(24) Oil and Water

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I shout without realizing. Everyone in the room stands frozen, some midway through taking off shirts or socks or belt buckles. All wear a stricken expression, like the same copy of the same face pasted over and over again as the guy Oreo just eliminated slumps quietly to the floor. He's already dead. Oreo knew what he was doing when he took that shot. He just killed a person. He just killed a person.

"Check him," he says dispassionately to the two captors.

Together they kneel and cut the bindings on the body's hands, then begin to strip it without ceremony. They only need to remove its shirt to find the first red patch. It's splayed across the guy's collarbone where the drips running down his neck end. But not just end. They disappear into his skin, and the red patch there is spreading. Infected, Oreo said. Yet he said the group didn't know if this version of Sleeping sickness was contagious. If it's even the same as Sleepers at all. I've never heard a proper Sleeper make a sound, let alone one as horrifying as what came out of this guy's mouth, or Psy's before him.

"Well, that answers one question, then," says Oreo. His knife glistens in the red light of the room as he turns and tips its point towards the rest of us. "Who's next?"

I expect the room to explode into angry protest at what just happened. I'm proven wrong. The first person to start moving again drops her skirt with hands that shake uncontrollably, then squeezes her eyes shut and turns in a circle, wearing nothing but her underwear and bra. No red patches.

"Triptych, you're good," says Oreo. "Next?"

Triptych scrambles to don her clothes again as everyone else remains frozen, eyes fixed on the walls or floor or ceiling like the body on the other side of the room no longer exists. Like they're trying to pretend that didn't just happen. One of the former captors wipes his hands on his clothes compulsively.

The tough-looking woman is next to move. She's not wearing a bra, but stands without shame as she too turns for inspection like this is some twisted exhibitionist display.

"Bryn, you're good," says Oreo when she's done a full 360. "Next?"

People start darting glances around at one another as they unfreeze one by one. I doubt any of them want to do this. If they banded together, they could easily overthrow Oreo and whoever else imposed this sick system, but the fear that thickens the air sits too heavy for anyone to make a move. They're terrified of that knife, but they're just as terrified of their companions. Stripping down and risking death if they have red patches must be the trade-off they've made for the reassurance that everyone else in the room is clean.

This is wrong. This is not how a group of survivors who're supposed to be looking out for one another should act. I want to cry out in protest, to fight back, to do anything at all, but something keeps me rooted. After hearing the Sleeper that was once Psy walk slowly up the stairs, I can't even move.

Did the guy Oreo killed even count as a person anymore? Or is this the piece we've been missing: the stage of the infection that makes nameless survivors tear up their rooms and attack each other before the Redding kills them for good? This isn't a zombie apocalypse, but the tradeoffs being made are scarily similar.

Gasps shred the silence. I drag my eyes from the body as everyone in the room recoils from one side of it. The latest member to undress stands rigid as his predicament dawns on him. In the middle of his back is a red patch.

Oreo grimaces and walks towards him. This man, though, hasn't started turning yet. When Ember closes in from the side, he bolts. Oreo shouts. The guy hurls himself shoulder-first through the front window with a deafening glass-shatter. Curtains rip. The curtain rod is torn from the wall, and Patrick and Calico J dive out of the way of it. Through the cacophony, the guy hits the lawn outside with a splat and tumbles out of his curtain-shield and into the rain, buck naked. He staggers to his feet again.

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