrambling for one long, wickedly curved piece, he clenched it between gashed palms, holding it poised over his chest.
Hands shaking, he hesitated. To plunge it deep and end the torment — oh so easy — but self-preservation shrieked in his ear. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Conflicting emotions rushed through him. The chunk of glass glittered in his hand. Those hideous glowing orbs reflected back, mocking him.
The last stages… the last stages… the last stages, repeated in his mind like an obscene chant. Terror devoured his resolve. Dropping the spike of glass, he crumpled to the floor and curled up, sobbing.
Trent examined his recall pad and then filled a syringe with amber liquid.
A disease, sure, spread that crap all over the news-nets; pump it up in need-to-know reports. Trent tapped the syringe with one finger out of habit, and then shook his head. “Doesn’t matter anyway,” he muttered.
His “patient” stirred, blinking groggily. After finding him sobbing and shaking on the floor, the attendants had filled him with sedatives. By now, they knew what to look for. One look at those eyes and they had hauled him here, uncaring that the resident doctor was absent, and only an intern remained.
Phenotypes. Once phenotypes appear, the genotype is long gone. These were not human any longer. The catechism didn’t ease the burning unease in his belly.
Trent rolled up the patient’s sleeve and wrapped a temporary tourniquet around his upper arm. Let the moralists argue. He knew the cold, hard facts.
The strange virus had reared its head after an expedition to Alpha Centauri. In one year, those under the age of thirty-five were either carriers, or displayed its symptoms.
It involved a complex array of gene splicing and a synthetic virus that actively found, attacked, and rewrote genetic code, especially of the neural variety. This was more than a simple disorder; certainly not a freak of nature. This had intelligent design written all over it. The ultimate bio-weapon.
Trent probed for a vein, shaking his head. They were all doomed.
Everyone around him was infected too. As well as himself. But by a different strand of virus.
No rising neural connections, no bioluminescence behind his eyes. The synthetic virus manifested itself in older adults as sterility. Only the young, those whose minds had been turned inside out, whose genes were the design of some unknown creature light-years away, could reproduce. Someone else had taken the reins of human adaptation.
The patient’s eyes fluttered open again, searching the room, before resting on Trent. Relief flooded his face. “Thank God, you’re here! The injection?”
Guilt speared through his chest, but Trent only nodded. His duty was simple: prevent the abnormal from reproducing, attempt to find and correct the anomaly, and everything would go back to normal.
Trent signed the pre-prepared death certificate and bent over his patient, sliding the needle into his vein. There were more deaths each day, but the birth rate was twice that. Those who were changing would soon outnumber the rest of them.
Evolution had begun.
An avid speculative fiction writer for the last ten years, Liz Penn is searching for the best agent for her many novels and indulging her bibliophile tendencies.