Any Old Disease – Dimitra Nikolaidou

Any Old Disease – Dimitra Nikolaidou

“What is wrong with him?”

Ada had heard that tone before, the horror of a newly assigned doctor witnessing the Leak for the first time. She waited for the novice’s breath to settle.

“He is withering,” she said, her gaze fixed upon the man slowly expiring in front of them, his eyes already blinded, his skin paper-thin and stained. “For years on end, he is going to waste away; his remaining senses will dull, his organs will fail and in the end, he will die. This is what doctors here refer to as the Leak. As for what exactly is wrong with him, what the causes are and how it can be stopped — well, this is exactly what we are trying to figure out here, in this Institute. This is why we need you.” She let that sink in. This was the make-or-break moment, when someone decided whether they had the stomach to stay and deal with the horror on a daily basis, or walked away and drank themselves to oblivion.

The younger woman crossed her arms in front of her, eyes still fixed on the man beyond the glass. So far, she seemed to take it in better than Ada herself had, so many years ago.

“I will do everything I can to find a cure for this disease,” the woman said in the end, and Ada let go of a breath she had not realized she was holding. She had liked this one from the start; it would have been a pity to see her go the way of so many others.

The novice’s name was Cybele and now that she had made up her mind to stay, Ada could finally allow herself to get to know her. The two of them rode the glass elevator that went all the way up to the Institute’s terrace in silence, emerging as the sun’s last rays bled over the snow-covered mountains.

The view was sublime as always, yet it failed to draw a reaction out of the Cybele; she kept staring at her drink instead.

“It gets better,” Ada said, after a few moments of silence.

Cybele glanced at her, lips parted, and then turned back to her cup. The signs of shock were still etched on her face; the sun-tanned skin was now cast in grey, and her green eyes, so bright and curious this morning, had retreated into their sockets.

Ada said no more, let the woman compose her thoughts in peace. To see patients dying of the Leak took the wind out of your lungs; it was not so much the physical decay, the so very slowly crumbling skin, the hair turning to ash. No disease was a pleasant sight, after all. No, there was something else about the Leak, something visceral, whispering threats under your skin, pulling you when common sense told you to run. But then again, common sense was not the strong suit of anyone working at the Institute.

“I apologize.” Cybele said eventually. “I thought I was prepared.”

“This isn’t any old disease. It has that effect on everyone who encounters it. Take your time.”

Cybele nodded. Her eyes seemed to take in the landscape around them before settling back on Ada.

“Do they understand what’s happening to them?”

“They understand everything at first. Yet by the end, even the mind is gone.” Some considered this a blessing. Ada did not.

“Why is this disease so little known outside the Institute?” Cybele asked. “I tried to read up on it before coming up here but there’s very little out there.  Just a few vague footnotes, and an ancient, inconclusive case study.”

Ada shrugged. “Well, this is the rarest of diseases. No known cause, no cure. Every single case is brought to us, and since we still do not know how it spreads, we have chosen to remain as isolated as we can. Plus, for now, we do not want to publish our findings.”

“Why not?”

“Institute’s policy. As obscure as a black cat’s soul.”

For the first time after witnessing the Leak, Cybele’s eyes came back to focus. “But then, where do the Institute’s funds come from? This facility looks anything but cheap.”

Ada lifted the cup to her lips. “The Director scored us a government contract, untold eons ago. It means we’re under the Health Ministry’s thumb, but it’s a relief to actually work instead of hunting down funds every second semester.”

Cybele did not speak for a moment, then mimicked Ada’s shrug. She settled on her chair a little better. “And this?” she asked, looking at Ada’s glossy chrome and matte carbon-fiber left hand. “Did you get it working here?”

“This? No… no.” Ada clenched the metal fingers, then left them immobile again. “It was a landmine in New Paris.” She held the hand up and the fingers caught the last flashes of the setting sun, silver painted molten red. “I can’t be a surgeon anymore of course, but it beats a pirate’s hook.”

Cybele laughed, and Ada smiled back. The memory always summoned pinpricks of fire on her skin, but she sensed the unspoken questions in the air and pressed on.

“We were a bunch of volunteers from the medical faculty, searching for survivors in the ruins. We had gone as far as the Louvre crater, and were looking for a way to pass through when our guide slipped and landed face down on the wrong side of a minefield.”

This was as much as she could say for now — perhaps in a few hundred years she would be able to talk about the rest, about flying deafened through the debris and the flame, about landing on her best friend’s body, about Milo and Anwuli pulling her away seconds before the collapse, or about or any of the things that came after. For the time being, she just took another gulp.

“Prosthetics are the reason I decided to go into medicine,” Cybele said, shifting the subject. Empathy; a useful trait in a doctor. “Everyone else thought I was destined to be a historian, or a journalist. Something with digging up the past, anyway. The world had 10 billion people before the Great Floods, and all their stories are now lost; someone has to find them, and I wanted it to be me. However, in the end I found myself so touched by the engineering feats of prosthetists, that I knew I had to be a part of it.”

“Prosthetics don’t do anything for them, you know,” Ada said, nodding towards the underground labs where the Leak drained their patients away. “Nothing does.”

“And they just wither away like that? Till they are gone?”

Ada nodded. “You will get attached to your first. I won’t say don’t do it; we all did.”

Cybele didn’t answer. She took another sip, lips tight, fingers tense. She seemed secretive, but it mattered little. Isolated as they were up in the mountain, miles away from any village, everyone opened up eventually, and let go.

After all, they had all the time in the world.

The Institute was a pile of glass boxes, panels, and domes, designed to let as much light as possible slip in through the day. The Leaks, however, were secured underground; they were too fragile, and always cold. As a result, Ada had to spend half her day below the frozen earth with them and at the end of her every shift, no matter how sharp the alpine cold was, she always needed to go outside the crystal walls even for a minute, in order to start breathing again.

“How is the novice doing?”

Milo asked the question as soon as the elevator started moving towards the terrace. In the six months that had passed since she and Cybele had shared their first coffee up there, the days had become much shorter. The sun had already set when they stepped out, but the view remained magnificent; starlight reflected on sculpted snow.

“Better than most,” Ada said. The elevator doors closed behind them without a sound and they both let a few moments pass, bathing in the night. So far up the mountains there was almost no wildlife to break the silence —just their own long exhalations, carrying away the day. “She caught up fast, doesn’t flinch near the Leaks, even asked a couple of questions that got me thinking.”

Milo let a half-laugh out. “Doesn’t flinch? Are you sure she’s human?”

“Shut up.” She just looked at the snow for a moment, half a word riding on each breath but none getting out of her lips. “I wish I knew how she does it. It is getting in the way of our research, the way the disease freaks out the rest of us.”

“I know. I know.” Levity had been chased away from his tone now. “Hey, if she can do what we can’t, we are lucky to have her here. Just… don’t blame yourself for not being her.”

Her anger evaporated and she sighed. “I know. She just reminded me why I signed up for this in the first place. She cares for them the way I used to care when I first came here – nowadays, I feel I’m just continuing the work out of stubbornness.”

“It takes all kinds. The compassionate, the stubborn, the morbidly fascinated and even those of us trapped up here by our bloody contract.” He closed his eyes and stretched, head to toe. “Not that I do not share your frustration. Sometimes, for all our hard work, I swear we are just going in circles.”

“True.” They weren’t supposed to talk about work after their shift had ended; eight hours with the Leaks were draining enough. Some days, though, were more intense than others and today, their oldest patient had refused to continue treatment. It would be a matter of days before her clouded eyes closed out the world for good –her life seeping towards the darkness in the center of the earth.

The words snuck out of Ada’s mouth. “What if… what if we aren’t meant to find the truth?”


“Come on. We’ve circled the issue before, let us say it out loud. There are files missing from the Institute’s research. You can tell by the serial numbers. Most of it is older work, but still. Why lock away anything at all, if we ‘re so desperate for answers?”

Milo looked at her. For a moment, the stars did not blink.

“Are you the one who put Cybele up to it, then?” he asked.

“Up to what?”

“Snooping. Asking to cross-reference old research. Was it you?”

“What? Of course not. When did that happen? And why would I set a newcomer to do my snooping for me? I’ve been here for ever.”

“I’m sorry.” He ran his hand through his hair. “You’ve wondered aloud about the missing files so many times in the past, and the Director never reacts well to the implication, so…”

She waited, but Milo had stopped talking. “So you thought I conned the rookie into asking on my behalf,” she said, arms crossed.

“Hey, I would’ve done it if I were you. Anything to avoid his stare. Noticed how he started locking his office door a month ago? How he revoked half our access codes for no reason? I think he hired extra guards a week ago; some of the faces outside the fence are new. He’s getting more paranoid by the day.”

Ada had noticed, but she was still pissed at Milo, and chose to leave all his words unanswered.

Three months after that spat, spring rode over the mountain top. Now the third floor cafeteria was always full early in the mornings; nobody wanted to lose a moment of sunlight before heading underground to work. She braced herself for the cheerfulness, but the minute she walked in, everyone stopped talking for the briefest of moments, and then resumed chattering with half an eye turned towards her.

Milo was the only one to keep his eyes on her; she moved towards his table, but then he nodded imperceptibly towards the windows. With one last glance at him, she walked up to the glass, and looked outside.

The sun was melting the scarce snow they had gotten last night, and Cybele was out there, holding the last flakes in her hands. Showing them to a Leak.

Ada sighed on the inside. The new ones always got attached, and then did something stupid about it. The Leaks — the patients — were exactly as fragile as they looked. Taking them out of the underground bunker was not doing them any favors. This one seemed so far down the road, that even talking in the chilly air burdened his lungs. On the other hand, they all had done something like that when they were as fresh as Cybele was. Ada would have a talk with her later on.

Ada turned away, only to find herself almost stepping on the Director’s toes.

It took her a few more seconds to realize that the cafeteria had fallen silent, everyone staring in their cups, ears cocked to her side.

“Look at her,” the Director said, through a mirthless smile. He was a head taller than her, and made of slippery ice. “Brave, isn’t she?”

Ada did not answer. Cybele looked up. The Director did not acknowledge her; he brought his cup to his lips but did not drink. Cybele turned to her patient again, as if he were the only person in the world.

Around them, snow began falling again.

“How do you do this?”

“Do what?” Cybele was several steps ahead as they climbed down the snow-dusted slope, but she stopped and turned.

“Be so comfortable around them.” Cybele remained silent, and eventually Ada caught up to her. They stared at the distance for a while. Below them, whiffs of clouds concealed the valley at the feet of the mountains. The pyramidal tip of an old church steeple, probably buried under the ground three thousand years ago, when the Great Floods had covered the old world in water, was the only landmark as far as their eyes could see.

“I don’t know,” Cybele said at the end. “Why not? In the end, it is just another disease. You get used to the symptoms and proceed to the treatment.”

“I know. But for most of us, it took much, much longer.”

“So everyone keeps telling me. Sometimes, I think I freak you out as much as the patients do.”

“True,” Ada said. Cybele looked up at her in surprise; the older woman simply shrugged. It took a few more seconds before they both burst out laughing. “You do score points for constantly aggravating the Director, however.”

“Not my intention,” said Cybele, and her tone made Ada hold her next words back. Just mentioning the man’s name seemed to cast a shadow these days, and the mountain light was receding too fast for comfort anyway.

“So where are you from? I never asked” she said instead, kicking a stone down the slope. It did not even echo as it rolled.

“Northern Greece. The great wind farms. Ever been there?”

“No. Not yet. Perhaps when I am done with the Institute.”

“You have a bucket list for afterwards?”

“Not really. Who knows what I will want to do when I’m finished here. Probably just fish in the sun for the next thirty years. Not that my contract expires any time soon.”

“Has anyone ever left?”

Ada hesitated. It sounded too sinister to say it out loud that no, nobody ever had. There was work to be done, still, and after so long, the outside seemed distant and noisy. Cybele stared at her a few seconds more, and then turned back to look at the setting sun being impaled on the solitary church steeple.

“Come on, let’s walk a bit more” she said. “We don’t have much time left.”

Shots woke Ada up in the night.

Her eyes opened. She should be startled, should maybe even panic as the dry sounds tore the air. As she reached for the light, though, she realized she had been half-waiting for something big to happen, ever since Cybele had taken the patient out in the snow half a year ago. When you live so long in a place, you can read the change in the air.

There was no alarm going off, no red lights blinking. If she hadn’t heard shots before, she might even write the sound off as a distant avalanche and go back to sleep. However, this was not a choice now. She got up, found her morning clothes and slipped her white coat over them— the most useless armor ever.

She cracked her door open and looked across the corridor, at Cybele’s room.

The door was half open, and no-one was inside. No laptop on the desk either.

She was preparing to go over when an armed man in black uniform turned the corner. Her heart clenched; the Institute guards did not carry weapons and they had never stepped inside the main building, for as long as she had worked there. This man was military; an outsider.

“Are you all right, Doctor?” he asked, cold in his tracks.

“What is going on?”

“You are not to worry. Please return to your room.”

“I need to check on my patients.” Cybele was closer to them than to her colleagues; perhaps Ada would find some kind of answer in their quarters. The man was not actively stopping her, but there is a thing about guns, they talk in a way mouths can’t. “Getting them upset is not good, for any one.”

Yes, he had his guns — but she could always rely on the terrifying aura of the Leak.

It worked. “All right, Doctor. You can go down, but I will need to escort you.”

She nodded and walked to the underground entrance, the guard one step behind her, his boots leaving muddied prints on the pristine floor. She had hoped to get rid of him once they reached the basement but of course, no such luck. The accordion doors parted for them, and they entered the underground.

He gasped at the sight of the Leaks behind the glass walls; his sudden shock would be her only chance. She ducked into one of the glass rooms fast, and closed the door before he could gather up the courage to follow. It locked behind her, and she hoped the man would not know how much she was going against the rules by doing this.

She knelt by the bed, and whispered to the patient under the covers. “I’m Cybele’s friend. I need to help her. Please, if you do know, tell me what’s going on. Is she safe?”

The man was one of their oldest patients; his hair had fallen off long ago and his skin was stained, crumpled paper. He wasn’t sleeping; the Leak took their sleep away after a while. Twisted fingers held the covers close to the chest. They were always cold after this stage, no matter the temperature.

She caught herself bending forward, trying to inhale the crumpled skin. The disease beckoned as it always did, and it took all her experience and training to resist. Her fingers touched the covers, twitched as she tried not to touch the patient himself.

“Did she make it out?” the man asked. Their voice was the worst, the disharmony in it. It echoed out of a grave and forced you to come closer, to listen.

“Cybele?” she whispered. The man looked at her. “I’m not sure. I’m her friend, though. Do you know where she is?”

“I know you. I saw you watching us over the deck so many months ago, when she showed me the snowflakes.”

She did not answer. His labored breath ticked the seconds off.

“She liked to visit the black church,” he said. “She liked to watch the sun rise from there.”

Ada waited some more, but the man only exhaled. It wore them out, talking, much as they craved it. And much as she craved an answer, the pull was becoming too much. She stood up and walked out, smoothing her jacket all the way down.

Outside, the soldier was holding on to his gun. He was fighting hard not to vomit, but for the first time in her life, Ada could not conjure any sympathy at all.

“Is he… is he…?”

“Going to be all right? What do you think?” she answered, walking past him and reaching for the stairs.

“And he was born like that?”

It caught up with her, then, compassion. She slowed down, took a breath. “It’s a very rare disease, sir. You shouldn’t worry— it affects less than one person in ten million. I suggest visiting Dr. Kira here, first thing in the morning. Talk about it. She will help you get it out of your mind.”

Her concern shamed him back into stony silence, and they walked out.

Next morning at breakfast, the usual cliques had merged into one big, animated hydra. Ada was expecting them to be awkward with her as she walked in, cup in hand, but they had all been together for too long; after a second, they circled her, eyes gleaming.

“Have you heard?”

“I only heard the gunshots.” They did not believe her; they waited for more. “All right. Anyone care to shock me with the terrible news?”

Milo stepped forward, steaming cup in hand. “Cybele is nowhere to be found. Haven’t the guards come to question you yet?”

Question her — odd choice of words.

“Cybele ran off?” She could feel her heart skipping beats, but would not give them the satisfaction. “And why the fuss? She wouldn’t be the first to break down in here.”

“She did not break down. Or run off. She broke into the Director’s office. Using very precise, very professional methods.”

She looked at them startled, and they looked back, waiting.

“Did she take anything?”

“He won’t tell of course,” said Milo. “But she must have. They caught her down the slope, halfway to the river. I heard there was a boat waiting for her there but whoever drove it escaped when the guards grabbed her.”

“Where is she now?”

“A government helicopter came for her at sunrise.”

“You said government?”

The crack in her voice shut them up. Leaving her cup on the table, she walked outside and, thank their oaths, her colleagues found it in themselves to respect that and leave her alone, till the soldiers came in her room to ask her their empty questions.

“Still thinking about her?”

“You can tell?”

Six months had passed since Cybele was taken away, but Milo knew Ada well enough.

“At least the Director isn’t looking at you funny anymore.”

“Why would he? He’s the one who hired her. And it was his decision to appoint Cybele to me in the first place. It’s not like I had anything to do with her schemes.”

Milo nodded and laid back. The time had not come yet for a frank discussion, and they both knew it.

Ada got up. “Going for a walk,” she said. “Last days of summer.”

He raised his cup, and she smiled, buttoned up her coat and walked out of the glass doors. She had been taking walks every day for the past five months, till the guards had eventually stopped tailing her and everyone had started taking her new habit for granted. Only today, instead of going towards the summit, she turned around, and went the way she had been long avoiding, the path down the slope.

The path towards the ‘black church’.

It wasn’t a church anymore, of course. Ages ago, it might have been the roof of one, probably considered ancient even before the Great Floods swept the old world away. The rest of the building had been submerged in mud but the top, built to withstand hail and stone, had remained, jutting out of the earth, catching the light on its dark tiles.

It took some searching but finally she noticed it, the place where the moss had been disturbed. She knelt and slid her artificial hand over it. The whole tile dislodged and a dew-covered tin caught the sunrays. There was a box there — Cybele’s lunch box.

It opened easily under the pressure of her metal fingers, and Ada saw two things inside; a musty book that looked as old as the sunken church itself, and a digital data stick. She picked the tome first and slid her fingers in the old pages, trying not to inhale their rotten scent. The handwriting was hard to read, but she could tell it was some kind of ledger, a list of births and deaths in the small village that used to lie half a mile below, long before the Floods had taken it with them three millennia ago.

Only there was something wrong with the events recorded inside. First of all, it seemed that everyone who had ever been born in that village, had eventually died. Not only that, they had also died very young: at seventy, at eighty, some of them even at sixty. The most peculiar thing, though, was that the archivist had labeled all those premature deaths as ‘natural causes.’

It made no sense.

“I am impressed.”

The Director’s voice, just a few steps behind.

A split second; her sole chance. She dropped the box and as she scrambled to pick it up, she stepped on the data stick and pushed it into the mud.

She turned around and there he was, looking at her, hands behind his back. No armed guards, she noticed. She exhaled, and looked at him; he extended his hand and she handed the book over without shutting it, trying to get a last glimpse at the handwritten litany of death.

For a moment they stood in silence, he reading, and she pushing the stick further into the ground.

“I am sorry for your friend” he said eventually, startling her. His own eyes had not widened as he looked over the ledger. “Had she told you of this?”

“No. I figured it out a few days ago,” she half-lied. “Pieced some of the things she had implied together. I wanted to see if I was right.”

She could see he did not believe her, and she decided to go all in.

“What does it mean, though?” she asked. “What killed this people? Why natural causes? What happened in this mountain?”

“No idea, Doctor,” he smiled through his teeth. “I will study this and let you know when I understand myself.”

He turned his back and left, and Ada wanted to knock him over for a moment but then she noticed his shoulders hunching and his steps growing heavy as he walked away. Kneeling to clean her boots, she picked the data stick up.

Security had tightened since Cybele’s stunt, but the guard in the gate was used to Ada’s artificial hand setting off the alarm; they did not notice the stick tucked inside the glove, chrome on chrome. Back to her room, she sealed the windows, took her tablet to the bathroom, sat on the edge of the bathtub and slid the stick in.

Only one folder inside, untitled. No notes, no documents, only photos: underwater graveyards, larger than anything she had ever seen, and extremely short lifespans carved on each one. Seventy years. Sixty. Forty. Some of them had pictures enshrined in them, and she could see that most of the deceased had fallen victims to the Leak before their deaths: the lined faces, the cloudy eyes, the false teeth.

This made no sense. She was no historian, and even if she were, there was precious little left from the world before the floods. However, even though the waters and the wars that followed had obliterated written records, just as they had swept away everything else, some stories had been recorded a few decades after the disaster, once the few survivors stopped fighting and scraping for food, settled down and started to rebuild over the ruins. They spoke of famine, and salted earth and the fires that broke out in the abandoned cities, consuming what was left. They spoke of the Himalayan ice melting, flooding the world a second time, prolonging their struggle. They spoke of the diseases they had to combat without access to hospitals or medicine, the wounds that took decades to heal, their cancers that had to wait a hundred years for previously known cures to be re-invented. Yet there was no mention of a Leaking epidemic in their scarce tellings, no word of people simply wasting away with time till they were dead.

A knock on her room’s door. Oh well. It had taken him long enough.

She got up, opened the bathroom door, crossed the sitting room. The Director was on the outside. Again, no armed guards with him. He inclined his head, and she stepped back to let him in. The door closed behind him.

“So, you really did not know,” he pointed out. “I apologize for the bluff. I had to make sure you were not allied with them.”


“The Pures. Cybele’s little terrorist group.” She kept staring at him, and he sighed. “Can I have the data stick, or whatever it was? You would not have given me the book so easily, if you weren’t holding on to something else.”

“Of course. Can I have an explanation in return? I’ve been working on the Leak for the last two hundred and seventy-five years. Milo was here a century before me. This,” she pointed at the tablet, still sitting on the bathroom sink, “looks like something we should’ve known.”

“I know. I apologize, Doctor; I did not enjoy keeping secrets myself, but the position of the Director came with caveats.”

“Yet you let me find it. You could’ve stopped me before I reached the church.”

“Again, I do not enjoy keeping secrets, even as I understand the need for them. They are the death of science. “He leaned on her wall, arms crossed. “Speaking of secrets, by now you might have realized how your protégé had us all fooled. I invited her over after encountering her impressive research on prosthetics and regenerative techniques. And at first, she seemed the most dedicated of all of us. Yet it seems, she never meant to heal the Leak.”

“Oh? Then what was she doing up here? The view isn’t that magnificent.”

He did not crack a smile. “I believe she meant to sneak one of the patients out, or at least secure samples and photos, and spread them into the general population.” He paused for a moment, glancing at her, then went on. “You see, the Pures believe the disease and its conclusion, death, to be our natural state — something to strive for, instead of a horrible illness. Which is why Cybele wormed her way up here, so she could find a way to spread the word and, maybe, the disease itself.” He scrutinized her face for a moment. “This is the first you are hearing of that.”

“It is.” Cybele as she knew her was shredded; she would pick the pieces later, rebuild a new Cybele. Out of the maelstrom though, one thing remained. “She did make you wonder, didn’t she? You did ponder, could she possibly be right?”

He smiled a tight smile. “Perhaps? Doesn’t the sight of the Leak strike a chord a bit too deep for comfort? What other disease does that to us, after so long?” He stopped leaning on the wall, and took a step towards her, hands in his pockets. “Most governments try to keep it under wraps, but the archaeologists do find unsettling bits from time to time, things like the ledger and the graveyards. There are old texts, stories that would only make sense if we were mortal once.”

“You mean, if we all eventually contracted the Leak and simply died?”

“Exactly. With our antediluvian history lost, anyone can theorize, can’t they? And this is why you and I are paid to stay holed up here: someone always digs something up and starts wondering — and eventually, they become enthralled with this idea of death as the true natural order. Some of them even find our little Institute and crawl to us, like Cybele did. For these people, the Leak is the ultimate confirmation of their theories.” He paused for the briefest second. “I admire their perseverance, yet in the end I am a healer, just like you are. No matter what I think of their theories, I do not have the patience to entertain their madness.”

“What if they’re right? What if this is the way we are meant to end? What if we were short-lived, once, so very long before the Floods that we had lost even the memory of it when the waters came?”

“Care to tell that to the people withering in the basement? That it is all right to suffer as they do, that they are doing their ancestors proud?”

No. The answer came unbidden and she silenced it, but it hung between them for a whole ripe moment before dissipating.

She held back for a second, then another. Finally, she sighed.

“What will happen to her?”

“It is never my decision. All I could do was tell the agents who came to question me that the Leak drives some of us mad and they should take pity on her, see her as another casualty of this disease. I doubt I made any difference, though. The last thing the government wants is more cultists.”

“Why hide this truth from us researchers, though? Why not tell us, a few decades in?” And then, “Why not tell everyone in the world about this mortality theory? We are still a democracy, are we not?”

He was silent for a few seconds, and something of this silence crept into her bones.

“Because once the idea gets into someone’s head that the Leak is the way things should be, Doctor, ugly things start to happen to the believers. The pull becomes stronger. More visceral. It tugs at people at a whole other level. And for those of us who have looked at a patient’s eyes, the sensation becomes irresistible. Do you understand what I am saying?”

She could read between the lines well enough. “We get sick too.”

He gave no reply, yet she found the answer in his eyes, and it chilled her.

She did not want the Leak. She did not want to get sick and then waste away. How could she? How could anyone? How could anyone believe, that this horror was the natural order of things? Cybele had been mad to think so. This was a disease, and like every disease it had to have a cure.

“What should I do?”

“Work.” His smile startled her. It was not a pretty sight, like light coming down on old ruins. “Work harder than before, to find the cure and prove your friend and the Pures, or any other cultist, wrong. Because if we don’t find a cure, Doctor, if there isn’t one, then they might be right and the moment you believe that will be a painful one.”

No, this could not happen. She had things to do, they all had. A bucket list. Fishing. She looked at him and then nodded, chrome fingers limp at her side.

“Good night, Doctor. I trust you will keep this entirely to yourself. Better not to place any more people in danger, don’t you think so?”

“Of course.”

She escorted him out, and closed the door.

She would not tell, he was right about that. No reason to drag Milo and the rest into that. No reason to put them in such danger. She would sleep on it, then wake up and start working, really working. Now that she knew, she would request permission again to dig among the Institute’s roots. This time, he would not have reason to deny her. She would find out why the Leak called to all of them, the real reason, not Cybele’s delusions. After all, what else was left to do?

A chord a bit too deep, the Director had said. She went to pick the tablet, stare at the graves again, but stopped in her tracks.

Tomorrow would come and with it, questions. But tonight, the sky was clear and the Institute was silent. The world’s buried truths could wait for one last, peaceful night.

Your thoughts?

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