Vicious, p.16
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       Vicious, p.16

           V. E. Schwab
 
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  “You’ve lost it.” Eli sidestepped. “Put the knife down. It’s not like you can hurt me.”

  Victor smiled then. He looked like someone else. Eli tried to step back, but the wall came up behind him. The knife buried itself in his stomach. He felt the tip scratch at the skin of his back. The pain had been sharp, persistent, dragging itself out instead of flashing forward and dissolving.

  “You know what I figured out?” Victor growled. “Watching you in the street that night, picking the glass from your hand? You can’t heal yourself until I take the knife out.” He twisted it, and pain exploded behind Eli’s eyes, a dozen colors. He groaned and began to slide down the wall, but Victor hoisted him up by the handle.

  “I’m not even using my gift yet,” Victor said. “It’s not as flashy as yours, but it’s rather effective. Want to see it?”

  Eli swallowed hard, and dialed Serena as he put the car in gear and headed for the hotel. He didn’t wait for her to speak.

  “We have a problem.”

  IV

  TEN YEARS AGO

  LOCKLAND UNIVERSITY

  ELI Ever sat on the steps of his apartment in the cold morning and ran his fingers through his hair before realizing they were covered in blood. Caution tape surrounded him in streamers of yellow, too bright against the dull winter dawn. Red and blue lights dotted the icy ground and every time he looked at them, he ended up spending minutes trying to blink the colors away.

  “If you could tell us one more time…,” said a young cop.

  Eli touched his stomach, the echo of pain still there even though the skin had healed. He rubbed his hands together and watched blood flake off into the sidewalk snow. He wove a distress he wasn’t sure he felt back into his voice as he recounted everything from Victor’s panicked call the night before, confessing to Angie’s murder, to his sudden appearance in their living room, gun in hand. Eli left out the knives, having scrubbed and returned them to their drawers before the police arrived. It was odd, the way his brain had made space around the weedy panic, helping his hands and legs do what needed to be done even as a fading voice in the back of his mind screamed and his best friend lay shot full of holes on their living room floor. Something in Eli had gone missing—fear, that’s what he’d told Victor—right down the drain with the icy bath water.

  “So you wrested the gun from Mr. Vale.” Wrested had been Eli’s word, not the officer’s.

  “I taught a self-defense seminar last summer,” he lied. “It’s not that hard.”

  And then he pushed himself shakily to his feet. He was covered in blood, arms curled carefully around his ribs to hide the knife hole in his shirt. Two other officers had already questioned him about it. He’d told them he got lucky. He didn’t know how the weapon could have missed him. But it did. Obviously. Look, hole in shirt, no hole in Eli. Fortunately the cops had been too interested in Victor’s bleeding out on the hardwood floor to care much about Eli’s magic trick. One lucky man, they muttered, and he wasn’t sure if they’d been talking about him, or Victor, who had managed to avoid dying, for now.

  “And then you shot him three times.”

  “I was distraught. He’d just killed my girlfriend.” Eli wondered if he was in shock, if that was the thing keeping Angie’s death from sinking in the way the knife had. He wanted to care, he wanted to care so badly, but there was this gap between what he felt and what he wanted to feel, a space where something important had been carved out. And it was growing. He’d told Victor the thing he lost was his fear but that wasn’t quite true because he was still scared. He was scared of that rift.

  “And then?” prompted the cop.

  Eli rubbed his eyes. “And then he came after me. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. I tried not to kill him.” He swallowed, wishing he had a glass of water. “Look, do you think I could go clean up?” he asked, gesturing to his ruined clothes. “I need to go see Angie … her body.” The officer called past the yellow tape, and was given the all-clear. The ambulance was long gone. All that was left was a mess. The officer held up the tape to let him pass.

  A trail of red wound through the living room. Eli stopped and stared at it. The fight replayed behind his eyes as relentlessly as the police lights, and he forced himself to veer toward the bathroom. When he caught sight of himself in the bank of mirrors, he stifled a laugh. One of those ill, halfway-to-tears laughs. Blood stained his shirt. His pants. His face. His hair. Eli did his best to wash it off, scrubbing his arms OR-style in the sink. His favorite shirt, a bold red one that Victor always said made him look like a ripe tomato, was ruined.

  Victor. Victor was wrong. About everything.

  “If I’m missing something, then so are you. Life is about compromises. Or did you think because you put yourself in God’s hands that He would make you all you were and more?”

  “He did,” said Eli aloud to the sink. He did. He would. He had to. Whatever this gap was, it was there for a reason, there to make him stronger. He had to believe that.

  Eli washed his face, cupped water over his hair until the red ran out of it. He pulled on fresh clothes, and was just about to duck back under the yellow tape across his front door when he caught the end of the young officer’s remark to another cop.

  “Yeah, Detective Stell’s on his way.”

  Eli paused, and stepped backward into the apartment.

  “Did you know they have special people that come in if there’s an EO suspected? Some guy named Stell. I bet you didn’t know that.”

  Eli turned, made a line for the back door, only to find his path blocked by a very large cop.

  “Everything all right, sir?” asked the cop. Eli gave a slow nod.

  “Door’s taped,” he said. “Just trying to get out of everyone’s way.”

  The large cop nodded, and stepped aside. Eli was through the back door and into the small communal courtyard by the time the large officer reached the younger one. He didn’t look guilty, he told himself. Not yet.

  Victor was the guilty one. The Victor that he knew was dead, replaced by something cold and vicious. A twisted, violent version of himself. Victor had never been good, or sweet—he’d always had a sharp edge; Eli had been drawn to the metallic glint of it—but he’d never been this. A murderer. A monster. After all, he’d killed Angie. How? How had it happened? With pain? Was that possible? The medical part of his mind tried to break it down. A heart attack? Would the pain cause a short-circuit, like electricity? Would the body shut down? Would the functions freeze? He dug his nails into his palms. This was Angie. Not a science experiment. A person. The one who’d made him feel better, saner, kept him afloat when his mind began to sink. Was that it, then? Was Angie the missing thing? Wouldn’t it be lovely to make the gap another person instead of a part of himself? But no, that wasn’t it. Angie had helped, she’d always helped, but he’d felt the hole before she died, felt it even before he died. The feeling—the lack of it—had only ever come in glimpses, like a cloud passing overhead. But from the moment he woke up on the bathroom floor, the shadow had settled over him, a sign that something was wrong.

  Not wrong, he forced himself to think. Different.

  Eli got to his car, thankful he’d parked two blocks away (less chance of getting a ticket there), and threw it into gear. He drove past the engineering labs, slowing only enough to see the yellow tape there, too—marking out Victor’s path of destruction—and the huddle of emergency vehicles. He kept going. He needed to get to the pre-med buildings as fast as possible. He needed to find Professor Lyne.

  * * *

  ELI strode through the automatic doors and into the lobby of the three clustered buildings reserved for the medical sciences, an empty backpack slung on one shoulder. The lobby of the center lab had been painted an awful pale yellow. He wasn’t sure why they insisted on painting labs such sickly shades—maybe to prepare the pre-med students for the equally sad palettes of most of the hospitals they aspired to work in, or perhaps on some misguided notion that pale meant c
lean—but the color made the place seem lifeless, now more than ever. Eli kept his head down as he made his way up two flights of stairs, until he reached the office where he’d spent most of his free time since the start of winter break. Professor Lyne’s nameplate hung on the door, letters gleaming. Eli tried the handle. It was locked. He searched his pockets for something to use on the lock, and came up with a paper clip. If it worked on television, it could work here. He knelt before the handle.

  Before Victor had come back to campus, Eli had taken his discovery to Professor Lyne, who had gone from skeptical to intrigued as his theories gained weight. Eli had enjoyed getting the professor’s attention back in the fall, but it was nothing compared to the relish he felt earning Lyne’s respect. His research, now their research, had taken on a new focus under the professor’s guidance, reinterpreting the hypothetical qualities of existing EOs—the NDEs and their physical and psychological aftermath—into a potential system for locating them. A kind of search matrix. At least, that had been the charted course of study until Victor showed up and suggested that they could potentially make an EO instead. Eli had never shared this idea with Professor Lyne. He hadn’t had the chance. After Victor’s failed attempt, Eli had become too preoccupied with his own trial, and then after his success—and it was a success, missing pieces aside—he hadn’t wanted to share. He’d been watching Lyne’s interest sharpen from curiosity into fascination in a way that Eli knew well. Certainly well enough to distrust it.

  Now he was glad he’d kept the new direction to himself. In less than a week, Eli’s research had ended Angie’s life, ruined Victor’s (if he lived), and changed his own. Even though the dark turn in the thesis and the ensuing destruction had both been Victor’s fault, his actions had also revealed the grim truth of their discoveries, and where they would inevitably lead. And now Eli knew exactly what he had to do.

  “Can I help you?”

  Eli looked up from his lock-picking, which wasn’t going well, to find a janitor leaning on a broom, eyes flicking from Eli to his straightened paper clip. He forced a casual laugh and stood up.

  “I hope so. God, I’m such an idiot. I left a folder in Lyne’s office. He’s my adviser. I need it for my thesis.” He was talking too fast, the way actors did on TV when they wanted the audience to pick up on the fact they were lying. His hands were slick. He paused, forcing himself to breathe. “Have you seen him, by the way?” Inhale, exhale. “I can wait around a little while.” Inhale, exhale. “Be the first rest I’ve had in weeks.” He stopped and waited to see if the janitor would buy the story.

  After a long moment, the man pulled a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door.

  “I haven’t seen him yet, but he should be in soon. And in the future,” he offered as he turned away, “it takes two paper clips.”

  Eli smiled with genuine relief, waved his thanks, and went inside, urging the door closed with a click. He let out a low sigh, and got to work.

  There are times when the marvels of scientific advancement expedite our processes, making our lives easier. Modern technology provides machines that can think three or five or seven steps ahead of the human mind, machines that offer elegant solutions, a selection of contingency plans, Bs and Cs and Ds in case A isn’t to your liking.

  And then there are times when a screwdriver and a bit of elbow grease are all that’s necessary to get the job done. Eli admitted that it wasn’t terribly creative, or aesthetically pleasing, but it was efficient. Their research was stored in two places. The first was a blue folder in the third drawer of the wall cabinet, which Eli removed and slid into his backpack. The second was on the computer.

  He dismantled Professor Lyne’s computer the simplest, most fail-safe way he knew how: by physically removing the hard drive and crushing it underfoot, then putting the remnants into his backpack alongside the folder with the intent of tossing the whole bag into some crematorium or wood-chipper for good measure. He’d have to hope Professor Lyne didn’t think to store a copy of the research anywhere else.

  Eli zipped the bag closed, and did his best to position the computer so that at first glance it didn’t appear to be missing a hard drive at all. He had just shouldered the backpack and returned to the hall, and was in the process of trying to relock Lyne’s office door when he heard a cough and turned to find the professor himself barring his path, coffee in one hand, briefcase in the other. They considered each other, Eli’s hand still resting on the doorknob.

  “Good morning, Mr. Cardale.”

  “I’m withdrawing my thesis,” said Eli without preamble.

  Lyne’s brow crinkled. “But you’ll fail.”

  Eli shifted the bag and pushed past him. “I don’t care.”

  “Eli,” said Professor Lyne, following. “What’s this about? What’s going on?”

  They were alone in the hall. Eli spoke, but didn’t slow his pace. “It has to stop,” he said under his breath. “Right now. It was a mistake.”

  “But we’re just getting started,” said Professor Lyne. Eli shoved the door to the stairwell open and stepped onto the landing, Lyne trailing behind him. “The discoveries you’ve made,” said Lyne, “the ones we’ll make … they’ll change the world.”

  Eli turned on him. “Not for the better,” he said. “We can’t pursue this. Where does it lead? We make it possible to find EOs, and then what? They get taken, examined, dissected, explained, and someone decides to stop studying and start creating.” His stomach twisted. It would happen, just like that, wouldn’t it? He was proof. Wooed by the prospect, the potential, the chance to prove something instead of disprove.

  Do you ever wonder?

  “Would that be so bad?” asked Lyne. “To create something ExtraOrdinary?”

  “They aren’t ExtraOrdinary,” snapped Eli. “They’re wrong.”

  Eli blamed himself. Victor was right, he’d played God, even as he asked for His help. And God in His mercy and might had saved Eli’s life, but destroyed everything that touched it. “I won’t give anyone the tools to make more of them. All these roads lean to ruin.”

  “Don’t be dramatic.”

  “It’s over. I’m done.” Eli’s grip tightened on the bag. Lyne’s eyes narrowed.

  “I’m not,” said Lyne, his hand coming to rest on Eli’s shoulder, fingers curling around the backpack strap. “We have an obligation to science, Mr. Cardale. The research must continue. And discoveries of this magnitude must be shared. Stop being so selfish.”

  Lyne gave a sharp tug on the bag, but Eli stood his ground, and before he knew what was happening, the two men were fighting over the backpack. Eli shoved Lyne off him and up against the railing, and somewhere in the struggle, Lyne’s elbow met Eli’s lip hard, splitting it. Eli wiped the blood away and ripped the bag from Lyne’s grip, tossing it to the side only to realize that Lyne had stopped fighting for it. The professor stood, eyes wide, and Eli felt before he saw in Lyne’s eyes what was happening. The skin of his lip knit cleanly back together.

  “You…” Eli saw Lyne’s expression shift from shock to glee. “You did it. You’re one of them.” He could already see the experiments, the papers, the press, the obsession. “You’re an—”

  Lyne didn’t get a chance to finish, because at that moment, Eli gave him a sharp shove backward, down the stairs. The word was drawn out into a short cry, then cut off sharply by the first of several thuds as Lyne’s body tumbled down the steps. He hit the bottom with a crack.

  Eli stared down at the body, willing himself to feel horrified. He didn’t. There it was again, that gap between what he knew he should feel and what he did, mocking him as he looked down at Lyne. Eli wasn’t sure if he’d meant to push the professor down the stairs, or if he’d only meant to push him away, but the damage was done now.

  “It was Victor’s idea, putting the theory to the test,” he found himself saying as he descended the steps. “The method took some tweaking, but it worked. That’s why I know this has to stop.” Lyne twitched. His
mouth opened, made a sound between a groan and a gasp. “Because it works. And because it’s wrong.” Eli stopped at the base of the stairs beside his teacher. “I died begging for the strength to survive, and it was granted. But it’s a trade, Professor, with God or the devil, and I’ve paid for my gift with the lives of my friends. Every EO has sold a part of themselves they can never have back. Don’t you see?” He knelt beside Lyne, whose fingers twitched. “I can’t let anyone else sin so heinously against nature.” Eli knew what he had to do, felt it with a strange and comforting certainty. He brought one hand almost gently under Lyne’s jaw, the other cradling his chin. “This research dies with us.”

  With that, he twisted sharply.

  “Well,” said Eli softly. “With you.”

  Lyne’s eyes emptied and Eli set his head gently back against the ground, sliding his fingers free as he stood. There was a moment of such perfect quiet, the kind he used to feel in church, a sliver of peace that felt so … right. It was the first time he’d felt like himself, like more than himself, since he’d come back to life.

  Eli crossed himself.

  Then he made his way back up the stairs, pausing a moment to consider the body, bent, neck broken in a way that looked believable considering the fall. The coffee had tumbled with the professor, and left a trail down the steps, the shattered cup beside his shattered body. Eli had been careful not to step in the liquid. He wiped his hands on his jeans, and retrieved the backpack from the landing, but couldn’t bring himself to leave. Instead he stood there, waiting, waiting for the sense of horror, the nausea, the guilt, to come up to meet him. But it never came. There was only quiet.

  And then a bell rang through the building, taking the quiet with it, and Eli was left with only a body and the sudden urge to run.

 
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