Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

The flickering neon promise was the same as always, ‘Rooms by the Hour’ and underneath ‘Vacancy’. I knew what I would find inside. The locks on the double front doors were burned away completely leaving a metre wide hole in the surrounding glass, soft bubbled edges that were very recently molten.

I pushed one door open with the barrel of my pistol and stepped into the lobby. The small room reeked of antiseptic cleansers layered with floral air conditioners. Neither masked the smell of roasted hair and flesh.

Behind the front desk a thin figure in a grey suit lay in an androgynous heap, head burned completely off. It wouldn’t matter how fast the meat wagons got here, they could grow back an arm or a leg, scrape the latent personality and experience from the brain and reprint a clone if the kill turned out to be unrighteous, but without a head this life was lost for good. Working the front desk at a whore house, it was unlikely whoever it was could afford backup.

Up the stairs to the second floor, I passed door after door where the scene played out the same; wood kicked off hinges, hookers and clients alike in various states of undress lay in torched heaps, some in their beds, some near the doorway no doubt investigating the noise, some half way to the bathroom or bedroom window, their desperate attempt to escape cut short by the merciless cone of death fired at apparent close range.

He was in the last room, standing staring at her body where it lay motionless on the bed. He turned slightly as I entered, the weapon hanging limply at his side. The virus had turned more than half of his skin black, polished and shiny, the far side of his face infected top to bottom giving him the eerie appearance of a man half in shadow, even in this light.

She was dead. Skin turned completely black, joints shattered where her death throes had broken the crystalline flesh in the last few moments of life.

“They must have made her a carrier, kept her isolated until she infected me.” He waved absently at her. “I was her only client in the last three weeks, she was saving herself for me.” I remembered the body at the front desk, his opening salvo of questions. “They must have let it off its leash once they were done with her.” One side of his face creased into a smile, the dark side frozen, the resulting expression appropriately grotesque. “No loose ends.” He fished in his pocket and produced my badge. “You’ll be needing this”, he said as he tossed it to me. I caught it left handed without looking, brailled its surface reflexively and slipped it in my hip pocket. “We’re not done here.”

I knew what he’d started I would have to finish. We stared at each other, like figures on either side of a funhouse mirror, he regarding what he’d looked like before the infection effectively ended his life, I was looking back at what I had become in the days while I was being reconstituted. The carnage between then and now making us two very different people.

“Not different,” he read my mind, “we’re the same.” He weighed the blaster carefully, studying the purpose built simplicity of the weapon as though seeing it for the first time. “And if they came for us once, they’ll be coming again.”

I knew he was right. Knew I was right. He met my gaze and held it. I wondered if the sadness in his eyes was echoed in mine.

“Thank god for backup.” He raised the barrel and pushed it under his jaw, once more the grotesque smile in the instant before the particle blast erased it for good.

“Thank god for backup.” I repeated.

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