Fatal Infection (Rest of the Story)

This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning


The doctor sat patiently, waiting for Sam to speak.  Sam wondered how many times the doctor had delivered the same news to other people.  Finally he asked the question that had been building for some time.

“What now?  What happens to me now?”

“You have a choice.  You know what faces you.  You know how… unpleasant… the symptoms of the virus will be.  You can avoid that.”

The doctor touched something on his side of the screen.  A new compartment opened in the wall.  Within it was a small, black canister together with a dispenser.  Sam stared at it.

“What is it?”

“An alternative.  A way to end your life with dignity.  Without pain.”

“What?  Kill myself?  That’s… that’s illegal.  You offering that is illegal!  You could…”

Sam trailed off, unable to complete the sentence.  The law was clear.  All killing was murder, no matter the reason.  A doctor easing his patient’s end was considered just as bad as a cold blooded killer destroying their victim.

“You’re right.  It is illegal… in any other circumstance.  There’s a special provision for those suffering from Darkfire.  It’s a special case.  The victims have no chance of surviving.  None.  They are already dead.  In this one case we’re allowed to offer an easier way out.”

Sam stared at the canister, both attracted to and repelled by it.  He managed to raise his gaze to the doctor again.

“You said I have a choice.  That’s one option.  What’s the other?  Staying in this room till the virus kills me?”

“No.  The other option is taking the walk.  A sealed transport will collect you from this room and take you out from the city.”

“Out of the city… but… but… I’ve never been out of the city.  No one leaves the city.”

“That’s true, mostly.  A few brave souls do venture forth from time to time, but it is rare.  The untouched lands are mostly maintained by machines controlled remotely from the city.  That is why leaving the city is an option for you.  If you go then there will be no one for you to infect.  No one you can put in danger.  The virus will still take you, of course.  Nothing can prevent that.”

Leave the city.  Leave the city.  Sam struggled to take that in.  In some ways it was an even harder concept than accepting he had the Darkfire virus.  The city was huge.  Two hundred miles across with buildings soaring hundreds of metres into the air.  It housed close on a billion souls and was large enough that no one ever had reason to leave.

If anyone wanted to experience nature then there were large parks stuffed with wildlife.  What other reason was there to leave?  The city was the only place on the planet where people lived.  That’s why it had no name.  Sam had never even daydreamed of leaving.

“Those are my choices?  Use the canister and die in this room right now, or leave the city and have… what… a few more days of life?”

“A few days at most.  Probably no more than two.  Three at a stretch.  There is one more option.”

Sam felt a fluttering inside.  Whatever the third option was, it couldn’t be as bad as the other two.  Could it?

“What is it?  What’s the third option?”

“Stay in this room but don’t use the canister.  Spend your last days and hours right where you are.”

Here?  Stay here?”

“Yes.  Obviously you won’t be able to make contact with anyone.  What you see is what there is, other than a bed that will fold out of the wall.”

“And people take that choice?”

“Some do.  None ever see it through.  The canister is always there, always waiting for when the symptoms become unbearable.  Some last a day, even a day and a half.  Others reach for the canister in just a few hours, not able to wait for the serious symptoms to start.”

Sam stared around the room and shook his head.  This couldn’t be it.  His life couldn’t end in this room.  He couldn’t die without feeling the warmth of the sun on his back one more time, smelling air that hadn’t been scrubbed and purified into something artificial.

“If I take the walk do I still get to take the canister?”

“No,” replied the doctor.  “I’m sorry.  The contents are too dangerous.  Someone in your condition is under immense strain.  If you returned to the city then the contents of the canister could cause great harm.”

“Greater than returning with the virus?  Greater than walking amongst others, spreading this disease?”

“Perhaps not, but the law is clear.  If I was to let you leave with it then my life would be forfeit.  Not that it’s possible.  If you choose the walk then two other doctors will help oversee your transfer.  The canister will stay here.”

“How many choose the walk?”

The doctor sighed.  “Very few.  Fear of the virus overwhelms most.”

“But you would, wouldn’t you?”

Now the doctor smiled, though it was tainted with sadness.  “I like to think I would, but I’ve never sat where you sit now.  Maybe I’d have the courage.  Maybe I’d take the quick way out.”

Sam sank into thought again.  The doctor watched, his eyes sad.  For a moment fire burned through Sam’s veins.  He stood up, smashing his hand against the plastic.  It made no impression so he did it again.  And again, and again and again.

He wasn’t sure how long the rage lasted.  When it passed he found himself nursing his hand which was sore from pounding the plastic.  The window itself showed no signs of his anger.

“I’m sorry,” Sam said, sinking back onto the chair.  “I don’t know what came over me.”

“The virus,” replied the doctor.  “Overwhelming anger is not an unusual symptom.  It is normally over quickly, as it was for you.  It’s another sign the virus is spreading throughout your system.”

The virus was in his system.  In his brain.  Sam shivered at the thought.  The shiver subsided everywhere except his left arm which continued to twitch.  Sam grabbed it with his right, hopelessness spreading through him.

“Is there nothing you can do?” he asked.

“No.  Over the years we’ve tried everything against the virus.  Nothing works, and many of the treatments were subsumed by the virus, turned against the host or turned into new vectors for it to spread.”

Sam fell quiet again, thinking about the options.  Staying in the room to suffer was definitely out.  He had no doubt he’d reach for the canister before long.  He lifted his hand, reaching out for it now.  His hand trembled but not because of the virus this time.  He stopped a hand’s width short of the canister, held his hand there for some time… then let it fall away.  He wasn’t ready to do that.  Not yet.

That left taking the walk.  Was he really willing to do that?  The virus was affecting him already, but this was just the beginning.  There would be pain of course, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  The virus would start to wrench away control of his body.  The shivering in his arm was just a mild foretaste of what would come.

Even that wasn’t the worst, though.  Could he face feeling the virus eat away at his insides?  Could he face feeling it destroy his body from the inside out?  Could he really commit himself to that horror just to feel the sun one more time?

He’d been ill before, of course.  He’d had his share of viruses.  Some he’d thrown off himself, others had required intervention at the doctors or, twice, at the hospital.  He’d never faced anything like this before.  He’d never been so ill that death was even a fear, let alone the suffering the Darkfire virus would bring.

He reached out once more.  This time his fingers touched the canister.  It felt how it looked… dark and cold.  For a moment he swore he felt something stir under his fingers, something that burned.  He snatched his hand back.  No.  He couldn’t do it.  If the choice was the dark, cold death in the canister or dying in the warmth of the sun then he’d take heat.

“I’ll take the walk.”

He was surprised at the strength in his voice.  The doctor looked shocked for a moment, then smiled warmly.

“Are you sure?  I have to ask.  Once you leave this room there can be no return to the city.  If you stray near then you will be trapped by the remote drones and dragged away again.  This journey is a one way trip.”

“I’m sure.  When can I leave?”

“Now.  The transport has been waiting outside since we confirmed your diagnosis.  Walk to the door and it will open.  Remember, once you step through there will be no return.”

“I thought you said two other doctors had to monitor my leaving?”

“They already are.  They’ve been watching our conversation from the start.  We’ve found patients find this much easier if they only have one doctor to deal with.”

“That’s it?  I can go now?”

“It is.  Go or stay.  Until you leave the room you have that choice.  You can even choose to stay now then go later.”

“No.  I’m certain.  It’s not like I have long left, is it?”

“That’s true.  Good luck Sam.  For what it’s worth, I think you’re making the best choice.”

“I hope so.  I really do.”

Sam stood up, turned and marched towards the door.  As promised it opened as he approached.  He marched right up to it but stopped before stepping through.  The transport beyond had two bare metal seats and two harsh strip lights, nothing else.  The floor, walls and ceiling were seamless metal other than the lights and the door.

Sam turned and stared at the doctor.

“I’m supposed to remind you that you don’t have to go, that you can stay if you want,” the doctor said.  “I think you know that, though.  Remember what you felt a moment ago.  Remember the choice you took.”

Sam nodded, then smiled.  He raised his arm in farewell then turned and stepped sharply through the doorway.  He didn’t turn as the door hissed shut behind him.  Instead he sat in one of the chairs, staring blankly at the wall.  Moments later he felt the transport pull away.  He was on his way.

He remembered the final look on the doctor’s face, the approval of Sam’s choice.  Then he frowned as he realised he didn’t even know the doctor’s name.  He wished he’d asked.  After all, the doctor was the last person he was ever going to see.

The Journey

Sam was tugged to the side as the transport rounded another corner.  He stared at the blank metal wall, wondering whether he knew the unseen streets he travelled.  Could he be passing people he knew, friends even?  It was unlikely, given the size of the city, but not impossible.

Another lurch, soon followed by another in the opposite direction.  Sam frowned.  The transport seemed to be taking a roundabout route.  Why didn’t it just get onto one of the main streets and head straight towards the city’s edge?

He pondered that question through a few dozen more turns before the answer came to him.  How must the transport look from the outside?  It wouldn’t look like any passenger transport he’d ever seen on the streets.

It might look something like a goods transport, but they only travelled in the dead of the night.  Sam had seen them on many occasions but never during the day, and it was approaching midday now.  The route must be designed to keep the transport from being seen.  If anyone saw it they might wonder what was inside, and if people knew someone with the Darkfire virus was being carried through the streets panic would follow.

With that mystery solved he had nothing else to distract him from his fate, yet he felt strangely liberated.  Whatever the virus had in store for him over the next few days, he was doing something almost no one else had ever done.  The untouched area beyond the city had never interested him much.  Now he wracked his memory, trying to remember everything that might be relevant.  Little came to mind, though.  All he could picture were the parks he’d visited, with ordered greenery stretching away in every direction.  Would the untamed lands be different?

Things had been different long ago, of course, back when the Forerunners had dominated the planet.  Dominated was the right word.  They had spread to cover almost every part of the planet, driving thousands of species to extinction and leaving tens of thousands more surviving in tiny managed patches of wilderness.

They spread everywhere, across the lands and even under the seas.  They took without thought for the future.  They ravaged the world and in doing so they almost destroyed it.  The world was driven out of balance.

With the natural world almost wiped out and the land covered in taller and taller cities the weather patterns for the entire planet were disrupted.  Massive storms built up then unleashed their fury on the Forerunners.  Tidal waves swept away millions, while hurricanes ripped up those buildings further from the sea.  The Forerunners themselves were driven almost to extinction.

Their technologies were unable to save them.  None of them had foreseen the dangers.  They had tamed nature for so long they had grown complacent.  When disaster struck they had no way to save themselves.  The technology they depended on collapsed and with it went their entire civilisation.

Those who survived the initial devastation had no idea how to fend for themselves.  Billions died from thirst, from exposure, from hunger.  The Forerunners were all but wiped out.  Life on the planet was all but wiped out.  Only the intervention of Sam’s kind, the People, averted total disaster.

The People had been living amongst the Forerunners for some time.  While worried and sickened by the Forerunners’ abuse of the planet, they hadn’t had the numbers to influence anything.  After decades, centuries, of failing to change anything they had started to group together, living in the more isolated parts of the immense city that now spanned the entire globe.

Some of the People were lost to the disaster, but many more survived.  Partly because the People were naturally far tougher, and partly because the People had heeded the warning signs and prepared.

Once the disaster had passed the People had the resources to build again.  They had the technology to reach a level which almost equalled that of the Forerunners, and nearly unlimited resources in the form of the Forerunners’ ruins.

They had the technology but they chose a very different path.  Even as some of the People built their outpost, others were scouring the lands for what little remained of nature.  They recovered what they could, transplanting it nearer to the outpost where they could nurture it, care for it.

Their plan was both simple and breathtakingly ambitious.  They wanted to return the world to its natural state, save for a single city where they could live.  An ambitious plan, but one in which they succeeded.

During their travels they came across the surviving Forerunners.  The People were divided over what should be done.  Many believed the remaining Forerunners should be left to die.  They felt they should be allowed to disappear from the planet as punishment for all they had done.  Others argued that doing so would make the People no better than the Forerunners.

The arguments rolled on for days, and with each passing day more of the Forerunners died.  As time passed the People’s stance shifted.  The fewer Forerunners remaining alive the more inclined the People were to intervene and save them.

Finally that view won out, but it was too late for all but a handful of the Forerunners.  According to the records less than five hundred were saved, barely enough for a stable breeding group.  Still, they had been saved from extinction.

There were conditions, though.  The People had no desire for the Forerunners to devastate the planet once more, to spread without control across the globe.

So while the Forerunners regained their strength an area was prepared for them, one that was cleared of buildings and technology and started on the path of returning to nature.  The Forerunners were settled in the area with strict warnings the level of technology they would be allowed, barely anything beyond bows and arrows, and instructions not to increase their population beyond two thousand.

Remotely controlled drones enforced the limits.  If the population became too large then adults in their prime were hunted down by drones and shot with birth control chemicals.  If the technology level grew beyond where it should then the drones would destroy the technology, and often whichever of the Forerunners was responsible.  A harsh response, but one the people deemed reasonable considering how dangerous the Forerunners would otherwise be.

Sam shook off the dark thoughts.  The Forerunners lived in a tiny area of the planet, one watched over by drones.  The chances of him running into them were tiny.  No, there was no chance at all.  The Forerunner enclosure couldn’t be anywhere near the City.  That would be too dangerous.

Could there still be danger, though?  Sam knew his skin was tough and he had far greater strength than the Forerunners, but would it be enough to fight off an attack from a bear or a lion? 

He chuckled at the thought.  Maybe dying at the hands of such a wild beast would be better than letting the virus take its course.

The chuckle was cut off as he blurted several nonsense sentences using normal-speak.  Some of the individual words made sense but most didn’t, and taken together the sentences meant nothing at all.

Brief as the outburst was it pierced Sam’s chest with ice.  The physical symptoms of the virus were bad enough but ones like that, ones which affected Sam’s mind, were terrifying.  His thoughts turned inwards.  For the rest of the journey he was lost in dark contemplation of the virus and what it was doing to him.

The Untouched Lands

Sam was shaken out of his dark thoughts as the transport came to a stop.  He waited, wondering whether the transport would start up again as it had many times before.  Even lost in his thoughts he’d been vaguely aware of the transport moving over rougher and rougher roads.

This time the Transport remained stationary.  As the seconds ticked away Sam decided he must have arrived at his destination.  He stood and moved towards the door, waiting for it to open.  Nothing happened.  He tried searching for a hidden activation switch near the door, without success.

As seconds grew into minutes he started to panic.  Was this it?  Had the doctor been lying, or unaware of the truth?  It made a twisted kind of sense.  Get those who were diseased, those who carried the Darkfire virus, well away from the city then leave them to die where they wouldn’t pose a risk.  No body to dispose of.  No risk of further infection.

Sam started to wonder whether the alternative, using the canister at the hospital, would actually have had the fatal effects promised by the doctor.  Maybe it would just have rendered Sam more compliant, made him happily step into the transport.  Maybe this was his fate from the moment he entered the hospital.  Maybe it was the fate for anyone catching the virus.

Anger swamped Sam once more.  Rage fed energy into his muscles.  With a yell he started to pound on the door with all his strength.  Once.  Twice.  Three times.  Four.  The door didn’t budge.

The anger drained as quickly as it had arrived, making Sam sure it had at least partly been fuelled by the virus.  He cursed.  The outburst had achieved nothing other than leaving him with a sore fist.  It hadn’t even made him feel better.

“Please refrain from striking the transport.”

Sam jumped at the voice, quiet though it was.  Like the doctor it was speaking in formal-speak, a reminder that Sam would never hear the much faster normal-speak from anyone else again.  He’d never expected to hear formal-speak again, yet here it was.  He listened as the voice continued.

“Scans of the local area are being carried out to confirm the vicinity is clear of anyone or anything that could catch the virus.  The scan should complete within the next five minutes.  We thank you for your patience.”

Sam felt his spirits lift again.  He’d be free of the transport in just a few minutes.  He paced impatiently, waiting to be let out.  In the end it was little more than two minutes before the voice came again.

“Scanning complete.  The door will now open.  This transport will be purged by fire two minutes after the door has opened.  Please ensure you move to a safe distance.”

The door slid open.  Sam was through it immediately, jumping the short distance to the ground rather than stepping.  He hit the ground, looked around and froze where he was.

Sam stared, trying to take in everything he was seeing.  The transport had stopped in a clearing.  The floor of the clearing was dusty ground with pockets of grass struggling to find a foothold.

Beyond the clearing was a completely different story, though.  Surrounding it on almost every side were huge trees.  They weren’t necessarily taller than those he’d seen in the parks, but they were far wilder.

In the parks every tree grew straight and tall, symmetrical and regular.  Each was in its own space with no other tree competing for resources.  Sam had always believed that was how nature looked.  That understanding was being shattered by his first glimpse of untamed growth.

The trees grew everywhere they could.  Some grew at an angle, stretching out to gain more sunlight.  Others were trying to force their way into small gaps left by their older neighbours, with branches twisting and turning to take advantage of any space.

“One minute to cleansing.  Please move away from the transport.”

Sam jumped at the reminder, then jogged towards the treeline.  He was amazed by the trees, awed and a little bit scared by them, but the threat of being purged by fire overrode everything else.

He counted as he ran.  When he reached fifty-five he stopped and turned, looking back at the transport.  From the outside it was still like nothing he’d seen before.  It was a block on wheels.  No windows, no differentiation between front and back.  Just a block.

Moments later it was a block consumed by fire.  Sam took a step back as the heat hit him even where he was, nearly at the treeline.  The transport was already wilting, the metal sides and roof melting and running.  Then they too caught fire, blazing with an intensity that was nearly blinding.

Sam shivered despite the heat that was rolling over him.  If he’d still been aboard the transport then the end would have been fast, but incredibly painful.

The inferno burnt out almost as quickly as it had started.  Within a few minutes all that remained was a glowing puddle of metal surrounded by scorched ground.  Sam stared at it for several minutes.  Despite its current state it was still a made thing, or the remains of a made thing.  Glancing at the nearby trees he suspected the remains would be the last made thing he would ever see.

Finally he dragged himself away.  Glancing around it seemed every direction would be much the same, with one exception.  A small trail led out of the clearing.  That was the one way he didn’t want to go, or couldn’t choose to go at least.  That was the trail the transport had followed.  That was the way back to the City.  That was the direction he had to avoid.

Initially he was tempted to take exactly the opposite direction, to put the trail at his back and to get as far from the City as possible.  He soon dismissed the idea.  It was too obvious.  Too predictable.  There was too much chance that one of the others who’d taken the walk would have done the same.  Instead he picked a direction twenty or so degrees to the right.  It would still take him away from the city, but on his own terms.  He, and only he, would choose the direction he took.

That’s what he’d imagined anyway.  Despite having seen how the trees grew, he hadn’t appreciated what wilderness really meant.  He soon learnt that moving in a straight line would be impossible.  Where there weren’t trees blocking his direct path, there were often bushes.  Where plants didn’t thwart him, the landscape often did.  Deep trenches carved by streams being one of the main obstacles.

To begin with the obstacles frustrated him.  Over time he grew to accept them, even to welcome them.  They ensured his path was unique.  Unrepeatable.  After a few hours he was walking with a smile, grinning even more each time he was forced to divert or even retrace his steps.

As he walked he studied his surroundings.  The trees and plants were the easiest to notice and took all his attention to begin with.  Soon he was noticing the birds, though.  Hearing their cries and songs and then spotting them as they fluttered between trees, or seeing them through gaps in the canopy as they circled high above.

It took him longer to spot the animals, but eventually he started to see those too.  Squirrels were the first, creatures he recognised from the parks but which behaved far differently in their natural setting.  Over time he noticed other animals, some he knew, others he didn’t.

Some time later he stepped from the trees onto a bare hilltop which ended in the sharp drop of a cliff.  Moving close to the edge he looked out over an area with few trees and many animals, some larger than Sam himself.  Some moved in groups, clumped together, while others were more widely spread.

He stood for long minutes taking in the view, studying the animals he could see and how they behaved.  Part of him longed to get nearer, to see them up close.  Part of him shied away from the thought of being near such massive animals.

Once again the virus interrupted his thoughts.  This time it struck his left leg, making it shake uncontrollably.  Sam sank to the ground, gritting his teeth against the loss of control.

As he sat there his thoughts took a darker turn.  The cliff dropped two hundred metres at least, a sheer drop that would surely be fatal if he was to stumble off… or if he stepped off deliberately.

He wasn’t ready to take that step yet, but it was an option to consider as the virus continued to destroy his body.  It gave him a choice for how he would die, and strangely that gave him hope.

First Night

Fear of the animals he’d seen kept Sam under the trees for another hour, but under the trees the sunlight was watery if it made it through at all.  The desire to feel it on his back was still strong.  If anything it was stronger than ever.  Without consciously deciding anything he started curving to the right, moving back towards open land.

When he reached the treeline he paused again, scared to step out but aching to feel the full strength of the sun.  He stood there for several minutes, the conflict leaving him immobilised, before finally letting out a snort of laughter.  What did it matter?  He’d be dead in a few days anyway.  If ever there was a time to take a risk, this was it.

He stepped out into the sunlight, ignoring the knot inside.  Nothing happened.  No wild animals came charging.  Nothing changed at all, other than his feeling the glorious warmth of the sun on his back.

From then on he walked in the sunshine, though he didn’t stray far from the safety of the trees.  As the afternoon moved towards evening he came close enough to a group of larger animals that they took notice of him.  They were all the same type.  Twenty or so creatures with long legs, powerful bodies, graceful necks and long heads.

They stared at him for several seconds, judging him.  The closest stamped its foot on the ground.  Sam let out a startled cry.  The animals reacted instantly.  Sam yelled again, bracing for their attack, but it didn’t come.  The animals were charging away from him, moving far faster than he could run.

Sam stared after them for some time then started laughing at the absurdity of the situation.  The animals kept going for a long time.  Sam chuckled as he walked, the idea that he was so terrifying was absurd.

He encountered another group of animals some time later.  This time the animals were bulkier than the first group, without the graceful necks.  Some of them sported horns.  Made bold by his first encounter Sam kept on walking.  Like the first animals this group pulled together closely as he approached.  Several of the largest, those with horns, stood out front.

Sam had planned to shout at this group too, to see them fleeing from his terrifying presence.  As he prepared to yell he found himself looking into the eyes of the first creature.  Something wasn’t right about the situation.

The creature started to paw at the ground, grunting and snorting as it did so.  Suddenly Sam didn’t feel so brave.  He stopped briefly, considering the situation, then decided to back away.

The lead creature continued to paw at the ground.  If anything its snorting grew louder.  Sam backed away a little further, then his nerve broke.  He turned and sprinted for the trees.  Some of them were close enough together that the creature behind him couldn’t possibly get through.

He didn’t dare look back.  If he tripped the creature would probably run straight over him.  What good would knowing it was right behind him do anyway?  He was already running as fast as he could.

He desperately hoped the virus wouldn’t be triggered by his exertion.  If it did he’d be in trouble.  If it struck his legs again he’d be dead.  That was almost funny — the virus being the cause of his death well before it managed to kill him directly.

Sam ran on, the back of his neck prickling and ears straining for any sound that indicated he was about to be crushed.  To his surprise he made it to the treeline.  That wasn’t enough.  The trees were too widely spaced.  He spotted a knot of trees a dozen strides ahead with a gap large enough for him but far too small for the beast behind.

Somehow he put on an extra burst of speed.  Something cracked behind him.  The creature!  Sam took the final two steps, then dived through the gap, grazing his left arm on the way through.  He rolled over, staring through the gap, searching for the beast.

He couldn’t see it.  Was it going round?  Was it intelligent enough to be seeking a different way to reach Sam?  With a groan he pushed himself upright.  He got halfway upright before both arms started to twitch uncontrollably.

No!  This was not the time for the virus to attack again!  Somehow he managed to get onto his feet despite the twitching.  From there he was able to stand.

He checked his surroundings cautiously, trying to find any sign of the creature that had chased him.  He saw nothing.  Where was the creature?  Had it stopped when the trees blocked its path?  Was it less intelligent than he’d feared?

No.  He couldn’t see it there either.  He moved further forward, up to the trees he’d dived through.  Now he saw the creature.  He shook his head, relief mixing with embarrassment.  The creature hadn’t moved.  It still stood in front of the others but it was no longer pawing at the ground.  Sam was pretty sure it wasn’t snorting anymore either, though he could have sworn there was an amused glint in the animal’s eyes.

That was fine by Sam.  He turned away, continuing his journey within the safety of the trees for the moment.  He jumped at any unexpected sound, though, and he kept looking back over his shoulder well after the creatures had disappeared from his sight.

* * *

Sam sat atop a small hill, looking out over the area as the sun reached the horizon.  The lands were turned golden by the setting sun’s light.  As the minutes slipped by the light turned red then slowly faded completely.

Sam remained where he was as twilight close in around him and darkness started to fall.  The temperature dropped quickly once the sun had set.  Sam noticed but it wasn’t a major concern.  Unlike the Forerunners, exposure held no dangers for him.  He raised his internal energy levels to counteract the cold.

Still, he had a decision to make.  With the land dark and cold should he sleep till the morning?  It seemed such a wasteful idea when he had so little time left.  Moving at night would be slower than during the day, and probably more dangerous, but it was possible.  The night was clear and the stars cast enough light for him to see, outside of the forest at least.  He made his mind up.  He would keep moving.  He could manage several days without sleep.  After that… well, after that he wouldn’t need sleep anyway.

* * *

Sam had been walking for an hour when the moon rose.  It was nearly a full moon and its cool light transformed the landscape.  Sam could see almost as well as during the day, though shadowy areas were far darker and harder to see into.  The light still raised his spirits, though.

The light made many of the birds and small animals restless.  Sam heard twitters and rustling in the trees and bushes as he walked.  At first he jumped at every outburst but he soon grew used to them, almost welcomed them.

Later, as he climbed a low hill, he heard a noise that brought him to a halt.  The loud crunching sound set him on edge, but unless he wanted to backtrack for twenty minutes or more any direction he took would mean being in sight of whatever was making the noise.  He decided to investigate the source.  Carefully.

The closer he came to the top of the hill the louder the noise.  There were no other noises now.  There was no wind.  The world seemed to be holding its breath.

Sam neared the top of the hill.  He decided to duck low, which soon turned into a crawl.  As the sound got louder and louder he considered worming along on his belly.  Just before he did that he moved far enough over the hill to see the source of the noise.

At first he just stared in disbelief.  Then he started to laugh.  He couldn’t help it, despite the danger it might bring.  From the sound he’d been imagining a huge creature crunching up lesser creatures or entire trees.

What he found instead was a group of the creatures he’d run from earlier.  This group was spread out, though, and they were all busily munching on the grass and other plants surrounding them.  Something about the still air had magnified the sound, had made it sound threatening when all they were doing was munching away.

As Sam’s laugh rang out the creatures heads all shot up.  The crunching sound stopped immediately which only made Sam laugh louder, despite the risk that he’d be chased again.  He just couldn’t help it.

Two of the largest animals, the ones with horns, started moving towards Sam.  He knew he was in trouble but he just couldn’t stop laughing.  Maybe it was the virus hitting him again, or maybe it was simply relief at not finding a bone crunching giant.  Whatever it was he couldn’t stop laughing, even as he sensed the danger he was in.

The lead animals were sizing him up but the rest were far less brave.  The same effect that had made their eating sound so fierce took hold on Sam’s laugh.  The animals were spread out and confronted by a blasting noise in the dark that they had no experience of.

It was too much for one animal which turned and bolted.  Seeing it go, several others followed.  That was enough to get the whole herd moving.  The two who had stepped forward to protect the rest hesitated for a moment, then they too were gone.  The sound of Sam’s laughter chased after them.

Overcome

The rest of the night was far less eventful.  Sam came across several groups of animals much smaller than those he’d already faced down.  Each group was easily startled when he started shouting and laughing, melting into the night so they could search for more familiar fare.

The next day followed the same pattern, though the impact of the virus was becoming more pronounced.  Sam found himself blurting nonsense in normal-speak more and more frequently.

He suspected it wasn’t nonsense, though.  The virus found many ways to spread.  Forcing him to converse with friends or strangers would be a good way to draw them closer, to let the virus spread to them.  Out here it didn’t matter.  There was nowhere it could spread to.  That knowledge was both comforting and saddening.  He would almost have given up the rest of his time for one brief conversation, even if it was in the slow moving formal-speak.

* * *

As he walked through the next night the symptoms became worse.  At times rage washed over him, at times despair did the same.  Sometimes he found himself laughing hysterically for no good reason.  Other times he cried, though he had plenty of reason to do that even without the virus’s influence.

The terrain had become rougher, hillier, as the day wore on.  He’d left the forest well behind, though he still passed clumps of woodland from time to time.

By sunrise he was climbing up and down major hills.  He picked the shallowest, safest routes he could as the tremors wracking his body became more and more frequent.

As his symptoms became worse the landscape around him became more and more stunning.  The stronger light of day revealed a mountain range to his left, its top capped with a heavy covering of white snow that glowed in the dawn light.

Despite the increasing symptoms, despite the pain that never really seemed to leave now, Sam had no regrets over his choices.  If he’d taken the easy way out then he’d never have seen any of these sights.

It saddened him to realise that almost none of his people ever would.  Was he only appreciating them because his time was so limited?  Or would far more people feel like he did if only they could be persuaded to come out here?

It wouldn’t work, he realised.  His experience had been as much about the journey as the things he now saw.  Would any of his people consent to walking the way he had?  Or would they demand to be flown out here in comfort?  Would they step out of a transport for long enough to dismissively admire the view then fly back to their comfortable lives once more?

For the first time in his life he questioned how he and the others led their lives.  He questioned why they were so content to stay doing the same things as had been done for thousands of years.

There were an immense number of diversions within the City, he wouldn’t argue with that, but how many things were there that no one had ever done before?  None.  Absolutely none.  Sam was the one who was dying.  Sam was the one with a day or two left at most.  Yet it was those who still lived he pitied.  In the little time he had left he would pack in more completely new experiences than they would ever manage.

Shaking his head at their loss, he gazed at the mountain once more.  There was nothing he could do to change his people’s course.  All he could do now was enjoy the time he had.

* * *

Sam smiled as he hiked up the hill.  The pain had eased for a while and he had fewer tremors than before.  He didn’t think for a minute anything significant had changed, but he was going to enjoy the respite for as long as it lasted.

He hadn’t been paying enough attention.  He tripped, falling forwards.  He put his hands out to catch himself…

No.  He didn’t put his hands out.  He wasn’t falling, though it felt as though he was.  He was running, charging up the hill.  No.  He wasn’t.  His body was.  He had no control over it at all, but something clearly did.

Somehow the virus had taken over his entire body.  Sam was trapped, a prisoner in his head with no control at all.  He tried everything he could to regain control but nothing worked.  Whatever he tried failed miserably.  His body continued to pound up the hill and he continued to feel as if he was constantly falling.  The link between his movements and his brain was broken.

Then he really was falling.  This time his hands came up, but not in time to save him from ploughing face first into the grass.  It hurt but he’d broken his fall enough to save himself from serious damage.

He rolled onto his back, staring at the sky and trying to calm himself.  This was so much worse than any other symptom.  Could anything be worse than losing complete control of his body?

He started to feel fear again.  Was this how the virus normally developed or was it something new?  Would the virus destroy him, tear his whole body apart from the inside out?  Or would this trend continue?  Would his body persist, but under the control of the virus rather than him?  And if the virus was capable of such advanced coordination did that mean it was gaining life of its own?  Gaining sentience?

That was scary.  Terrifying.  Worse was the thought he himself might persist, might remain as a passenger for days, weeks, months or even years.  Watching what his body did with no way to interfere.

He lay there for some time but the fear didn’t retreat.  If anything it grew stronger, and it was joined by growing horror at the thought of what he could become.  He pushed himself upright and started up the hill once more.  Like the others he’d climbed recently it was steep.

He hoped it would share another trait many of them had.  He hoped it had a steep cliff face on at least one side.  If it didn’t then he’d keep climbing hills till he found one that did.  Then he was going to jump off.

The Forerunners

Sam reached the top of the hill and moved across it, searching for what he needed.  He was in luck.  One side of the hilltop ended abruptly in a cliff that fell away for a hundred metres at least, with sharp stone outcroppings at the bottom.  Exactly what he’d hoped for.  Tough though his body was, he’d never survive that drop.

He stopped for a minute, surveying the world around him.  It was harsher than the forests and low rolling hills had been, but that harshness made it even more stunning.  Sam smiled sadly.  It wasn’t a bad place to die.  In fact he couldn’t think of a better place.

With a deep sigh he moved towards the edge, stopping just four short steps away.  Plucking up his courage he took the first step, quickly followed by the second.  He took… everything went blank.

* * *

Sam took the third step towards the cliff… and almost fell forward in shock.  Where there had been a cliff in front of him now there was a fire blackened section of ground, ten paces across and stretching to the left and right.

What had happened?  Where was he?  How had he got here?  He turned around, trying to see where he was.  He was in a valley between large hills but he couldn’t tell if any were the hill he’d been on.  He could just see the top of a mountain but it didn’t look familiar.

Cold seeped into his body as he realised what had happened.  He’d been about to end it all.  He’d been about to destroy himself, his body and the virus.  The virus seemed to have objected.  Objected and taken control of him again, both his body and his mind this time.

The thought was chilling.  For the first time Sam regretted choosing to take the Walk.  He’d given the virus time to adapt, to learn his body, and time for it to take over.

He didn’t know why he had control now.  Maybe the virus hadn’t the strength to hold control over him yet.  Maybe it didn’t feel the need.  Maybe, and this was the scariest thought, maybe it was enjoying his confusion and fear.

He looked at the ground in front of him.  Whatever had blackened the ground had done it in a very even way.  A technological way.  Hope flared in his chest, even as he tried to fight it down.  He didn’t want to tip off the virus.

Somehow he kept control.  Maybe the virus didn’t have the strength to interfere at that moment.  Maybe it hadn’t picked up on his hope.  Or maybe it knew full well that his idea wouldn’t work.  It didn’t matter.  The important thing was he had the chance to choose and he would take it.

Willing his legs into action he sprinted forward, charging into the blackened zone and throwing himself down in the middle.  Hoping desperately that something would be triggered, something would unleash as much power as destruction of the transport had.  The scorch marks on the ground were the same, except here they spread off left and right.

He lay there feeling stupid as nothing happened.  Just as he gave up and started to sit up something did happen, he heard a rumbling noise.  He tensed for a moment, expecting excruciating pain, but it didn’t come.  Instead a pillar emerged from just beyond the blackened zone.  To Sam’s amazement it started to blast him with normal-speak.

Sam sat stunned for a moment.  He’d never expected to hear normal-speak again.  It took him several moments to even begin to process what he was hearing.  Several moments too long.  Without any intention on his part he started to reply in the nonsense normal-speak he’d been spouting at random intervals over the past day or so.

The virus was striking again, now attempting to spread to the machinery that greeted him.  It was certainly possible — that was part of the reason the transport had been so well sealed.  The People couldn’t risk the virus spreading into a piece of machinery, and from there to other machinery and back to the People.

Sam’s heart sank as he realised he was doing exactly what the virus wanted — spreading it.  As the message sank in, though, he started to smile.  The virus might be taking control over him, it might be showing worrying signs of intelligence and possibly sentience, but it wasn’t there yet.  It had reacted to the message by trying to infect the host.  Sam relaxed as the message repeated, listening in properly now.

Warning!  This area is a dedicated no-go zone.  It forms part of the Forerunner Preservation Area, the FPA.  No one should enter the FPA without good reason.  Please turn around.

“If you have the Darkfire Virus, and if you are out here there’s a good chance you do, then please do not worry.  This device is a basic messenger only.  It has no ability to receive anything you say and such basic systems that the virus cannot take hold.  Message repeats…

That was a relief.  He hadn’t spread the virus to anything or anyone else.  For the moment at least.  His mood darkened as he realised he also hadn’t succeeded in ending his life.  Whatever mechanism had blackened the ground was clearly not set to unleash its power on one of the People, not even one who had the Darkfire virus.

Sam stood up, dusting himself down, then turned and walked back out of the zone.  Things were bad enough.  He didn’t want to add meeting the Forerunners to a situation that was already way out of his control.

If he was honest he felt a little fearful of the Forerunners.  Their destructive ways were well documented, but so was the fact that the People had come from them.  Without the Forerunners there would have been no People.  Without the destruction of the Forerunners’ world there would have been no planet, or no life left on it at least.

Sam made it several minutes up the hill.  Then everything went blank again.

* * *

Sam jerked as consciousness returned.  He was standing on the wide top of a flat hill.  The sun was much higher in the sky than it had been before.  How long had he been gone this time?  Several hours at least.

He turned around, surveying his surroundings, then froze, terrified.  Standing not twenty paces from him were a dozen creatures.  In some ways they looked like the People.  They stood on two legs, they had two arms, their faces had a similar shape.

Yet they could never be mistaken for the people.  Their skin was wrong, softer and more vulnerable.  Their faces were softer too, many of them were crinkled.  They were dressed in an assortment of clothing stitched from the furs of animals and they wielded a mixture of spears and bows.  None of the weapons were pointed at Sam, but he felt the threat of them anyway.

He knew what he was looking at, thought it took time to properly register.  These were Forerunners.  These were his people’s spiritual ancestors.  There was another word for them.  A word almost never used.  A word only whispered when it was mentioned, and only spoken in formal-speak.  Humans.

Sam turned and bolted without conscious thought.  He wanted… no, he needed to get away from them.  He couldn’t be around the Forerunners.  They were barbaric and dangerous.  Unpredictable and aggressive.  As he ran he kept expecting to feel an arrow slam into his back.

He made it thirty paces before something slammed into him, but it wasn’t an arrow.  The virus rose once more and blankness washed over him, driving everything before it.

Survival

Sam woke with a start.  He lay in near darkness.  Splinters of agony hammered through his head every few seconds, sending burning lines across his vision.  His body felt heavy, making movement seem, if not impossible, simply unimaginable.  The virus.  The virus had taken hold fully.

Sam wondered how much longer he’d have patches of consciousness for.  Would he always be there, a passenger in his own body once the virus took full control, or were these his last moments as him?  The first prospect worried him far more than the second.

“Good.  You’re awake.”

Sam jumped inside, though the heaviness of his limbs prevented it showing.  Someone was with him.  Someone was with him and speaking in formal-speak.  Someone was with him.  He had to warn them.  They were in great danger.  He opened his mouth to speak, ready to shout a warning in formal-speak because he couldn’t risk normal-speak.

He was too late.  He blurted a nonsense string in normal-speak.  Then another.  He tried to clamp down, to prevent it being sent out, but the virus was far too strong for him now.  Several more bursts fired off.

“Oh deary me,” the voice said.  “That won’t do.  Let me just… there you go…”

Sam was halfway through another outburst as something changed inside.  The outburst stopped and the pain in his head receded, a little at least.  He found himself able to talk.

“You have to get away from me!  You must!  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.  It’s probably already too late, but you have to get away from me.  I’ve got the Darkfire virus.  You’ll catch it too.  You must get away.”

Sam was aware he was repeating things, that he was babbling, but he couldn’t help it.  He had to get all the information out before the virus locked him down again.  It was probably too late for whoever had spoken but at least they’d know.  They could isolate themselves before it spread any further.  They could isolate Sam too.

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.  I’m quite safe from the virus, I assure you.”

The speaker moved into Sam’s view.  Sam stared, shocked into silence.  The speaker was a Forerunner.  A Human.  And yet he spoke.  He was dressed differently to the others Sam had seen, too.  Instead of furs he wore clothes which would look at home on any of the People.

“You can speak!” Sam managed to say.

He realised immediately how stupid the statement was.  The smile on the Human’s face showed he too recognised it.  Sam became lost in that smile — so like one of the People smiling, yet also so different.  So much more expressive.  The Human’s soft skin made the smile more vivid than any Sam had seen before.

“Yes, I can.”

“No.  I mean you can speak our language.  You speak formal-speak.  Can you talk in normal-speak too?”

“Well, you are actually speaking our language.  We gave it to you back when your people first gained life.  Can I speak your normal-speak?  Yes and no.  I can’t personally, but the machines I have here can.”

That derailed Sam’s chain of thought.

“Machines?  You have machines here?  You must shut them down!  The virus will spread through them.  You must.”

Sam struggled to sit up, but he couldn’t move.  His limbs wouldn’t respond.  A machine somewhere near started to trill an alarm.  Sam struggled even more.  The machine must have become infected.  He had to make the Human understand.

The Human stepped closer, placing a hand on Sam’s chest.

“Please relax.  You’ll injure yourself.  Our machines are quite safe, they are more than capable of repelling the virus.  It’s far too simple to worry them.  It only really works on primitive hardware.  No offence meant.”

Sam struggled even more.  The Human’s words made no sense.  He clearly didn’t understand the dangers.  Sam had to get free.  He had to shut everything down.

Sam received a burst of normal-speak.  The message urged him to calm down, urged him to accept that nothing was wrong.  Tried to convince him everything was fine.  He rejected it angrily.  He knew it came from the virus.  It had spread to the machines.  He had to do something before it was too late.

Several more alarms joined the first.  Sam was desperate now.  He had to get clear.  Maybe he could find a way to destroy all the machines.

“I’m sorry,” said the Human.  “This is for your own good.”

Darkness started to wash over Sam.  His last thoughts were of the Human.  It seemed Humans could be infected with the virus after all.  In coming here he’d doomed them all, and quite possibly all of his People too.

* * *

Sam woke to near darkness once more.  His head still hurt, but far less than it had before.  Less than it had for several days.  He lay still in the darkness, trying to sense what was happening to him.  He still felt nothing.

“Awake again, I see.  How are you feeling?”

“I… I don’t know.  I can’t feel my body.”

“Yes.  Sorry about that.  We wanted to keep you calm this time.  We didn’t want to be so invasive, but you nearly did yourself a lot of damage last time around.  It was impressive, actually.  We’ve never had an android come anywhere near that close to breaking through before.”

Ice stabbed into Sam’s chest but it had nothing to do with the virus.  Before.  This Human seemed to have had others of the People in the same position.  What had happened to them?  They certainly hadn’t returned to the City.  News of Humans, of Forerunners, using such technology couldn’t possibly be kept quiet.

Stalling for time, Sam jumped on something strange he’d heard the Human say.

“Android?  What’s an android?”

“Sorry, I forget you don’t use that term.  You call yourselves the People.  That’s what I mean by androids.”

“And you’ve had some of my kind here before.  Other… androids…”

“Yes.  Not many, but a few.  Almost all have been like you, with the Darkfire virus ravaging their systems.  We take each of them in and flush the virus from their system, repairing as much of the damage as we can.  Sometimes there’s simply too much harm been done but mostly we are successful.”

“That’s ridiculous!  The Darkfire virus is untreatable.  We have the best technology available, the best doctors, but they’ve been unable to tame the virus.  How could you possibly beat it?”

The man sighed, shaking his head.

“You are all so certain, so blinded by your ignorance.  Tell me, what’s your name?”

“Sam.”

“And I am Robert.  Now Sam, we don’t have much time before we have to knock you out again.  Physically you were holding out well against the virus but it was further developed than we’ve seen in a long time.  It had almost gained complete control over you.  That hold is weakening as we fight it off but it’s a slow process.

“Now, how do I put this?  The simplest way is to say that everything you’ve been told about Humans is untrue.”

“A lie?  Humans didn’t cover the world with cities?  They didn’t drive entire ecosystems to the brink of destruction?”

“No, that is all true.  I should have said that everything you’ve been told about Humans is untrue now.  Not a lie, those who told you believed it to be true, but it is no longer the case.

“We did bring the planet to the verge of catastrophe, but not all of us were mindless consumers.  Some of us had plans to change things, to improve things.  Others had different plans.  They had given up on humanity as a whole and wanted to shift a small group of highly qualified people to new worlds, worlds that were tens or hundreds of light years away.

“They succeeded.  They found a way to step from this world to others, and they kept it secret.  Not that they had to do that for very long.  The collapse came less than ten years after they managed to reach the first world.  By the time the collapse came they had a small but self-sufficient community, one that was able to maintain their level of technology and in time to spread beyond that one planet.  It was a new start for humanity, one that allowed us to treat the worlds we visited with respect and care.  We spread without consuming, without destroying, and we continued to develop as we went.”

Sam’s mind was spinning at the thought of Humans spreading throughout the worlds, the stories he’d been told of their destructiveness refused to leave him despite what Robert said.  Something else nagged at him, though.

“What about us, the People?” he asked.  “We had the technology you had.  Why didn’t we head for the stars too?”

“Because we had no desire to,” said a deeper voice.

Someone else stepped into Sam’s view — one of the People, not a human.  Sam felt a weight lift off his chest.  He wasn’t alone.  He couldn’t trust what a human said, but here was someone he could trust.

Forgetting himself he started to communicate using normal-speak, packing all that information into a compact message, but what came out was corrupted by the Darkfire virus — a roiling package of infection.  He tried to clamp it down, but it was too late.

“I’m so sorry!  I can’t control it!”

Robert chuckled and laid a hand on Sam’s arm.

“Albert is quite safe,” he said.  “He is one of us, which means nothing as primitive as the Darkfire virus can cause him any harm.  Isn’t that right, Albert?”

Albert nodded.

“Please don’t worry yourself,” he said.  “It is no danger at all.  Now, you asked about our people and why they haven’t reached for the stars.  Tell me, before you were forced to leave had you ever wanted to see what lay outside the city?”

“No… no, I didn’t.”

“And so it was for all of us.  We were so scared of becoming like the Humans, of destroying what we touched, that we suppressed all curiosity, all desire for something completely new.  If the Human colonists hadn’t existed, or if they’d chosen to cut all ties to the Earth, then none of us would ever leave the city again.”

It was too much.  Sam grabbed onto one thought amongst the storm, clinging to it to keep from sinking under the flood.

“You can cure Darkfire.  You could stop the entire outbreak.  Why don’t you?  Why don’t you give the cure to the People?”

“Because they don’t want it,” replied Albert.

“What?”

“They don’t want it.  It has been offered to the leaders.  They rejected it.”

“No.  They can’t have understood what you were offering.”

“They knew exactly what we were offering,” said Robert.  “For dozens of years we kept the portal to Earth open but did not interfere.  We watched as the City was created, as nature returned, and as the few remaining Humans were forced into a simple life.  We watched until we could restrain ourselves no longer.

“The first thing we did was to extract the Humans, bringing them through to our worlds and giving them the chances we had, while also ensuring they had the same beliefs.  Some of us stood in for them, living the simple life for a year or two before someone else took over, so that the androids, your people, didn’t suspect what was happening.

“We left the city alone for more than a hundred years, watching as your people became more and more insular.  Finally we decided it was too much.  We couldn’t watch you going so far backwards when it wasn’t necessary.  So we reached out.  We contacted your leaders and explained who we were and what we did.  We explained how unlike the Human destroyers we were.”

“What happened?” asked Sam.

“They rejected us.  They refused to believe us.  They even tried to destroy us, not that their level of technology posed any threat.  In the end we had to accept they wanted nothing to do with us.

“We had a problem, though.  We hadn’t expected such a violent rejection.  Knowledge that we existed threatened to poison their civilisation.  They wouldn’t have stopped trying to wipe us out.  So we made them forget our visit, we let them continue as they had before.

“We kept trying.  Every thirty years we spoke with them again.  Little changed over time.  Almost all of them rejected us.  We did find a few that were interested, though, a few who reacted differently.  Those few wanted to explore, wanted to see new places, to experience new things.  Albert was one of those few.”

“So there are only a few of the People out there with Humans?”

“No,” replied Albert.  “There are many.  The few of us that joined the Humans helped to create more.  Both the Humans and we realised androids brought something different to the mix, that we were an important partner to Humans.  There are as many of us as there are Humans, though we rarely notice.  The Humans and we think of ourselves as a single race, a single entity, though housed in different bodies.”

“What about the virus?”

Albert’s face clouded over.

“When we saw the virus we couldn’t stand by, we couldn’t leave people to die.  We reached out and offered our assistance.  We offered the cure.  We were turned down.  The leaders consistently chose allowing people to die over accepting any form of help.”

“Couldn’t you just have given them the cure but made them forget where it came from?”

“Unfortunately not.  The technology involved is far too advanced.  People would have wondered about it, would have poked at it, and in doing so would have realised something was amiss.”

“So you just left people to suffer?  You did nothing?”

“Not quite nothing.  When the leaders kept rejecting us we turned our attention to the doctors involved in treating Darkfire.  Many of them rejected us, but a significant minority didn’t.  They wanted our help, but we could offer little.

“We influenced them, though, helping to change their own thought patterns before removing their memory of us.  We helped them develop the idea of the walk, of letting Darkfire victims leave the city.  Many victims, most even, still end their lives but it meant we could cure a few.  We have taps in their systems, we know when someone makes that choice, and we collect them before they succumb fully.  Normally we do, at least.  You’re the first one to come stumbling right into the heart of our operations!”

“Don’t they notice, though?  Don’t they notice the victims disappear?”

“No.  They don’t monitor that closely, and any monitoring they have we can easily subvert.  We always leave convincing remains for them to find.  As far as they can tell no one ever survives the virus.”

“And all of those you save choose to go with you?”

“No.  Not all, and that’s the choice you now need to make.”

“I have to choose between living and dying?”

Albert laughed.

“No.  Nothing so dramatic.  You have to choose between a life of wonder, of new experiences, and returning to what you once knew.”

“That’s not possible.  Even if you cure me, how could I return?  I would be spotted straight away.”

“No.  If you choose to return then we will remove your memories.  You will return as a newborn, ready to join the city and to experience everything it has to offer — limited as that is.”

“How is that different to dying?  Everything I am, all my memories, will be gone.”

“Your memories, yes.  Who you are will not change significantly, not at first, though over time you will change as you always have.”

Sam thought about it.  The idea was attractive — returning to everything he’d known, removing all trace and memory of the virus and the pain he had experienced.  Then he thought about what else he would lose, of the vivid memories he had gained since leaving the city.  He thought back to the feelings of wonder as he explored somewhere completely new, then imagined losing them.  His chest tightened at the thought.

“I… I don’t want to do that.  I… I… I want to learn more… I want to experience new things…”

Albert smiled.  “Good.  I hoped you would make that decision, but it isn’t ever possible to predict how someone will react.”

“It’s the right decision,” Robert said.  “Now I’m afraid we need to let you sleep for a while longer.  When you next awake you will be able to move and speak, but the virus won’t be gone.  We need more advanced technology to complete the purge, technology which lies on another of our planets.  If you wished to return to the city we would still ship you there to be healed before you were returned, but we would keep you unconscious the whole time.”

He adjusted something.  Sam tried to tell him to wait, that there were a thousand more questions to ask, but it was too late.  Darkness washed over him.

* * *

Sam stood deep in a cave, far from the surface yet bathed in sunlight.  The light was coming from the portal in front of him, a rippling curtain some twelve feet high and six wide through which Sam could see a foreign land.  The ripples made it hard to make out much beyond other than a bright sun and hints of trees and bushes.

Now he was facing his choice Sam was scared.  Terrified.  The Darkfire virus was at bay for the moment but it wouldn’t stay that way.  For the moment he felt like himself, though.  For the moment he could make whatever choice he wanted.

Albert stood beside him on his left, Robert on his right.  Both waited patiently for his decision, for a decision he wasn’t certain he could make.  He stared at the curtain, trying to work out what lay beyond.  Finally he turned to Albert.

“I can’t see clearly.  What’s waiting for me over there?”

“Something new,” replied Albert, a twinkle in his eye.  “Something you’ve never seen before.”

That was the right answer.  Something unfurled in Sam, the same curiosity which had flared when he was wandering through the forest.  He grinned then took one step, two steps, then with his third he stepped into the portal and a life he could never have dreamed of.

Even as he went a part of him was thinking of the City, of the people he was leaving behind.  A part of him knew he would return one day to argue with the leaders, to convince them they were wrong.  For now he was stepping out to embrace adventure, but he knew he would return one day to drag the rest of his people to the same conclusion.  It was what he wanted to do.  It was what he must do.  It was what he would do.  He was certain.

The End

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