Spots jumped in front of Caleb’s eyes. Rand looked concerned. For a short few seconds, they were all still. Then some of the prisoners tried to get out. The Stewards stopped them and Rand shouted.
“Hey, hey! Now listen. I’m here to take you away, if you want. We’ve said before, there’s a quiet, safe option that will put an end to all this. If you accept this offer, you will be taken right now to a place where soldiers are waiting to… put you to sleep, quickly and cleanly. It’s there for you if don’t want to turn to the… things. The next stage. But if you say no, you will die anyway, probably within hours.”
The Infected were confused and scared. But almost half of them made up their minds to take Plan B: the assisted death.
While Rand separated them, Caleb got out of the office. There was a huge splash of blood on the front of his shirt. He pulled the collar down and sure enough, he had a nice crescent-shaped bruise on his shoulder. One of the Stewards was looking at him like he’d just come back from Everest.
“Good job, man,” he said. He had big black eyebrows that stood up like two enthusiastic little dogs.
Caleb wondered what the guy was on. “Not really, I kind of made a mess of it,” he said.
“Yeah, but you went in there,” said Dogbrow. Caleb shrugged. He didn’t get the guy’s meaning. The Steward added, “I mean, there’s nothing in it for you.”
Right. In other words, they can’t pay you enough to do this because you’ll never collect your first week’s wages. True enough. But that wasn’t how Caleb rolled. He said, “Virtue is its own reward.” A line he’d used on kids in the classroom. It wasn’t just a cliché. But with his shoulder starting to throb like a demon, he was in no mood for speeches.
Ten or so sick people came out of the room and the rest were locked in again. The prisoners inside continued to protest. They said they would submit to any experiment. That they had rights. That they wanted to see their loved ones one last time. Rand’s face was contorted as he walked away, like it was all he could do not to physically block his ears.
They marched (badly) down the corridor. The Stewards lit the way with torches. By tacit agreement, Caleb had been left with the axe in case one of the Infected suddenly turned. Caleb was pretty sure it didn’t work that way but fear was winning most arguments now.
It was getting hotter. They were somewhere near the furnace. They came to a metal door. Rand hit it with his fist. When it opened, everyone except the worst Infected took a step back.
The guy was wearing a rubber boiler suit that was soaked in blood. He had a machete in his hand. And his eyes were bulging half a foot from his face… no wait, he was wearing low-light goggles, the kind some Special Ops unit would wear. There was a stink of flesh from the room behind him. He said in a clipped, impatient tone, “Whoa. One at a time.” The door slammed.
Rand turned to the patients. He looked tortured. “Okay, then.” Nobody moved. Caleb saw a very old man with a white handlebar moustache; a chubby girl who couldn’t have been older than fifteen; a twenty-something built like a brick shithouse with his nose bitten off; a woman who might have been a model ten years ago. None of them wanted to be the first.
Finally Dogbrow said, “Just pick one.” Rand looked at them all and picked out the elderly gentlemen. He was definitely on his last legs anyway. He opened the door and guided the man through. But he didn’t go in himself. The door closed.
Caleb’s mind was seething. He felt that the fight had got his blood pumping, but that it was only Ep Rex which benefited. He needed Tabasco or chillies. His body had digested the last batch. His brain was indulging the strange swapping of senses between each other. The Infected around him felt clean, warm and non-threatening. The uninfected were magnetic, attractive, glowing with potential. He closed his eyes for a second. Inside the room, the old man had just died. He could feel it. All the Infected could.
The executioner banged on the door twice for another victim to be sent through. Rand said to the Stewards, “You can handle this, right?” The two deputies nodded, though Caleb thought they didn’t looked too sure. “Right,” said Rand. “When they’re done, head back to stand guard at the office.” Then he beckoned Caleb to follow him. He didn’t mention whether Caleb’s eyes looked glazed or his movements unnatural.