Something awoke while feeding. It had no mouth, no bones, it had no skull, it had no blood, nor plasma. It had only a shadow of instinct. It was free of form, yet still understood time. Place, though, was not clear. It was surely alone. That was instinctively known. Being so surely alone, this was instinctively feared.
But it could grow. It had found food, and had fed for months. Now, it was awake.
Harriet and Katherine stared at the offending bottle of wine. Katherine furrowed her brow while Harriet breathed through her nose, almost snuffling. She suddenly snuffled her way to the bottle and grabbed the seal with vigour, pulling hard. It did not open. She retreated back to her kitchen stool.
"I thought if I surprised it, it might work."
Katherine nodded. "Yeah. It was worth a try."
Harriet smiled, nuzzling her head into Katherine's collarbone, pushing aside the deep brown hair with her nose. "You're bony these days."
"I know, right? I can't help it," said Katherine. Harriet nuzzled a little further, her cheeks tingling with a hotness that inevitably pre-empted tears. No, no crying right now, she thought. You're not the one who should cry.
"You know you shouldn't be so close to me," Katherine said.
Harriet faked a yawn to cover the tears that had wriggled their way out, and rubbed her face vigorously. "You know what helps you gain weight? Alcohol!" With that she grabbed the bottle again and yanked the top. It popped off and splashed some red wine on her hands, which she licked off, crying, "I surprised it!"
Katherine laughed and poured them each a glass. What a beautiful dork, she thought as she watched Harriet chasing drips of red wine down her forearm. "Cheers," she said, and drank. Katherine walked slowly through their small apartment, past the window edges encrusted with smoggy dirt. Brisbane’s sky showed only a vague tint of the blue it used to have, through the dark orange that now dominated the Australian atmosphere. As Katherine passed the bathroom, she could smell a faint tinge of vomit – though whether this was real or imagined, she wasn't sure. She vomited so regularly that the smell lived in the skin of her nostrils.
Her insides were sloughing off and slipping out her throat. She knew this, and Harriet did too, though they rarely mentioned it explicitly. Sickness started spreading through Australia about six months ago - at first just villages, graduating to towns, cities, then up to the supercities and conglomerates. The protectorates, sealed concrete structures within cities, so far remained untouched.
"I heard that Mr Currant's dog got sick. He thinks it's all part of it, he's started chaining him down to the earth to stop him disappearing." Katherine liked this idea, of a balloon-dog bobbing in the air.
“I doubt it. There haven't been any reports of it affecting dogs."
"He knows that," said Katherine. Harriet usually found dog stories funny. Maybe she could smell her breath.
"Maybe we should chain you down," Harriet mused. "Or wrap you up in cling film. Surely that would hold you together."
Katherine started. "Can you smell it? I'm sorry, how gross."
Harriet silently sipped her wine. She was a goofy-looking girl with blonde curls and a big nose, but she wasn't stupid - she understood the implications of Katherine vomiting. From the moment the sickness began, Harriet had imagined at least twice a day that Katherine had been taken, preparing herself against what she now knew was an inevitability. Sometimes the thought of it would make her retch out of misery. But when she started smelling the rot on Katherine's breath and seeing tiny splotches of vomit splatter in the bathroom, Harriet wasn't shocked, or even scared. It felt like an easy fitting of the final piece. A strangely satisfactory chance to test out the limits of her tragic capacity. Of course, of course, that wasn't true. But everything helped to confuse Harriet's brain enough that she could manage, and maybe, one day, recover. So Harriet surmised.
She started attacking the dirty bowls and cutlery strewn across the bench, scrubbing vigorously to get the last scraps of their spaghetti. Katherine’s illness lingered in the room, in Harriet’s mind, in the air between them. The Fading, thought Harriet. It sounds so gentle. How stupidly euphemistic.
Katherine always disliked this name, well before it became personal. The capital letters gave The Fading a biblical scale which she stubbornly refused to accept, in spite of the biblically horrific consequences and wild indiscrimination. Of course she tried to conceal it when it struck her. Dying isn't typically what you want to face, especially when it comes to this sort of dying. The first time she vomited, she didn't think there was anything wrong. It was when she vomited the second time that she was hit by a cinder block of fear, and she knew she had an average of six weeks left. She had lived five of those weeks. Standing at the kitchen counter, drying a spatula and flicking Harriet with the tea towel, Katherine was living out the last of her days.
The vomiting was an indication of the body trying to rid itself of foreign matter in the best way it knew how. However, this foreign matter was lodged too firmly that no defense system the human body could provide was sufficient. The molecules of The Fading were wily, insidiously forcing their way into the deepest cells, the full depth of the muscles and intestinal walls. Biopsies taken from living patients revealed very slight aberrations at the cellular level, cells wrapped in a microscopic film.
The two women finished the dishes and moved to relax on the couch. Harriet shoved a pile of infoslides to one side – a collection of in-depth analyses of The Fading’s effect on the human immune system, cell structure, cell death – anything she could use to understand Katherine’s plight. Katherine picked up one infoslide that focused on the timeline of the disease. She flicked through screen to come to the section on the Wrenching.
“Darling, no, don’t read that again, you don’t have to do that,” Harriet said.
Katherine pulled away from Harriet’s attempt to grab the slide. “I need to prepare myself. It’s fine, really. I want to know.” With that, she settled back into the corner of their couch and read, again, the information about the Wrenching. Unfortunately, this was not a coy name. Patients' guts, not satisfied with their attempts at self-cleansing, finally succumbed to the horror of the invasion of its cells. A last ditch attempt at purging occurred whereby the muscles would violently contract and expand, the cells thrashing against the grip of the membrane. Katherine flicked through stories of how patients dealt with the Wrenching. It came without warning, and it was agonising. Some had screamed until their throats bled. Others had torn out hair, scratched deep rivets down their faces trying to gouge out the source of their pain. One woman in Argentina even took to sawing off her own limbs, partly to diminish the number of body parts that felt pain, partly in an attempt to kill herself.
It didn't fade, not the pain itself, that wasn't how The Fading got its name. There was no payoff of that sweet sigh of disbelief when pain is finally relieved. Instead, the pain increased until just before the point most people would faint. And at that point, the pain stopped. The pain stopped because the body was no longer available to experience it. The pain stopped because the body of the patient lifted off the surface of the air, and disappeared. Once it became clear that this wasn't an urban legend, or the result of mass hallucination, all patients were ordered to report themselves at the first signs of the illness.
Specialists were still unsure how The Fading was transmitted – it seemed to be proximity-related, though not always. Quarantine was meant to be in effect for all patients. Katherine shrunk away from the thought of overcrowded school halls, vacant office blocks and swimming pools - all emptied of their proper contents and hastily converted using swathes of plastic sheeting and latex gloves. Katherine knew in a dying office building she would sink into depression. Regardless, a twinge ran through her mind, and she looked up from the infoslide and over at Harriet. "You know I will leave if you want me to. If you're worried, I will leave," Katherine said. She just doesn’t get it, thought Harriet. That is not an option. Harriet crawled over the couch and caught Katherine in a wriggling embrace. She took her face in her hands, and licked her cheek. Katherine laughed, and groaned.
"If you're sick, I'm sick," said Harriet. A tiny thrill of panic ran through Harriet at the thought of her own death – but it was pointless to dwell, considering the randomness of contagion. It was this randomness that Harriet used to justify her continuing to go to work in the protectorate, a theoretically disease-free space. Yes, I could be sick. But I’m not yet, and I may never be, and we just don’t know how it works. I can’t risk losing her to quarantine. Something small rose in Harriet’s mind, a quiet question as to whether it was right to put Katherine above an entire protectorate. But as soon as she considered the alternative, Harriet’s bile rose. No, no, she’s not going anywhere. Harriet’s violent, protective instincts roared at the thought of Katherine not being in her life. She was driven to stand up and shove whatever was threatening Katherine, she wanted to shiv it, to eviscerate it with wit and savage intelligence. However, to protect against the intangible, Harriet knew only one way: an unfaltering search for something she could put in a syringe and shove into Katherine's veins to purge the blank-faced evil.
So she gathered piles of infoslides, borne out of her contacts in the vaccinations department of GrowForth, the corporation she worked for. Harriet worked in the cleansing team for BX29, otherwise known Paralytic Joe, a devastatingly apt nickname. Paralytic Joe was a sludge-like, coffee-coloured agent that could be fed into a military-grade crop sprayer and sprinkled over masses of people to great effect - and Australia did just that during the Fifth War seven years ago. Harriet's team was responsible for monitoring areas that had been covered with Paralytic Joe and ensuring the rehabilitation of the area was on track. She couldn't directly ask questions relating to The Fading, for fear that someone would realise why and Katherine would be forced into quarantine. But she probed delicately, gathering information where she could and trying to piece together some answers.
Harriet let go of Katherine's hand, suddenly afraid she would break it with the force of her love. She wanted to consume Katherine and fuse herself to her. She wanted to absorb Katherine's disease and fight it for her. She loved her so much that her chest tightened and her heartbeat was so fast and strong it made her hands tingle. Katherine's love was rarely as violent; rather it was a constant, thrilling warmth. A warmth she knew she could count on, until the end came and she no longer had a body that could feel warmth.