PROLOGUE: PANDORA's BOX
It had been cloudy all week. The thick, damp air had rested over the city like a lid, shutting in all smoke and pollution so that the people were forced to gasp for breath, gagging on the stench that was their own doing. But on this night, after six sticky, suffocating days, the weather had finally broken; the lid had been blown off the city's putrid jar by jagged lightning that seared the sky and roaring thunder that made the buildings tremble in fear. On this night, the Gates of Heaven had burst open and unleashed the Flood whose torrents would wash away all dirt and filth and impurity.
It was a night when the stars cowered behind heavy storm clouds, just like the people of the city cowered behind the thick walls of their homes, with their doors locked and their blinds shut against the furious storm. Neither man nor beast was out, for there was no living thing foolish enough to challenge the punishing powers that Nature had unleashed upon the city.
Or were there? In one of the rain-drenched, deserted alleys, a watcher would have seen a lone figure come staggering, drunkenly supporting himself against the wall with one hand while the other anxiously clutched a box to the wet chest of his coat. The rain had plastered his thin, lank hair against his skull, but his forehead was soaked with sweat, not water, and his shivering had nothing to do with the cold gusts of the storm that lashed the buildings around him.
But no watcher was out tonight, and no watcher saw the man suddenly double over in a paroxysm of coughing that forced him stop and lean against the wall as he panted heavily to force some air into scorched lungs. When the man looked up from the foaming, red pool at his feet that was washed away by the rain almost before it had registered, there was a frantic urgency in the red-rimmed eyes behind his smeary glasses; he knew he did not have much time left now, that it would all be in vain if he fell before he had released his precious burden. Even though their usual, clinical keenness was dulled by fever, the searching eyes found the spot within seconds, and a ghastly smile spread across the gaunt face. There, by that dumpster. . . yes, that was a good place. That would be perfect. . .
With a shuddering, wheezing breath, the man forced his leaden legs to stumble forward once more, but he had only taken a few steps when a panicked whine and frantic scratching from the box made him lurch to a halt. Cooing softly to soothe the frightened contents, the man tried to steady his gait as he moved on; and hearing its master's voice, the beast inside the box calmed down, and the scratching stopped while the whine faded to a whimper.
Suddenly, a half hysterical giggle that immediately broke into another bout of coughing came over the man's thin lips. So this is what it all comes down to, he thought. A lifetime of labour and love – or was it hate? He did not know; it had been too long, and the emotions were too intertwined, for him to be able to tell the difference anymore. But it did not matter; for here, in a backyard alley on a stormy night, it would all end. Here, he would release the crown of his creation – and nobody would understand, until it was too late. Nobody would ever know. . . but that was a small price to pay for the final triumph.
Every waking hour of every day since his humiliation, he had spent working on the project he was now about to complete. At first, it had been his one reason to go on living; in the end, it had become his whole life. It had taken him years of research and painstaking experiments, not to mention the clinical trials that for a while had threatened to overthrow the entire project – not because his creation had lacked in strength, but because they had to be performed openly and without raising suspicion. Strangely, the hardest thing about them had been breaking the oath he had taken all those years ago, like wilfully causing another human being harm meant rejecting what had once been his very essence, his whole world. But that world had shunned him, and with that in mind, he had made himself cross the line – and once he had taken the first step, the rest had come naturally. Then there had been the process of finding a suitable carrier, one that would live long enough and procreate fast enough to fill its purpose. That alone had taken him almost a year, but the solution had been so beautiful its stunning clarity, so dazzling in its brilliant simplicity, that it had made him cry. It had been tears of wondrous joy, but also of deepest sorrow, because he had known that his vision had now been fulfilled and that his life was complete. . . or that it would have been, if Fate hadn't decided to punish his pride and teach him one last lesson.
For then it had bitten him. His creation had quite literary bitten the hand that fed it.
He had known his life was forfeit the moment he felt the pointy little teeth penetrate his skin, saw the red marks they left. But even so he had fought valiantly, with all his cunning and all the serums and vaccines and antidotes he already know would be of no use, to kill what he thought of as his only child. It was a backwards tribute to his genius that he had not succeeded.
So it would all end here, on this night: he would unleash his creation, and then he would take his own life. It would have to happen tonight; soon, he would no longer have the strength to carry out his mission, and he knew the juggernaut he had created all too well not to want to die at its hands.
Now, the man had reached the dumpster. Not so much by will as because the ripping cough forced him down, he sank to his knees, and carefully put the box down on the wet ground to lift off the lid. For a moment, he crouched there, watching the shivering little animal inside with a warm, fond smile on his thin lips; then, with a heavy sigh, he tipped the box over and ushered the animal out.
At first the little rat was just sitting there on the cobblestones, staring at the unfamiliar surroundings with its little nose trembling and its ears twitching; this the third generation of carriers was born and bred in a laboratory, and unfamiliar with the smells and sounds of the city. For a second, they were overwhelming the rat's senses, dazzling them into paralysis; but then a heavy foot suddenly stamped down the into a pool of water and rekindled the rat's survival instincts, making it flee into the darkness and with an offended shriek.
A dour smile played on the man's thin lips as he watched his creation disappear. The end had begun now. Knowing that, he would gladly meet his own.
Drunkenly supporting himself with one hand against the wall, he turned around to stagger back up the alley. The rat's shriek still echoed in his ears.
The shriek of his creation completed.
The shriek of the end.