“Yeah. It is kind of cool, don’t you think?”
“Hell, yes. I feel better than I’ve ever felt. Like I could take on an army.”
They had a sort of kindred connection now, these two. Neither knew what to expect next, but whatever happened, they were in this mess together. Joe had briefed Mike on the information that Anna had found on the Internet. They understood that Anna had probably only skimmed the surface of the similar incidents happening around the world. Military communications were separate from Internet news. They knew that. It was clear to both of them that something serious was going down. What they didn’t know—and what wouldn’t come to light for a few days, as more about the infection was understood—was that they were in their most lucid, most intelligent stage of the illness. They, like the others who were infected, had good intentions, despite a growing appetite.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Joe said quietly. “My brother cares about me, but I want to get back to the base.”
Mike wasn’t too sure what he wanted. He understood his precarious position, protected from the Agents at the home of his friend’s brother. What a miracle that was. How they hadn’t been tracked down, he didn’t know. He was sure it was only a matter of time. Mostly, he didn’t want to be a guinea pig for the military.
“I don’t know about that, man,” he said. “Don’t you think military prison would be worse than this? We’d be poked and prodded every way to Friday. The interrogations...Jesus. It might be better to stay low.”
Joe Carter regarded his longtime friend. “Mike. I know we’re better. But do you feel, uh, somehow different? Aside from the ‘super power’ feeling?”
Mike cocked his head to make sure no one was listening from the kitchen door upstairs. “A little. A kind of...craving.”
As he spoke those words, an image came to Mendoza—an image of what he was craving most—and his stomach growled.
Perhaps it was courage that kept them from speaking truthfully. Perhaps it was self-protection. Selfishness, maybe. It didn’t matter, though. They didn’t need to say it out loud. They now understood one another. The cravings they felt were only quenched by their hyper-comprehensive minds.
Joe Carter and Mike Mendoza, both infected 48 hours earlier, were about another 48 hours away from total insanity, but they didn’t know it. They had the craving, yes, but Joe still felt love. For his brother. For his niece. It was a different kind of love. He recognized it, even through his illness.
He leaned as close as he could to his friend. “If you touch them, I will kill you.”
“Even the girl?”
“Especially the girl, goddammit.”
Mike nodded, hearing his friend. There was a whole world of humans aside from those in this house. For now, he said, “I promise you.” His sincerity seemed genuine, and Joe accepted it.
Mike was getting to the point where he didn’t care about Joe’s threats. Mike was getting to the point where he didn’t care much about Joe either.
Fuck him, he thought.
Joe closed his eyes and focused his mind within. Weighed the situation.
Joe said, “When the time is right, we go.”
Excitement bloomed on Mike’s face. “All right.”
“I’m not sure whether we’ll go back to the base or not. You can come with me if you want, or you can go your own way. But you can’t stay here.”
“I understand, brother,” Mike Mendoza answered truthfully. They were brothers now. Perhaps they were closer than blood, closer than Joe was with Jack. They were comrades with a common but unspoken goal. But Joe’s gut told him he had to watch Mike. After all, Mike had been standing outside of Anna’s room earlier, watching.
And waiting. And hungry. Very, very hungry.
And I’m hungry, too, Joe thought. God help me, I’m hungry.
It happened quickly.
Stetson was feeling much better, and he was very smart. He knew very well that he was a prime case. He knew that he was being closely monitored. So, he calmly let them take his vital signs and carefully answered all of their questions. Yes, he had heightened senses. Yes, he now craved water and food like a normal person. He ate what they brought him, although it was not nearly enough meat for his hungry new body. He flirted with the nurse. He bonded with the new doctor, and talked about family and children and empathized with the tremendous stress that the doctor was under.
Stetson made subtle inquiries about the Agent in Black, the man he’d bitten in a fit of rage. He knew that the Agent in Black had ordered him killed, and that he, Stetson, had resisted the deadly cocktail. Stetson knew it was only a matter of time before another attempt was made on his life...one that Stetson might not ward off this time. One that might finally kill him.
The scientist in him was intrigued by the possibilities of his powerful new body. But the scientist had taken a distant back seat to the Hunger, as he now thought of it.
The overwhelming hunger...
And the need to preserve his own life.
So, when PA Cheryl Parker came in to give him his meds and take his vitals yet again, Stetson decided that now was the time to make his move.
“How are we feeling now, David?” Cheryl’s voice was a combination of cheerfulness and professionalism.
“About the same,” Stetson answered. “I’m hungry again.”
Cheryl chuckled. “That’s a good sign. Anything in particular you’d like?”
David Stetson would have liked nothing better than fresh meat. Human meat. It didn’t seem strange to him now. It was just the way he was.
Yes, just the way I am. The new me. The powerful new me.
But he lied, of course. “Anything and everything. I just want to get better, you know?”
PA Cheryl nodded and checked his chart. “Well, it looks like you can have a regular diet again. I’ll see if I can get you something special from the cafeteria.”
“Thank you, Cheryl.”
PA Cheryl Parker entered notes on the computer. Stetson was still handcuffed to his hospital bed. He knew he had the power to break them, but he thought there was an easier way.
She turned to go, but David stopped her. “Cheryl?”
“Yes?” She faced him again.
“I hate to bother you, but...”
“What? What is it?”
David Stetson glanced sheepishly down to his handcuffs. “It’s not really a big deal. But my wrist is chafed. Can you just look at it?”