By Colin Harvey

The earth is rich in textures and smells. It hurtles by, your clawed hands scrabbling at earth, stones and tree roots, your prey’s odours hooked into your nostrils, pulling you along with fragrant fingers of meat and blood and ordure. Upwards you go and the too-bright sky burns your eyes and your victims’ screams scour your eardrums, but it doesn’t matter, for your killing bite crunches bone and the hot sweet taste of blood fills your mouth. You spit out the foul cotton and polyester wrapping and as your grasping bite clamps onto the corpse so that you can pull your victim into the hole you erupted from, its head lolls over and you know with a shock of recognition who it belongs to–

The phone ringing woke Thom. He scrabbled for it down the side of the chair. “Yeah?”

“You napping?” Marian’s cool tones were blurred by a lousy line, but he could still hear the reproach beneath her amusement.

“Nah, just letting the cat out.” He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger, squinting. The watery spring sunshine streamed through the window. At least it would charge the roof panels a little, and anything that cut their power bills to the merely astronomical helped.

Lately he had been falling asleep in the daytime, but there was little else to do but watch Sky’s latest feel-good pap or be lectured by the Beeb on street-safety, and at least the TV hibernated if he stayed still too long.

“You checked, first?”

“Nah, I put him out to face the first passing Snark.” It came out sharper than he’d meant. “Joking. Course I did, love.”

His unexpected half-apology seemed to catch her off guard, for she fell silent. He flicked the deep-screen on for the dog-racing–he’d put a couple of quid on a hound running at Hammersmith–but instead found himself watching a bulletin on a Bubo outbreak in Ghent. He’d never liked Belgians, they were too boring, but he wouldn’t wish the plague on anyone. “You still there?” he said at last.

“Yeah, sorry,” she said with a sudden catch of breath that made him wonder if she’d been crying. “You at home?”

“What have you forgotten?” He tried to sound amused, but it came out querulous. “I was on my way to sign on.”

“I forgot your Auntie’s prescription. Could you drop it in at the pharmacy?”

He checked the time. “I have to sign on first.”

“Okay,” she said.

He accessed Auntie’s pension file, printed off the prescription, and gathered the ID needed to prove he was the old woman’s proxy.

And afterwards he would take his chances and sneak over for a couple of hours with Liv.

* * * *

He pulled the front door closed behind him.

The air smelled of dust and neglect, the East wind whipping bits of paper into the air. Turning his collar up he stared at St. Mary Redcliffe, its spire now dwarfed by the ultra-highs soaring from their islands on the nearby river. The windmills that had given the hill its name were back, now with giant blades shaped like hundred-foot-high Spitfire propellers. He listened for a minute then, satisfied, set off alongside Victoria Park, whose grounds were scarred with Snarkhills, passing the burned-out wreck of an old petrol-engined Skoda.

YouGov’s SnarkWatch site showed the locations of each Snark attack. Theory was that they returned to the scenes of their previous kills, and that people who travelled by the same route all the time were more likely to be attacked. But no-one knew for sure, even now, a decade after Animal Lib warriors mistakenly let them out of Orton Industries’ bio-research labs instead of the mink and chinchillas they’d targeted. That the liberators had signed their own death warrants had been scant consolation to the thousands of victims since.

Thom walked quickly, humming some thrash-metal to set a pace, keeping close to the terraced houses, and skipping across the road as he reached the lamppost which had never worked as far as he could remember, but was a useful landmark and impromptu gallows when necessary. He passed another Snarkhill, the soft new asphalt forming a miniature volcano cone. Another lesson learned the hard way–pedestrians should avoid new tarmac, which was fractionally softer than older road surfaces.

Crossing into the next street he heard a rumbling, and held his breath. Rumour was that Snarks weren’t the worst bio-weapon to have escaped the labs, that there were things that would eat their victim’s brains and leave them superficially unharmed and ready to be used as a zombie against the Asiatics, others that would paralyse and use their prey as a live host for their offspring. Thom guessed that that was just bollocks fed to the plebs by The Daily Mail and its sister rags.

The Snarks were bad enough and unlike the urban myths were actually out there. They had the digging ability of a mole crossed with super-fast reflexes and a rapacious appetite. That was bad enough. Thom wondered what maniac would design an animal that could also out-breed rabbits and survive where cockroaches couldn’t.

“The Old Cold War made people do some bad things,” Marian had said in her dogmatic way when he’d voiced such a question. “And the war’s worse this time round.” He wondered how she knew.

He saw a dog ahead and froze. Feral or domestic, he wondered, and was answered when it scratched at a door. When there was no answer, the mangy poodle barked. Thom tiptoed even more lightly, while trying to speed up as well. He reached the next corner just as he heard the rumbling, saw the slight pressure wave pushing up the tarmac, and just as the door to the house opened, and the old woman reached out to drag it in, the paving slabs mushroomed upwards, and something shaped like a mole–but whose head was as big as the old woman–exploded out of the ground, taking them both in one bite of more and bigger teeth than any animal had a right to have.

While it was busy dragging its prey back down into the hole, he was off and running to Auntie Beth’s house. His head was splitting, and he felt as if he would be sick at any minute.

* * * *

“It was almost on the front doorstep,” he called to Auntie Beth, as he poured boiling water into the kettle. “Never seen one so close to a house. They don’t like the concrete.” No-one knew if that was true. Orton’s prompt arrest and suspiciously speedy suicide, and the lynch mob that had stormed Orton Industry’s labs meant that people didn’t know as much as they should about them. Some such as Thom’s mates down the pub said that it was deliberate.

Up in her bedroom he gently pulled the old woman’s skinny legs out of bed. She groaned, and noticing the bed sores he resolved to move her more often. “The shakes are bad today,” he said, referring to the palsy that made her limbs quiver. On her few good days, Beth Hyde was still the same woman who had raised him after her staunchly Christian sister and brother-in-law had been shipped off to a camp. Luckily, their teenage son had already started to behave in ways that made it obvious that he didn’t share their unfashionable–and by the end of the Jihad increasingly provocative–views, so he escaped their fate.

Today was like most days, though, with Beth no longer able to remember who she was, who he was, and worst of all, where the toilet was. Sniffing, he winced, and chattered as he guided her to the bathroom. “It’s the people who keep to routine who seem to get caught by the Snarks.” Looking away as he lifted her nightie to nominally preserve her dignity, he sat her on the lavatory.

“Marian’s got a promotion,” he said, realising that today was a bad day–Beth could barely stand–and breaking off some of the cheap toilet paper. “We can eat meat four times a week.” And spoon-feed Auntie the left-overs the next day, as he would today, after washing and dressing her. Once, the Government had paid carers an allowance, before the pensioner numbers exploded and those of the carers dwindled. “I don’t know what her job involves,” he added. He had stopped asking; something clerical at the Department of Work and Pensions. It had needed a first-class Honours degree to get it, and he was grateful they were so lucky, if tired of feeling so useless. She often told him he shouldn’t resent the Official Secrets Act precluding her discussing it with him–that it kept him safe from the hardened criminals looking for information from partners such as him. “A shame Marian’s such a stickler for the rules,” he thought aloud, as he turned Auntie around. “It’d be nice to have some bloody idea of what she does.”

* * * *

He pushed through the Jobcentre doors with a minute to spare for his interview–being late would have cost him a week’s money–then had to wait forty minutes to see his Benefit Provider; it gave him time to get his breath back. The pink and turquoise chairs had been gaudy when they were installed two years earlier, but now were as drab as before the last overhaul.

From the Jobcentre, he took the new raised walkways across to the pharmacist, where he dropped in the prescription, proved that he was her proxy and signed that he would pick up the medicine the next day. All of which could have been done electronically, he thought sourly, but it filled up the day. But he had the rest of it to himself. He hummed a jazz revival of Every Time You Say Good-bye.

* * * *

Liv opened the door and smiled. “You took your time.”

He kissed her. “I had to take a detour.”

As they fell into bed, Thom told her about Auntie, and Liv’s face clouded. “If you moved in with me–” He hushed her with a finger to her lips. It was an old discussion. Liv’s parents had had to use every trick in the book to reduce the inheritance tax on the sixth-floor flat, but still, although it was all she would ever have, there wasn’t room for her, two boys and Thom and Auntie.

They spent the next two hours in bed, though as the afternoon wore on and they dressed Liv slowly grew ever more tense, as she did every afternoon he’d spent with her; the school her sons attended took every precaution possible, using Thumpers to simulate footsteps but though attacks on buses were rare, they still happened from time to time–some of the Snarks seemed to be able to recognise the decoys as fakes.

When the boys burst through the door Liv’s relief was as palpable as always. Thomas, the younger son, gave Thom a toothy grin, but Dan only grunted, doggedly showing no sign of friendliness–even after a year.

“I’ll be going,” Thom said. She begged him to stay, but he shook his head. “I need to get home. Good little man must have the dinner waiting.”

* * * *

Rush hour usually brought with it increased Snark attacks though today’s trip home was uneventful. Thom noticed more people than usual wearing respirators, despite the air quality being much better than in summer. He asked Marian about it when she came through the door, pulling off her own mask.

“Been an outbreak of Blacktongue,” she said.

While she ran a bath–she would soak in the water as if to wash away the stains of the day–he cooked vegetables to stretch the Lasagne further. “Good day?” he asked when she emerged from the bathroom, hair turbaned up with a towel, dressing-gown half undone, though it didn’t arouse him. He had to think of Liv on the few occasions when he and Marian made love.

She didn’t answer, but retreated to the bedroom to dress.

He shrugged. “I guess not, then.”

They ate dinner in front of the television, Marian forking Lasagne into her mouth like a machine.

Another evening passed almost silently with a woman he didn’t love but couldn’t leave, barely four miles away from the woman he loved but couldn’t afford to be with.

He went to bed too early, pleading a headache. It wasn’t completely a lie; his limbs were aching.

* * * *

The prey are getting harder to catch; they wrap themselves in fast-moving metal boxes that taste foul and are often too quick to trap. Yesterday you caught two at once, an old one with a small furry thing that was barely a bite on its own but served as an appetiser for the main meal. Even had you been already full–rather than starving–it would have only satisfied you for a few days, though they are better than the morsels that flock through the spaces below. But you need to feed again, and soon.

Dinner is moving around up there, you can sense them, share their feelings sometimes, smell their fear as they go about their lives.

“Have you got any cash?” Thom asked. He could have stayed in bed, but sharing breakfast gave him company, and he sensed that Marian liked it.

“Again?” Marian asked, though he sensed she secretly liked him asking. It gave her power.

“I lost a bit on a dog yesterday.”

“Oh, Thom, you’re not turning into a gambling addict?”

He shrugged. He had actually given the money to Liv, who didn’t have enough to live on. He was finding it hard to think this morning so, instead of replying, he just stared at her over the cereal.

She gave him a fifty. “I should transfer it to your card.”

“A lot of places don’t like taking cards,” he said.

“Leaves too many traces,” she said, a nasty smile on her face.

“Not like they can’t tell where we are by tracking our phones, anyway.” They were the government, police, anyone in authority who formed an amorphous, resented mass in Thom’s mind.

He studied Marian, tried to see her as she had been when he’d met her at Uni; before he’d got such a crap grade that he was unemployable and the laughter and sex had soured. Ten years on she had barely changed physically, though she dressed better and styled her hair regularly. The only real difference, he decided, was the permanent downturn in the corners of her mouth.

“What?” She had looked up and caught him gazing at her.

“Nothing much,” he said.

She didn’t pursue it. Once she would have. Instead, she asked, “When are you going to see Auntie?”

Before he could answer his mobi warbled. He stared at the caller-avatar in surprise before answering. “Amir,” he said to the cartoon Bollywood idol. “How you doing?”

“Good, mate. Long time, eh?” Before Thom could reply, Amir added, voice so loud that Marian could probably hear every word. “I got a bit of a problem, and wondered if you could help me.”

“Long as it’s legit,” Thom said, aware of Marian’s gaze. He grinned at her, and she raised her eyebrows and smiled.

“Course it is, man. I ain’t gonna offer you no Black, not with that Gauleiter Missus of yours.”

Thom mouthed sorry at Marian and said, “She’s only civil service, mate.”

“Might as well be the fecking Stasi, pal. They all the same; all talk-talk-talking to one another, trying to drive us on-tre-pren-oors out of business. Listen, I got a man had an accident overnight, left me shorthanded. I’m doing the full eco-refit on an old terraced place in Bishopston. It’s only one day’s work, if my man turns back in tomorrow.”

You mean, if you can get someone else to work on the Black, Thom thought. Cash in hand would never be driven out, not while men like Amir were around, despite all the government’s efforts, which had led some to complain that penalties for untaxed income were almost as bad as for murder. “You’ll need to make it worth my while,” Thom said. “They’ll dock me a day’s pay, plus I need to arrange a sitter for Auntie, and there’s the cost of getting there.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Amir said. “I’ll cover your dole plus a tenner plus the cost of the fare. Get the Bedminster mono across to Zetland Road and we’ll pick you up.” The line went dead.

Marian smiled. “Looks like your day’s taken care of.”

He felt absurdly cheerful. “Looks like it is.”

* * * *

It felt odd walking with Marian to the monorail station, changing his normal semi-random shuffle to her more ordinary pace. But while her walk was regular, she always thoroughly checked the route so that they avoided previous kill-sites.

She and most of the rest of the crowded compartment left when they reached the City Centre. “I’m working late tonight.” She gave him a farewell peck.

He had bought a Ten-journey card–it was only marginally more expensive than a return. “Just in case Amir’s man doesn’t turn up tomorrow,” he had explained to an amused Marian. With it burning a hole in his pocket, he toyed with the idea of sneaking off to meet Liv, or even riding the mono out to journey’s end at Filton for the sheer fun it, but he squashed both ideas.

But as soon as he was alone he rang Liv, sans avatar.

She also answered Bareface. “You’re up early.” She smiled.

“I couldn’t wait to see you.”

“Flannel merchant,” she said, her colour rising, but she could only half-hide her pleasure.

“I’ve got a job.” He pulled an apologetic face. “Sorry.” He added, “It’s only for today, I think.”

She said, “I can’t expect you to turn down work to see me. But if you keep doing it…” she raised an eyebrow in mock-threat. “What about Auntie Beth? Will Marian take care of her?”

Will she bollocks, Thom thought. “No, she’s tied up. I’ll go across at lunch-time.”

“Why don’t I visit her?” Liv said.

“You sure? I don’t want to put you to any trouble…” It was an unexpected relief. He’d half-expected to not be able to call in on Auntie at all.

“I wouldn’t offer if it was any trouble,” Liv said, and smiled. “Where did you say you kept the key?”

“Third brick below the doorbell,” he said. “You’re an angel.”

* * * *

When he descended the steps of the Zetland Road terminus Amir was waiting for him with four other men, two of them in the cab of a flat-bed, two more sitting in the back. Amir clapped him on the shoulder in greeting. The others nodded, but didn’t speak. They barely talked all day, except to ask for tools or help as they fitted the sleek black panels. Thom guessed that Amir had warned them that he was married to a civil servant and therefore suspect.

The redbrick house was merely one in countless rows of bay-windowed Edwardian terraces with stained glass over the front door whose ground floor was now uninhabitable without Snark-proofing.

Amir’s men had already covered the entire ground floor with a concrete-floored recycling tank into which flowed the run-off from dishwashers, washing machines, baths and showers while the water doubled as Snark-proofing. The conversion required the lounge to be moved up a floor and the bedrooms to the attic: inevitably some space was lost, but it saved lives.

“What you going to do with the tiles?” Thom asked Amir in the afternoon, as they stacked them in the flatbed while the others clamped the solar panels to roof joists in their place.

“Sell ‘em,” Amir said. “It’s added profit. You interested?”

“Nah, thanks” Thom said. “We’re paneled up with Solars.”

As Thom finished stacking the tiles, Amir hefted the turbine, a compact version of those covering Windmill Hill. “We’ll fit this and we’re done–we made better time than I expected. Fancy a pint?”

Thom weighed up how long it would take to Liv’s. “Not just yet,” he said. “I have something to do first.” He gave Amir a little wink.

Amir grinned back. “That’s more like my old school-mate.” He clapped Thom on the shoulder. “I was beginning to worry that Marian was turning you into a saint.”

* * * *

The boys were at late-class as was usual on Tuesdays, so Thom was able to snatch a stolen hour with Liv. But too soon she was kissing him good-bye, fastening a shirt button that he had missed. “You ought to get Auntie to the Doctors. She didn’t look too good.”

“Tomorrow,” he promised. As they kissed again, he groaned. “Oh can’t I stay?” he sang falsetto, “Just a little bit longer?”

“You promised to meet Amir and the boys,” she said. “Go!”

Riding back on the mono, Thom saw Marian. He was about to call out to her, but she looked so furtive that when she changed lines he, instead, followed her. She was dressed in a scruffy jacket without the Pashmina he had bought her for her last birthday, minus the make-up she normally needed to face the world and wearing a pair of thick-rimmed glasses–as a disguise, he guessed from her behaviour.

She walked briskly to a large Georgian building facing an open square paved with flagstones, emerging an hour later in her usual clothes. He tailed her until he was sure that she was going home. Only then did he resume his journey.

* * * *

Next day was back to normal, though it was hard to adjust after a day of having some purpose, of making something. In fact, having worked even for one day made it harder to cope with his usual lack of a central purpose.

“Did you have a good night?” Marian seemed to crunch her cereal with extra ferocity, but it was probably his hangover making it sound so loud.

“Yep,” he said, and to forestall any complaints she may have made about drinking his earnings away added, “Amir was buying.”

“That was good of him.”

“Probably charity for old time’s sake,” Thom said, screwing up his eyes at the hit of extra strong coffee. “But I don’t mind long as he don’t rub it in. He said something about getting a bonus for finishing early, but I think that’s crap.”

“What about your Aunt?” Marian said.

“Looked in on the way to the pub,” he lied fluently, though she had asked the question a little too casually. Does she suspect? he wondered. “That’s why I met him after work. I didn’t think I could leave her all day.” He put a little emphasis on the ‘all’ and was gratified to see her flush.

“What plans today?” he said. “Want to meet for lunch?” He didn’t really want to meet, but Amir had suggested it when they had talked about it the night before, after–Thom realised now–one beer too many. “Try something unexpected,” Amir had said. “Watch her reaction.”

Marian looked nonplussed. “I–no, I can’t. Sorry, I have to work through lunch. Sorry.” she said, “What will you do instead?”

“I’ll check the website for jobs,” he said. “Fetch Auntie’s prescription–I didn’t get a chance yesterday–and get her shopping. The usual.”

He sighed, and she reached across and squeezed his hand. “If we could get her in a home…” she said, but they both knew that there were too few places that would take a semi-continent woman who, on good days, could only remember who she was.

“It’s okay,” he said, knowing that she didn’t cope well with illness–she could barely bear to be around any invalid, let alone someone as ill as Auntie. Marian’s limit was to share Saturday afternoon visits with him, and they were the shortest of the week.

She squeezed his hand. “Thanks.”

“What for?”

“Understanding.”

He smiled, obscurely disappointed that she had turned down the lunch offer, even though he’d expected her to.

Later he surfed the net, while the TV showed a programme on the slow death of the cattle industry, from increasing costs and dwindling profit, multiple disease outbreaks, and finally rural Snarks. The narrator said, “An upside of the mass move from dairy to cereal is that as crops don’t attract Snarks, the farmers are safe if they take sensible precautions.” Thom thought of the down-side: increasingly starving Snarks moving into the cities.

When he checked the job site, predictably most vacancies called for PhDs. He toyed with the idea of returning to Uni, but with Marian earning, they’d have to fund it themselves, and that would tip them over the edge of solvency. Sighing, he exited the JobSite and checked SnarkWatch, noting recent kill sites.

Marian had urged him to spend longer with Auntie, prompted–he guessed–by her own guilt, so he left earlier than usual. He took the street parallel to the route he’d taken before, so that the Snark wouldn’t sense a pattern. Several times he found himself walking a straight line and started to hop from crack to crack for a minute or two, humming Bob Marley, ensuring his rhythm was irregular enough to not attract a Snark.

A corpse hung from a lamppost, and he shivered, wondering what urban justice had prompted the hanging; the St-Vitus-Dance-like thrashings of Blacktongue seemed to draw Snarks, and flash-mob lynchings grew common as the disease mutated–it seemed–at will. Or it could simply have been that someone had accused the man of petty theft. The body seemed to still twitch but it must have been the breeze or his imagination. He walked on, his mood soured.

Auntie seemed worse today, barely responding at all when he tried to ease her out of bed, so he left her where she lay. When he tried to feed her, she turned her head away, groaning. He had to get her to the toilet, however much pain it caused her. It was then that he noticed the bruising on her legs, and felt her forehead. “You’re burning up, Auntie.”

He called Marian on his mobile for advice, but went straight through to her voicemail, so hung up without leaving a message.

Then he took a bowl of warm soapy water to Auntie while she sat on the throne. He washed her, while trying to screen out her cries. After helping Auntie into a dressing gown, Thom shepherded her into her box-sized lounge where he sat her in a chair, while he rushed over to the pharmacy. He hoped that he might be able to log onto a public terminal there, and check Auntie’s symptoms.

But the terminal returned a dozen answers and the pharmacist seemed unsure, asking him a barrage of whispered questions to which he didn’t have the answers, while she looked around as if a flash-mob might coalesce at any moment.

Heading back, he wondered whether to call Liv but decided instead to send her a text; “Can’t make it today. Sorry.” She might feel as let down as he did, but if Auntie had something serious, he couldn’t risk exposing her to it.

Back at Monmouth Street, Auntie felt even hotter. Worried about dehydration, he mixed boiling water from the kettle with honey and lemon, then with some cold water to make it drinkable. But she seemed even more desperate not to eat or drink and as she wriggled and squirmed to avoid the cup, he saw her tongue and went cold.

He couldn’t believe that he hadn’t noticed it before.

Auntie Beth retracted the black lump as if suddenly lucid; it may have been his imagination, but he thought he saw momentary fear in her eyes and wondered if she knew deep down how deadly her symptoms were.

* * * *

He skulked around the library, looking for internal surveillance cameras, waiting for a careless user to leave their desk with the machine still logged onto the net. Eventually he found one, and Googled vague terms like ‘swollen tongue’. Apart from the obvious one he found no mention of other infections. He managed to reach a free Australian site via a couple of detours and typed in ‘Blacktongue’, but the machine immediately locked down. He shook his head in frustration and walked away as Library Security sauntered in, their casual behaviour not fooling him for a second.

On the way back he felt a distant rumbling several times, and changed his rhythm and direction to create an illusion of randomness. He heard a scream, quickly cut off, from a couple of streets away. He could feel them, something he’d never noticed before. And when he reached home and poured himself a glass of water, the surface of it shook as if there were a distant earthquake. He poked his tongue out in the mirror. Was it his imagination, or was it slightly swollen?

He was racking his brains wondering where he could get answers when his mobi rang. “Amir,” he said, as Icon switched to Bareface. “I was just about to call you.”

“That building you followed your missus to last night,” Amir said without preamble. “The one you sent us the pic of.”

“Uh-huh.” Thom wondered if he might yet regret his drunken confession. “It said Colston Enterprises on the front plate.”

“That’s bollocks, mate. It’s DWP Fraud Surveillance. Told you they was all bloody Stasi. You’re married to a Snoop.” Amir paused. “Course, if I was mixed up in the wrong kind of things, like, I might have a mate who was involved in selling alternative-sourced pharmaceuticals. You know?”

“And might this mate–”

“If I was, which of course I’m not.”

“But if you were, would this mate be unemployed?”

“By the law of averages, people like that are.”

“So he might recognise someone from the Stasi?”

“Again, by the law of averages…”

“I understand.” Thom paused. “Well,” he said, “Could your mate do me a favour? I need a temporary Net-User ID.”

Amir’s eyes narrowed and Thom wondered how much he should tell his old friend. He had no proof it was Blacktongue (yeah, right, said a cynical inner voice), nor that he was infectious. Amir said, “What you need it for?”

“A friend of mine is in some trouble–I don’t want Marian involved,” Thom said.

“I’ll text you the details,” Amir said. “You’ll have thirty minutes, so use it quick.”

“Sure.” Thom hung up. Seconds later, his mobi bleeped. Crash-and-burns were self-eradicating and in theory left no traces. If he were quick he could search the net, then report his phone missing straight after, denying any knowledge of the search. He headed for the front door. “Might as well do it on the move.”

For once, he had to consciously remember to change rhythm, and several times he thought that he heard a rumble coming nearer. When he finally managed to find what he was looking for, he stopped, and stared at the screen. Blacktongue’s symptoms matched Auntie Beth’s exactly. The shaking, swollen tongue, joints bruised from internal bleeding.

The virus was usually caused by insect bites, as it was in the original bovine disease that gave the geneticists their template. But then the bastards had made it still more lethal, making it temporarily communicable by touch. Thom was surprised that the Chinese or Iranians–or whoever was really behind it–had limited the infectious period to only twenty-four hours, but guessed that uncertainty would add to the panic its mere presence would cause.

Worse, symptoms included headaches and nausea. Maybe it wasn’t a simple hangover he had had. In which case, Liv and the boys were as good as dead.

He tossed the mobi into a bin as if it burned his hand. Googling even only a semi-official site with ‘Blacktongue’ would set off alarms in government surveillance sites and they could use the mobi to track him. He danced his way past the rumblings of the subterranean predators to Auntie Beth’s house, humming Spy in the House of Love. He was oddly calm; perhaps the grief and then the anger would come later. If he was infected, it would have been by now.

Auntie Beth had fallen out of bed and was lying face down on the carpet. Her breathing was ragged, her eyes sightless when he lifted and turned her, but her feet were beating a manic percussion on the floor, and her hands and arms twitched and flexed to an internal metronome. Her tongue was now so swollen that the black slab of flesh poked out of her mouth, even when he tried to close it.

Thom put her down and walked across to the mantelpiece above a fire that hadn’t been lit in decades. He gazed at the pictures; Marian and Thom on their wedding day; Thom aged eleven in his school uniform, grinning toothily at the camera; Auntie Beth in her early forties, holding a young boy by the hand–he stared shyly at the camera, and Thom barely recognised himself; Auntie as a young woman with another woman, whom Thom guessed to be her lost love; and a fairly recent one, taken just before the old woman began the slow spiral into premature senility, of Thom flanked by Auntie and Marian; he couldn’t remember who had taken any of them.

He walked back to the spasming body, and put his hands on her head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’d end it for you now, but a mercy killing needs to be done right, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t stuff it up.”

He picked up the antique land-phone and dialed Marian’s number. Before she could answer, he put down the phone. What was the point of telling her that Auntie had Blacktongue?

“I can’t hack this, Auntie,” he said from the doorway. “I hope it ends quick, and you don’t suffer, love.” He pulled the door shut behind him.

He stopped at a little kiosk that sold items whose provenance the buyer didn’t ask, and bought a voice-only disposable mobi for which he paid cash. When the elderly Turk asked for ID, Thom said casually, “I’ve left it at home. I’ll bring it in tomorrow.” The shopkeeper smiled and added ten pounds to the price, which Thom paid without arguing.

Outside, he dialed Liv and wasn’t surprised at her cautious “hello”, to an unknown voice-only number. “I can’t talk for long,” he said. “I just called to tell you that I love you, and the boys. I’ll call you later. No, nothing’s wrong.”

He set off for the city centre, singing neo-reggae songs that had a slower beat than normal, weaving across the pavement, at times into the road, wiping his nose occasionally, trying to sort out the confusion of feelings inside him.

When he reached his destination, he called Liv again and said, “I’m going to call you once, then hang up. When I call you again, straight after, don’t answer, don’t speak at all. Just keep quiet.” He cut the line, and murmured, “I can’t give you hope, darling, I can’t give you justice. But I can give you revenge.” He settled down to wait.

* * * *

Marian’s eyes widened as she saw Thom waiting across the square. He crossed quickly before Marian could descend the steps and joined her at the top, where they would be safe from even the biggest Snark, should one surface.

The square was empty but for a few late commuters, hurrying home before it got dark. Daytime felt safer whether or not it was. For all their technology, people were still cavemen under the skin, scared of the predators beyond the campfire.

“You knew, didn’t you?” He said loudly, phone in hand, his foot tapping in time to the pulsing of the virus through his blood. Somewhere, a Snark was circling, digging its way through the soil.

Marion smiled, and the knowledge in her eyes chilled his blood. “Knew what?”

Thom leaned forward. “Can’t hear you,” he said, hoping that deafness was a symptom of Blacktongue. Marian repeated the question. “That Auntie Beth had Blacktongue,” he replied. “That I’d get it…and…”

“Infect your whore?” Marian shouted, then shrugged. “That’s what you get for screwing around.”

“She isn’t–”

“She might as well be!” Between words, Marian’s lips were a line so thin as to be invisible. “Why? Wasn’t I enough?”

He swallowed, his tongue already feeling too big for his mouth. “Because. There’s only so much TV you can watch in a day. Because she doesn’t make me feel so bloody useless?”

“It’s my fault?” Her eyes widened, and he saw shock turn to anger.

“Not your fault. But you have a job. She doesn’t, so it makes us equals.”

“And I’m supposed to pay for you and your whore?”

Thom could see now how it might have looked. It was easier for Marian to believe that he paid for sex than to believe that he was trying to care for a second family. He shook his head. “We’ll–we would have taken our chances if it had come to it. Why are you so bloody angry, anyway? Christ, it’s not as if we had anything–”

“I thought we did!” Marian shouted. “I loved you, even when you turned into a whining, walking lump of self-pity.”

“You never showed it.”

“I never show anything, dummy!” She said, wiping her eye angrily. “Why do you think that I stayed with you? I could live in reasonable comfort on my own, not in a dump like we have.”

They stared at one another in silence, and both sighed. Something that should have been so obvious but had got wrapped in the cotton wool in Thom’s brain seeped through. “Why haven’t you got Blacktongue?”

Marian shrugged. “Luck, I guess.” Her smirk told him she’d lied.

“There’s a cure–”

“No, it’s a vaccine,” Marian said. “It’s nearly impossible to synthesise, so it’s rarer than rocking-horse shit. You see why it’s kept quiet?”

“So the story’s true, then?” Thom nodded, understanding. “Don’t want the plebs being cured, do we, draining the state? Sometimes I wonder if the bastards let these things out on purpose to keep our numbers down.”

“That’s just paranoia,” Marian said. “Don’t be silly.”

“Is it? The state’s always worked on fear to keep people in line.” He added, “You need it for your work.” Marian’s eyes widened as he continued, “If you’re buying bootleg meds as part of a sting, you might catch something.”

She said, “They’re often how it’s spread. But how–”

“Your suspects know,” he said.

She mouthed an ‘oh’, and said, “Catch Blacktongue early and you can stop it, though it leaves you needing medication for the rest of your life. I take the pills in work.”

His laugh was a bitter snort. “I suppose I’ve got no chance of getting my hands on any?” He felt the oppressive presence of a Snark rumbling by on the next street.

She looked down, scraped her foot on the step. “I got the vaccine for you,” she said. “But only enough for one person. It’s up to you if you want it.”

“So Liv dies, like Auntie’s dying now.”

“Auntie’s old!” Marian said, her eyes glinting. “She has no quality of life.”

“Did you give it to her on purpose?”

“No! Of course not! What sort of monster–”

“Would infect other people, innocent people? How’d you do it?”

“I didn’t,” Marian said. “But there are people who will break in for a few hundred quid, while the target’s out. Just leave an infected fly buzzing around to spread the virus. Or someone immunised who’ll brush up against the target during the infectious window.”

“The target? A nice, sterile name for an innocent woman.”

“Your whore isn’t innocent!”

“Her name,” he snarled, gripping her arm, “is Liv. She has a name. She has kids. Is it their fault, too?”

Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know–I, I just followed you one day, waited for you to come out, saw her. I didn’t know.”

“Will you let Liv and her children die?” he said. He grabbed her arm and dragged her down the steps.

“Stop it!” She tried to reach into her bag, but her right arm was clamped in his hands, and the bag was hanging over her left shoulder so that she couldn’t unzip it left-handed. He guessed she was carrying a taser or pepper spray. “Let go of me!”

Instead, he dragged her down the steps into the danger zone. “Commuters have to cross this.” He chin-cocked the cracked paving slabs onto which he dragged her, the weak spot in the route to the other side of the square, and the steps up to the monorail stop, and safety. “You’re not the only one who can work things out.” He stamped his feet, letting the delicious, delirious twitching have its way at last, drumming his heels on the ground right next to a couple of upraised slabs, imitating the symptoms of Blacktongue. “You might be safe from the virus, but you won’t survive a Snark attack.”

“Thom, please.” She tried to wriggle free, but he gripped her left arm in his right hand, to pull her around in a parody of a dance. “Please, Thom, let me go. I’ll give you the vaccine. Here,” she said, trying to pull free, “let me give it you now.”

But he held on tightly. “Come on, Marian, let’s dance!” He began to jump up and down on the spot. “Let’s pogo!” All his life he seemed to have been scared, or miserable or both. Knowing it couldn’t get any worse was weirdly liberating. “White Riot! White Riot! White, white, white, white riot!” He yelled at the top of his voice, trying to remember the lines to some of Auntie Beth’s obscurer taste in music.

“Thom, for God’s sake!” Her shriek almost drowned out the distant rumbling.

“No more heroes anymore!” He bellowed. “Dah-dah-DAH-dah-DAH-dah-dah–”

“Thom!”

He paused, panting. He could hear the rumbling. “What’s it going to be, Marian? You want to die as well?” He still hadn’t let go of her.

“I can give you the vaccine–”

“What about Liv? The boys? An eight-year-old and a teenager–do they deserve to die because their Mum met the wrong bloke?”

“I can only get one dose at the moment,” she gabbled, eyes wide. “I can get another tomorrow, maybe one the day after that, but I can’t get more than three–”

“Do–they–deserve–to–die?” He shouted the words, and she shook her head as the rumbling grew louder. His head was splitting and he was freaking out; he thought it had gone dark for a moment, and that his paws–hands–had gripped stones.

“No. No. I thought–” she shook her head, as if as confused as him. “I didn’t know about them. Of course they don’t.”

“Then get them the vaccine!” Thom begged. “Give Liv one dose tonight.”

“But what about you?”

“I’m a dead man, anyway, aren’t I?” Thom said, knowing that it was true. What was there to look forward to? Empty days of watching TV and screwing a woman he didn’t love, or living in poverty with the one he did. “They just haven’t turned off my heart yet,” he said. “Do you promise, Marian? Promise to get them the vaccine? To take care of them?”

Marian nodded, as the rumbling grew louder–

–It’s scrabbling at the stones, the scent of the prey nearly enough to make it swoon, but there are rocks in the way, if it can just get through…

“Run, Marian!” He shouted, jumping away from her. “Tip-toe, but tip-toe bloody quick, woman! Run for your life! And look after them!”

He pogo-ed, shouting and singing in a circle around another pushed up slab. He risked a look, and Marian was half-running, half-skipping in an erratic dance up the steps. He shouted, “Marian! Blacktongue attracts them!”

“What?”

“I can share their thoughts!” He saw her mouth hang open. “I can sense another one!”

He took the phone from his pocket; whispered, “Bye, love.”

He could smell wet fur and earth and carrion. He started to sing Redemption Song as the slabs in front of him erupted.

“The Killing Streets” originally appeared in Interzone issue 225

Colin Harvey is the editor of the SF anthology, Future Bristol, and the author of the novels Winter Song and the forthcoming Damage Time, due from Angry Robot Books in the US in May and June 2010. His short fiction has appeared in Interzone and Albedo One, and various anthologies, earning him an Honorable Mention in Ellen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror.

Colin worked for twenty years for a multinational manufacturer of soap powders, deodorants and ready-meals, his proudest memory launching Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Iceland. Since leaving he has worked as an almost full-time writer for the last three years, apart from putting in about ten hours a week in the Bristol Eye Hospital, moving patient files from room to room in a process that can only be described as surreal…

He went back to university in 2009 to take a degree in Creative Writing and Media Communications, studying new formats such as scriptwriting, gaming and poetry, about all of which he admits to knowing less than nothing. His website is at www.colin-harvey.com.

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