“Can I get you anything, sir?”
The flight attendant returned Warren’s smile, her makeup stretching like a mask across her face. He hoped she didn’t notice him cringe. In his line of work, he saw too many masks.
He shifted in his seat, wincing as he rubbed his thigh. Once more, he cursed his stupidity, and thanked his stars that Jen had been there. Maybe she was right, about him taking an office role, leave the hunting to younger operatives. But her team needed him. Nobody else could smell the parasites like he could.
“You know why they make these seats so damned small?” The man next to Warren was large—not obese, but his thighs pushed against the arm rests, and his brow was sweaty despite the overcooled recycled air. “Smaller seats mean more passengers. Then they reduce baggage allowance, keep the weight down. Tell you, we’re nothing but cattle.”
Warren smiled, then tilted his head back and let his eyes close. He’d heard it all before, on far too many flights. Petty little problems blown huge, while the renegades spread their damned parasite. Forty countries so far, hundreds of renegades killed, but tens of thousands of hosts. The world was a battlefield, and none of these people had the faintest idea.
They were the lucky ones. Every night, Warren wished for ignorant bliss. And every night, the horrors left him exhausted, his bedding soaked and his eyes heavy.
The stewardess brushed past, her perfume or deodorant musty. Warren felt sure they weren’t supposed to wear fragrances, but maybe his senses were still heightened. Hunting always left him on edge.
Some days, he struggled to remember what a normal life was.
“You have a good holiday?” the sweaty guy asked.
Couldn’t this oaf take a hint? “Business trip.” Warren kept his eyes closed.
“Nice place to do business. What line of work you in?”
“Pest control.” It wasn’t a total lie.
“They send you all the way to Italy to get rid of pests? They not got their own guys?”
“Right, right. Would’ve thought they had different pests out there?”
Warren sighed. “It’s good to keep a global perspective. Tiring, though.” He shut his eyes again.
The plane dipped with turbulence, and the guy cursed under his breath. A voice came over the speakers, reminding passengers to keep their belts buckled. There was a hint of an accent in the voice, one Warren couldn’t place.
The fat guy carried on talking. “…and all these ‘experts’—they don’t know a thing. It’s nothing but guesswork…”
Warren nodded vaguely. Guesswork and hunches—it was pretty much all they had to go on, hunting the renegades. Whenever they thought they detected a pattern, something they could use, the renegades changed tactics. Like the coach—reported lost, then discovered in the outskirts of Rome. The cover story was a nerve agent, but Warren knew the truth—the renegades had gone from infecting individuals to far more brazen attacks.
Then there was the way the driver had fought back, gabbling away in their inhuman tongue. Caught Warren by surprise, shed his nails and raked Warren’s leg with those keratin talons. Then Jen had drawn her gun, sprayed the renegade’s blood and brains over Warren’s face.
The stink clung to his nose even now.
Not a pleasant job, but others were worse. Like the agents who dealt with the relatives of the coach passengers, fed them whatever lies would stop their questions. And the agents in the depths of the facility, the ones who would monitor the progress of the parasite, and destroy the hosts when their condition became critical.
War, waged against an enemy that hid in plain sight, played according to rules that the enemy altered at will. But at least they were keeping a lid on things. So far, the spread was at least manageable.
Warren sighed. The sweaty man had stopped talking now, and Warren could enjoy the quiet. A few moments of peace. Say what you like about flying, it was a comfort to be cocooned so far above the chaos below.
It never lasted long enough, though. As soon as the plane touched down the office would be in touch. Report on the previous mission, prepare for the next. Another race across the world, more renegades to hunt down.
He wondered what they’d target next. Maybe a train, or a boat.
The plane’s engines droned in the background, and he let the sound wash over him. It was one mask he didn’t mind, smothering the usual mindless hubbub.
Not that there was any. No voices, no babies crying, no kids kicking the backs of chairs.
Only that engine drone.
And the rustle of clothing as someone approached.
Air wafted past, thick with a musty aroma, too pungent to be a perfume. It reminded him of the scent the stewardess had worn, but stronger. Like she’d upended the bottle over her. Like she was trying to mask something worse.
Then a voice, barely audible. Warren couldn’t catch words, but that didn’t matter. He wouldn’t understand them anyway, because the language had so far evaded translation.
His thigh itched as he remembered the guttural sounds spat from the coach-driver’s mouth.
The air was suffocatingly warm, and Warren’s shirt clung to his back. He took a breath, lungs aching, and forced his eyes open.
The stewardess stood over him. She smiled, her face a mask. She reached for him, clear varnish on those fake nails.
And Warren knew there was nothing he could do to stop the renegade.
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