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 lead 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.
* * *
Eli crossed the parking lot as his mind spun over what to do next. The peace he’d felt in the stairwell had been replaced by a prickling energy and the voice in his head that whispered go. It wasn’t guilt, or even panic, more like self-preservation. He reached his car, and slid the key into the door, and that’s when he heard the steps behind him.
Go growled the thing in his head, so clear and so tempting, but something else held him in place. He turned the key in the car door, locking it with a small click.
“Can I help you?” he asked, turning toward the man. He was broad-shouldered and tall, with black hair.
“My name is Detective Stell. Were you coming or going?”
Eli pulled the key from the door. “Coming. I thought I should tell Professor Lyne. About Victor, that is. They were close.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
Eli nodded, and took a step from the car before frowning. “I’ll leave my bag here,” he said, unlocking the door and tossing the backpack—folders and hard drive and all—into the backseat. “I don’t feel up to class today.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Detective Stell automatically.
Eli counted the steps back to the pre-med labs. He got to thirty-four before he heard the sirens, and looked up sharply. Beside him, Stell swore and picked up his pace.
They’d found Lyne’s body, then.
Run run run, hissed the thing in Eli’s head. It sang in the same tone and speed as the sirens.
And he did run, but not away. His feet carried him toward the building’s entrance, and through, following the emergency response team as it made its way to the base of the stairs. When Eli saw the body, he made a strangled sound. Stell pulled him away, and Eli let his legs go out beneath him, knees hitting the cold floor with a crack. He winced even as the bruises bloomed and faded under his pant legs.
“Come on, son,” Stell was saying, pulling him back. But Eli’s gaze was leveled on the scene. Everything was playing out as it should, as it needed to, the loose threads being snipped. Until he saw the janitor, leaning against the wall, watching, frowning in the way people frown when they’re puzzling out a riddle.
Shit, thought Eli, but he must have said it aloud, because Stell tugged him to his feet and said, “Shit indeed. Let’s go.”
There were too many deaths too fast. He knew he’d be a suspect. Had to be. Run, said the thing in his head, urgent, and then pleading, plucking his muscles and nerves. But he couldn’t. If he ran now, they’d follow.
So he didn’t run. In fact, he played the part of victim pretty well. Devastated, angry, traumatized, and above all, cooperative.
When Detective Stell pointed out that everyone around him was either dead or close to it, Eli did his best to look heartbroken. He explained Victor’s jealousy, both over his girlfriend, and over his rank in the class. Victor had always been a step behind. He must have snapped. People do.