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Humans had prepared for zombie or alien attacks, but the ambush of a virus? What happens when a victim, Anaya, becomes an assassin?
She’s not what you expect.
It doesn’t matter what you’re expecting. Whatever it is, it’s not her. And every so often, an enemy comes along who learns that the hard way.
She’s sitting alone at the front steps of her mansion, when she hears a suspicious sound.
“Who’s there?” Laughter rises in her throat like bile, but less distasteful and more telling of her sanity. “Saying ‘who’s there’ is like people in horror movies who get killed,” she comments.
“Maybe you’re a prophet,” the shadows whisper.
She sighs. “No. Just someone who used to love reading.”
The shadows seem to mock her. “What good is pop-culture when you’re dead?”
“I’ll ask myself when I die. For now, I think it helps me survive.”
The shadows hesitate. “What do you mean?”
“I mean humans are predictable. If there’s a trope in pop culture, it means it’s probably there for a reason. Everybody keeps doing the stupid stuff they saw on TV – it’s a cycle. So, at some point, I know I can expect an attack because some idiot thinks hiding in the shadows works ‘cause they read it in a book.”
She feels cold metal press against her head from behind, and she sighs.
“This is rude. I thought we were having a nice conversation.” Her hand moves to pick up the dark metal pipe next to her, and she whirls around – too fast for her would-be assailant to react.
A swift hit in the knees topples him, and two more jabs ensure he stays down.
“Sorry,” she says apologetically. “To be fair, we were having a nice conversation before you decided to press a gun to my head.”
She pokes his stomach playfully with her pipe. “It’s called high-functioning anxiety, and possibly depression, but that one isn’t diagnosed ye-”
“Shut up,” he groans.
She frowns. “You’re really rude. Why attack me if you’re not prepared for conversation?”
He gives her a look. “I’m a hired hit-man. What do you think I was told about you?”
She smiles – useless, since she’s wearing a mask, but she likes to make an effort. “That I’m scary?”
She hears footsteps, and doesn’t need to look up to know who it is.
“Anaya. Heard you might be in trouble.”
She beams at her best friend. “I handled it.”
Niya leans down and tightens zip ties swiftly around the man’s limbs. “Okay,” she grunts, pulling him up. “Who sent you to attack her?”
He glares and says nothing.
Niyati grins, her white teeth flashing in the dark. “I like the quiet ones.” She pulls out a gun and cocks it. “You’re fun to threaten.”
The hit-man coughs in her face.
Anaya feels her patience immediately slide off her skin, slithering like water off an oily surface. She strips off the glove on her hand, and reaches to hover her fingers over the rapidly paling skin of her would-be attacker.
“I told you to be kinder.”
When the world imploded on itself, it was anticlimactic.
Humans had prepared for zombie apocalypses or alien attacks, but the insidious ambush of a virus was never on top of the list.
The expectation had been that humankind would only face cinematic threats, shot and viewed in 4D, as Hans Zimmer music played around them.
When it happened, it was like falling in love, but one-sided.
It creeps up on you. And once you know what’s happened, you try to move on, find ways to fix your broken heart, and hope things will go back to what they used to be Before.
Just as humans reached the final stages and hoped they could return to the way life was Before, they discovered the virus had mutated.
The Mutation didn’t kill; it empowered those infected to wield the virus like a tool. They could infect other people, with fast-acting strains that sometimes even took effect within seconds.
Some governments tried to weaponize those with the mutation, but it wasn’t a predictable power. The infections didn’t follow patterns, couldn’t be controlled.
Those infected couldn’t be saved; sooner or later, anybody who had skin-to-skin contact with a Mutant died.
Eventually, they were just locked away. The list of the oppressed grew longer, the idea of returning to Before was a dream whispered about at dinner tables.
Governments failed to realize that locking people whose childhoods had been spent on anti-establishment novels, would result in them thinking that they could Do Something to Fight Back.
And fight back they did. Those who never got caught learned to avoid getting captured, and started using the Mutation in defence of their lives.
The tune changed quickly to them ruling over their old oppressors, or, like most human beings with power, chasing after money.
Now, true power lies in the hands of those with the Mutation.
An hour later, they’re in her office, having disposed – gently – of their Problem. “Well,” Niyati says with a sigh, pulling out a cigarette, “We knew someone would try to kill you for the whole land grab thing. At least we were tipped off about this guy.”
Anaya’s not too worried. It’s difficult to be afraid of death when you’re a walking creator of the worst kind there is.
She thinks the girl she was Before would have been terrified, but that girl lived and died an era ago, a time before hired assassins, and her own army of spies and informants.
“You need to listen to me, and start carrying around a gun,” Ni continues, seemingly talking to the wall.
“What’s the point of a gun when I have a worse weapon?” Anaya asks cheerfully, fluttering her fingers like a butterfly.
She used to be a kinder person; a young girl with dreams of helping poor people, eventually retiring to a hut in the mountains. Hurting people, she’d naively decided, was the one thing she’d never do.
Then she spent months in a clinic, with tubes forced down her throat. By the time the neighbouring bed was filled by an angry, foul-mouthed woman, she’d grown tired of dreams, but decided friendship was an achievable milestone.
Her favourite memory of Niya is after they were both declared to be on the mend. She liked encouraging Anaya to explore the clinic together at night.
Somehow, young doctors kept taking a shine to her, and Niya took a shine to feeling like a rebel in a hamster’s cage.
They were in a secret balcony, and Niya had just produced a pack of cigarettes.
“Since you got sick?”
“Well, yes. Isn’t it bad for your lungs?” Even as she’d said it, her lungs had rattled in her chest.
Niyati had just smiled her sharp, wolf’s smile.
“Have the doctors told you you’re better yet?”
Anaya had hesitated. “Yes, but they said I need more tests. They didn’t explain properly.”
She looked back at the way they came, past sleeping bodies of tired doctors on the floors, overflowing rooms of patients sharing beds.
She tried changing the subject. “Where did you get cigarettes from?”
She didn’t care about the answer; but asking pointless questions was easier than talking about things she was scared of.
Niyati, however, was not that person. She abruptly asked if Anaya knew about the Mutation.
She knows people think that she’s just another greedy Mutant, wielding power to steal money. But she hadn’t asked to be yanked out of an overcrowded clinic to sell her to the government in exchange for funding.
She never wanted a virus to mutate in her veins and make her fingertips the most dangerous weapons in the world.
The only thing she can be blamed for is making one mistake that murdered her old self, and snatched all hopes of Before away in one fell swoop.
Next to her, Niyati argues with the security officers who work under her capable command, another (new) cigarette held in her fingers.
She’d once explained that the constant smoking was like laughing in the face of the old virus that had tried so hard to decimate her lungs.
“If we let this deal go through, then there’s going to be more assassins landing on this doorstep every day, and one day, we won’t be lucky enough to know in advance,” one of Niya’s men says beseechingly.
It pains her to know that Niya and her team take this much effort to keep her safe, but she can’t just drop the deal at hand.
Months of putting on threatening, aggressive public faces for municipal officials and real estate moguls had resulted in one final contract making its way to her door, and she wasn’t going to let it go.
“Just before she signs her name on thousands of acres of forest land, we are not going to give up,” Niya says. “This is the only way we can preserve this land, and unless you want to personally find a way to return all the money we’ve – ahem – borrowed, from rich benefactors, I suggest you leave and focus on shoring up the compound walls.”
The security officers reluctantly accept her directive and scrape their chairs back to leave, but the sound of the scraping sends her brain reeling back to cold tube-lit halls, to memories of hands dragging her, screaming, away from her weeping father.
She remembers being tied to a chair with a sixty-year-old man, an eight-year-old girl, and a boy who, in another life, might have been good-looking, but now looked emaciated.
Her mind traps her to the flashes of a cold, bespectacled doctor injecting the eight-year-old with sedatives, and feeling a surge of anger course through her tired body, choking her scratched, weary throat, filling her lungs in a way that oxygen hadn’t in a long time.
The girl had wilted immediately, immobile in her chair, and somehow smaller than before.
“Get away from him,” she’d screamed finally, seeing the injection get closer to the old man, pushing the doctor’s arms away from his victim.
His skin had immediately turned ashen, his breathing turning to gasps, the rattling as cold as his expression had been.
She snaps out of it to see Niyati crouching in front of her. Wiping away tears she hadn’t noticed, Anaya straightens up to look back at her paperwork. “Let me know when the lawyers get here.”
Niya nods, knowing not to prod at Anaya about the memories she knows are still plaguing her.
“And try not to remind everyone we’ve stolen money, would you?”
Her friend rolls her eyes. “We didn’t actually steal as much as ask filthy rich people very kindly to donate. It’s the least they could do in return for not being mummified without oxygen.”
She smirks and turns to leave.
“Ni,” Anaya says suddenly, grabbing her hand with her own, gloved one. Niya doesn’t flinch (she never does), but looks surprised.
“We’re doing the right thing, right?”
Niya’s hard demeanour cracks, and suddenly, she looks less like a predator and more like a house-cat. “There are people in this world who’ve decided to use their abilities to plunder, or fight wars for territory. You’re simply using yours to do some goo -”
“But through fear. They couldn’t weaponize me, and I weaponized fear. Aren’t I just as bad?”
Niya smiles gently and kneels in front of Anaya, leaning forward to carefully pat the top of her head, before letting her fingers briefly rest against her cheek.
“I killed someone.”
“Accidentally. You were in danger,” the answer is measured, like Niyati had known this question was coming, and she’d practiced it for years. “And now you help people.”
“But I like the power that comes with it.”
The wolfish smile is back. “So do I. That means you’re human still. You made a mistake once. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to turn that into something bigger.”
Anaya snorts. “You say that like-”
The fingers on her cheek disappear, and Niya raises an eyebrow. “Do you want me to start listing all the good things you’ve done for people? Is this some sort of self-esteem ploy?”
She blushes and pushes her friend away. “Shut up and go do work.”
After the doctor died in front of her, she’d hurtled to the secret balcony. Sounds around her faded to muted silence, and she felt dizzy from the exertion.
What had she done?
“What’s wrong?” The boy had followed her, looking excited. She wasn’t used to seeing a patient look like that anymore.
“Don’t you see what power we have?”
That shook her. She didn’t like “we”. She had wanted her “we” to be playwrights in cafes, or people in NGOs, doing good for the world.
“They were going to send us to prison, or worse. We should hurt them for trying!”
“What about the other patients?” she’d asked hoarsely.
He’d hesitated, like she knew he would. Was nobody thinking about the others?
“What about them? This world isn’t a good one – we have to look after ourselves.”
She thought of Niyati using her charms to get what she wanted out of silly doctors, and suddenly, she saw an opportunity, as clear as day.
She straightened up and squared her shoulders. “I think I have a better idea.”
This short story had been shortlisted from among many, for the September 2020 Muse of the Month contest.
Featured Image Credits: Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels
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