The Fever King
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Outbreaks of magic started all kinds of ways. Maybe a tank coming in from the quarantined zone didn’t get hosed down properly. Maybe, like some people said, the refugees brought it up with them from Atlantia, the virus hiding out in someone’s blood or in a juicy peach pie.
But when magic infected the slums of west Durham, in the proud sovereign nation of Carolinia, it didn’t matter how it got there.
Everybody still died.
Noam was ringing up Mrs. Ellis’s snuff tins when he nearly toppled into the cash register.
He all but had to fight her off as she tried to force him down into a folding chair—swore he’d just got a touch dizzy, but he’d be fine, really. Go on home. She left eventually, and he went to stand in front of the window fan for a while, holding his shirt off his sweat-sticky back and trying not to pass out.
He spent the rest of his shift reading Bulgakov under the counter. He felt just fine.
That evening he locked the doors, pulled chicken wire over the windows, and took a new route to the Migrant Center. In this neighborhood, you had to if you didn’t want to get robbed. Once upon a time, or so Noam had heard, there’d been a textile mill here. The street would’ve been full of workers heading home, empty lunch pails in hand. Then the mill had gone down and apartments went up, and by the 1960s, Ninth Street had been repopulated by rich university students with their leather satchels and clove cigarettes. All that was before the city got bombed halfway to hell in the catastrophe, of course.
Noam’s ex used to call it “the Ninth Circle.” She meant it in Dante’s sense.
The catastrophe was last century, though. Now the university campus blocked the area in from the east, elegant stone walls keeping out the riffraff while Ninth and Broad crumbled under the weight of five-person refugee families crammed into one-room apartments, black markets buried in basements, laundry lines strung between windows like market lights. Sure, maybe you shouldn’t wander around the neighborhood at night draped in diamonds, but Noam liked it anyway.
“Someone’s famous,” Linda said when he reached the back offices of the Migrant Center, a sly smile curving her lips as she passed him the morning’s Herald.
Noam grinned back and looked.
Massive Cyberattack Disables Central News Bureau
Authorities link hack to Atlantian cyberterrorist affiliates.
“Haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Say, have you got any scissors?”
“I’m gonna frame this.”
Linda snorted and swatted him on the arm. “Get on, you. Brennan has some task he wants finished this week, and I don’t think you, him, and your ego can all fit in that office.”
Which, fair: the office was pretty small. Tucked into the back corner of the building, with Brennan’s name and Director printed on the door in copperplate, it was pretty much an unofficial storage closet for all the files and paperwork Linda couldn’t cram anywhere else. Brennan’s desk was dwarfed by boxes stacked precariously around it, the man himself leaning close to his holoreader monitor with reading glasses perched on the end of a long nose and a pen behind one ear.
“Noam,” he said, glancing up when the door opened. “You made it.”
“Sorry I missed yesterday. I had to cover someone’s shift at the computer store after I got off the clock at Larry’s.”
Brennan waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t apologize. If you have to work, you have to work.”
It wasn’t guilt, per se, that coiled up in Noam’s stomach. Or maybe it was. That was his father’s photograph on the wall, after all, though his face was hidden by a bandanna tied over his nose and mouth. His father’s hands holding up that sign—Refugee rights are human rights. That was in June 2118, during the revolt over the new, more stringent citizenship tests. It had been the largest protest in Carolinian history.
“Linda said you had something for me to work on?” Noam said, tilting his head toward the holoreader.
“It’s just database management, I’m afraid, nothing very interesting.”
“I love databases.” Noam smiled, and Brennan smiled back. The expression lifted the exhaustion from Brennan’s face like a curtain rising from a window, sunlight streaming through.
Brennan oriented him to the task, then gave up his desk chair for Noam to get to work. He squeezed Noam’s shoulder before he left to help Linda with dinner, and a warm beat of familiarity took root in the pit of Noam’s stomach. Brennan might try to put up boundaries, clear delineations between professional life and how close Brennan had been to Noam’s family, but the cracks were always visible.
That was pretty much the only reason Noam didn’t tell him up front: database management was mind-numbingly boring. After you figured out how to script your way past the problem, it was just a matter of waiting around. He’d have once maybe emailed Carly or someone while the program executed. But they were all dead now, and between the Migrant Center and two jobs, Noam didn’t have time to meet new people. So he sat and watched text stream down the command console, letters blurring into numbers until the screen was wavering light.
A dull ache bored into Noam’s skull.
Maybe he was more tired than he thought, because he didn’t remember what happened between hitting “Execute” and Brennan shaking him awake. Noam lurched upright.
“You all right?” Brennan asked.
“What? Oh—fine, sorry. I must have . . . dozed off.” Noam seized the holoreader, tapping at the screen until it lit up again. The script was finished, anyway, and no run-time errors. Thankfully. “It’s all done.”
The thin line between Brennan’s brows deepened. “Are you feeling okay? You look . . .”
“Fine. I’m fine. Just tired.” Noam attempted a wan smile. He really hoped he wasn’t coming down with whatever it was Elliott from the computer store had. Only, he and Elliott had kissed in the back room on their lunch break yesterday, so yeah, he probably had exactly what Elliott had.
“Maybe you should go on home,” Brennan said, using that grip on Noam’s shoulder to ease him back from the computer. “I can help Linda finish up dinner.”
“It wasn’t a request.”
Noam made a face, and Brennan sighed.
“For me, Noam. Please. I’ll drop by later on if I have time.”
There was no arguing with Brennan when he got all protective. So Noam just exhaled and said, “Yeah, all right. Fine.”
Brennan’s hand lingered a beat longer than usual on Noam’s shoulder, squeezing slightly, then let go. When Noam looked over, Brennan’s expression gave nothing away as he said, “Tell your dad hi for me.”
Noam had arrived at the Migrant Center in the early evening. Now it was night, the deep-blue world illuminated by pale streetlight pooling on the sidewalk. It was unusually silent. When Noam turned onto Broad, he found out why: a checkpoint was stationed up at the intersection by the railroad tracks—floodlights and vans, police, even a few government witchings in military uniform.
Right. No one without a Carolinian passport would be on the street tonight, not with Immigration on the prowl.
Noam’s papers were tucked into his back pocket, but yeah, he didn’t need to deal with Chancellor Sacha’s anti-Atlantian bullshit right now. Not with this headache. He cut through the alley between the liquor store and the barbecue joint to skirt the police perimeter. It was a longer walk home from there, but Noam didn’t mind.
He liked the way tonight smelled, like smoked ribs and gasoline. Like oncoming snow.
When he got to his building, he managed to get the door open—the front latch was ancient enough it probably counted as precatastrophe. Fucking thing always got stuck, always, and Noam had written to the super fifty times, for what little difference that’d made. It was November, but the back of Noam’s neck was sweat-damp by the time he finally shouldered his way into the building and trudged into his apartment.
Once upon a time, this building was a bookstore. It’d long since been converted to tenements, all plywood walls and hung-up sheets for doors. The books were still there, though, yellowing and mildewed. They made him sneeze, but he read a new one every day all the same, curled up in a corner and out of the way of the other tenants. It was old and worn out, but it was home.
Noam touched the mezuzah on the doorframe as he went in, a habit he hadn’t picked up till after his mother died but felt right somehow. Not that being extra Jewish would bring her back to life.
Noam’s father had been moved from the TV to the window.
“What’s up, Dad?”
No answer. That was nothing new. Noam was pretty sure his father hadn’t said three words in a row since 2120. Still, Noam draped his arms over his father’s lax shoulders and kissed his cheek.
“I hope you want pasta for dinner,” Noam said, “’cause that’s what we’ve got.”
He left his father staring out at the empty street and busied himself with the saucepans. He set up the induction plate and hunched over it, steam wafting toward his face as the water simmered. God, it was unbearably hot, but he didn’t trust himself to let go of the counter edge, not with this dizziness rippling through his mind.
Should’ve had more than an apple for lunch. Should’ve gone to bed early last night, not stayed up reading Paradise Lost for the fiftieth time.
If his mother were here, she’d have dragged him off to bed and stuck him with a mug of aguapanela. It was some sugary tea remedy she’d learned from her Colombian mother-in-law that was supposed to cure everything. Noam had never learned how to make it.
Another regret to add to the list.
He dumped dried noodles into the pot. “There’s a checkpoint at the corner of Broad and Main,” he said, not expecting an answer.
None came. Jaime Álvaro didn’t care about anything anymore, not even Atlantia.
Noam turned down the heat on the stove. “Couldn’t tell if they made any arrests. Nobody’s out, so they might start knocking on doors later.”
He turned around. His father’s expression was the same slack-jawed one he’d been wearing when Noam first came in.
“Brennan asked about you,” Noam said. Surely that deserved a blink, at least.
“I killed him.”
Nothing then either.
Noam spun toward the saucepan again, grabbing a fork and stabbing at the noodles, which slipped through the prongs like so many slimy worms. His gut surged up into his throat, and Noam closed his eyes, free hand gripping the edge of the nearest bookshelf.
“You could at least pretend to give a shit,” he said to the blackness on the other side of his eyelids. The pounding in his head was back. “I’m sad about Mom, too, you know.”
His next breath shuddered all the way down into his chest—painful, like inhaling frost.
His father used to sing show tunes while he did the dinner dishes. Used to check the classifieds every morning for job offers even though having no papers meant he’d never get the good ones—he still never gave up. Never ever.
And Noam . . . Noam had to remember who his father really was, even if that version of him belonged to another life, ephemeral as footprints in the snow. Even if it felt like he’d lost both parents the day his mother died.
Noam switched off the heat, spooning the noodles into two bowls. No sauce, so he drizzled canola oil on top and carried one of the bowls over to his father. Noam edged his way between the chair and the window, crouching down in that narrow space. He spun noodles around the fork. “Open up.”
Usually, the prospect of food managed to garner a reaction. Not this time.
Nausea crawled up and down Noam’s breastbone. Or maybe it was regret. “I’m sorry,” he said after a beat and tried for a self-deprecating grin. “I was . . . it’s been a long day. I was a dick. I’m sorry, Dad.”
His father didn’t speak and didn’t open his mouth.
Noam set the pasta bowl on the floor and wrapped his other hand around his father’s bony wrist. “Please,” Noam said. “Just a few bites. I know it’s not Mom’s cooking, but . . . for me. Okay?”
Noam’s mother had made the most amazing food. Noam tried to live up to her standard, but he never could. He’d given up on cooking anything edible, on keeping a kosher kitchen, on speaking Spanish. On making his father smile.
Noam rubbed his thumb against his father’s forearm.
The skin there was paper thin and far, far too hot.
His father’s eyes stared past Noam, unseeing and glassy, reflecting the lamplight outside. That wasn’t what made Noam lurch back and collide with window, its latch jabbing his spine.
A drop of blood welled in the corner of his father’s eye and—after a single quivering moment—cut down his cheek like a tear.
Noam shoved the chair back from the window, half stumbling across the narrow room to the curtain separating their space from their neighbor’s. He banged a fist against the nearest bookshelf.
“Mrs. Brown, are you in there? I—I’m coming in.”
He ripped the curtain to one side. Mrs. Brown was there but not in her usual spot. She was curled on the bed instead, shoulders jutting against the ratty blanket like bony wings.
Noam hesitated. Was she . . . no. Was she dead?
She moved, then, a pale hand creeping out to wave vaguely in the air.
“Mrs. Brown, I need help,” Noam said. “It’s my dad—he’s sick. He’s . . . he’s really sick, and I think . . .”
The hand dropped back onto the blanket and went still.
No. No, no—this wasn’t right. This wasn’t happening. He should go downstairs and get another neighbor. He should—no, he should check on his dad. He couldn’t. He . . .
He had to focus.
The blanket covering Mrs. Brown began to ripple like the surface of the sea. Outside, the hazard sirens wailed.
Dragging his eyes away from Mrs. Brown, Noam twisted round to face his own apartment and vomited all over the floor.
He stood there for a second, staring woozily at the mess while sirens shrieked in his ears. He was sick. Magic festered in his veins, ready to consume him whole.
His father, when Noam managed to weave his way back to his side, had fallen unconscious. His head lolled forward, and there was a bloody patch on his lap, yellow electricity flickering over the stain. The world undulated around them both in watery waves.
“It’s okay,” Noam said, knowing his dad couldn’t hear him. He sucked in a sharp breath and hitched his father’s body out of the chair. He shouldn’t—he couldn’t just leave him there like that. Noam had carried him around for three years, but today his father weighed twice as much as before. Noam’s arms quivered. His thoughts were white noise.
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, a voice kept repeating in Noam’s head.
He dumped his father’s body on the bed, skinny limbs sprawling. Noam tried to nudge him into a more comfortable position, but even that took effort. But this . . . it was more than he’d done for his mother. He’d left her corpse swinging on that rope for hours before Brennan had shown up to take her down.
His father still breathed, for now.
How long did it take to die? God, Noam couldn’t remember.
On shaky legs, Noam made his way back to the chair by the window. He couldn’t manage much more. The television kept turning itself on and off again, images blazing across a field of static snow and vanishing just as quickly. Noam saw it out of the corners of his eyes even when he tried not to look, the same way he saw his father’s unconscious body. That would be Noam soon.
Magic crawled like ivy up the sides of the fire escape next door.
Noam imagined his mother waiting for him with a smile and open arms, the past three years just a blink against eternity.
His hands sparked with something silver-blue and bright. Bolts shot between his fingers and flickered up his arms. The effect would have been beautiful were it not so deadly. And yet . . .
A shiver ricocheted up his spine.
Noam held a storm in his hands, and he couldn’t feel a thing.
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