I met the succubus when I was dying the first time. I was a student, before the meningitis vaccine, and before I learnt to look after myself. After I had been feverish for two days a friend called the health centre. The next day I lay slumbering, tethered to an antibiotic drip, which I occasionally mistook for a helium balloon, as if it could somehow lift me from the bed.
I was relatively lucid when the nurse showed her in, knocking on the door and calling out the single word, “visitor”.
“If he’s carrying a scythe, I’m not interested.” But the woman who walked in seemed innocent enough. I saw nothing odd about her appearance; her hair was blacker than one might expect, and her skin paler, but dye and make-up would easily explain that. Her eyes seemed to be set back a little, as if they hid more than they revealed, but her face was friendly, and she walked with an easy confidence that I found attractive. She wore a long black coat, buttoned at the front, but not tightly, so I couldn’t tell how big she was.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Hello.” I wasn’t sure it was still morning.
She looked at the chair in the corner of the room as if she was trying to figure out how it worked, then sat on it. She kept her coat on. “Thank you for agreeing to see me. I hope you can help me with my research.”
I didn’t remember agreeing, but my memory wasn’t working well at the moment. “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Ellathea.” I didn’t know if this was one name or two. “I’m researching the psychology of people with potentially fatal illnesses.”
I coughed at this. “I hardly think this is fatal.”
“Of course not. I only need a quick chat.”
“Shame. I like them.” She showed no intention of doing anything other than sitting in the chair. “So how does your research work?”
“I just want to hear you talk. About whatever you like. I’m listening for particular things, but I can’t tell you what, because it would defeat the object.”
It made a kind of sense to me, but even she didn’t look wholly convinced. “I don’t really have much to talk about,” I said, beginning to feel tired again.
“Tell me about how you caught your illness.”
I shrugged. “I’ve no idea, I didn’t do it deliberately. There have been a few cases recently, but I haven’t had any direct contact.” I closed my eyes. “It’s as if someone threw the dice, and moved me on a board. Do you ever feel like that? When you look back on your life, do you ever feel you had no choice what you did and where you went, even though at the time it seemed you did?”
She smiled weakly. “I think most people feel like that.”
“Being ill just emphasises the point. It’s not something you do, it’s something that happens to you. You move from active to passive, and you don’t go back until it lets you.”
“If it lets you,” she said.
“You may be disappointed to learn that I’m expected to recover,” I said. “Anyway, I haven’t had time for it to be fatal. You’re supposed to go through five stages when you die. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I haven’t had time to draw up a timetable.”
“Don’t worry about it. Deadlines bring out the best in people.”
I raised myself onto my elbows, although it made my head hurt. “What’s this about? Is this part of your research–to see how people react to messages about death? Are you seeing if it makes me more or less likely to die? Because I assure you, I’m not going to, with or without you.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll ask one more direct question. Do you want to get better?”
“You’re asking a sick man if he wants to recover?”
“Is your psychology going to cure me?”
“Then why are you here?”
“I felt sorry for you. I won’t disturb you any further. Thank you for your help, it’s been valuable.”
I felt as if I were some kind of laboratory rat, running round a maze of her design without a clue as to purpose of the experiment. And then, almost without any volition, I said, “yes.”
“I didn’t mean about the research.”
“I know what you meant.” She stood up.
“Is that it?”
“I’ve learnt what I needed.”
“Why did you come?”
She opened the door, then turned round to face me. “They say the sick have more vivid dreams,” she said.
“I think that’s true.”
“I just came to give you something to dream about.”
She closed the door behind her.
* * * *
I knew I wouldn’t dream about her. I never dreamt of anything I’d consciously thought about. I used this deliberately to prevent nightmares; if I saw something unpleasant during the day, I would think about dreaming of it, and it wouldn’t happen. Only things I’d half-thought returned to my mind at night.
In fact it was another week before the dream came.
If I’d been following my timetable, I would have been on my fifth stage. I was on a respirator, unable to breathe on my own, and before long the respirator wouldn’t help either. Outside it was dark, but the curtains were open. Nurses came in and checked on me periodically, but no longer made any attempt to talk to me, and I felt they were behaving respectfully around a corpse. I was grateful for what they’d done for me, but that amounted to little more than turning down the pain.
I lay alone now, pinned to the mattress as if forced down by a stronger gravity. Raising a thought was as difficult as raising a limb. My illness had defeated me before I had worked out how to fight it.
I stared at the window, trying to understand. I thought I had seen a light outside, and at first I guessed there was a fire. But then the light moved through the spectrum from red to a deep blue, and I felt it must have been an aura of some sort, perhaps some sort of atmospheric effect caused by the moon, which was bright and nearly full. And there seemed to be ice, not fire, on the glass, which ran down in vertical frosted strips. I didn’t think it was so cold, but I felt confused about everything. The drugs that had made me comfortable had also given me less of a mind. I didn’t think, didn’t remember, didn’t even know if I was awake or asleep, dreaming or if I had in fact already died and my body was being prepared for burial. I was only aware of the patterns of ice on the window, that looked as if they were an ancient script whose meaning was lost.
I heard the door open, but I didn’t know if it was a real noise or one that had arisen inside my head. I heard it close gently, and then the lights came on. I closed my eyes against the brightness, believing it was painful but not in fact feeling anything.
“Still with us?” I didn’t recognise her voice at first, and assumed she was a nurse. There was nothing she could do for me, but I was glad she was here. I was facing away from the door, and did not have the energy to turn my head. I listened to her footsteps walking round the bed.
Then I felt her hand on my face, and I opened my eyes, and saw Ellathea.
In the dream, I saw what I had not seen at our first meeting. Her eyes were unlike any I have ever seen. I was unable to tell what colour they were; when I thought they were green, they appeared to be blue, but without changing. As I looked at her, I thought her the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, and if hers was to be the last face I saw, I would be happy.
“Good,” she said, and stood back. I tried to speak, but I was no longer very good at it. A few croaks came out, and I seemed to be better at consonants than vowels.
“Ssh,” she said. “Don’t wake yourself up.”
I tried to say, “why are you here?” But to me, it didn’t sound intelligible.
“You called me here,” she said. “Maybe you didn’t hear it yourself. But I did.”
And I had a strange feeling that I had called her. I had no idea who she was, or how she might have heard me, but I felt there was a part of my mind that had cried out for help, without caring what form it took, or who provided it.
“Do you remember now? Do you know who I am?”
I knew, but I didn’t know what I knew. I nodded, but I didn’t know why.
She slowly unbuttoned her coat, and shrugged it from her shoulders. It fell to the floor, and I was transfixed.
I didn’t even notice she was naked, not at first. My attention was fully on what was behind her back. There was a ruffling sound as she flexed her shoulders, and slowly she spread her wings. They were like her eyes; they were difficult to perceive as physical objects. I couldn’t tell if they were translucent. I thought I could see through them, but when I tried to, they were opaque. Light was both reflected and absorbed by them, and they shimmered with every colour I could name. She held her arms out, and her wings spread a little further than her fingertips, although they were independent of her arms. She gazed at me, and I couldn’t look away.
She moved towards me, and pulled the duvet off. I should have been cold, but I was comfortable. She gave a little hop, and glided gracefully onto the bed, on top of me. She didn’t exactly fly, but her wings gave her balance that meant she could move with more precision than the most skilled dancer.
“Don’t worry. This won’t take long.” She pulled the respirator from my face. So this is how I am to die, I thought, knowing I couldn’t breathe without it. But I wasn’t sorry. This hallucination was the finest last thought I could have wished for.
“Relax,” she said. “I don’t mean you any harm. It’s too late for that.”
She pressed her face against mine and covered my mouth with her own.
It was more than a kiss. I felt she was breathing for me, inflating my lungs with her own breath. I wasn’t gasping as I expected, but was breathing from her mouth.
But it was also a kiss.
It revived me a little, and I continued to breathe as she pulled her face away, looking at me as if searching for signs of recovery. I felt her breasts almost brushing against my chest as she leaned on top of me, in a grey area between touching and not touching. I raised my chest until I could finally tell for certain that we were touching, and she smiled.
“Who–” I began, but she bent over and covered my mouth with hers again, breathing more life into me.
“Come on,” she said, and gently manoeuvred me to an upright position. I shouldn’t have been able to move, and I knew that I couldn’t be awake.
Now I noticed her body. All of her skin was pale, but her breasts were full and round, and the areolae and nipples were a deep red that looked warm. She seemed physically strong but was a little chubby, and between her legs I could see a neat triangle of hair that was a deep black, matching that on her head.
She pulled my face towards her. I lay against the soft skin just above her breasts, and she gently held the back of my head. And then, slowly, she enfolded her wings around me.
“There,” she said. “You won’t get away now.”
It was a dream, and I supposed I’d die before the end and never wake up. And I was glad. My body was a shell, ready to crumble as I left it. But now I was growing stronger, as if her touch alone could cure me. I was becoming excited at her embrace, and my cock was becoming hard. It had been days since my last erection, and I grinned childishly at the thought of how the nurses would find my body in the morning.
Her hand reached down and held on to my cock. Her touch was all I needed, and I was fully hard. She began to move her hand up and down, pleasuring me while I lay against her. There was a scent filling my lungs, as heady as any of the painkillers I had used, but one that made me feel alive rather than dulled. I couldn’t tell if it was natural, or some kind of perfume, but it made me harder still, and I wanted to come over her hand there and then. I breathed deeply, feeling that her scent was giving me more life than oxygen.
I slid my hands up her body, and touched her breasts, smooth and warm beneath my fingers. I wanted to bend down further and kiss them, but she was holding me firmly against her as she pulled at my cock. Instead I could only kiss and lick at her chest just below the neck, as I held her nipples between my fingers, listening for any gasp or murmur that would tell me to squeeze her harder, or be more sensitive and gentle. But she made soft, low noises of pleasure whatever I did, and I cupped and squeezed at her tits, moving from one to the other, wishing I could take them in my mouth but relishing the feel of them in my hands, at once soft but firm.
I slid my hand further down, not wanting to leave her breasts but wanting to make sure that she was enjoying this as much as I was. I stroked my way down to her cunt. She was hot, and moist, and my fingers went in easily. I knew from her gasp that I was getting it right. With two fingers inside her, my thumb felt between her lips, finding her clit, which stood out from her soft flesh like a button to be pressed. I made firm circling movements, while keeping my fingers inside her, although it was difficult to move them at the same time.
Ellathea squeezed my cock more firmly, and I was sure that she must have cast some spell to stop me coming. She held my face against her chest, almost suffocating me, but I only pressed harder, seeking her own orgasm rather than mine. Finally she cried out, pressed her legs together around my hand, and her own hand was still for a few seconds.
She loosened her grasp on me and I looked up at her. She smiled, and kissed me on the top of my head.
She slid herself forward, again using a movement that shouldn’t quite have been possible for a human, and slowly lowered herself on top of me, taking my cock fully inside her cunt. I found that I had the strength to move beneath her, a little, and wondered if we could actually fuck rather than fumble.
I moved with more force, the urgency from my cock outweighing any thoughts of weakness. Ellathea was fucking me more than I was fucking her, but I did the best I could, wanting to hear her cries of orgasm again. She began to moan, and I wasn’t sure if this was pleasure or pain, but I found it deeply erotic. I tried to speak, to ask if she was all right, but this time she covered my mouth with a hand as her cries increased in volume. If this had been real, there would be nurses in the room now, looking to see who was shouting, but in our dream no one disturbed us. I held her and kissed her shoulder, half-biting with my top teeth and tongue, anything to have more contact with her. She cried out, over and over again, and I knew that whatever she was feeling, I had to make her feel more. I held her more tightly, moved more violently inside her, and knew that I was approaching a climax. I was certain I was about to come in real life as well; the feelings were too authentic to be a fantasy.
And then I spasmed, and I felt my cum spurting inside her, and she squeezed me as hard as she could, both with her arms and with her cunt. I knew that she was coming as well, and I pushed myself as far inside her as I could, holding her with all the strength I had, trying to make the moment of orgasm last forever.
I was still hard when she lifted herself off me a minute or two later, but I was satisfied. She sat back a little, not moving quite so elegantly now. I listened as she took a few breaths, looking downwards now rather than at me. She wiped her mouth, and finally released me from within her wings. They hung limply, no longer as shimmering and colourful as when I had first seen them, but still beautiful.
“Sleep now,” she said, and climbed awkwardly from the bed.
“Stay with me.”
“No. That’s all you get.” Her wings collapsed behind her back, and she seemed human again.
“Ellathea. Is that one name or two?”
She looked back at me, tired but amused. “One.”
She opened the door and left the room, still naked and glistening, ignoring her coat. You do not have to bother about such things in dreams.
When I awoke, the coat had gone. The respirator was still on my face, just where it had been when the nurse left me. The duvet was tucked in neatly, and there was no ice on the window.
But I was still here, and I felt good. In fact I’d never felt better.
* * * *
So much for meningitis. That was fifteen years ago, and we have other diseases now.
“I’m sorry to tell you that the blood test was positive,” said Dr Winship, looking professionally calm. I wondered if she felt any genuine sorrow for me, or if she no longer viewed me as a human being. “I’m afraid you have the third mutation.”
I felt as if she herself had injected me with the virus. I knew I had Thirds as soon as I saw the H-shaped marks on my arm, but Dr Winship had insisted on confirming it with a blood test. This was, after all, all she could actually do.
I struggled to keep myself calm. “How long have I got?”
“Thirds patients have fifteen days. They don’t feel ill for most of it, some of them even think they’re getting better.”
I knew this already. I had first noticed the marks this morning, and spent several hours trying to scrub them off. When I finally called the emergency helpline, I already knew how long I had before the disease ran its course.
“That’s impossible. It can’t run to such an exact schedule.”
She ran her hand through her hair, and for a moment I had the idea that she was the patient. “There’s something almost sarcastic about it, isn’t there? Nature’s full of bumps and byways, redundancies and approximations, maybes and surprises. This just does its job, according to schedule. Don’t ask me how. We’ve no idea how our bodies have been harnessed in such a way. But you’re right, it doesn’t look natural, does it?”
“Is there anything at all I can do?”
“I can arrange for counselling. I can also put you on the list to volunteer for any experimental treatments that arise.” I thought about this for a few seconds, then nodded. It was the only thing that medical science could offer. “There are also the Treatment Zones, where people volunteer to go for study. Very noble, but I don’t recommend it unless you think you’re a special case. They’re no better than prison camps.”
“So, what would you do in my situation?” I didn’t know why I was asking this. I was quite sure that Dr Winship was terrified of the disease. She worked with its victims every day, and neither she nor anyone else knew how it was transmitted.
“Seriously? I’ll tell you exactly what I’d do. I’d forget all my medical training, all my scientific scepticism, and embrace every alternative treatment available. Even the most crackpot ones. And I’d hope that one of them had accidentally stumbled upon something useful.”
It was what people usually did. There was nothing else left to do. None of the supposed therapies on offer had been shown to have the slightest effect on Thirds, but the more useless they were, the more their prices went up. After all, Thirds patients had no further use for their money.
“Well, Doctor, I’ve decided to use the short time I have left on good works, and I shall start now with an act of supreme kindness. I shall get the fuck out of your office.”
It was rude of me, but she made no further comment as I left. Outside it was cold but the sun made it feel like high summer, and I imagined I could feel the vitamin D forming in my skin, but I had covered my arms so as not to show that I was marked for death.
I would not put my faith in alternative remedies. I would not pray, I would not try ridiculous diets or visualisations. I would not try ancient eastern arts, nor new fads that had been invented just for the new emergency.
I would put my faith in a succubus called Ellathea, and I had two weeks to find her.