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From The Babe's Mouth
by Matthew Charles
Matthew Charles -- all rights reserved
 

People can be so stupid.

It's never ceased to amaze me. Look out onto any street of any town and watch them walk by. Each and every one is unique, different. The product, according to what you believe, of millennia of evolution or a moment of inspiration in the mind of God. Yet after passing through one of the finest education systems in the world and accumulating years of wisdom, they still miss the most obvious dangers every time.

But then, it's always been like that.

Look at - well, pretty much any point in recent history. World War II, for instance. Did anybody seriously believe that appeasement was going to work? That allowing a militaristic Germany to re-arm would bring about peace? That Hitler would be content with annexing Austria? Didn't anybody see what was happening?

Better yet, didn't sixty million Germans realise that what they were doing was idiotic and unsustainable, that there would be hell to pay?

The sad truth is that most people don't want to know. Deep down, they believe that if they pretend it isn't true, it won't happen; like children huddled in the dark with their eyes squeezed tight, they wait quietly for the danger to go away.

It falls to those of us who can see the world for what it is to protect them. Sometimes we just have to open their eyes. Sometimes, though, it isn't so easy.


Shit. What a day. Again.

I'm still taking flak over the tax issue. Whoever it was thought that one up is one hell of a player; they know they can't beat me on moral or ethical ground, so they scare away the voters by threatening their wallets. And nobody believes a politician who says he'll reform but won't raise taxes. Campbell pulled back another point in the polls. Bitch.

Typical Joe American Public. They'd elect a jackass if it'd cut the rates. Hell, even a SCAB. Those stupid, blind morons. Can't they see beyond their next paycheque? Don't they realise what's at stake here? Of course not. Morons. Fucking morons. Fucking, fucking, fucking-

Stop.

Calm.

Be rational about it. You've got a twenty-point lead. Campbell and her supporters are just trying to win votes. They probably even think they're doing the right thing. Of course the public is short-sighted: that's why they need you elected in the first place.

So why don't they just do it? Idiots.

I sigh. There's no way I'm going to be able to think straight until I've worked off the tension. And I need to be sharp for that interview tomorrow.

I pick up the phone and hit Gloria's button. One, two, three, fo-

"Hello?"

"Hi honey, it's me. I'm not gonna be back till late tonight. Don't wait up for me."

"Um, hard day, huh?"

"You would not believe it. Catch ya later."

"Okay, dear. Take care."

Gloria is a godsend. She may be stupid, but at least she realises it. No back-chat, no whining, no politics, just the steady support I need. She knows we've all got to make sacrifices if we're going to win this thing.

I have to be sharp for that interview tomorrow.

I pull on my coat and step out of my office. One of the campaign team approaches me, clutching a sheaf of papers and looking eager to please.

"Mr Barnes?"

"Ron. What've you got?"

"First, Campbell's son. He's definitely going out drinking regularly; we've got photos."

I barely blink. Two years on and I still miss the ungrateful little shit. I made him. He didn't have to carve out his own future while the family income went on drink. But I learned to mask my reactions a long time ago. As far as the rest of the world knows, nothing is wrong between me and my son.

"Leave it. Unless he's a complete wino, the public won't care, and we'll look like killjoys. But keep an eye on him anyway, in case he gets up to something more interesting."

"And the other thing is Stein's got another press conference scheduled for Tuesday."

Shit.

"Okay, same drill as before. Upstage him, get another expert to disagree with him, point out that Stein ain't exactly impartial. Try and paint him as an amateur politician."

Stein's dangerous because he's a wildcard. The public doesn't know what to make of him - they're not sure whether he's a SCAB, a scientist or a political player. I've got to do something to neutralise him.

Which reminds me.

I wander over to Steve's desk. He moves to get up, but I motion for him to stay.

"Robert, hi. What can I do for ya?" He speaks with a lazy Southern drawl, quietly competent and confident.

Steve is, technically, a handyman. He fixes things for me. All sorts of things. Anything which needs fixing. I am, of course, shocked and appalled when I find out about the bodies. That sort of violence is symptomatic of the tensions that will always exist in mixed communities; our SCAB citizens need proper protection.

"How're you getting on with the Pig?"

"Still checkin' it out. Looks good, but to be on the safe side we oughta get somebody in there, find out how late the barman stays up an' so on. Wouldn't be so smart to be seen tossing the match in."

"Can you do it?"

"Sure, but I'll need a few weeks. Gotta get somebody they won't recognise."

"Okay, no problem; it can wait until after the election. It'll be a good spur to start the segregation. Good job."

"Thanks, Robert. Nice to see y'again."

I don't believe in unnecessary cruelty. And, despite what you hear from my opponents, I don't hate SCABS. I just have to act that way.

In a hundred years' time, they'll understand. Our society is weak and divided. In refusing to admit the truth, we hurt everybody.

The plain fact is that SCABS are victims. Cripples. Sufferers. They can't function as normal human beings. Until we admit that, we can't care for them. And they're dangerous victims too; we have to recognise that they're a menace to us as well as to themselves. They need to be institutionalised. Out of harm's way.

That is the greater good. I don't believe in unnecessary cruelty, but if I have to stir up tensions or pander to prejudice to achieve my goal, I will not hesitate. I'm doing this because I care.

Not because I hate SCABS.

Tonight, though, that greater good will be best served if I ensure I'll be on top form tomorrow. And I know just the thing.

Idly, I jangle the keys in my pocket.

I'm feeling better already.


Some believe that people are basically good, moral and law-abiding; willing to band together in times of hardship and possessed of social conscience. That, deep down, everybody wants to help their fellow men and to improve themselves. That they are honest and sincere and caring.

They've never been to West Street.

West Street is an urban jungle. Survival of the fittest is the only law here, in this place where all the shit and filth of the human world ends up.

What we forget, though, is that the people who - for want of a better word - live here are not fundamentally different from the ones that maintain beautifully spick houses and immaculate lawns just two miles away. They just happened to start in a slightly different place.

Believe me. I should know.

This used to be no different from other neighbourhoods. Slightly shabbier around the edges, maybe, but still a community where people lived in hope, not fear.

Then came the Flu, and, by some statistical fluke, the proportion who turned SCAB was twice the national average.

After that, it was a simple case of population dynamics, exactly the same as a hundred other places. House prices, already lower than most parts of the city, began to drop. Impoverished SCABS who lost their income moved in. Folks with money left, moving to nicer homes emptied by the Flu. Prices dropped further, until only those who couldn't afford to live anywhere else remained.

And then, not to put too fine a point upon it, everything went to hell.

And that is why men like me are needed. Because people are not, at heart, good or bad, just people. Utterly blind, they live from one day to the next, surviving, not realising that they're making things worse and worse. They need somebody who can see the possibilities to tell them what to do.

I have to get elected. I have to, or the country will be torn apart. First mayor, then the state, the country - and then, from our position of leadership, the world. But none of that can happen unless I win the mayoralty. And to have a chance at that, I need to work off the stress tonight.

I pull up in front of what used to be used to be a grocery store until the owner, a gentle old man named Singh, turned into a six-foot boar and tried to rape the single mother next-door. It was later acknowledged that he'd been unfit to return to the community, though no blame was ever assigned. Ironically, if he'd been able to wait a couple months she would have obliged willingly, in exchange for a small fee.

She was still working the streets when I left this godforsaken place for college. For all I know, she could be out there tonight. She could even be the SCAB prostitute sauntering towards the car.

I take a moment to toughen up. On West Street, you're either predator or prey. If you show weakness, you're as good as dead.

I get out and slam the door, locking it with a casual flick. The hooker stands there, trying to look seductive. What, does she think I'm gonna ask her for a dance? Remember, you're just a cunt for hire. If you're gonna get cocky with me, girl, I'll take my money elsewhere.

She nearly lets me walk past her, but calls out at the last moment.

"Hey. Looking for company?"

Not the most original line, but she's got a good voice. I look her straight in the face, sizing her up. Not bad... and some sort of snake. I'll bet she can do some interesting things.

"Okay," I reply in a tone to match my tough-disinterested face, then follow her over to the door of the store-turned-hotel. As always, I slip the bouncer a hundred and growl, "Watch the car."

Inside, though, I'm grinning.


"Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you. Thank you for making the right decision today.

"What we have begun, together, on this wet November day will be remembered for years to come. People will look back and say, There. There, in a medium-small city in a country called the United States of America, that was where it all began. There, one million men and women had the insight to elect a mayor dedicated to fighting the most terrible plague ever to strike the earth, and we will ever be thankful for them.

"We all have a great deal of work to do. The battle is over, but the war has hardly begun. We have made a stand here, today, for humanity, for life. But we cannot rest on our laurels. We are in a position to save this city - but we have a wider duty, too. Not just to ourselves and our children, but to the whole world.

"We all have a great deal of work ahead of us."


I slip gradually back into consciousness, warm and drowsy and comfortable. That was one hell of a night. Must remember to give her a bit extra, so she'll give me the same treatment next time. And there will be a next time.

Smiling, I curl up, scrunching the covers around me. I feel good.

"You're a ten year old kid."

The hooker. She's lounging by the window, trying to look cool and distracted by focusing her attention on a bag of chips. It's working.

"Wha?" I don't feel in the mood for that particular game right now. Young master and naughty nanny sounds like too much effort.

"You're a ten year old kid. Look in the mirror."

She doesn't sound like she's playing around. I'm not having fun here, I think, and fun is what I pay for. I'm off, and she won't be getting that tip after all. She better not keep this up; I'd hate to have to damage such a skilled artist. I roll back the cover and swing out of bed-

Jesus fuck.

My reflection.

I look down at myself, then back at the mirror.

I'm not a SCAB. I can't be a SCAB. SCABS can't touch me because I'm working for the angels. It must be the hooker. It must be.

"You! You did this to me! You bitch!"

It takes me a moment to realise I've spoken. She pauses to eat another chip, then replies in a cool, almost parenthetical tone.

"That's right. I did."

Thank God, thank God.

"You see, the disease made me more than a snake woman. It also made me a succubus. I don't know how it works, but my body feeds off of sex. Oh, I can still eat, but I don't get nutrition from it."

She pauses to fiddle with the chip bag. What the fuck? What kind of freak is she?

"Not that these things have any nutrition in them to start with. It's really irritating to have to boink someone in order to get a meal, but there are benefits. A side effect of my feeding lets me alter the age of whoever I'm with. I can make small changes anytime, but big changes require sex."

This is wrong. This is all wrong. I'm in charge. I'm the hero. You better change your attitude, girl, 'cos if you don't, you're toast.

"You bitch! You damned whore! Change me back!"

That wasn't my voice. There's no way in hell that was my voice. My voice would have had a menacing growl, not a nasal whine. I'll get the fucking bitch.

Lazily, she tosses the empty packet aside, then turns to look at me. "I wouldn't if I could."

There is a moment's silence. Then, suddenly, she jerks away from the window, whips round and grabs my arm.

Her touch is electric. Pure pleasure. No wonder we had such a good time last night. For an instant which seems to last forever, I would be willing to jump back into the bed with her and screw the consequences. Hot damn.

And then, just as suddenly, it's over. The heat is replaced by a clammy, sick feeling. I don't need to look down to know what happened to me. She looks bigger, more intimidating. I can't fight her like this.

"You're now eight years old. Want to try for six?"

Fuck. I have to stop her, have to get away.

The Knife. It's never let me down before. If I can reach it...

"If you're thinking about that switchblade, it isn't there. Yes, I knew about it. I knew about it because that woman with the brown fur you carved up last week was my friend, Sally. I don't know why you did that and I don't care, but you're not going to do it again."

That bitch? Of course I bloody cut her up; she was going to go to the papers. Stupid bint. Never stop to gloat at somebody you're blackmailing. I thought I'd killed her. Damn.

Wait a minute.

Snake-freak doesn't know who I am.

Play it cool, Robbie. Confuse her. Don't make her associate you with the anti-SCABS movement.

Got it.

"She was a whore! A damned dirty whore, like you!"

She smirks for a moment. Oh shit. I think I misjudged that. Ohshitohshitohshit-

Another second of unadulterated, cloud-nine pleasure. I come down harder this time, gagging.

"You're now six. Do you really want to go down to four?"

Oh fuck. Fuck, not again. Not a-fucking-gain.

Come on, think.

Okay, she's playing power games. Let her win. You can get her later, but right now you have to get out. Submit. Do what she wants you to do.

"No, please. I'm sorry. Please, change me back," I whine.

She stares at me, then lets go and starts walking out of the room.

"Wait! What about me? You can't leave me like this!"

"Yes, I can. You're on your own. I'm still leaving you in a better situation than you left Sally. At least you aren't struggling to reach a phone while your lifeblood throbs away. Three final things.

"One, you better be careful getting out of this part of town. There are some real sickos out there who would love to get a hold of a little boy. Two, if you look for your car, you won't find it. I went down and left it unlocked with the keys inside. A few minutes later it was gone. And three, if you do make it back to adulthood one day, don't screw with SCAB streetwalkers. Sally doesn't have any powers, but others of us do. My friend Mitsu could turn you into a woman. My friend Jamila can become a gorilla. I know that sounds funny, but you wouldn't be laughing after she caves your skull in. And I can spit venom if I want to. We're dangerous and we take care of our own. Remember that, junior."

Play it cool. Act how she wants you to act.

I start pleading and sobbing, down on my knees. I offer her anything I can give. I promise never to do anything wrong ever again if she'll only change me back.

She walks out anyway. Bitch.

And then I find out I wasn't acting. I am shit-scared. I have never been this frightened since my father finally died.

I don't stop crying for at least twenty minutes.


Okay. You're stuck in the body of a six-year-old kid in the middle of West Street. Your wallet, keys and phone are gone. The only set of clothes you have is ten sizes too big. So what do you do?

Go downstairs and kick up a fuss. The hooker stole my stuff; the bouncer didn't watch the car. Threaten to-

But I'm a six-year old kid.

...a six year old kid...

six year old kid

kid

No! No! I will not give in. I'm going to get rid of this and then I'm going to cut her into a thousand fucking pieces. But first, I have to get the hell out of here.

Okay.

I haven't got any money. I could make a reverse charge call to - who? Gloria? Steve? Steve. How do I convince him I'm me? Tell him things only I know. Okay.

So where the fuck am I going to find a working public telephone on West Street?

West Street.

The West Street Shelter. Thank God. I go in, tell them - tell them I'm a poor lost kid, but if I can make a phone call, Daddy can pick me up. If I can get there, I'm safe.

I allow myself a bit of a smirk. That SCAB didn't realise she was dealing with someone who grew up around here. Sure, things have changed, but I know the streets.

I can wear my shirt long, with the sleeves rolled up. Boxer shorts on the outside, held up with suspenders. It'll look stupid but it'll work.

Then out. Not the front, that's too dangerous. But somewhere around here, there should be a fire escape leading down to an alleyway. Then over the fence and into the yard at the back. No, wait, what if they've got dogs? Crawl along the back wall. It'll take my weight. All the way along until I get to the shelter.

Sweating, I clamber over to the window and push it open.

One step at a time.


"Let's talk about SCABS.

"The Martian Flu has been on the planet since 2003. Over a billion died, most in the early years - some from the Flu, and some from the suffering that followed in its wake. Entire nations crumbled. The MFV was, without doubt, the most devastating catastrophe to hit God's good earth.

"Martian Flu alone would have been bad enough. But at least it was a disease, pure and simple. You die or you recover. You can be treated. Thanks to medical science, we may soon be able to vaccinate our children. Mankind has faced diseases for centuries. One by one, we've beaten them.

"But Martian Flu didn't come alone. Along with it came SCABS.

"Let me tell you exactly how much the scientists have learned about SCABS in the last thirty years.

"Nothing.

"We don't know what causes it, other than in the vaguest terms. We don't know how it works. We don't know how to prevent or treat it. It has effects that we simply cannot understand, and which break the laws of nature.

"When AIDS first appeared, back before I was born, some people believed it was a tool of God. It punished those who committed fornication and adultery, those who abused their bodies with drugs. AIDS was, those people said, divine retribution.

"If AIDS was fashioned by God, SCABS is surely the work of the Devil.

"Sometimes, the damage it does is obvious. We've all seen the poor, pathetic creatures on the streets. More than once, I have been moved to help - only to be thanked with a snarl or a growl. No longer human, these unfortunates turn feral and behave as what they are - simply animals. Love, hope, family, friends, responsibilities and duties - none of these mean anything to them. We have the same duty to them as we do to any suffering but dangerous creature - to help where possible, but, more importantly, to prevent them from harming others.

"Sometimes, the damage is obvious. But sometimes it can be more insidious."


The nurse looks down at me first with irritation at being woken, then concerned amazement. Self-consciously, I tug at my oversized shorts, trying to keep them from falling. Something behind her eyes clicks, and she becomes suddenly professional.

"Hi there. What's your name?"

"Robert," I answer. Strangely, being patronised is almost soothing.

"Would you like to come in, Robert?"

I nod, and she leads me into the hall. The bright light hurts my eyes for a moment.

"Would you like a drink and some chocolate?" she asks, gesturing to the pair of vending machines. What I really need, right now, is Scotch, but instead I ask for coffee. She looks slightly surprised, then smiles and presses a combination. Extra white, extra sugar. Not what I had in mind.

"How did you get here?" She slips in the question nonchalantly whilst fussing over the drink.

I got lost from my mummy and daddy in the clothes shop. I know their telephone number. I want to go home.

No, I can't go through with it. I look straight into her eyes.

"Miss Lanski, I am a forty-six year old man. I was attacked by SCABS thugs who did this," - I gesture at myself - "to me. I need to use your telephone, please."

She wavers.

"I'm telling the truth. My name is Robert Barnes. I'm one of the shelter's directors. I have a degree in Law from Harvard. I'm married with four children. I need to use your phone."

"Oh my God." Recognition dawns. She steps aside, shaking. I ignore her.

The phone is on the counter; I have to pull it down to see the buttons. I dial Steve's number. Within seconds, he answers.

"Steve Logan." Half-asleep. Only half.

"This is Robert Barnes. I'm at the West Street Shelter. I need you." He doesn't say anything. "My voice sounds different because some SCABS got me. Probably revenge for the knifing that made the papers on Tuesday." And which we planned on Sunday. He knows it's me.

"I'll be right there, Mr Barnes." There is a click as he puts the phone down. Then, everything is quiet.

I did it. I won the round. I got out safely.

I slump down to the floor, not bothering to replace the handset. Lanski says nothing, avoids looking at me. I feel empty. I'm not even angry or sad or depressed. Just empty.

And as I wait for Steve's car to arrive, my mind unfocuses further, turning in on itself, filling with nothing until my mouth is dry and my head is pounding. And Lanski still refuses to see me.

What do I do now?


Steve takes it in his stride. Almost literally. He walks in the door, takes one look at me, then says, "I've got the car out front, Mr Barnes. I haven't called anybody else yet."

"Thanks, Steve." Now I'm being treated like myself again, my self-control comes back. I climb to my feet, the overlarge clothes flapping around me, and walk clumsily out into the night. I don't bother to thank Lanski.

Once the door is shut behind us he asks, "Robert, what happened?"

"SCAB prostitute did it, wanted to get even for a friend I put in hospital."

"Whadd'ya tell the nurse?"

"Just that some SCAB punks did it."

There is quiet for a moment as we get into the car, then, "Y'know," he muses, "this puts you in one hell of a good position."

"What?" My voice squeaks slightly in disbelief.

"Sympathy vote." He shrugs. "'Course, you know more 'bout these things than me, but I reckon you've just won the election. Then we can really screw the bastards."

"And bitches," I add, but my heart isn't in it. Logan's useful because he's so single-minded, but right now I wish he were a bit more human.

"And bitches. Speaking of which, who exactly did it?"

I sigh. "Steve, I don't want her hurt. Not yet. She said she couldn't turn me back, but I want to make sure before we trash her."

"Okay, whatever you say, Robert."

We sit in silence until he pulls up in front of my house. Still numb, I get out and walk to the door. He follows close behind. I have to stretch to reach the doorbell.

No answer.

I ring it again.

A light comes on in our bedroom. Muffled thumps as Gloria walks down the stairs. Pause as she looks through the window, then recognises Steve as an employee. Opens the door, sees me for the first time, doesn't understand.

"Gloria, it's me, Robert."

She looks up at Steve for a denial.

"Mrs Barnes. Your husband was attacked by a gang of SCABS earlier tonight. They did this to him."

She looks back down at me. From behind her comes the noise of a bedroom door opening.

I open my arms. "Gloria?"

There is a terrible, Damocles'-Sword moment when, despite the years of effort, I am vulnerable.

Then she embraces me.

Cindy creeps over and tugs on her mother's nightie. Gloria reaches out and puts her arms round both of us.

Thank the Lord.


"So, how the hell long is it going to take to undo this?"

They look at each other for a moment.

"At the moment, Mr Barnes, there's nothing medical science can do for you. We still don't have any idea what happened to you, let alone how to undo it. As far as conventional medicine is concerned - well, you'd just have to grow up again. Assuming you will still age, of course."

As if on cue, the second one takes over.

"There is one possibility, though. But you may not like it."

If he thinks I'm going to say 'Please, go ahead', he's mistaken. I'm in no mood for screwing around right now.

After a moment's silence, he carries on.

"We may be able to find a SCAB who could age you again."

No way. No way. No bloody-

Rational. Stay rational.

Okay, so we'll find a rational reason not to.

"Mr Barnes, we could have you back to normal within weeks."

I start to protest, but change my mind. Fuck it. I'm not out to martyr myself. There's no way I'm going to stay like this, not if I've got a chance to get it undone. We'll just have to be discreet. I've gotten good at that.

I nod. "Within weeks. Okay."

After the election. I start to plan a speech in my head and wonder idly whether it might be better to be just a few years younger than I was before.


Back to campaigning, back to life. Calls and letters of sympathy from the whole community. Nobody daring to criticise me for a whole fortnight for fear of being seen as callous.

The trial. A joke. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to prosecute before the election, but didn't reckon on preparing properly. Case was laughed out of court. I didn't even bother to check on who was responsible; they broke their own career.

Everything coasting along. Forty-point lead in the polls. One week to go. I've as good as won.

The West Street Shelter again. Everybody knows what came next.

But it didn't happen that way.

The kid didn't shrink before my eyes, in front of the cameras. There was no cry of "SCAB!" raised. I didn't stand there, stunned, as the world collapsed.

Steve Logan didn't walk out.

The editors with whom I had been such good friends didn't do their level best to crucify me.

There was no note from Humans First saying that if the blood test didn't show negative, I'd better get my freakish hide out of the city.

I didn't lose the election after a desperate week spent fighting and clawing back the lead that had been stolen from me by deception.

I won. Because I am the good guy. The hero. The one with the angels on his side. I won because of my vision, and I went on to save the world from SCABS. I divided them from the humans like the goats from the sheep. They lived quiet, happy, humane and sterile lives. The plague was expunged from the Earth. My name was forever-after in the history books as Robert Atwell Barnes, the man who was right. Everyone understood me.

My father would have been proud.


"I'm sure you're familiar with the story of Danny Young, who was attacked by a feral but powerful SCAB and left with the mind of a child. We have done what we can to help him and his family, but it will never be enough to bring him back. I am myself a victim; I hardly need point out how much pain I, my wife and children have been caused.

"But we are not the only ones; there are many others. Michael Lake. Robert Jameson. Janet White. Timothy Andrews, Alison Morgan, Alice Evans, Sam Ho, and more. There will be many, many more. Because the abuse, deliberate or accidental, of SCAB powers is increasing, and will continue to increase.

"We have to act now.

"We have a chance to stop this before it begins in earnest. We have to seize it, right here and now, because there won't be another. Before long, the SCABS will begin using these powers indiscriminately, through malice, recklessness or insanity.

"It is a well-established fact that psychosis is far higher among SCABS than the general public. SCABS may say that they can control themselves, but how long will it be before Danny Young's tragic case is re-enacted? If we do not control SCABS, how will we protect our own children from creatures that can transform them with a touch?

"SCABS can be insidious. Not every SCAB's inhumanity is shown outwardly. Sometimes, the effects can be very subtle or masked by a power. And sometimes, they are hidden in plain sight - SCABS can alter its victims in many ways, often simply changing their age or sex. How will we know whether our daughter's new playmate is no more than he seems? How can we trust the people we meet? How can we be sure that they will not, in a moment of anger or madness, destroy our lives?

"We have to act now, and we will. And then, with God's grace, we can make this country safe once more."


A hospital. The day on which I was judged, twenty-four hours before the election. A white-tiled room. My last chance, diseased, mere feet away.

"I'd like to talk to him alone."

"Are you sure that's wise, Mr Barnes?"

"Please don't patronise me, Doctor."

With that, I step forward and open the door. The anonymous nurse who was keeping him company looks up and, after a glance at the doctor behind me, makes her excuses and leaves the room.

The SCAB is sitting, toying with his coffee. He looks about twenty, scruffy and resentful. When the door clicks shut behind me, he looks up.

"Robert Barnes?" He stares, incredulous.

"Pleased to make your acquaintance," I answer dryly.

"So why the hell should I help you?"

"Because, John, we need to help each other if we're going to get through this."

He's sceptical but curious. No angry retort. Good.

"John, I admit I've said and done some things that are wrong. But this last week has taught me what it is to be feared and loathed because of events beyond your control, how painful it can be to be called a monster when you are a victim.

"I want to help, John. I want to put things right.

"But if I don't win this election, I can't do that. Worse, the pro-Human movement will lose respect for me. Frustrated and without leadership, they will lash out. I won't be able to keep the situation from escalating.

"Trust me, I know how these people work. We have to defuse the tensions slowly, educate them not alienate them. You have to cure me, prove I'm not a SCAB, help me to win, for the sake of our people."

I can see it in his eyes. I have him hook, line and sinker. The best lies are mostly truth.

"Okay. But you have to keep my identity a secret."

I smile. "Sure. If you want this kept quiet, I'm more than happy to comply."

And then, almost as if he wants to get it over before he changes his mind, he takes a deep breath and takes my hand.

The pressure builds up gradually, until my head is pounding and my blood rushing in my ears. My heart beats faster and faster, louder and louder. I brace myself for the crescendo.

Suddenly, John jerks his hand out of mine and stumbles backwards. We are both panting and shaking. The pressure fades.

I try to speak, but my throat is dry. I swallow and try again.

"What happened?"

"AIDS," he says hoarsely.

"What?"

"You've got AIDS. Or you're going to."

"I don't understand."

"You're HIV positive. If you age thirty years, you'll be dead."

My legs give way and I sit down heavily.

"How - how long?"

He shakes his head. Sweat is running down his face.

"I don't know. Couple of years."

I spend a long moment staring at the paint on the wall. This can't be happening. A tear begins to trickle down my cheek.

"Mr Barnes?"

I turn my head and answer hollowly. "I'm okay. You'd better go. I'll see you still get paid." My voice catches. "Maybe I'll be in touch again."

"Yeah. Maybe. Who knows."

He walks over to me, his feet dragging. After a brief hesitation, he offers me his hand. I reach up, wrapping my fingers around the thumb. Then I let go and he walks out of the room.

I start to cry.


Post-script:

On the third of December, in a paediatric hospital in a small American city, a child died of chronic pneumonia. The last two months of his life had been spent in a coma. Neither his wife nor the dark-furred priest was present when the machines surrounding him finally acknowledged defeat, abruptly ending the battle for his soul.

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Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard.  Please send any comments or questions to him at mwbard@transform.com