Congratulations @BeckyJean for your excellent story. Short Story Contest (154) - Theme: "The Wizard of Calladan". You won by a landslide, though there was a challenger that was hot on your heels with another good story. Thanks again to the other authors that entered and all the forum members that voted. ______________________________________ Dr. Know [3000 words; language] It’s frigid cold. My skin is a blanket of goose bumps over a sheet of numb flesh. We need it like this, though. If we could make it colder – drop the AC another ten degrees (something the thermostat limits), we would. The one thing we know – the one thing we’ve learned; cold slows it down. Maybe it even kills it. I hope it does...I pray it does, I think. Four of our team members have already died, before we learned about the cold. Four of us are left. Seated on the sofa, I rub my palms briskly up my forearms, trying to flatten the stiffened hairs. Sissy, my best friend and fellow team member, is shivering on the opposite end of the couch. Our team’s second in command, Randy, my fiancé, is on his feet, staring out the window. From my periphery I see Sandra, another team member, rocking furiously in the wooden rocking chair. Every so often she scowls and sternly shakes her head, as if refusing some phantom internal voice. How did it come to this? After everything we’ve gone through to get here… just like that, four of us are gone; Brad, Molly, Lisa, and Jim. Losing Jim is the worst part. I liked and respected the others - but Jim… I’d known him since my first week of grad school. He was our team leader, our authority on infectious diseases, and my mentor. It seems impossible that I’ll never see him again. Him with his six foot seven frame, his gray, untamed curls and bushy, almost-sideburns, and that constant glint of “what if we tried this?” in his eye; he seemed invincible, like a great, big mountain of steel and granite, sturdy and unshakable, unaffected by silly occurrences like hurricanes or earthquakes. I suppose I thought someone like him couldn’t die. The powers-that-be simply wouldn’t allow it. I was wrong. I ache already for our friendship, but how can we continue this work without him? We’re here, in the jungles of Calladan because of him. Weneed him; now more than ever. The irony is that he was the second to die, right after Molly. There wasn’t enough time for him to figure out what we were dealing with; what we should avoid, expect or plan for. We had found Molly in her tent four days ago, swollen, masked in blisters with bright red, splotchy skin under each runny sore. Her eyes and mouth hung open, a surprised expression on her face. Jim, the constant scientist, flew into action. As much as he valued Molly, the mystery of her sudden death excited and intrigued him. It was catnip to Jim, and likely his downfall. He wasn’t careful enough. Why wasn’t he? He was the expert, I think, suddenly pissed. It took only six hours for Jim’s intrigue and fascination to end with his death. “I can’t take it…I’m a glacier! Do you think by now it’s safe to put on my jacket?” Sissy says, interrupting my thoughts through chattering teeth. Her eyes are begging for permission, but I can’t give it. I can’t because it would be a lie. In fact, we all know that when one gets too warm (how warm that technically is – we still aren’t sure) - it triggers the illness. At least, that’s what we’ve deduced from the other deaths. Lucky for us, the AC is working two-fold; keeping us safe, and keeping our friend’s bodies from decomposing too quickly. That part won’t last forever, though. “You really shouldn’t, Sissy.” I say gently. “The cold keeps it at bay – whatever this is. But so far, that’s all we know. Best not to risk it.” I continue rubbing my hands over my arms. The hairs are angry barbs. “SHIT, SHIT, SHIT!” she shouts, making us all jump. “Then what are we going to do - huh?What the hell are we going to do? Just sit here, freezing our asses off until… what? Somebody comes looking for us?” She stands, then paces, shaking out her hands. “Those assholes probablyknewwhat we were walking into. I bet they planned it all along! They just couldn’tstand that we got the grant and they didn’t. I mean, right? RIGHT?” She scoffs and falls back onto the sofa. Her eyes dart from me to Randy, and then to Sandra. “Could you give it a rest, Sissy?” Randy says too calmly… dreamily. His arms are folded across his chest. He balances on his heels, a slight sway in his posture. Like he’s sleepy - or tipsy. Then I see it – the shift of light through the window. His blonde hair glistens, the whole front of him is lit up, glowing. He tilts his face skyward, eyelids slack, sighing deeply. One corner of his mouth lifts as a ray of sunshine warms his cheeks through the glass. “Randy!” I scream, launching myself at him, knocking him to the floor. Our limbs tangle together like last year’s bundle of Christmas lights. I feel heat through his shirt, on his chest; heat from the sun. “What the hell?!” he says beneath me. Frantically, my eyes search his face. Nothing. I search the skin of his neck, his ears, down the front of his throat, lifting his shirt to check his chest. Still nothing. He’s clear. Thank God, he’s clear! “Christ, Wendy – I’m fine. Get off of me.” Clumsily, we struggle to our feet. Almost as an afterthought, I glance at his arms, so filled with relief I could cry. But then I can’t breathe. I’ve forgotten how to breathe. No, no, no, no, no! It can’t be – please God; don’t let it be! I’ll do anything you want, God - just please, don’t let this be! “What?” Randy says, alarmed. “What is it?” He lifts his shirt trying to see, twisting, pulling, searching. “It’s… it’s on your arm…” I stammer, stifling the sob lodged in my throat. If I loosen the grip on my emotions, I’ll never rein them in again. “Here,” I turn his arm over, showing him the underside, near his elbow – the part that’s always soft and pale. Slightly larger than a quarter is a bright pink circle with a patchy pattern just starting to bloom in the surrounding tissue. Randy and I stare at it, dumbfounded. Sandra and Sissy are quiet as well; completely still and gawking at us. The tension in the room feels like it could ignite and set us all on fire. I look up, at the surprised panic and fear on Randy’s face. His blue eyes and full lips are a total blur. I hadn’t realized I was already crying. I let go of his arm and latch onto both his hands, squeezing them for dear life. “It doesn’t mean anything. Are you listening?” He looks dazed. “RANDY!” I shake his hands hard. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to get out of here and you’re going to make it!” I say it with conviction I don’t feel. But what else can I say? That this is the beginning of the end? That we have less than a few hours together? That all of our life-long plans will never see the light of day? That we’ll never be man and wife, never buy our dream house, never have children together? The emotions wedged in my throat reject suppression and come bursting out. Grief and loss have already taken root. Trembling, I wrap my arms around him, pressing my cheek to his chest. He‘s too warm; warmer than the sunlight could have made him. It’s the fever. Evidence of my broken heart covers the front of his shirt. I’ve never cried so much, so quickly. Randy stands stiffly, blank faced and rigid, allowing himself to be hugged, but not hugging me back. “Randy? Babe…?” “I, I was so cold… I felt the sun… it felt… good,” he says distractedly, apologetically - as if remembering a dream, and then sorry for the dream. “I forgot… Jesus, Wendy - how could I forget?” His desperate eyes find mine, mirroring what I know. Then he reaches for me, squeezing so tightly, my back audibly cracks. I don’t care. I pay no mind to the fact that we’re skin on skin. I ignore his breath on my face. The love of my life is dying. As I stand here holding him, it has already begun. “What are we going to do now? Wendy - ? ” Sissy says, standing again and wringing her hands. She’s close to losing it; her eyes are wild, her breathing too fast. Hysterics are next. I unravel from Randy, keeping hold of one of his hands. Sandra is rocking faster and faster. She hums loudly, eyes averted, looking every bit the asylum patient. How will I keep them both calm while tending to Randy? I need to stay strong. I’m overwhelmed already at the idea of his bloated, blister-covered body, choking on that last sip of oxygen. “What’s important, Sissy, is that we stay calm,” I tell her, trying to find meaning in what I’m saying. But I don’t feel calm. In fact, I wish I could mimic Sandra; find a corner and rock myself into oblivion. Anything to not face what’s coming. “Are you calm, Miss Perfect?” she shrieks. “Knowing that your fiancé is literally boiling -fromTHE INSIDE OUT?” Her words strike me like a blow to the gut. Instinctively, I clutch at my stomach, unable to hide the pain her words cause. I find I don’t want to. How can she say this to me? She’s my best friend. But I know that some people lose who they are when faced with death. Not everyone stays strong. I see instant regret, an apology surfacing in her eyes. But as I look at her, I spot something else; moisture on her brow. She looks back at me; confusion giving way to defiance. “What? Stop staring at me!” she demands, her apology forgotten. Randy shifts. We watch him robotically move to the sofa. He sits, staring into space, hands folded neatly in his lap. What’s going on in his head? What is he thinking? He won’t look at me. His panic was too short lived. That fact terrifies me. He’s simply shut down, like a breaker being tripped. And he’s too quiet – like he’s retreated to some secret place, and I’m not welcome. I raise my eyes back to Sissy, seeing again the glossy sheen of perspiration on her forehead. Following my eyes, she swipes at it with her hand, and then holds it out in front of her. She gapes at the moisture as if a hive of hornets has suddenly sprouted from her palm. Her eyes wide, they cut from the sweat to me and back again. “W-Wendy…?” she breathes, and crumbles onto the sofa, bawling noisily like a child, pounding her fists into the cushions. Through her screams, under all the noise - I can hear Sandra’s humming from the corner. It’s louder. She’s rocking faster than ever – back and forth and back and forth, as if someone has jammed the fast-forward button on an old VCR. “Sissy, let me look, okay?” I ask over her crying. “You’re probably fine. Sweat doesn’t mean you’re sick,” I tell her. But it does. I know it does. First comes the fever. Then comes the sores. After that, her trunk, limbs and face will distend, like a gigantic balloon-doll, filled to capacity with diseased fluid. Her skin will stretch and tighten; a field of crimson patches and oozing blisters. And then finally, when it seems she’ll literally bust open – she’ll stop breathing. This is her fate; hers and Randy’s. She ignores me and continues crying. Stupidly, naively we thought the air conditioning in this strange little shack would save us; that the frigid air had actually stalled the virus, or bacteria, or whatever it is that has targeted us. We thought we would be safe, that it would buy us enough time for someone to realize we’d been radio-silent too long and come looking for us. Perhaps Beta Team, our rivals - the team Sissy blamed for all of this. Maybe they would come, once they realize they’ve heard nothing from our end. They are the closest, at headquarters’ camp, about seventy miles north of our intended location. They were to join us after five days. That would be now. Of course, nobody knows we even left our camp. The tents are still up, the coffee pot and breakfast dishes still by the campfire. We’d planned to find help, and then, as soon as we could, return and complete what we came here for - our search for the elusive sozylocosmineg;a prehistoric microorganism that almost every modern scientists claims is a myth. Jim was convinced they were wrong, staking his entire scientific career on proving it. So he’d assembled our team – Alpha Team – on the legs of that conviction. Fifteen years of lab work, living on Ramen Noodles and frozen broccoli at home, endless studies in third world countries, sleeping in shit-holes and shitting in dirt-holes; those were only a fraction of the sacrifices Randy and I made to be on this team - traveling the globe, turning over every blessed rock. The search seemed endless. When Jim came across the article that referenced this mystical microbe living in this jungle, he made it his mission to get our team here. He was certain it was the answer to Alzheimer’s and MS and a myriad of life altering diseases. He just had to find it. Our team would help him do that. Of course, discovering a dead team member on morning-one wasn’t part of that plan. A mere two hours after finding Molly’s body, Jim’s face and arms was a quilt of seeping blisters. Inside of twenty minutes, it covered his entire body. I admit we panicked. With one mysterious death and Jim’s rapid decline, we didn’t know what to do. So we gathered what we could carry (by then Jim could barely walk on his own), rigged a sling to tow Molly’s body, and headed toward the road, toward help. Our radios had somehow gone dead in the night, spare batteries included. Within three hours, in the middle of nowhere, we came to a metal shack. We knocked, but there was no answer. By then, two more – Brad and Lisa - had begun to blister. We had no choice. Praying there was a phone, we broke inside. Lisa – already sick, but the smallest – crawled through a tiny window over a gas-fueled generator and opened the door. Inside was practically empty; only a plaid couch, a rocking chair, and a small desk, all pushed to one end of the larger of two rooms. A huge window faced the jungle, framing it like a work of art. Nobody noticed the hidden cameras. There was no sign of a resident, but the AC was on. We cranked the thermostat down. Everyone was hot, but the heat was worse for those sick. Sweating grew more blisters. By then Jim had only two hours left to live. Lisa and Brad were dead two hours after that. But then, after we gently laid our friend’s bodies in the smaller room – strangely, magically there was no more infection. No fever, no discolored skin, no blisters. Our only reasoning was the cold; it did something to it. It must. Because we went a full four days and nobody got sick. Not until Randy stood near the window, in that ray of sunshine. Suddenly the room is filled with Sissy’s screams. She’s looking at her forearms, hysteria etched into every facial feature. I can see the sores from where I stand. Many, many sores. Beside her, Randy’s face, arms, and throat are a lumpy terrain of ripe and watery, flesh colored bumps. He sits back, lids closed, taking shallow, tidal breaths. He’s almost gone… already. It’s happening too quickly; faster than the others. Panic fills my chest. NO! I need more time! I take a step toward him, but realize Sandra has stopped rocking. I glance over and freeze. Her face and arms are blister free, but her skin is a series of red and pink raised rings; searing hot, keloid circles. It’s already mutating. With quiet resignation, our eyes meet. I reach up, covering my mouth; holding the horror and sadness back, perhaps. Sandra’s eyes focus on my hand. Slowly I turn it over. There, like a branding, or an admittance stamp from a nightclub is a round, pink circle - and surrounding it, layers of red rings just beginning to surface. *** The smallish, big-bellied, bald man sitting at his computer a quarter mile away grinned at the screen. Dr. Know - a name he’d given himself - fancied himself a double-threat; combination covert spy (though the only people spied on were his victims), and The Wizard behind the curtain. Dr. Know’s delusions were grandiose. But sociopaths don’t recognize this in themselves. Even brilliant ones. This was his favorite part. He’d engineered the whole thing, of course; the article that led the scientists here, the virus infected gas canisters high up in the trees, the electromagnetic current used to drain their radio’s batteries. And finally, the little metal house he’d built for them to stumbled onto… what they all ultimately stumble onto. It’s part of the game, after all. This group discovered the benefits of cold quicker than the others, though. That Beverly was one smart cookie. He has enjoyed watching her; the way her tits filled out her smudged tee-shirt, her tight, plump ass, the way her lips looked like ripe cherries. His skin became flushed as a bulge began to grow under his zipper. He absently reached down to give it a caress when he glimpsed something else; small red dots all over his forearms, over a sea of raised, pink rings. “Well, fuck me,” sighed Dr. Know.