Mort was hunched over in the pit, grinding his face into the dirt and mewling. He had lost most of the hair on his head, and the exposed skin was covered in ugly red knots as big as chicken eggs. The rags hanging from his shoulders did little to hide protruding ribs and papery skin.
“I can’t watch,” Clare said, averting her gaze.
Mort slapped the ground with his hands, then grabbed the last clumps of hair on his head and tore them out. Clare crouched in the shadow of a tree near the rim of the pit, bracing herself against the trunk with both arms. David stood farther back, frozen in the act of packing their gear.
“Where did he get the parasite?” he asked. “I don’t understand. We’ve all been together since New Cape Town. He was never out of our sight.”
Clare only shook her head.
The knots had appeared on Mort’s head the previous morning, a symptom of the last stage of the infection. It meant the larvae were already burrowing into his brain and his behavior would only get more erratic. David had seen enough sick people to know they couldn’t help him. Still, to leave him here thrashing and screaming in a trash pit seemed unconscionable. He slipped his pack onto his shoulders and stepped up to the edge of the pit.
Mort threw his head back and screamed. Blood oozed from the corners of his eyes. When he glimpsed David, the eyes widened, and he grabbed a broken bottle from the scattered garbage. Gnashing his teeth, he threw the bottle at him. David ducked but not fast enough. The blunt end of the bottle caught him on the shoulder, connecting painfully with his collarbone, then bounced back into the pit.
“Get away from him,” Clare hissed. “He’ll try to kill you.”
David grabbed his shoulder and stepped back. He thought Mort might come after him, clamber up the pit, clawing and biting, but he didn’t. He fell back onto his face and resumed grinding into the dirt and trash.
David sighed and turned to Clare. She was crying.
“We’ll go back to New Cape Town,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder.
“Why?” she said, rubbing furiously at her eyes. “What can they do for him there? What can anybody do for him?”
“Nothing,” David conceded. “But we could rent a cage wagon, at least, and take him to quarantine.” When she didn’t respond to this, he slid his arm around her shoulders and drew her to him. “It’s better than leaving him out here to run wild.”
“Is it?” she asked through sobs.
And David had no answer.
* * *
New Cape Town was a huddle of mismatched buildings on the edge of a rocky shelf overlooking the ocean. A solitary road wound through miles of unbroken grasslands and bisected the town. David found the long walk particularly bleak, knowing that with each step Clare’s brother was that much farther behind them. Renting a wagon was only meant to assuage her grief. He didn’t expect to find Mort alive when they returned. They trudged into town late in the afternoon, five days after leaving the pit. The watchman in the guard tower saw them coming and blew a note on his trumpet, and a uniformed guard appeared in the doorway of a guardhouse, a small crossbow in his hand.
“Sick?” he asked.
David shook his head, and the guard flicked a finger at them. David stepped up to him and stooped, letting the guard run a hand through his hair. Looking for knots. He did the same to Clare. Then he grunted and waved them into the city.
It was getting late, so they made their way back to the shoddy little inn near the center of town where they had stayed before, a two-story scrap metal heap called Sleepers Nook. The common room on the ground floor was packed, but David found an empty booth in the corner. They settled in for a mug of cheap beer and a rest.
Clare looked miserable, her face all blotchy, her eyes rimmed in darkness. She nursed her mug of beer for a long time before taking a sip.
“First thing in the morning,” David said.
She nodded without looking at him. He reached out to her, and she grabbed his hand, lifting it to her face and pressing it to her cheek.
“What if we’re sick, too?” she said.
“We’re not,” he replied. “Neither of us have any symptoms.”
“Symptoms don’t show up right away. We might be sick and not know it.”
“It doesn’t work that way,” he said. “The parasite has to be ingested whole. That’s what everyone says. I don’t think it can happen without us knowing.”
“Then what happened to Mort?”
“No idea,” he said. “But it didn’t happen to us.”
She seemed satisfied with his answer and let go of his hand. Across the room, a cluster of rowdy townies, men in long coats and broad-brimmed hats, burst into laughter, clapping each other on the back. They were playing one of the local games, money changing hands, cards scattered across the table. Their laughter rattled the thin aluminum walls. And David thought it sounded very much like the shrieks of late-stage sick people. He took a swig of his beer, grimaced and coughed, and took another.
* * *
He awoke to the sound of people chanting. He lay there on his back for a long time, staring at the nest of shadows on the ceiling, waiting for the noise to die down, but it persisted. The tiny room smelled of rust and sweat. They had a mat on the floor, deloused but unclean. Clare had thrown off all the blankets, complaining of mildew, and David didn’t argue with her, despite the cold. They lay in a tangled heap, grasping for warmth, and slept fitfully until the chanting began.
Clare groaned and rolled over, thumping against the wall.
“What is going on down there?” she asked thickly.
David sat up, yawned and listened. Faint moonlight bled through the curtain and cast a ghost image on the wall beside the door. The chanting seemed to be gibberish; he could make out no words. Men and women, some of them laughing in between chants.
“I hate this stupid city,” Clare said, throwing an arm over her face.
“I’ll see what’s up,” David said.
He pulled on his shoes and rose from the bed, stumbling across the room to the window. He drew back the curtain, rubbed the grime off the glass, and peered outside. He saw townies in the street, thirty or forty of them, lined up in two rows facing each other, their hands out in front of them, palms up. Two men in guard uniforms danced down the aisle between them, slapping each outstretched hand as they passed. Back and forth and back and forth they went, and with each pass, the people got more excited. He recognized some of the men as those who had been gambling in the common room earlier, but many others had joined them.
“What is it?” Clare asked.
“I don’t know. Some kind of ritual.”
Clare crossed the room on her bare feet and came up beside him, peeking over his shoulder.
“I don’t like it,” she said, after a moment.
“Just go back to sleep,” David said. “It has nothing to do with us. We’ll get a wagon in the morning and be out of here. No need to ever come back.”
But the chanting got louder, and now the people were doing some kind of dance, kicking their legs up and stomping their feet.
“I can’t sleep through this racket,” Clare said. She walked back over to the bed mat and sat down. “Can we get out of here?”
“In the middle of the night?” David replied, letting the curtain fall back in place.
Clare bowed her head, pressing fingers to her forehead. “Yes. Forget the wagon. I don’t want to be here any longer. Let’s leave now, please.”
Before David could answer, she slipped on her shoes and reached for her pack.
“Very well,” he said. “We’ll go, if that’s what you want.”
“It is,” she replied, rising.
* * *
The chanting and stomping of the crowd thundered in the hallway. People peeked out of their rooms, scowling, looking for the source of the disturbance. David led Clare to the back stairs, and they crept down into the common room. It was dark, the tables pushed to the walls, chairs stacked on top of the tables. But the shadows of the chanters danced on the floor, cast in moonlight. David hesitated at the door. The townies were close, lined up in the middle of the road just outside. Clare finally nudged him, and he stepped through.
The two rows had become a circle, arms linked. The guards were carrying something between them. It looked like a silver platter with a handkerchief laid over it. The chanting continued, reaching a fevered pitch now, endless, rhythmic nonsense. David shuddered at the sound of it, but he was transfixed by its utter weirdness.
“Let’s go,” Clare said, leaning in close so he could hear her over the cacophony.
And then the guards lifted the tray over their heads and drew the handkerchief away. And David saw that the tray was alive. A squirming, purplish mass. And the crowd cheered.
“Oh, god,” David muttered.
Parasites. A hundred of them or more, piled on the tray like party snacks. Hands reached for them, chanting became excited cries. And the guards presented the tray to the people.
David turned to leave, but Clare was frozen now, both hands covering her mouth. He grabbed her by the elbow and led her away, and they passed, unnoticed, into the night, while the crowd cheered and cried and feasted.
* * *
“Why?” Clare said. “Why would they do that? Why?”
They sat in the shadow of a barn on the edge of town, and the echo of the crazed townies filled the whole world.
“They checked us for infestation on our way in,” she said. “Why did they bother?”
“I don’t know,” David said. He felt numb. Townies eating parasites. Eating them. It was inconceivable. “I don’t know,” he said again in a whisper.
Clare pressed her face against his shoulder, and he sucked in his breath. He had a lingering bruise there from Mort’s well-aimed bottle.
“They’re all insane,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We could head to the next town,” he said. “Winslow is smaller, but we might be able to borrow a farmer’s cart.”
“No point,” Clare said. “There’s nothing we can do for Mort. He’s dead by now. And all of these people will be dead soon enough. No more towns.”
He rose, helped her to her feet, and they stumbled into the wild.
* * *
“Where did they come from?” Clare asked.
They rested on rocks at the bottom of a gulley. Dark clouds filled the eastern horizon, and a cold wind had driven them to find shelter. David was rooting around in his pack, looking for food. They’d gone through the last of the canned meat and biscuits, but he thought he had some biltong left. Clare had her sleeping bag drawn around her shoulders like a cloak. Her own pack lay like a deflated skin at her feet.
“Miners in colony caves, from what I’ve heard,” David said. “They brought the parasites back up with them. Here.” He tapped his forehead.
“They should’ve sealed those mines right away,” she said. “As soon as the first sick miners crawled out.”
“By the time they knew what they were dealing with, it was too late.”
He found a small leather pouch and drew it out of the pack, showing it to her. She made a show of applauding, but it was half-hearted. David held the pouch in his hands. The lump inside was too small, barely enough meat for one, and it was the last. After this, they would be scavenging trash pits and abandoned buildings like wild dogs.
“You can have the last of it,” Clare said. “I’m not really hungry.”
“No, we’ll split it,” he replied. A crimson thread held the pouch shut, and he worked to untie it.
“You need it more than I do,” Clare said. “You’re carrying a heavier pack.”
“Not really. Not anymore. The cans are all gone.” He was still working at the knot. Somehow the simple slip knot had gotten all jumbled up. “Ah, hell,” he said, finally, and, drawing out his boot knife, cut the string.
“Well, at least we don’t need it anymore,” Clare said with a laugh.
He opened the pouch and turned it over, dumping the last of the food onto his palm.
Clare screamed, threw off the sleeping bag, and lurched away from him. It was not the last scrap of biltong on his palm. A purplish, segmented body lay there, its tiny, toothless mouth opening and closing as if trying to speak. Two appendages, like fingers, protruded from either side of the mouth, and they tapped a strange rhythm on his flesh.
And then David screamed as well and flung the parasite away from him.
“How…? How…?” Clare couldn’t get the words out, gasping for air as she backed away.
The parasite landed in the dirt. It sat there for a moment, still, appendages poised as if awaiting the boot heel that would crush it. Then it raised its eyeless head, opened its mouth, and resumed squirming.
“Someone put it in my pack,” David said.
“I don’t know. While we were down in the common room, maybe, after we’d stashed the packs in our room. Or else while we were sleeping.”
“Sick…They’re all…” But she let the words die in her mouth. Frozen in a half-crouch, her hands clasped in front of her, eyes flitting back and forth. David feared she might turn and run.
The parasite was scarcely an inch long and half as wide at its thickest point. All he needed to do was step on it, grind it into the dirt, and go on as if he’d never found it. It was no cause for panic. Crazed townies, whatever their motive might have been, had not succeeded.
And yet. And yet. He didn’t move. She didn’t move. For long minutes they stood, frozen in place, she in her half-crouch, he hunched over a large rock. And the parasite made its slow progress through the dirt.
He felt a queasiness in his belly, a strange fog filling his thoughts. Had the townies poisoned the beer? If they had, it seemed unlikely that it would only now, more than a day later, be affecting him. But something was wrong. Something was very wrong. As the fog swept away every clear thought, one thing remained, one terrible idea.
Pick it up. Pick it up and eat it.
He shook his head, but it did nothing to clear his mind.
Pick up the parasite and eat it.
That was the thought pounding in his skull. Madness. He shook his head again, shook it until he felt dizzy.
Pick up the parasite and eat it.
Why would he think such a thing? He shut his eyes and ground his teeth, but he could still see it in his mind, squirming in the dirt.
Clare made a strange gurgling sound and hit the ground. He opened his eyes to find her on her belly, clawing her way toward the parasite, eyes wide. Both hands reached, fingers hooked into claws.
“No, no, don’t do it,” he said. “It’s in your head. Don’t listen.”
But she seemed oblivious. And the parasite, sensing her approach, turned toward her, waggled its tiny appendages and opened its mouth. Panic burned through the fog, and David managed to pick himself up and stumble toward it. Each footstep took great effort, like pulling through thick mud, but he was closer to it than she was. He stepped up to the parasite. It paid him no heed, still turned toward Clare, beckoning her with its alien fingers.
“I don’t want…I don’t want…” Clare said with a groan.
David lifted his foot. He would crush it, he would grind its guts into the dirt, and then he would bury what was left. And that would be the end of it.
“No,” he said. To himself. To the parasite. Pick it up and eat it. That thought remained, burrowing into his brain. Pick it up and eat it. “No.” And his foot came down.
Clare leaped up as quietly and quickly as a pouncing cat and caught him around the waist, tackling him. They landed in a heap and rolled, arms and legs askew, his head thumping painfully on the rocky ground. As soon as he was down, she squirmed out of his grasp and lunged for the parasite. David sat up, grabbing at her blindly, and got a handful of her long hair.
“Stop, Clare, stop,” he said, pulling her hair and forcing her head back. “Don’t listen to it.”
She let out a heart-stopping shriek, then rounded on him and lashed out. Her fingernails raked him across the cheek, from temple to jawline, clawing through flesh and a week’s worth of beard stubble. Pain like fire poured into his skin, blurred his vision and drove him back.
“I don’t want…” Clare said, her voice high and terrified.
David wiped away tears and went after her, snagging the hem of her tunic between his thumb and forefinger, but when she pulled away, the fabric tore. He rose, threw himself at her, and landed on her back. Immediately, she thrashed and drove the back of her head into his face. His lower lip burst, and he felt blood run into his mouth. He rolled away to avoid further blows, licked away the blood, and turned to her.
She had it in her hands, the parasite, cupping it in a nest of fingers. The tiny appendages reached for her.
“No,” she whispered.
She closed her fingers around the parasite and lifted her hand to her mouth. He grabbed her wrist, and she looked at him with bloodshot eyes.
“Help me,” she said.
Then she bared her teeth and bit him on the arm. David howled in pain and jerked his arm out of her mouth. As soon as he pulled back, she pressed her hand to her open mouth, and the parasite fell in.
“Oh, god, Clare,” he said. He lunged at her, clawing at her face. She tried to turn away, but he grabbed her by the back of the head and forced his fingers between her lips. “Open up. Open your mouth!”
Her teeth parted, and he managed to get two fingers in just past the first knuckle. She bit down, but he kept forcing them in farther.
“Open your mouth,” he said. “For God’s sake, open your mouth!”
And then he felt it, squirming on the back of her tongue, working its way toward her throat. He snagged the tip of it between his thumb and forefinger. It thrashed wildly, trying to free itself, and he heard and felt a scream, like a needle piercing his brain. Clare began grinding her teeth back and forth, sawing through flesh. David howled in pain, but he had it. It flailed and shrieked, but he had it.
He pinched his fingers together and felt the parasite burst open. Immediately, it went limp. Clare opened her mouth wide, kicked her legs out and gasped. David withdrew his hand, wet with blood and saliva and the parasite’s black ichor. He dropped the parasite onto his palm and crushed it with his thumb, and he kept smashing it until it was reduced to a small, mangled bit of purple flesh and slime. Then he tossed it onto the ground and piled rocks on top of it.
Clare was sprawled in the dirt, her hands pressed to her temples, eyes wide and staring at the sky. She said nothing. She didn’t move. She scarcely blinked. David collapsed on the ground beside her, examining the wounds on his fingers. They were shallow cuts but ugly, and they hurt, though not nearly as much as the scratches on his face. Blood flowed freely down his fingers, over his knuckles, and he let it. He lowered his hand onto his chest and let pain wash over him.
“David, I’m so sorry,” Clare said, crying. “I don’t understand. I didn’t want to do it, and I did want to. I didn’t, and I did. How is that possible?”
David groaned and sat up.
“It focused on you,” he said. “Simple as that.”
She wiped her eyes and looked at him. Her face was contorted in disgust, but the disgust melted into a look of anguish. She picked herself up, dug a handkerchief out of a pocket and pressed it to his cheek.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again.
“Not your fault.” He winced as she examined his fingers. “It gets in your mind, makes you crazy. Like the people in town. Like Mort.”
She pressed her face against his shoulder.
“I was so close,” she said, though the words were muffled. “So close.”
He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of the head.
“We’re always close,” he said. “All of us.”
Uncomforted by this, she drew back and resumed tending his wounds.
“But we fight for each other, right?” He grabbed her chin and turned her face toward him. “You and I, that’s how we get through. We fight for each other, right?”
She nodded, tried to smile, and pressed the handkerchief to his swollen lip.