I woke up, and Queen Betty wasn’t beside me. This wasn’t entirely unusual, as she was probably enjoying hunting rats at the moment. I yawned softly, and stretched out on the bed. I opened my eyes, and nearly screamed. Betty was crouched over me, in such a way that she wasn’t quite touching. Her green eyes were bright and shining, and way too close. She was breathing so softly that I hadn’t even felt it against my skin. “Oh, good! You’re awake, Horace!” She smiled sweetly. “Breakfast time!” I peered sideways. The clock read 5:30 AM. I considered protesting, and thought better of it.
Half an hour later, Betty was snoring on the couch. It was Sunday. I had promised Harold that I would come by the church later that day, but for the moment, I could take some time to relax. I sat down next to Betty, and opened up my laptop. As it booted up, I reached over to gently scratch behind Betty’s ears. She rewarded this with a soft purring noise, her notched ear flicking lightly as she rolled onto her back, leaning up against me. I thought briefly of how long it had been since I’d had a steady girlfriend, and felt a little bit embarrassed with myself. She was a cat, after all. Sure, a cat who was as intelligent as a human, and who looked like a human most of the time, but it was probably a blasphemy of some sort to hit on a goddess. Men got turned into stags for that kind of thing.
The computer booted up sluggishly, and I started surfing the web to learn more about the church. They didn’t have an entry on Wikipedia, but there were a number of news articles on them. The Church of the Survivor. They appeared to be a Christian sect, founded some time around the turn of the millennium, based on the belief that the apocalypse was coming. A lot of weird beliefs about needing to change to suit the times. Apparently, they’d been a fairly small organization until recently. Now, a lot of money was coming in from anonymous donations, and the church’s status as a tax-free organization had been put in question.
At this point in my search, Betty climbed onto my lap, draping her arms around my shoulders. Her face was held in the direct path of the computer, purring loudly. “You stopped scratching me.” She smiled sweetly as she pressed up against me. She was always surprisingly heavy, lean muscle shifting like steel cables under her soft skin. I could smell her fur as she stared at my eyes, getting quite intimate. “What could possibly be so important that you’d stop paying attention to me?”
“I’m just reading up on a church I’m going to today. I’m curious about them, they’ve apparently been helping people out with the plague. I don’t suppose you’d know anything about the Church of the Survivor?”
“Oh, yes, absolutely. They’re an apocalypse cult who believe that reality TV is a gateway to a mind-destroying realm of nightmares.” I studied her for a few seconds. Her expression was totally earnest.
“You know, if you don’t know, you can just say so.”
“But then you wouldn’t respect me.” She leaned her head in, resting her face against my neck. I tried very hard to fight certain physiological responses, and failed gloriously. “You know, you always seem to get so flustered when I am in my deific shape. Are you overwhelmed by my majesty? It’s perfectly fine if you are, you know.”
“I… Look, it’s just a bit hard to keep calm. You’re… fairly attractive, and-”
“Oh.” She nodded sagely, a confident look on her face. “You want to mate with me. Well, I’m flattered, of course, but I’m afraid you’re not quite good enough.” I felt a hot flush of embarrassment running across my cheeks, and she grinned, leaning closer. “I am, of course, a goddess, and far beyond the reach of any mortal man, like yourself. I can understand how you would be struck by my glory, however, and I will not begrudge you fantasizing about me while you relieve yourself. I am not cruel, after all.”
“I- I don’t necessarily- You’re a cat! Why do you think I would want to mate with you?!” I said, embarrassingly aware of how much my pride was being wounded. She laughed, showing no sign of offense.
“Come now, Horace. Be serious. We both know the kind of things that you look at on that computer.”
“How could you possibly know that?” I asked, my eyes widening. She gave me an indulgent smile, smirking broadly.
“Oh, yes, the entire folder of catgirl pornography. Of course, it’s no surprise to me, but it is pleasing to see that in these dark days, people still understand how fantastic cats are at everything. I like to watch you sometimes, when you think I’m out of the apartment. It’s fun to see the kind of things you get up to when you think I’m not around.” She laughed softly, stretching out across my lap.
“Betty… Did you ever meet a man named Oliver Creed?”
She frowned. “The name sounds vaguely familiar. I may have. Why?”
I took a deep breath. I had to broach this subject eventually. “He was my father. My uncle said that he met you once, and he… Well, he suggested that you might have…” I swallowed. “Killed him.”
She shrugged. “I don’t remember much when I’m stray. I suppose it’s possible, but if I killed him, I’m sure that I had a good reason for it.” I frowned. “I don’t like killing humans, you know that. If I was responsible for his death, it was because he was doing something dangerous to everyone.”
“I see.” I went quiet, looking off into the distance. Betty licked my hair softly, and ran her fingers through it, pushing it back into place. I gave her a weak little smile.
“I’m sorry, if I did kill him. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to make you unhappy.” I shook my head.
“Forget about it. Whatever happened, happened.” I would have to learn more about this from Randall, before I could think of anything to do about it. I sighed softly, and kept stroking her ears. “Now, do you mind if I keep reading about this?”
She grumbled, and slipped off of my lap, walking towards the bedroom, clearly in a snit. I sat back, and kept reading. Then my eyes caught the legal office that they had employed to represent them. Randall Creed, LLC. I sat back in my chair, frowning softly. It wasn’t entirely odd. My uncle’s firm had, in fact, represented a number of religious organizations in their fights for recognition and acceptance. It was something of a passion of his, although I didn’t entirely understand his motivations. They didn’t pay very well. It was something to file away for later, when I could make some use of it. The church advertised more than half a dozen clinics that it funded across the city, and the one that Harold had mentioned to me was only a few blocks away.
The church’s latest newsletter was a mostly dull read. It roundly condemned the city for failing to deal with the plague-carrying rats. Apparently, the church’s deacon was viewing the plague as a deliberate assault on the homeless of the city, something that the city was allowing to grow worse in order to drive the poverty-stricken away. I sighed, and closed the laptop. It sounded like conspiracy theory garbage to me, but it really wasn’t my business. They were providing free shelter and treatment to the people who needed it.
I got on a light polo shirt and a pair of long pants, something that would hopefully look official. I really hoped I wasn’t going to have to provide sponge-baths to anyone who had weeping sores. My compassion could stretch, but this had not been a great week for me.
“Do you know, they sometimes call the Plague a disease of compassion.” The tall, arch-faced woman walked me through the clinic. It was a squat building, lit by bright incandescent bulbs, shining pure white in the hallways. It gave a very healthy feeling to the building. Dozens of cots were set up in the next room, with individuals lying on them. “Because, of course, it was spread by close contact. This meant that those who tried to tend to the sickened and dying were the most likely to become ill themselves. Families died together, you see.” She smiled. “Doctors attempted to help, and often became sick themselves. Sometimes, the safest way to destroy the plague was to quarantine it, allow it to run its course, and to burn the bodies afterwards.” She stopped, and spun in her heel, facing me. “Do you know what the fatality rate for the untreated is? It averages close to sixty percent.”
I didn’t say anything. It was worse than some strains of Ebola. “What’s the fatality rate for those who are treated?”
“Just ten percent. A mere decimation. Harsh, but a massive change. Imagine that. Your chances of survival going from less than one in two to one in ten. All thanks to the compassion of those who are willing to risk themselves for the sake of others. Compassion is dangerous, but it is never a weakness, Mister Creed.” Her hair was gray, and her features narrow, pinched, and sharp. She looked like an extremely unpleasant woman, but when she spoke, I couldn’t help but appreciate what I heard. “Now, you’re a friend of that kind Mister Harold, yes? He talked about you quite a bit when he was delirious. And if I am not mistaken, you are also the nephew of our kind benefactor, Mister Creed.”
“Yes, on both counts. My uncle never struck me as a very charitable man. I have to admit, I was rather wondering why he was helping you.”
The deacon smiled pleasantly. She was wearing a white robe, and a pair of long latex gloves. A surgical mask hung from her neck, ready to be pulled over her mouth. “I know he can be terribly unpleasant. But I suspect that is simply his way of trying to deal with the world. He, like those of us at the Church of the Survivor, wants to save the world. Perhaps he sees in us a way that he can do so, at least in a small way. There are many people who want to help. Even the rich can find a little salvation if they can put their money to good use.”
I looked down at one of the cots. One of the recovering men lay in it, his features blackened by disease, his nails and nose dark as tar. He was clutching a tiny golden rat pendant hanging from a necklace. “That seems in poor taste.” I suggested, changing the subject. She looked down, and laughed, smiling.
“Oh, it is an unusual belief, but one that some of our people hold. The world is a constant test. Every disaster, every plague, every sickness, is a test by God. It is not a curse, but a blessing. A harsh one, confessedly, but God loves those who can survive. The only way to truly gain his favor is to be tested to the breaking point, and grow stronger. Thus, among some of our patients, there is the belief that this plague was sent by God. Not to destroy us, but to make us stronger.”
“I suppose that explains some of why my uncle believes in you the way he does. But then…” I frowned. “Why would you help them, in that case? Doesn’t that weaken them?”
“Heavens, no. We are not lone wolves. We do not need to face every challenge alone. God sends us a test, but he also sends us those who will help, kind souls. Like myself. And Harold. And, it would seem, you.” She smiled warmly. “God tests men. Priests help men pass tests.”
“That reminds me… You said your title is deacon?” She nodded. “So, is there a priest? I thought deacon was a less-senior title.”
“Ah, yes, in Catholicism and many other forms of Christianity. You know, the word was originally Greek- Diakonos.” She pronounced it flawlessly. “It means quite a few things. Minister, servant, messenger. I like to think that all of those things describe me. Whereas Priest… Well, that just means old.” She gave me a light grin. “Age is not wisdom, despite the beliefs of the aged. Wisdom is not simply accumulated through age. It must be cultivated.”
I shrugged. “Well, I don’t know much on the subject of gods, or titles. But I would like to spend some time helping today.”
She nodded. “I know a little bit about you, from what Harold told us. A man poor in wealth and status, but rich in friends, and in compassion. It is an honorable thing. Of course, we can afford to compensate you. This is dangerous work, and while a good deed is its own reward, one cannot live on them. One hundred dollars for a day of work is our standard pay. Our backers are quite generous, particularly when it is helping to limit the spread of a plague through this city.” She smiled brightly, and waved a hand towards a busy deck where a secretary was assigning workers to duties. “And of course, if you should be so unfortunate as to be infected, we will make sure that you are well taken care of. But of course, there is little chance of that. We take every precaution.”
I nodded, and walked up to the desk. The secretary looked up at me. “Any medical skills?” I shook my head. “Are you competent with a forklift?” I shook my head again. “Alright. We need someone to sponge-bathe people in the wards downstairs.” She picked up a large, soft looking sponge and a bucket of soapy water. “Thanks for helping out!” she said, smiling brightly, as my smile turned waxen.
Downstairs, the rooms were not quite so pleasant. These were the serious cases. The people whose chances of survival were remote. Most of them were breathing with obvious difficulty. I’d never liked hospitals, but the unique horrors of the plague ward made me long for the too-sweet smell of air in a regular hospital. This was more like a meat locker after the power had been off for a week. Soon, though, the smell faded from the brain, as my nostrils shut down out of sheer self-preservation. I went to the room I had been assigned by a young man wearing nose-plugs at the bottom of the stairs.
The dingy yellow fluorescents buzzed like the world’s biggest and most energy-efficient hornet as the man on the bed labored to breath. I pulled on the rubber latex gloves, smock, and surgical mask that had been given to me, and began scrubbing his arms down. He groaned as I removed the sweat and the other, less wholesome bodily fluids that coated him. “So, how are you doing today?” I asked, and regretted it immediately. He didn’t speak. His eyes stayed closed, as he struggled to breathe. “Hey, just so you know, I’m not exactly the most courageous guy, so if you suddenly grab me and scream at me, or otherwise freak me out, I’m going to bolt. I won’t even stop to get my free cookie for helping people here.”
He just wheezed softly. I kept scrubbing him down. It was a harrowing experience, watching a man struggling just to stay alive. Barely able to muster the energy to keep his lungs pulling in air. Not frightening the way being choked to death by a monster had been, but still painful. “I’m sorry this happened to you. Nobody deserves this,” I muttered, under my breath.
To my great surprise, he opened his eyes. “They… did this to me.” His voice was soft, barely responsive. His chest heaved for a few seconds as he fought for breath.
“Who did?” I asked softly, frowning.
“The… thing. In Room 101.” He was breathing harder, now, his breathing ragged, full of obvious pain. “Please… You have to go see it… You have… to… To…” He wheezed, and then he stopped breathing. I stared down at him. His eyes faced up, blank, full of horror. I rested a finger on his throat. There was no pulse. Even if I could find someone to administer CPR to him, it would pulverize his emaciated body. There was nothing left to save. I gently pushed his eyelids closed, as much to try to remove the horrific expression from his face as to provide him with some dignity. It was significantly more difficult than they made it look on TV. Then I stood up, and stared out of the door.
On the one hand, nothing good had ever come of rats in a Room 101. On the other hand, this place weirded me out. If there was some horrific secret to this place, then it was better that I found out now, wasn’t it? I swallowed, and stood up, gathering my courage. It took me nearly five minutes to inch my way out of the room, and into the hallway. The rooms were numbered. I was at 12. I began walking down the hall, watching out for any other volunteers.
I turned a corner. The corridor continued for several hundred feet, and ended with a door like any other. I had a feeling I knew what its number was, though. As I approached, I could feel the tension building. What would I find, there? The walk was long enough that my mind had plenty of room to explore. I thought of what Dane had said, a rat-person nine feet tall with claws that could make such a vicious scar. I rested a hand on the door, and slowly eased it open.
Through the crack in the door, I saw just another hospital room. This one had no bed, and the lights were off. Sitting in the middle of the floor, up against one wall, was a small plastic cage. Inside of the cage sat a single large, black rat. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“You know what they say about curiosity?”
I spun around. The deacon stood in the doorway, smiling. Two men flanked her, both wearing large plastic rat nose masks over their real noses. The black on their fingernails told me they’d survived a bout with the plague. I was having difficulty deciding whether the masks were comical, or horrific. They already looked rather rat-like, with long nails and mad, staring eyes. “Yeah. And I know that satisfaction brought the cat back.” I looked between the two men. “That patient said that you infected him.”
She smiled sympathetically. “It’s true. Poor lad. Died in the service of a greater cause. His death is not something we desire. It is merely a consequence of our greater cause.”
“I don’t intend to give you the satisfaction you crave, young man. Do not misunderstand me, you will be useful. A pawn. Something to keep that damned uncle of yours from betraying our great plan. You will understand it all, once you’ve tasted the plague.” She smiled brightly. “You’re a fine young man. I’ve great faith in your capacity to survive.” She snapped her fingers, and the two men grabbed me by the shoulders. I swore to myself that I would take self defense classes if I managed to survive this.
The two of them dragged me into the room. I heard echoing footsteps ringing down the corridor as the deacon walked away. “It’s not so bad, man,” said the man on my right. “You spend a couple weeks feeling like the grim reaper’s dangling a loogie over your face, then you understand. Really understand, know what I mean? Real knowledge of the gods stuff! Hah, it’s pretty great.”
“Is that what you told the guy who just died?” I asked, trying to muster a bit of defiance. The man frowned.
“That’s a real bad attitude you’ve got about these things. You know, you need to stay positive if you want to make it through. Now, come on.” He hauled me forward, and slammed me to the ground, my jaw and chest striking the stone floor. My breath rushed out as my head spun, and he moved my face closer to the cage. I stared up. The rat was sleek, glossy-furred, with large, red eyes. My eyes flickered, taking in the shape of the creature. My heart was pounding with fear. I could see the creature’s fur, writhing, as fleas crawled across it. I could see its tail, trapped in a crack in the wall. That seemed unnecessarily cruel.
I looked over my shoulder at the grinning man in the rat mask as he reached out to open the cage. I saw the other man standing by the door, watching us with his arms crossed, a stoic expression presumably hidden under the ridiculous rat mask. I was going to have nightmares about this if I wasn’t too dead from the plague.
A shadow detached from the ceiling. One of its arms went around the man’s throat, and another went around his chest. There was a sudden tightening, like a lover’s embrace, and the man went limp, falling to the ground. His neck looked notably more slender, and his head dangled oddly. The man standing over me didn’t appear to notice as the dark figure approached him, but he must have seen my eyes widening, because he turned.
The shadow’s hand went around my captor’s throat, and lifted him bodily into the air with one arm. There was a sound like a chicken’s rib-cage getting ripped open, fleshy and bone-snapping at the same time, and he dropped to the floor. He was limp, finger marks sunk into the meat of his throat. The figure stepped closer.
She was beautiful. Her hair was the color of a lily, white and shining even in the dim light from the corridor. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and her features were Asian. Her eyes were red, and she was dressed in a loose white kimono. She studied me for a moment, and then her lips pressed against mine. The kiss would have been extraordinarily pleasant, even downright enjoyable, had it not been for the fact that her tongue was forked. That was a shock. She broke the kiss, and nodded. “I am in time. You are not infected.” She looked down at the rat, and frowned. “We must get you out.”
“How?” I asked, swallowing. Her lips had tasted quite sweet, but there’d been a hint of something like blood on her tongue. I didn’t want to think about how unsanitary that was.
“You will wear his clothes. We will sneak out.” Her accent was vaguely East Asian, although there were only traces of it, and I probably couldn’t tell the difference between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese accents anyway. Her tone was stern, and her voice was contralto, warm and rich.
I looked down at the man. “Did you have to kill him?” I asked, frowning.
“He was going to infect you with a plague of the soul and the body. He was going to do this because he truly believed he was doing you a favor. The worst villains are the ones who honestly believe they are doing good.” The young woman stared down at the body. She didn’t blink.
“Why are you saving me?”
“Because I honestly believe I am doing good. And I serve one who honestly believes he is doing good. I am here to protect you, to fulfill a very old bargain.”
“That’s not very reassuring.”
“It was not meant to be. However, I am also not trying to give you the Black Death. That is, I think you will find, a point in my favor.”
I changed out of my clothes, pulling on the shaggy outfit of the man. His throat had been crushed. “You’re not human, are you.”
” No.” She didn’t elaborate. I sighed, and pulled on the clothing, placing the rat mask over my face. It smelled exactly as unpleasant as I had imagined.
“Just… Try not to kill anyone else, okay?”
“I do not have to follow your commands.”
“It’s not a command. It would just mean a lot to me if you didn’t kill anyone else.”
She was quiet for several long seconds. She looked away from me, and to my rather great surprise, she flushed. “I will do my best.” I gave her a warm smile, and the flush got a bit worse. It was nice to finally meet someone who I could tease, rather than get teased by. It would be even nicer if the two of us survived the next half hour.
“Now how are you going to get out?” I asked, frowning. She stepped around behind me, and I could feel her pressing against my back. Her breathing was slow and steady, and when I stepped forward, she matched the movement perfectly. I tried not to show an undue amount of glee. I’d met a kunoichi.
I walked down the hall, and she matched my stride perfectly. It was like my shadow had become physical. I approached the man standing at the door, and nodded silently to him as I passed. He grunted. As we walked past, the silent woman shifted around me until she was in front, keeping me between her and the sentry all along. At the top of the stairs, the process was repeated, as the two of us walked out into the first floor.
There seemed to be quite a commotion on the first floor. We walked past a large pool of blood, and I saw the lights of an ambulance through a window. Most of the people on the floor seemed more concerned with whatever unfortunate accident had happened than the two of us walking out of the place. I reached the front door, and that’s where it all went wrong.
The deacon stood there. Half a dozen of the rat-masked men were standing with her. My jaw clenched. “Interesting,” she murmured, eying the woman who had saved me, with an expression that fell somewhere between terror and rage. The men had guns, which made the terror a bad thing.
“I don’t suppose you’re bulletproof?” I asked hopefully.
“They would inconvenience me significantly. They probably wouldn’t kill me.”
I sighed. “Probably doesn’t do me much good.” I looked up at the Deacon. “I don’t suppose you’d give enough of a damn about the consequences to consider letting me go? I mean, I’m sure the police would get very curious if, for example, you had half a dozen crazy men in rat masks shooting an apparently innocent pair of people.”
“Oh, far from innocent, the two of you. And trust me when I say that there is little that mere men can do to stop what’s happening, now.” She smiled pleasantly. “You know, we really are just trying to do what is best for everyone. Though our methods may be horrible, they will save many lives.” She waved a hand. “It is triage. You must decide how to save the ones that you can. Compassion demands that if we can take action that would harm a few in order to save many more, it would be immoral not to act.” She snapped her fingers. The woman beside me clenched her fists. And then, the deacon let out a soft gasp. A clawed hand was around her throat.
“Oh, how interesting,” purred Betty. “That means, then, that the wisest action for you right now would be to try to wrestle out of my grasp, risking your own death in the hopes that you will be able to ensure that your plan goes off without a hitch. Of course, it would be one of your subordinates who leads things, and not you, but what was it you said about it being immoral not to act?” The deacon’s eyes were full of stark terror, her back straight. The men had turned towards her, their guns raised, and Betty just smiled. “Of course, I am absolutely bulletproof. You are holding my human and threatening to hurt him. If I wanted to, I could kill every one of you right now. And you know it.” She grinned, her teeth needle sharp, and her green eyes flashed. The men stared, their expressions frozen. “They haven’t harmed you yet, have they, Horace?” she asked, her voice sweet.
“Please don’t kill them, Betty.” I pleaded. I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth about what she could do. I really didn’t want anyone in the room to find out. Betty hmmed, and her grasp tightened, a bead of blood appearing at the deacon’s throat, as one of her nails pierced the skin.
“Let them go,” The woman hissed, her expression frozen in a rictus. “We do not need them. They can tell whoever they like about what has happened. It will not change the ultimate fate of this city.” The men lowered their weapons, eager for the chance to avoid dying for what they believed in.
“I love when people’s hypocrisy is self-serving. It makes it much easier to take advantage of them.” Betty laughed softly. “Now. I have a warning for you. I know where you live. I can find you whenever I like.” She licked the drip of blood off of her nail, and purred loudly, a sound that seemed to make the men grow tense. “I will most likely kill you for whatever you have planned, anyway. However, if you threaten, or harm, my human? I will play with you first.” Her other hand trailed, almost intimately, down the deacon’s spine.
“You will regret this. Cat.” Even Uncle Creed had never invested a word with the kind of bile and hatred that she just had. I stepped forward, dragging the woman who had saved me out, and grabbing Betty’s hand to do the same to her. The two of them followed me onto the street. I didn’t dare stop until we were several blocks away, at which point I bent over and failed to be sick at all, considering the fact that I hadn’t had anything to eat that day. Instead, I just felt extremely grateful I was alive.
“So, who is THIS?” Betty asked, her arms crossed, her eyes narrowed as she studied the other woman, her expression annoyed. “Have you been hanging around with someone behind my back, Horace? She smells like she was pressed up against you.”
“It’s… a long story, Betty.”
“I kissed him.” The woman said, quite simply, not appearing remotely offended. Betty’s tail fluffed out, her ears flattening against her head.
“You what?! Listen here! He’s my human!” She prodded the shorter woman firmly in her flat chest. The Asian girl rocked on her heels, but showed no apparent fear. “If you ever try slutting around with him again, I’m going to skin you and use it as an elegant shawl to keep me warm during the winter, do you understand?” she asked, hissing a bit. I looked around. We were attracting a crowd of amused people.
“Betty, this is all very amusing and all, but I think that we should get home. I need to ask you some things.” I looked over at the woman. “I… Thank you. Do you think I’ll see you again?”
“I’m meant to keep an eye on you, in case you get into trouble.” She shrugged. “So, while I hope not, you almost certainly will. You have a real talent for stumbling into sudden violent death.” She paused for a moment, and then smiled. “And I suppose I could always go for another kiss.” And then, she disappeared, fading away like a cloud, disappearing into wisps of vapor.
“Damn sorceress.” Betty muttered, an annoyed expression on her face. “What are you grinning about?!”
I tried to wipe the smile off my face, and didn’t succeed. “Oh, nothing, nothing. Just… Nice to be meeting new people.” And the two of us made our way home, Betty pouting all the way, until I promised to buy her some salmon for dinner that night. And in the meantime, I thought about how I would answer the questions pressing on me.