The back door was locked. If there had been a handle he could have forced it, but there wasn’t; the door sat flush against the frame and there wasn’t even a crack you could slip a fingernail into. Never mind, Adam had a crowbar.
He looked back over his shoulder at the stretch of bare concrete encircled by chain-link fence. The compound was dark and quiet; a single naked bulb illuminated the door of his security cabin. Inside, somewhere out of sight, a silent, flashing light warned of the disconnected alarm. Adam listened. Nothing stirred nearby; he was alone.
I have something to tell you.
Adam froze, gloved fists clenched around the crowbar. For a moment he could see Helena, sitting on their bed, hands clasped in her lap. He breathed the thought away.
The door was metal, coated in weather-proof paint that had worn off in places so the dull grey of steel was visible underneath. The door gave out a ringing smack when he hit it with the crowbar; the claw lodged between the door and the frame, making a deep dent and chipping off more of the paint. He leaned into it, driving the claw deeper, and when he felt it was embedded enough he flicked his wrist and the lock surrendered with a snap. The door swung open. He stepped inside and jammed it shut behind him.
Beyond was a long, dark corridor bathed in green light from the fire exit sign above Adam’s head. Next to the sign was a loop of wire and a small white box: the sensor that would trigger the alarm if the door was opened. The light on the box was dead, the corridor filled with a roaring silence. So far, so good.
Adam set off down the corridor. Small, illuminated arrows at ankle height pointed back towards the fire exit, but he moved against them. He passed doors on both sides, each neatly labelled and locked; offices, probably, and conference rooms. When he reached the end, a panel of signs pointed left and right down seemingly identical corridors. The dim green light didn’t reach this far, but he found the sign that read “Laboratory 1: Biomedical Research” and followed it.
As he walked, he thought about Helena. She would be at work now, just about to start her shift. Probably she was in the staff room, putting her bag into her locker and tying her hair into a bun on top of her head. Scrubs on, hair up, time to tackle the onslaught. He tried to concentrate on his footsteps on the floor tiles. It was better not to think about her, if he could help it.
After a few more turns he found what he was looking for: a door painted an alarming shade of yellow, with a sticker on the wall next to it that read “Biohazard: Authorised Personnel Only.” A small red light blinked on the card reader by the door. When he had disconnected the main alarm, he hadn’t known for sure if there were any secondary alarms, or whether the internal doors were on a different system. There was only one way to find out, and now he had come to it. He gripped the handle.
I love you.
His hand stilled; another deep breath. Then he flexed his fingers, tightened his grip and pushed down on the handle with all his strength.
“Shit!” he muttered.
The handle was much flimsier than he had anticipated and it nearly sheared right off in his hand. When he let go, it dangled against the door, a jagged ring of metal exposed at the top. Adam pushed the door open but stayed where he was, straining his ears. Nothing.
He had to hold back a laugh—it was so easy. The dark doorway gaped in front of him. He stepped inside, excited as a child who had fooled his parents with a lie.
“I can’t go to school, I’ve got the flu.”
Adam was nine when he caught the flu, but he had cried wolf about it plenty of times before that. He knew about it from the time his mother had it. She’d spent five days lying under a blanket on the sofa and shivering. Adam hadn’t got it then, but he’d thought it looked easy enough to fake, and so it had become his go-to excuse throughout his childhood, whenever he couldn’t face another day stuck in a classroom, gazing out the window and dreaming of trees.
“You haven’t got the flu,” his mother would say, handing him his school bag. “You’d know if you did. I’d know.”
But if she wasn’t there, he’d try the excuse on Dad and watch the man’s eyes light up. They both knew it was a lie, and they both knew what that meant. After a morning of hot drinks and weak coughing, Adam would make a sudden recovery, kick off his blanket and head out to the forest with his father.
Adam’s dad was a woodsman; it was his job to tame the trees. They lived in a house near the forest, a forty-minute train journey out of the city, and even though that meant a long commute to school, Adam wouldn’t have changed it for anything. Adam’s father would take him into the woods whenever he could, and even on the days when there was no work to be done, father and son would dive off into the trees and walk until the light failed. But it was the days spent skiving off school that felt the most special—time stolen for tramping around in the woods, rolling logs and marking trees for felling.
So when Adam really did get the flu, his father didn’t notice at first and appeared at his bedside with waterproof and boots in hand.
“Come on, son. Let’s get going, eh?”
Adam rolled over and looked at him, grey-faced and panting. He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before and he was sure he had felt the thing growing inside him, a small nut of a headache behind his eyes that had blossomed into skull-aching pain as the sun rose. His father put his hand against his forehead; it was blessedly cool, and it kept returning throughout the day, in moments of pure relief, as Adam slipped in and out of sleep. The trees would have to wait.
The illness knocked Adam out for a week. Each day he woke up, dragged himself into the living room and lay on the sofa until it was time to go to bed again. His head pounded, his throat rattled, and he barely had the strength to sit upright. When his father had to go back to the woods, the TV became Adam’s constant companion, dividing his days into chunks he could just about manage. He felt like a shipwreck victim, lying on the shore as half-hours washed over him like waves.
At last Adam emerged from his fog, back into the world of the well. One morning he woke up and his father touched his forehead, as usual, but that day his hand felt warm.
“Think you’re on the mend. How are you feeling?”
“Maybe fifty percent better than yesterday.”
His father’s eyebrows rose. “’Fifty percent,’ he says! Sounds like you haven’t suffered for missing school.”
The day after, Adam felt better again, and the day after that he felt back to normal and returned to school. Then the day after that he woke up feeling stronger than ever, like he could breathe in the entire world. He was bubbling with energy. He ran three circuits around the house, then three more. When he still wasn’t tired, he decided to sprint all the way down the patch of open scrubland behind the house, to the woodpile and back. When he got there, he found that his father had been chopping logs for the stove and the axe was still buried in the chopping block. He picked it up. It felt lighter than it had when his dad had shown him how to hold it and taught him to swing. He put a log on the block, tested his swing a couple of times, and then let fly. The wood split down the middle as easily as stiff cream.
That night, Adam stood in front of the mirror and flexed his arms. They didn’t look any different but there was no doubt about it—he was stronger.
The door swung shut behind Adam and closed with a click. At once he was plunged into darkness and he had to feel around for the light switch. When he turned it on he saw that he was in a small anteroom. The floor was tiled and spotlessly clean, and the walls were a smooth, polished off-white. The room was almost empty except for a squat cabinet on the opposite wall, with a door in the front operated by a circular rotating handle. On the right wall was the door to the laboratory; it had a small glass window and was covered with more signs declaring “Biohazard” and “Absolutely No Unauthorised Access Beyond This Point.” He let himself in.
The laboratory had the same immaculate appearance as the anteroom, but it was bigger and busy with equipment. A shiny metal counter ran along the entire right-hand wall of the lab, and above it there were open shelves filled with glass bottles, flasks and carefully labelled boxes. There was a sink set into the counter, surrounded by posters warning of injuries and contagions. On the left-hand wall was a row of fridges, squeezed between the lab’s biggest machines: imposing, glass-fronted, with ventilation tubes running from their hoods up into the ceiling. There was also a window set into this wall, covered with a screen, and through this dim moonlight filtered. Adam decided not to turn on the light.
Adam checked his watch. Eight minutes since he had disabled the alarm, which meant twenty-two minutes to go. There was a thirty-minute grace period if the alarm failed—thirty minutes in which the guard on duty was supposed to verify the fault and call it in. If he didn’t, an automatic alert would be sent to head office, and the police.
He made his way over to the fridges. There were three of them and they hummed gently—the only noise in the room, aside from his own breathing. A small display at the top of each fridge showed the internal temperature, and through the glass doors he could make out racks of test tubes and labelled vials.
The first fridge opened with a gentle sucking noise, and a wave of cool air wafted over Adam’s face. He scanned the labels and realised with a jolt that he didn’t understand them. Stupidly he had expected them to be clear, one-word indicators of the samples inside, but instead they were crammed with tiny print. There were abbreviated codes, category numbers and bar codes, and the bottles were fiddly to sort through with his gloved hands—this was going to take longer than he had thought.
Are you happy?
For the first time, a light sheen of sweat broke out on Adam’s brow. If he let his focus slip even for a moment, Helena would find her way in, and he’d come too far for that now. Twenty-one minutes to go. Nothing to do but start.
After a few minutes, Adam had a better understanding of the labelling system. The names of the diseases (sometimes in Latin, sometimes abbreviated) appeared in a similar place on each label, so he began to find them more and more quickly. He worked from left to right, top shelf to bottom, whispering the names out loud, then re-shelving them and moving on to the next.
“Influenza: B” gave him pause, as did “Strep. pyo.” The fridges hummed softly. Vials clinked against each other as he moved them.
Adam’s second illness started like a bad cold—headache, sore throat, raised temperature—and to begin with he thought he might be getting the flu again. It had been two years since he’d had it, and in that time he had grown so used to his new strength that he didn’t even notice it any more. But this was not the flu.
This time his parents didn’t question him staying off school. Soon his throat got so bad that swallowing food felt like scratching an open wound. He began to cough up mucus, then blood. Exhaustion smothered him, and he was hot—so hot that his dad eventually put him in the bath, filled it with cold water and called the all-night emergency line.
“I’m OK now,” Adam said as his limbs floated coolly under the water.
Dad pressed the phone to his ear and frowned.
As soon as he hung up, Adam’s dad put him in the back of the car, draped a blanket over him and jammed a bucket into the foot well near his head. He sat in the back with Adam, cradling his head in his lap while his mother drove them to the hospital. Adam was checked in at once and taken straight to an isolation ward. What followed was eight days of doctors, drips and hours spent drifting in and out of wakefulness. The words “Streptococcal pharyngitis” were scrawled on the whiteboard at the head of his bed, and Adam would focus on them every time he had to make the slow-stepping journey back from the bathroom. His mother visited when she could, between shifts at work. His father slept nearly every night in the armchair by his bed, folded up like paper.
When Adam was finally discharged, he felt like a creature just woken from hibernation. He stood in the sunshine and nearly cried at the feel of it, but he held back the tears because he didn’t want anyone to see. His father drove him home and put him straight to bed; he woke later with his mother’s soft hand against his forehead.
The next day Adam felt better. The day after that, better again. Before long he was back to normal, and then one morning he got up and nearly snapped the handle off the fridge when he tried to pull it open. That was when he remembered what had happened to him after the flu, and realised that it had happened again.
He hadn’t told anyone, the first time. It had seemed like a marvellous secret, the kind you didn’t tell adults for fear of ruining the magic, and even though he was getting too old for fantasies like that now, he decided again to keep it to himself. Instead he tested his new-found strength. He went to the woodpile and tried himself on the toughest logs, the ones even his father had rejected, and cut through five of them without breaking a sweat. He only stopped because he was worried that the axe head was coming loose.
He beat his usual number of push-ups, and the number of the strongest boy in his class. He set off from the house at a run and reached the top of the hill without stopping. He realised that he could bend cutlery with one hand and read the spines of his books from all the way down the hall. He filled a balloon with a single breath.
In the weeks after his return from hospital, Adam came to understand the connection between his illness and his strength. Two years earlier the flu must have unlocked some regenerative ability in his body that meant it could heal itself better than before; this second illness proved that it worked. But there was a further leap that he didn’t make at that time—the realisation that he didn’t have to wait for sickness to come to him. He could seek it out if he wanted and choose to make himself stronger.
Perhaps if he’d done that then, things could have been different.
“Shall we go for a walk?” said his father.
The wind made the trees move like they were nodding, but Adam—grumpy and teenaged—felt beyond them now. He was sitting on the deck, flicking through his phone, determined not to look up so that he wouldn’t see the hopeful smile on his father’s face. It sickened him, how desperate this man was for him to play the kid again. It sickened him and broke his heart.
“Dad, I’m busy.”
His mother poked her head out through the window of her study.
“You’ve been sitting there for hours,” she said. “Put that phone down and go.”
Adam sighed, slipped the phone into his pocket. When he saw his dad mouth ‘thank you’, he looked down at his feet.
They walked one of their old routes, a favourite from when Adam would duck off school and they would go to the oldest part of the wood, right to the heart. The path was well worn and leaves skittered past their feet, running ahead like excited children. They walked in silence at first, listening to the wind, until his father spoke.
“That bruise on your arm looks sore.”
Adam rolled down his sleeve.
“How did you get it?”
“I’m only asking.”
Adam huffed. “Just a silly fight at school.”
He had been fighting more over the last few years. Where before he’d avoided the boys who weren’t afraid to settle things with a fist, now he sought them out—ever since he’d realised he could win. School was a world of posturing that occasionally erupted into actual shows of strength, so it wasn’t uncommon for him to return home with a black eye or bleeding knuckles, and if the respect had started to fade from his father’s eyes, at least he could find it growing in the stares of his peers.
(Fighting was another of his tests, but he had learned quite soon that although his body healed quickly enough after a punch, he was never stronger for it. He responded to disease, not injury.)
His father didn’t need to say anything; his long stare into the trees was enough.
“You know, son, you don’t have to do that.”
“I mean it. I know at your age things can be difficult. Hormones and…”
Adam made a disgusted noise and his father tailed off, changed tack.
“I just mean that you want to be careful. Fighting might seem like fun, or cool, or whatever it is, but there are other ways to earn people’s respect. Better ways.”
“Will you promise not to do it again?”
His dad looked at him sidelong. Adam avoided his eyes.
“You’re just saying that to get me to stop talking.”
“No. I promise I won’t.”
They walked on, but now the dirt under Adam’s feet felt thin and brittle, like he was walking on the eggshell promise he’d just made to his father. They both trod carefully.
At last they arrived at the heart of the forest. Here the trees stood taller than anywhere else, and their age showed in their deeply lined bark and the creaks they made when they moved, like old bones. The wind was well and truly up now, and it whipped between the trunks with a high-pitched whine.
When he was a boy, Adam and his dad would lie on the leaf litter, head to head, and look up at the crowns of the trees. There were always gaps between them; somehow the trees knew how to reach just far enough not to touch.
Adam walked away from his father and leaned against a tree. At the level of his head, a branch as thick as his arm protruded from the trunk. He broke it off, and then snapped it in half. His father couldn’t understand what it was like—at school, in the city, anywhere outside the quiet world of the forest—to try and earn a place and stay there. Certain things were expected of him, he’d come to realise, so what good were his father’s words when the whole world was telling him the opposite?
A loud crack and a sudden thud made Adam’s stomach lurch. He whipped around, swiped the gusting hair from his face.
A horrible moan and Adam felt like the world was tilting.
He followed the sound, which came in quietening bursts. When at last he found his father the man had no more noise in him; he only scrabbled at the tree that lay across his chest and kicked his feet helplessly. Adam crouched, hooked his arms under the trunk, the backs of his wrists grazing dirt, and strained upwards. No movement. He tried again. Still nothing. All his unusual strength was not enough; the fallen tree would not budge.
Adam looked at his father. The man’s eyes were roving and his mouth gaped. His desperate clawing at the tree had weakened and now he could only hit it with open palms. It was horrible, too horrible, watching his father suffocate under dead weight, but there was no looking away. He had to be here, to see the man turn animal—no air for final words, not even a look of goodbye, just pure writhing fear replaced, at last, with nothing.
Adam sat back on his heels. He looked at his father’s hands, tough and thick-skinned as the bark they lay against. Suddenly he thought that he should have held these hands while the man died. For a moment the world seemed to pull away in horror, then it came crashing back, pressing in on all sides and pouring down from above in a great gusting scream.
Adam closed the first fridge with too much force and a crack clicked out across the glass. There was nothing useful inside; instead the shelves read like his memory, a checklist of diseases that had torn through his body in the years following his father’s death.
What are you thinking?
There was Helena again, cross-legged on the bed, one hand on her stomach and the other at her mouth. That was only two months ago, but it seemed like far longer. He almost felt as though he’d been a different person back then. Adam rubbed his hand over his eyes and pushed her, once more, from his mind.
Fourteen minutes to go. He moved on to the next fridge. He opened it carefully and tried to resist the urge to plunge his hands in amongst the bottles straightaway. His strength was such that he had to check himself at all times, in case he accidentally broke something. That applied especially now; he needed to leave no sign that he had been here.
Carefully he rifled through the vials and skimmed the labels for something he could use. This wasn’t so easy for him now. Years of experimenting had strengthened Adam to the point that he couldn’t easily catch anything anymore. Now it took something powerful and directly injected into his veins. Or at least it had when he had last done it. He’d been out of the game for a while now, so really he had no idea how his body would react. There was only one to find out.
“Only one way to find out” had been Adam’s mantra all the way through his twenties, after he had dragged himself through the fog of grief and emerged from the other side with a blissful sense of numbness where his pain had been. He was able to pull himself together, move into a flat in the city—leaving his mother in the forest house she’d never really wanted to live in—and train as a security guard. Even though he didn’t look particularly imposing, he made a point of picking up a solid oak desk on the first day of the course, to pre-empt anybody saying he shouldn’t be there. Nobody did. Once he was qualified, he managed to land a few part-time jobs before finally getting his first full-time position. It was all part of a plan, of course: his new job was in hospital security.
In those years nothing mattered to him more than strength. When he woke up in the night from dreams of straining muscles and desperate, reaching hands, it was strength he thought about: how he hadn’t had enough, what he could do to get more. The answer to that was easy, and if he was going to be what the world was telling him he should be, he would have to put his body on the line.
Night shifts at the hospital were the best. During the day he had to be careful about where he went because there were more people around to catch him, but at night parts of the hospital fell quiet—the labs, the wards filled with sleeping patients—and then he was free to experiment.
He started out by lowering his head over the faces of sickly breathing patients and inhaling, but this proved to be quite a difficult way to catch anything, especially as he was always afraid to get too close in case the sleeping person woke up and reported him. Dipping his fingers into kidney-shaped bowls of bodily fluids was more direct, but also repellent. Rubbing his hands on door handles and toilet seats never yielded anything more than a slight sniffle that his body fought off too easily to have any effect.
In the end, he turned to the laboratories. Buried in the bowels of the hospital and filled with concentrated samples that he could administer to himself in sterile conditions—it was perfect. And so, in darkened labs, navigating between darkly glittering flasks and polished counter tops, Adam set about sickening himself. Licking a Petri dish or pipetting a solution directly into his mouth was far more bearable than touching vomit or sputum, but he could go one better. When he learned how to inject himself straight from the fridge-stored samples he became even further removed from the mess and grime of actually being sick.
That is, until he finally succumbed.
In his efforts to make himself strong enough to stand up to the world, Adam suffered through bone-cracking pains and delirium-inducing fevers. He tried to choose his diseases carefully, avoiding those which were usually fatal, stepping up in severity as gradually as his basic research would allow. During those years of experimentation he successfully infected himself more times than he cared to remember. He never went to see a doctor; he was desperately afraid that medicines would prevent his strange power from working and then it would all be for nothing. Instead he sweated out his illnesses alone in his flat and relied on his body’s extraordinary resilience to fight off whatever had gripped him. Some of those diseases were here, in these quietly humming fridges; reading their names felt like reconnecting with old acquaintances.
Malaria flung him back and forth between burning fever and chills so bad he had thought he was freezing. Salmonella racked him with cramps; pneumonia tore at his lungs and left him stranded on the wreck of his bed gasping for air. Meningitis took him countless attempts because he had been vaccinated as a child, so when it finally took hold he tried to delight in the rash that left his entire body aflame. Hepatitis A, E. coli, Lyme disease… he ravaged his body over and over again, and each time he swore it would be the last, and each time he went back for more.
At first it had all been worth it. His body improved in countless ways; he developed pinpoint eyesight and mile-wide hearing, skin that could heal in a day, lungs and legs that let him run for hours without stopping. His hair was thick; his fingernails needed clipping every day; he never had to visit a dentist. But it was always strength that mattered the most. He took himself to the gym to show off what he could lift and to revel in the surprised, sidelong looks of people who couldn’t believe that someone who looked so average could do so much.
But as time passed, things began to change. His ferocious desire for more—that mindless goalpost that would always keep moving, the product of grief and anger and immaturity—began to ease, and then fade. Brawls outside bars ceased to be satisfying when he had to start pulling his punches. It was annoying to always have to take care when lifting or holding things in case he broke them. As he grew older, his father’s final lesson began to sink in, and he felt less and less that he had to prove himself to the world. He met Helena.
When he thought back now on how often he risked his life in those years, Adam shuddered. And yet here he was again, doing exactly that—only this time it was different. This time he just needed one dose, one more hit of strength to prepare him for what was to come.
In the second fridge, on the second shelf from the bottom, Adam found what he was looking for. The word on the label sent a small shiver down his spine. He pulled the little glass vial out of its stand and looked at it nestled in his palm.
Helena had told him she was pregnant two months earlier. He’d come in from work and found her in the bedroom, sitting on their bed, one hand resting on her stomach.
“I have something to tell you,” she’d said. But she hadn’t told him—she’d held out the pregnancy test instead.
When he didn’t say anything she put her hand to her mouth and said, “Are you happy? What are you thinking?”
When he still didn’t say anything, tears came into her eyes and she said, “I love you.”
At last he had enfolded her in his arms—carefully, so he wouldn’t hurt her—and breathed his joy into her neck. He told her he loved her too, he just couldn’t believe it, he was so very, very happy.
And he was, but he was also afraid.
The news had thrust him back to that day in the forest, with the wind in the trees and the wild eyes of his father. For a moment he had been that child again, watching his parent die in agony, and he had also been the man under the tree, clawing desperately at the sky in an attempt to get his child to look anywhere, anywhere else. The pain felt like hacking at a raw nerve; it was simply too much to bear.
Afterwards, lying in the dark after Helena had gone off to work the night shift, Adam talked to himself calmly. It was perfectly natural to be afraid. He was not the first man to feel like this. He really was happy, and this was just the resurfacing of the fears of his youth, made all the more monstrous because he had thought they were dead.
All of these things were true but fear doesn’t care about the truth.
The next day he had asked around at work for any medical-security jobs going; he had searched online, too, and sent off a few CVs. When he finally landed the jackpot—night guard at a medical research lab—it was easy enough to explain his extra shifts to Helena. “I might as well fit in all the work I can, before the baby comes.” She had smiled, believing this was his version of feathering the nest. In a way, it was.
Having a child felt like taking the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable part of himself and putting it out into the world. While he’d always felt protective of Helena, she was her own person—she had made her way through the world before him, and he knew she would do the same if there was ever an “after.” But a child was not like that—it had been drawn from his body, and it would have none of the defences he had spent his entire life constructing. Thinking of his child made Adam feel raw, skinless. His fear was all-consuming.
Adam slipped the glass vial into the pocket of his trousers. This would be enough, he told himself, to put his mind at rest. Just one more dose and he would be strong enough to deal with this feeling and to shield his child from the world.
As Adam closed the fridge, a light, reflected in the door, caught his eye. He looked over his shoulder and immediately felt as though he had been doused in ice. There tucked under one of the cupboards against the far wall was a palm-sized white box with a small glass panel and a red, blinking light. He’d seen enough of these to know exactly what it was: a motion-activated alarm, which he had been walking around right in front of. The light flashed. It had to be on a separate system from the main alarm. That meant that ever since he had stepped in front of the first fridge this box had been transmitting its silent message, and someone must have seen it.
Eight minutes to go. It would have been enough, he could have made it.
A light strobing through the window screen unfroze Adam from his stupor. It was too late to think about his ruined plans now; they were coming. He heard footsteps, a lowered voice, and he pressed his back against the fridge as the beam of the torch swept across the shelves and cupboards opposite. They couldn’t see anything through the screen; they would have to go around. Of course, the back door would open at a gentle shove, but they wouldn’t know that. They would go to the front, unlock the main doors; that meant he had a few minutes at least.
When the torchlight disappeared, Adam hurried over to the window and climbed up onto the counter. The screen was bolted to the wall from the inside and beyond it were three layers of toughened glass—easy. He raised his arm, then paused, fist inches from the screen.
Yes, he could break out and run away, but then what? He was the guard on duty; he was the first person they would question when the found the alarm disabled, the back door broken, the bottles in the fridges rifled through. They’d catch him, bang to rights, and that would mean police and prison cells. He could lose everything.
He could run and keep running. Send for Helena later, after the police stopped asking questions. But how long would that take and what hell would she go through in the meantime? Would she even want him back at all?
Adam looked at his raised fist and felt a charge run through his blood. He could confront them. They would see his face but he could make sure they never told anyone.
He felt the world draw away again, just like that day in the forest, as if it was holding its breath. He knew what came next—that great, oblivious scream—but he would not face that again. In the stillness of the lab, Adam pushed back against the imminent collapse, until the pressure eased.
There was only one option left: stay.
Precious seconds passed as Adam crouched on the counter, letting his story fall into place: He’d heard a noise that had taken him away from his security booth, so he’d taken a couple of turns around the building with his torch. On his second pass he’d found the back door hanging off its hinges and come inside—alone. Yes, he should have called for back-up but he was shocked, he wasn’t thinking. He’d scouted the corridors, heard a small noise, eventually come across the broken handle on the bio-lab door. When he’d come inside he’d caught someone—couldn’t see their face, wearing a hood—with their hands in a fridge. Whoever it was had startled, run to the window, forced their way through and then gone.
Why hadn’t he tried to stop them?
Ah. He had, but they were too strong for him.
With a sigh, Adam rammed his fist into the screen. It buckled; a single bolt popped out of the wall. Another punch and the screen had warped enough that he could get a grip on it and wrench it away. The glass shattered into fragments with a simple press of his palm.
Now it was his turn. Adam jumped off the counter, turned around and thumped his face down onto the cool metal surface. The crunch of his nose told him it was broken; the bloodied dent in the metal proved it. He tried bringing his fists up and slamming them into his own stomach but hurting himself like that was too difficult—that little kick of self-preservation always softening his blows at the last moment—so he tipped a chair onto its back and let himself fall onto it, stomach first.
When the breath had crawled back into his lungs, Adam staggered to his feet, lowered his head and ran full pelt at the nearest fridge. The frame of the door buckled and the glass splintered into a cobweb that just managed to hold itself together. When he stepped back and touched the top of his head he felt a raised split and something sticky and wet. For a moment, darkness clouded his vision and he shook it clear. It was to be expected. He might be strong, but he was not unbreakable.
There were voices in the distance now and running footsteps. He looked at his bloody fingers; it would have to be enough. They would have questions, of course—like “Who could rip off a window screen like that?” and “How did one intruder overpower a trained security guard?”—but there would be time to think of the answers later. Besides, he’d been attacked, his head hurt; he couldn’t be expected to remember everything right away.
Adam couldn’t bring himself to fall on the chair again, so he stood next to it, vision swimming, and let his knees buckle. His head hit the floor with a satisfying thunk—did it sound convincing, he wondered, if they could hear him from outside? He lay there with his cheek pressed to the smooth floor and let his eyes close. As adrenaline ebbed away and pain rushed in to take its place, he smiled. It felt like relief, lying there, waiting to be found. For weeks there had been nothing inside him but fear, but now there would be rest, and people looking at him with concerned eyes and pressing their hands gently to his head. It was over, he had done what he came here to do.
In the final moments before the lab door opened and the people with the torches came rushing in, Adam remembered the small vial he had slipped into his pocket. Panic tugged gently at the blanket of pain that was wrapped around his head, and he realised he had to get the vial out or they would find it and ask why it was there. But when he moved he felt a crunch and a sharp sting. He must have landed on it when he fell; it had smashed and the shards were digging into his leg. He wanted to roll over, away from this fresh pain, but instead he leaned into it and ground his leg more deeply against the floor.
If they were going to find the vial, if his story was going to scatter apart like so many fallen leaves, if he was going to lose the people he had done this for in the first place, at least he could take something with him. Perhaps it was too desperate a hope that whatever had been in that bottle was now seeping into his wound and drawing up into his blood, and even then perhaps it was too desperate a hope that he could survive it, but the hope was there and that was enough.
The door swung open, light seared his eyes.
I love you.