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  • Milton Davis

Vitality's Sycophant





Poem/Title by Wamahu Mwaura

Story by Milton Davis


I've often been told that my eyes speak volumes, and all the thoughts and emotions that wander, at times aimlessly, through the dimly lit corridors of my spirit self, are written plainly within for those with the ability to translate them from whatever ancient language is spoken by the soul.

I fear those sensitives, those empaths who are privy to that which I, by no willing intention, telegraph. I’ve a monstrous part of me, a barely contained beast which lurks the deepest recesses of the den that is my heart, a vengeful incarnation, worshiper of malevolence, which creeps forward from its iniquitous home when my baser and more wrathful passions burn brightest.

at day’s end, I lay upon the lonely stretch, sweat soaked, heaving, teeth clenched against the banshee like screams that fill my chords to the brim, and my eyes, o curtain less panes of tempered glass that they are, are shut. I dare not risk that by some mischance a sensitive might look upon them.

no, to peer into my eyes, in the nighttime hours, when the struggle within is at its fiercest, is to leech those potent convictions which have wielded their legends upon all vitality. faith would be lost to the sensitive, for no reader of the nature of mortal mankind, could hold onto hope, could further dissuade despair, once the malignant spawn that festers inside was revealed.


The approach was critical. Too close and they would be attacked. Too far and they would be ignored. In the end it was a subjective decision, one that took not only skill but experience. Edward was the only one of their group that possessed both. He’d been to Atlanta and was familiar with what highways and roads were passable. It helped that Edward possessed the Gift, but that was an advantage that no one knew, not even the terminally ill donors he considered family.

“Are you sure we’re close enough?” Ginger asked. She coughed through her face cloth, her eyes tight and tearful.

“We’re probably not, but it’s as close as we can get,” Edward answered, distracted by his concern for Ginger. She was failing. He doubted if she would last her next donation. They were so brave, every one of them, giving to save others despite their condition.

“I hope this is close enough,” she whispered. “I’m so tired of riding.”

Edward maneuvered the truck onto the side of the road, crushing the unkempt wiregrass and coming to a stop just before the gnarled pine tree line. The other trucks pulled over behind him and the occupants spilled out. They were a ragged bunch of all ages, gender and races brought together by ostracism and altruism. The disease that meant a death sentence for each of them provided hope of survival for those not yet infected. So, they travelled the roads of New America, doing their part to heal a broken nation after the disaster known as the Second Revolution.

Nathan hobbled up to Edward as he reached the truck bed.

“Need any help?” he asked eagerly.

Edward looked at Nathan and shook his head. “Thanks, Nate. I think I can handle it.”

“Cool, cool,” Nathan nodded. “Just let me know if you need a hand.”

Edward smiled. “I’ll do that. Why don’t help Ginger set up the tents?”

Nathan nodded eagerly. “I can do that!”

Nathan shuffled away. Edward dragged the launch tube case from the truck bed and fastened it to his back. He adjusted his shades as he looked up the hill, the noonday sun causing him to squint despite the dark protection. The rise emerged from the pines, its bare crown perfect for a signal launch. He took a deep breath and plunged into the brush, briar vines immediately assaulting his legs as rabbits scattered before him.

He was exhausted when he reached the hilltop. Atlanta filled his view, its battered skyline crowded with sky cranes. The relief funds were finally trickling to the South. The Moderates stated that the money would be distributed equally but that was far from true. The Northeast, a Moderate stronghold, had been the first to receive its share; the South, the Conserves center, the last. Edward was happy that his folks would finally see a better day. America would never be the same but at least it would be stable.

He set up the launcher then stepped away. The timer wound down then the charge ignited, shooting the flare high overhead. It exploded, releasing the red hue signaling a vaccine caravan. He waited for the response, taking his canteen from his hip and sipping the stale water within. They would need plenty supplies before moving on. They would also need people. The Plague was advanced among too many. Some were too weak to donate and others would succumb before they reached Birmingham. He was sad yet hopeful that Atlanta would provide more to fill the ranks.

A blue flare streaked from the city center signaling it’s response. Soon after a helicopter rose over the damaged skyscrapers, a rectangular metal object dangling below it. It was a transition trailer, a safe house to facilitate communication between Edward and the city’s medical liaison. There would be negotiations and most likely a trade. A good thing for his group but a bad thing for the people involved.

Edward waited atop the hill until the helicopter placed the trailer onto a nearby field. He took out his GPS and aimed it at the site. The device synced the coordinates, beeping as it confirmed the location. Edward scampered down the hill and trotted back to the truck. Nathan and Ginger labored to set up the main tent, Ginger lagging about while Nathan did most of the work. She was really bad. Edward doubted if she would be able to give this time. She would insist but he would have to tell her no. He didn’t want to see her die in a donor chair.

“Hey guys,” he called out. They turned to him, eyes inquisitive.

“The transition trailer is here. I’m going out to meet with them. I should be back in a few hours.”

“Get some chocolate,” Nathan said. “I haven’t had any in ages.”

Edward looked at Ginger and managed to smile. “What about you, Ginger? Any special requests?”

Ginger unfolded a canvas chair and dropped onto it. “No. Just come back soon, okay?”

Edward walked to Ginger and kissed her cheek. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

The drive to the field took longer than he expected. The roads were so bad that in some places he was forced onto the shoulder. The last mile to the field was completely unpaved. The old Humvee jostled and bumped over weeds, prickly pears and short grass, Edward banging his head on the roof a few times. As he neared the trailer he spotted other vehicles approaching from the opposite side. He frowned, his stomach queasy as he recognized the letters on the hoods and doors. The Moderate military had come to observe, which meant they were suspicious of his group. He would have to be careful.

He parked the truck twenty yards from the trailer and donned his sterile suit. The walk to the trailer was as difficult as the drive; sterile suits were not designed for long term movement. He was breathing hard by the time he reached the entrance, his face mask wet with his breath. The door slid aside and stepped in. Steri-jets hit him immediately with decontaminant followed by a brief but very uncomfortable heat douse. His sunglasses protected his eyes from the UV bath. He stood still as he was scanned and deemed sterilized. A second door slipped open and he stepped into his side of the meeting room. A solitary stool sat before the clear divider. Edward stopped and removed his suit, thankful to be free of the constraint. He left the heavy garment where he took it off and shuffled to the seat. A brown skinned woman sat opposite him, her wavy hair pulled back into a tight bun. Her lab coat was spotless, a row of neat ink pens filling her top pocket. A tight smile ruled her plain face, but her eyes made Edward nervous. She stared intensely through her bifocal as if searching for something more beyond his appearance. He adjusted his shades before he sat.

“Hello, I’m Chief Medical Specialist Yvonne Craig,” she said.

“Vaccine Administrator Edward Miles,” Edward answered. He really didn’t have a title; he created the moniker when he realized it was necessary when dealing with professionals.

“We’re very happy to see you, Edward. Can I call you Edward?”

“Yes, of course.”

“We thought we’d seen the last of the Plague but had an outbreak three months ago. We were expecting a vaccine convoy three weeks ago but it was...interrupted.”

Edward kept his composure despite the fear trembling in his legs. He understood her stare now. She was a Hunter.

“We have to be careful these days,” she continued. “So, Edward, how long before we begin receiving vaccine?”

“We should be set up for dispensing in a week. It usually doesn’t take as long but it’s been a rough trip and a few of my donors are in bad shape.”

Specialist Craig was silent for a moment. “I take it you’re in need of replacements.”

“Yes ma’am, I am.”

“Call me Yvonne. Unfortunately, we can assist you. Our quarantine facility is full. There are quite a few that are too far gone for recovery.”

Yvonne’s dispassionate tone disturbed Edward. He should have expected it. Behind the white coat and medical degree, she was a Hunter, a killer trained to spot those who had a different reaction to the Plague. Those like Edward.

“We only have room for ten,” he continued.

“That will leave us with four, but if that’s all you can take then so be it. We’ll deal with the rest.”

Yvonne’s emphasis on the word deal made her intentions clear. She would rather kill them than take the chance that one or more of them might Transform.

“We might be able to make room for the others. Let me get back with you.”

Edward stood to leave then stopped. “Chocolate.”

Yvonne’s face went blank. “What did you say?”

Edward grinned. “You wouldn’t happen to have any chocolate, would you?”

Yvonne laughed. “If you had asked that question two weeks ago the answer would be no. You’re lucky. We received a shipment of goods with the UAS relief funds. I’ll make sure there’s chocolate in your care package.”

Edward made his way back to the Humvee. The twilight sky was painted orange red as he arrived at camp. Tents were set and everyone busied about either cooking the evening meal or assembling the collection trailer. Nathan met him as he stepped out.

“So, did they have it?” he asked eagerly.

“Yep, they did.”

Nathan jumped. “Excellent!”

Edward scanned the camp. “I see everyone’s been busy.”

Nathan placed his hands on his waist and stuck out his chest. “I took charge after you left. Everything is set up and in working order.”

“No problem with the vaccine units?”

“We had a little glitch with one of the centrifuges but Taylor fixed it. We’re good to go.”

Edward slapped Nathan’s shoulder. “Good job. Where’s Ginger?”

Nathan’s face turned from proud to solemn. “She’s resting in your tent. Edward, I don’t think…”

“I know, Nathan.” A chill swept through him, a warning he dreaded but expected. “I need to be with her tonight. Can you supervise the meal?”

“Of course.” Nathan’s face was sympathetic. He would lose all of them eventually but the knowledge didn’t make reality any easier to deal with. With Ginger it would be much worse. It was because of her he hadn’t been discovered for what he truly was.

Edward started towards his tent. “Don’t forget prayers.”

“Never,” Nathan called out. “They’re all we have.”

Edward slipped into his tent. Ginger lay on the bunk under the thin sheets, her back to him. He eased under the covers and scooted against her, laying his arm across her waist.

“You’re back,” she whispered. She coughed and he pulled her tight.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“Okay, I guess. Their MS is a cold one. She’s sending us fourteen.”

Ginger turned her head slightly. “We don’t have room for that many.”

“We’ll make room. It’ll be crowded but it’s better that what she had planned.”

“Someone can take my place.”

“Don’t talk that way.”

Ginger shifted. “Don’t baby me, Edward. I know I’m dying. We all are. All of us but you.”

Edward stiffened. “I’m just like everyone else. My infection is just moving slower.”

“No, it’s not.” Ginger turned about to face him. “Don’t lie to me Edward, not now. The Plague didn’t make you sick. It made you one of them.”

Edward didn’t answer. He held onto Ginger as if the truth didn’t matter.

“That’s why I came to you, you know,” she said. “I saw it in your eyes. Your face was calm but your eyes burned like fire. It was like whatever was inside you was desperate to be free.”

“You knew and you still wanted me?”

He felt her shrug. “I had just learned I had the Plague. I figured either you would kill me and save me the suffering or…”

Curiosity flickered in Edward. “Or what?”

“Or you would keep me alive,” she finished.

“You were wrong.”

Ginger snuggled closer to him. “No, I wasn’t. I don’t think I would have lived as long as I have without you. You gave me part of whatever it is inside you.”

“You gave me something as well,” he said.

“Love?”

Edward held her tight. “Love and peace. You kept me sane. You kept me safe.”

She pushed against him harder, arousing him.

“We shouldn’t,” he said.

“We should,” she whispered back.

They did.

Morning spilled slow and hot over the eastern horizon, the red-orange haze seeping through the tent canvas. Edward opened his eyes and rolled away from Ginger, his body wet with sweat. He washed up at the portable basin making sure he left enough water for Ginger. The camp was up and running with some lining up for communion breakfast while others milled around the vaccine trailer. Wide smiles and happy greetings met him as he sauntered to the cafeteria tent

“Edward!” they shouted as he entered the tent.

“Morning, everyone!” he shouted back. “Everybody join hands.”

A human ring formed around him as he bowed his head.

“Dear Lord, thank you for another day. Please bless the food we are about to receive and the preparers that made it possible. Watch over us as we go about this day and give us the strength to be what you have called us to be. In your name we pray.”

“Amen.”

Edward advanced to the head of line, more from necessity than privilege. He was responsible for setting up the donor station and assuring the equipment was in working order. Nathan was a great help but he was just a technician. It was Edward’s expertise that kept things humming. The cooks scooped the usual eggs, bacon and sausage onto his tray then added a bonus; a bowl of steaming grits. Edward grinned as he grabbed a glass of orange juice. It had been a long time since he had a good southern breakfast. He bunched the eggs and meats then smothered them with the grits. He was blending them together when Nathan sat beside him.

“Uuugh,” Nathan grimaced.

“To each his own,” Edward beamed. “This is how you eat breakfast in a hurry.”

He scooped the tasty slurry in his mouth and washed it down with his orange juice.

“See you in the clinic,” he said to Nathan on his way out.

Edward’s good mood fled when he saw the Moderate vehicles parked before the clinic. A team of soldiers stood before the tent sheathed in protective suits holding automatics. A group of his people blocked the entrance, their faces fearful and angry. Edward ran to the confrontation as a cold feeling crept up his back.

He inserted himself between them. The man before him wore sergeant stripes, the face behind the face shield battle hardened and experienced.

“What’s going on here?” Edward demanded.

A screen image appeared on the sergeant’s shield and he nodded.

“Are you Edward Shanks?”

“Yes I am.”

The sergeant and his men formed a path to a white Humvee.

“The chief medical officer has requested you come with us, sir.”

Edward took a step towards the vehicle when a hand grabbed his shoulder. He turned to look into Nathan’s angry face.

“Edward, what the hell is going on? Don’t these assholes know we’re here to help them?”

Edward took Nathan’s hand from his shoulder. “It’s okay, Nathan. The CMO probably has a few more questions for me. Get the transfusions started and check on Ginger for me. I’ll be back in a few.”

Nathan didn’t believe him. “Edward…”

Edward shook his head. “I’ll be fine. Now go do what I told you.”

Edward climbed into the Humvee. The compartment was sealed from the rest of the vehicle. Apparently the CMO had done this before. He tried to stay calm, pushing back the nervous trembling creeping up his leg to upset his stomach. He’d just eaten and he didn’t want to discharge it inside the vehicle. His journey ended before he could make a mess, the heavy door lifting to reveal the face of one of the shrouded soldiers.

“This way please.” The soldier motioned with his weapon. Edward stepped out to find himself at the sterile trailer once again. The viewing room was the same with a few additions; a bed, a refrigerator, mini cooker and dressers. He was going to be staying longer that he planned.

CMO Craig sat before the window as if she had never left. Edward sat down before her.

“Welcome back, Edward,” she said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about you.”

“Really?” Edward slumped in his chair, feinting calm he didn’t feel.

Yvonne leaned toward the window, intertwining her fingers. “How long have you traveled with your group?”

“I’m not sure. Five, six years maybe?”

“Eight years to be exact,” she corrected. “I pulled records of all the mobile vaccine units in the east. Your caravan has worked the routes for eight years that we know of.”

Edward fidgeted. “If you say so.”

“You’re pretty strong for an eight-year carrier.”

“Are you sure I’ve been with the caravan eight years?”

Yvonne leaned back. “Oh, I’m sure. As a matter of fact, you traveled with another caravan on the west coast three years prior to joining this one.”

She knew. He saw it in her eyes. She was a Stalker. The uniform and the title threw him off and he dropped his guard. It was a stupid mistake.

“Why are you asking me these questions?” Edward decided if she wanted to play games he would oblige. It was one of the few times he wished he didn’t have so much control.

“I just want to be sure.”

Edward smiled. “Sure, about what?”

“That your one of them. See, if you were hiding out in a vaccine caravan it wouldn’t stop you from doing what you do. There should be a string of killings wherever your caravan settled, yet there isn’t. Not a single one, at least not one that could be identified as a rage kill. Either you’re very smart or…”

Edward wasn’t giving her anything. “Or?”

Yvonne stood. “We’ll see. Good day, Edward. There’s enough food for three days. Any other needs you’ll have to do without, if you can.”

Edward felt a rush of heat. “You have no right to do this!”

Yvonne looked at him with a gaze as hard as the sergeants. “I have every right. If I’m right I’m protecting this city from a monster. If I’m wrong then you’ll be free to go. If not then I’ve done my job.”

Yvonne walked away from the glass. “You should be fairly comfortable. I’ll return in the morning. Sleep well, Edward if you can.”

Edward sat on the edge of his bed as the center lights went out. This was unexpected. He’d gotten lazy, assuming that everyone would accept him as easily as the Infected had. He knew Stalkers were out there but he never knew of one that held such a position as Yvonne. They usually worked afield, constantly roaming the settled lands for someone like him, someone who experienced a different reaction to the virus. He got off the bed and walked about his impromptu prison, inspecting the seams and joints as well as the doors. It was sturdy, more than adequate for him…in his present form. There was nothing for him to do but wait until Yvonne’s curiosity was satisfied. He went back to the bed and stretched out on the thin mattress. He quickly lost a sense of time and was startled when an armed guard shoved his lunch through the feeding slot at the base of the viewing glass. With nothing else to do he slept, dreaming of days before the Virus, days when his life was normal and boring. His dream ended and he woke up in darkness. His stomach was queasy and he rubbed it with a sweaty hand. It was the sweat that alerted him.

“No, God no!” he whispered. He lifted his shirt and saw his stomach undulating as muscles appeared in his normally flaccid skin. Edward tried to stand but he went rigid and fell onto his back. Then he shook, his entire body vibrating violently as the Change took place. The bed bowed as his weight increased, his mass tripling as his muscle cells divided again and again. His skin became a transparent veil covering them. He managed to open his eyes and saw with amazing clarity. His ears picked up sounds of breathing, struggling, laughter and love, a cacophony that was the first sign of him losing control. He slapped his hand over his ears; he had to maintain.

“Ginger,” he hissed. He had to get to her before he lost control. He stood and ran to the door. He sensed the guards on either side of the door and smiled. At least some of his rage would be satisfied. He raised his arms high, balled his hands into massive fists then brought them down on the door. The barrier flew off its hinges and into the distance. The first guard died instantly, his head crushed by Edward’s fist. The second guard managed to raise his rifle before Edward snatched it from his hand and plunged it into his chest. Edward turned and was blinded by light. Something struck him hard in the chest, knocking him onto his back and sending him sliding back into the shed.

He sprang to his feet then snarled when he saw what stood before him. A Stalker unit loomed over him, the faceplate magnifying Yvonne’s features.

“I was right,” she chirped through her microphone. “You had all the signs but the stats didn’t match up. No unsolved murders in the vicinity of the caravan. But still...”

Edward kicked Yvonne’s metal legs from under her. She crashed face first into the floor and slid away. Edward clambered to his feet as quickly as Yvonne. She raised her right arm and Edward barely dodged the pulse blast. He pounced close and struck Yvonne near the base of her helmet. Sparks flew as she staggered.

“How?” Yvonne sputtered.

“You’re not the first Stalker I’ve encountered,” Edward explained. “We’re not mindless killers. We’re sick, just like the others.”

Edward kicked her down to the floor. Yvonne looked up at him in fear, her faceplate fogging with her desperate breath.

“Instead of letting us die or killing us, how about trying to cure us?”

Edward hissed. His condition begged for him to kill her. Ginger would want different.

He was through the opening before the other guards could respond, bounding into the darkness. The sharp report of firearms echoed in his ears long after hot projectiles whizzed by him, one actually scraping his jaw and leaving a thin bloody crease. He did not stop. Instinct told him to turn and run back, to kill his pursuers and revel in their gore. But ahead was the camp and in the camp was Ginger. She needed him.

He came upon the camp in moments. Their tent shone in the darkness. He could see movement; Ginger was not alone. He would not wait for them to leave. When he entered the tent, the man standing beside Ginger yelled and ran. Ginger eyes cracked open and a weak smile came to her face.

“I knew you would come,” she whispered.

Edward struggled to kneel beside the bed. “I’m…here. Take what you need.”

“It won’t work this time, Edward,” she said. “It’s time.”

Edward’s size diminished slightly. “I was gone too long.”

Ginger reached out and touched his bleeding cheek. Her hand was so cold.

“No, baby. We knew it was close, didn’t we?”

Edward dropped his head. “Yeah, we did.”

“You have to hide now. They know what you are.”

“Nathan!”

Nathan entered the nut shaking.

“Ed, what the hell is wrong with you? What’s going on?”

Edward stood. “The caravan is yours. My…condition has put you all in jeopardy. I have to leave.”

Nathan grimaced. “I can’t do this! I’m just like everyone else.”

“You’re not that far along. Pick someone among the others or the new folk. Train them like I trained you.”

“You don’t have to go,” Nathan argued. “The folks here don’t care what’s wrong with you. You’re like us.”

“I can’t hide behind you anymore,” Edward replied. “Without Ginger my condition will be less manageable.”

Bright lights cut through the thin blinds. Edward dropped beside Ginger.

“I have to go,” he whispered.

“Stay alive…for me.” He leaned close and kissed her.

Ginger closed her eyes as he stood. His body shuddered and he felt the fire of his true self coursing through him. She was gone.

He looked at Nathan as the last bits of self-control fled. Edward managed to smile then staggered outside. Moderate troops were running toward him, rifles leveled. Edward started to attack but Ginger’s words checked him. Stay alive, she said.

Edward let out a scream that froze the troops in their tracks. He turned his back to them and bounded into the darkness. He would keep his promise as long as he could.

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