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By Grant, Mira
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Grant, Mira
All right reserved.
From the Dead
People say things like “it wasn’t supposed to go this way” and “this isn’t what I wanted.” They’re just making noise. There’s no such thing as “supposed to,” and what you want doesn’t matter. All that matters is what happened.
I honestly have no idea what’s going on anymore. I just need to find something I can hit.
—From Images May Disturb You, the blog of Georgia Mason, June 20, 2035.
My name is Georgia Carolyn Mason. I am one of the Orphans of the Rising, the class of people who were under two years of age when the dead first started to walk. My biological family is presumably listed somewhere on The Wall, an anonymous footnote of a dead world. Their world died in the Rising. They didn’t live to see the new one.
My adoptive parents have raised me to ask questions, understand the realities of my situation, and, in times of necessity, to shoot first. They have equipped me with the tools I need to survive, and I am grateful. Through this blog, I will do my best to share my experiences and opinions as openly and honestly as I can. It is the best way to honor the family that raised me; it is the only way I have to honor the family that lost me.
I’m going to tell you the truth as I understand it. You can take it from there.
—From Hail to the King, the blog of Shaun Mason, June 20, 2035.
So George says I have to write a “mission statement,” because our contract with Bridge Supporters says I will. I am personally opposed to mission statements, since they’re basically one more way of sucking the fun out of everything. I tried telling George this. She told me that it’s her job to suck the fun out of everything. She then threatened physical violence of a type I will not describe in detail, as it might unsettle and upset my theoretical readership. Suffice to say that I am writing a mission statement. Here it is:
I, Shaun Phillip Mason, being of sound mind and body, do hereby swear to poke dead things with sticks, do stupid shit for your amusement, and put it all on the Internet where you can watch it over and over again. Because that’s what you want, right?
Glad to oblige.
My story ended where so many stories have ended since the Rising: with a man—in this case, my adoptive brother and best friend, Shaun—holding a gun to the base of my skull as the virus in my blood betrayed me, transforming me from a thinking human being into something better suited to a horror movie.
My story ended, but I remember everything. I remember the cold dread as I watched the lights on the blood test unit turn red, one by one, until my infection was confirmed. I remember the look on Shaun’s face when he realized this was it—it was really happening, and there wasn’t going to be any clever third act solution that got me out of the van alive.
I remember the barrel of the gun against my skin. It was cool, and it was soothing, because it meant Shaun would do what he had to do. No one else would get hurt because of me.
No one but Shaun.
This was something we’d never planned for. I always knew that one day he’d push his luck too far, and I’d lose him. We never dreamed that he would be the one losing me. I wanted to tell him it would be okay. I wanted to lie to him. I remember that: I wanted to lie to him. And I couldn’t. There wasn’t time, and even then, I didn’t have it in me.
I remember starting to write. I remember thinking this was it; this was my last chance to say anything I wanted to say to the world. This was the thing I was going to be judged on, now and forever. I remember feeling my mind start to go. I remember the fear.
I remember the sound of Shaun pulling the trigger.
I shouldn’t remember anything after that. That’s where my story ended. Curtain down, save file, that’s a wrap. Once the bullet hits your spinal cord, you’re done; you don’t have to worry about this shit anymore. You definitely shouldn’t wake up in a windowless, practically barren room that looks suspiciously like a CDC holding facility, with no one to talk to but some unidentified voice on the other side of a one-way mirror.
The bed where I’d woken up was bolted to the floor, and so was the matching bedside table. It wouldn’t do to have the mysteriously resurrected dead journalist throwing things at the mirror that took up most of one wall. Naturally, the wall with the mirror was the only wall with a door—a door that refused to open. I’d tried waving my hands in front of every place that might hold a motion sensor, and then I’d searched for a test panel in the vain hope that checking out clean would make the locks let go and release me.
There were no test panels, or screens, or ocular scanners. There wasn’t anything inside that seemed designed to let me out. That was chilling all by itself. I grew up in a post-Rising world, one where blood tests and the threat of infection are a part of daily life. I’m sure I’d been in sealed rooms without testing units before. I just couldn’t remember any.
The room lacked something else: clocks. There was nothing to let me know how much time had passed since I woke up, much less how much time had passed before I woke up. There’d been a voice from the speaker above the mirror, an unfamiliar voice asking my name and what the last thing I remembered was. I’d answered him—“My name is Georgia Mason. What the fuck is going on here?”—and he’d gone away without answering my question. That might have been ten minutes ago. It might have been ten hours ago. The lights overhead glared steady and white, not so much as flickering as the seconds went slipping past.
That was another thing. The overhead lights were industrial fluorescents, the sort that have been popular in medical facilities since long before the Rising. They should have been burning my eyes like acid… and they weren’t.
I was diagnosed with retinal Kellis-Amberlee when I was a kid, meaning that the same disease that causes the dead to rise had taken up permanent residence in my eyeballs. It didn’t turn me into a zombie—retinal KA is a reservoir condition, one where the live virus is somehow contained inside the body. Retinal KA gave me extreme light sensitivity, excellent night vision, and a tendency to get sickening migraines if I did anything without my sunglasses on.
Well, I wasn’t wearing sunglasses, and it wasn’t like I could dim the lights, but my eyes still didn’t hurt. All I felt was thirst, and a vague, gnawing hunger in the pit of my stomach, like lunch might be a good idea sometime soon. There was no headache. I honestly couldn’t decide whether or not that was a good sign.
Anxiety was making my palms sweat. I scrubbed them against the legs of my unfamiliar white cotton pajamas. Everything in the room was unfamiliar… even me. I’ve never been heavy—a life spent running after stories and away from zombies doesn’t encourage putting on weight—but the girl in the one-way mirror was thin to the point of being scrawny. She looked like she’d be easy to break. Her hair was as dark as mine. It was also too long, falling past her shoulders. I’ve never allowed my hair to get that long. Hair like that is a passive form of suicide when you do what I do for a living. And her eyes…
Her eyes were brown. That, more than anything else, made it impossible to think of her face as my own. I don’t have visible irises. I have pupils that fill all the space not occupied by sclera, giving me a black, almost emotionless stare. Those weren’t my eyes. But my eyes didn’t hurt. Which meant either those were my eyes, and my retinal KA had somehow been cured, or Buffy was right when she said the afterlife existed, and this was hell.
I shuddered, looking away from my reflection, and resumed what was currently my main activity: pacing back and forth and trying to think. Until I knew whether I was being watched, I had to think quietly, and that made it a hell of a lot harder. I’ve always thought better when I do it out loud, and this was the first time in my adult life that I’d been anywhere without at least one recorder running. I’m an accredited journalist. When I talk to myself, it’s not a sign of insanity; it’s just my way of making sure I don’t lose important material before I can write it down.
None of this was right. Even if there was some sort of experimental treatment to reverse amplification, someone would have been there to explain things to me. Shaun would have been there. And there it was, the reason I couldn’t believe any of this was right: I remembered him pulling the trigger. Even assuming it was a false memory, even assuming it never happened, why wasn’t he here? Shaun would move Heaven and Earth to reach me.
I briefly entertained the idea that he was somewhere in the building, forcing the voice from the intercom to tell him where I was. Regretfully, I dismissed it. Something would have exploded by now if that were true.
“Goddammit.” I scowled at the wall, turned, and started in the other direction. The hunger was getting worse, and it was accompanied by a new, more frustrating sensation. I needed to pee. If someone didn’t let me out soon, I was going to have a whole new set of problems to contend with.
“Run the timeline, George,” I said, taking some comfort in the sound of my voice. Everything else might have changed, but not that. “You were in Sacramento with Rick and Shaun, running for the van. Something hit you in the arm. One of those syringes like they used at the Ryman farm. The test came back positive. Rick left. And then… then…” I faltered, having trouble finding the words, even if there was no one else to hear them.
Everyone who grew up after the Rising knows what happens when you come into contact with the live form of Kellis-Amberlee. You become a zombie, one of the infected, and you do what every zombie exists to do. You bite. You infect. You kill. You feed. You don’t wake up in a white room, wearing white pajamas and wondering how your brother was able to shoot you in the neck without even leaving a scar.
Scars. I wheeled and stalked back to the mirror, pulling the lid on my right eye open wide. I learned how to look at my own eyes when I was eleven. That’s when I got my first pair of protective contacts. That’s also when I got my first visible retinal scarring, little patches of tissue scorched beyond recovery by the sun. We caught it in time to prevent major vision loss, and I got a lot more careful. The scarring created small blind spots at the center of my vision. Nothing major. Nothing that interfered with fieldwork. Just little spots.
My pupil contracted to almost nothing as the light hit it. The spots weren’t there. I could see clearly, without any gaps.
“Oh.” I lowered my hand. “I guess that makes sense.”
I paused, feeling suddenly stupid as that realization led to another. When I first woke up, the voice from the intercom told me all I had to do was speak, and someone would hear me. I looked up at the speaker. “A little help here?” I said. “I need to pee really bad.”
There was no response.
There was still no response. I showed my middle finger to the mirror before turning and walking back to the bed. Once there, I sat and settled into a cross-legged position, closing my eyes. And then I started waiting. If anyone was watching me—and someone had to be watching me—this might be a big enough change in my behavior to get their attention. I wanted their attention. I wanted their attention really, really badly. Almost as badly as I wanted a personal recorder, an Internet connection, and a bathroom.
The need for a bathroom crept slowly higher on the list, accompanied by the need for a drink of water. I was beginning to consider the possibility that I might need to use a corner of the room as a lavatory when the intercom clicked on. A moment later, a new voice, male, like the first one, spoke: “Miss Mason? Are you awake?”
“Yes.” I opened my eyes. “Do I get a name to call you by?”
He ignored my question like it didn’t matter. Maybe it didn’t, to him. “I apologize for the silence. We’d expected a longer period of disorientation, and I had to be recalled from elsewhere in the building.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Oh, we weren’t disappointed,” said the voice. He had the faintest trace of a Midwestern accent. I couldn’t place the state. “I promise, we’re thrilled to see you up and coherent so quickly. It’s a wonderful indicator for your recovery.”
“A glass of water and a trip to the ladies’ room would do more to help my recovery than apologies and evasions.”
Now the voice sounded faintly abashed. “I’m sorry, Miss Mason. We didn’t think… just a moment.” The intercom clicked off, leaving me in silence once again. I stayed where I was, and kept waiting.
The sound of a hydraulic lock unsealing broke the quiet. I turned to see a small panel slide open above the door, revealing a red light. It turned green and the door slid smoothly open, revealing a skinny, nervous-looking man in a white lab coat, eyes wide behind his glasses. He was clutching his clipboard to his chest like he thought it afforded him some sort of protection.
“Miss Mason? If you’d like to come with me, I’d be happy to escort you to the restroom.”
“Thank you.” I unfolded my legs, ignoring pins and needles in my calves, and walked toward the doorway. The man didn’t quite cringe as I approached, but he definitely shied back, looking more uneasy with every step I took. Interesting.
“We apologize for making you wait,” he said. His words had the distinct cadence of something recited by rote, like telephone tech support asking for your ID and computer serial number. “There were a few things that had to be taken care of before we could proceed.”
“Let’s worry about that after I get to the bathroom, okay?” I sidestepped around him, out into the hall, and found myself looking at three hospital orderlies in blue scrubs, each of them pointing a pistol in my direction. I stopped where I was. “Okay, I can wait for my escort.”
“That’s for the best, Miss Mason,” said the nervous man, whose voice I now recognized from the intercom. It just took a moment without the filtering speakers between us. “Just a necessary precaution. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yeah. Sure.” I fell into step behind him. The orderlies followed us, their aim never wavering. I did my best not to make any sudden moves. Having just returned to the land of the living, I was in no mood to exit it again. “Am I ever going to get something I can call you?”
“Ah…” His mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he said, “I’m Dr. Thomas. I’ve been one of your personal physicians since you arrived at this facility. I’m not surprised you don’t remember me. You’ve been sleeping for some time.”
“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” The hall was built on the model I’ve come to expect from CDC facilities, with nothing breaking the sterile white walls but the occasional door and the associated one-way mirrors looking into patient holding rooms. All the rooms were empty.
“You’re walking well.”
“It’s a skill.”
“How’s your head? Any disorientation, blurred vision, confusion?”
“Yes.” He tensed. I ignored it, continuing. “I’m confused about what I’m doing here. I don’t know about you, but I get twitchy when I wake up in strange places with no idea how I got there. Will I be getting some answers soon?”
“Soon enough, Miss Mason.” He stopped in front of a door with no mirror next to it. That implied that it wasn’t a patient room. Better yet, there was a blood test unit to one side. I never thought I’d be so happy for the chance to be jabbed with a needle. “We’ll give you a few minutes. If you need anything—”
“Using the bathroom, also a skill.” I slapped my palm down on the test panel. Needles promptly bit into the heel of my hand and the tips of my fingers. The light over the door flashed between red and green before settling on the latter. Uninfected. The door swung open. I stepped through, only to stop and scowl at the one-way mirror taking up most of the opposite wall. The door swung shut behind me.
“Cute,” I muttered. The need to pee was getting bad enough that I didn’t protest the situation. I glared at the mirror the entire time I was using the facilities, all but daring someone to watch me. See? I can pee whether you’re spying on me or not, you sick bastards.
Other than the mirror—or maybe because of the mirror—the bathroom was as standard-issue CDC as the hallway outside, with white walls, a white tile floor, and white porcelain fixtures. Everything was automatic, including the soap dispenser, and there were no towels; instead, I dried my hands by sticking them into a jet of hot air. It was one big exercise in minimizing contact with any surface. When I turned back to the door, the only things I’d touched were the toilet seat and the floor, and I was willing to bet that they were in the process of self-sterilization by the time I started washing my hands.
The blood test required to exit the bathroom was set into the door itself, just above the knob. It didn’t unlock until I checked out clean.
The three orderlies were waiting in the hall, with an unhappy Dr. Thomas between them and me. If I did anything bad enough to make them pull those triggers, the odds were good that he’d be treated as collateral damage.
“Wow,” I said. “Who did you piss off to get this gig?”
He flinched, looking at me guiltily. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Of course not. Thank you for bringing me to the bathroom. Now, could I get that water?” Better yet, a can of Coke. The thought of its acid sweetness was enough to make my mouth water. It’s good to know that some things never change.
“If you’d come this way?”
I gave the orderlies a pointed look. “I don’t think I have much of a choice, do you?”
“No, I suppose you don’t,” he said. “As I said, a precaution. You understand.”
“Not really, no. I’m unarmed. I’ve just passed two blood tests. I don’t understand why I need three men with guns covering my every move.” The CDC has been paranoid for years, but this was taking it to a new extreme.
Dr. Thomas’s reply didn’t help: “Security.”
“Why do people always say that when they don’t feel like giving a straight answer?” I shook my head. “I’m not going to make trouble. Please, just take me to the water.”
“Right this way,” he said, and started back the way we’d come.
There was a tray waiting for us on the bolted-down table in the room where I’d woken up. It held a plate with two pieces of buttered toast, a tumbler full of water, and wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, a can of Coke with condensation beading on the sides. I made for the tray without pausing to consider how the orderlies might react to my moving faster than a stroll. None of them shot me in the back. That was something.
The first bite of toast was the best thing I’d ever tasted, at least until I took the second bite, and then the third. Finally, I crammed most of the slice into my mouth, barely chewing. I managed to resist the siren song of the Coke long enough to drink half the water. It tasted as good as the toast. I put down the glass, popped the tab on the can of soda, and took my first post-death sip of Coke. I was smart enough not to gulp it; even that tiny amount was enough to make my knees weak. That, and the caffeine rush that followed, provided the last missing piece.
Slowly, I turned to face Dr. Thomas. He was standing in the doorway, making notes on his clipboard. There were probably a few dozen video and audio recorders running, catching every move I made, but any good reporter will tell you that there’s nothing like real field experience. I guess the same thing applies to scientists. He lowered his pen when he saw me looking.
“How do you feel?” he asked. “Dizzy? Are you full? Did you want something besides toast? It’s a bit early for anything complicated, but I might be able to arrange for some soup, if you’d prefer that…”
“Mostly, what’d I’d prefer is having some questions answered.” I shifted the Coke from one hand to the other. If I couldn’t have my sunglasses, I guess a can of soda would have to do. “I think I’ve been pretty cooperative up to now. I also think that could change.”
Dr. Thomas looked uncomfortable. “Well, I suppose that will depend on what sort of questions you want to ask.”
“This one should be pretty easy. I mean, it’s definitely within your skill set.”
“All right. I can’t promise to know the answer, but I’m happy to try. We want you to be comfortable.”
“Good.” I looked at him levelly, missing my black-eyed gaze. It always made people so uncomfortable. I got more honest answers out of those eyes… “You said you were my personal physician.”
“So tell me: How long have I been a clone?”
Dr. Thomas dropped his pen.
Still watching him, I raised my Coke, took a sip, and waited for his reply.
—Taken from an e-mail sent by Dr. Shannon Abbey to Dr. Joseph Shoji at the Kauai Institute of Virology, June 27, 2041.
Subject 139b was bitten on the evening of June 24, 2041. The exact time of the bite was not recorded, but a period of no less than twenty minutes elapsed between exposure and initial testing. The infected individual responsible for delivering the bite was retrieved from the road. Posthumous analysis confirmed that the individual was heavily contagious, and had been so for at least six days, as the virus had amplified through all parts of the body.
Blood samples were taken from the outside of Subject 139b’s hand and sequenced to prove that they belonged to the subject. Analysis of these samples confirmed the infection. (For proof of live viral bodies in Subject 139b’s blood, see the attached file.) Amplification appears to have begun normally, and followed the established progression toward full loss of cognitive functionality. Samples taken from Subject 139b’s clothing confirm this diagnosis.
Subject 139b was given a blood test shortly after arriving at this facility, and tested clean of all live viral particles. Subject 139b was given a second test, using a more sensitive unit, and once again tested clean. After forty-eight hours of isolation, following standard Kellis-Amberlee quarantine procedures, it is my professional opinion that the subject is not now infected, and does not represent a danger to himself or others.
With God as my witness, Joey, I swear to you that Shaun Mason is not infected with the live state of Kellis-Amberlee. He should be. He’s not. He started to amplify, and he somehow fought the infection off. This could change everything… if we had the slightest fucking clue how he did it.
—From Charming Not Sincere, the blog of Rebecca Atherton, July 16, 2041. Unpublished.
Times like this make me think my mother was right when she told me I should aspire to be a trophy wife. At least that would have reduced the odds of my winding up hiding in a renegade virology lab, hunting zombies for a certifiable mad scientist.
Then again, maybe not.
Shaun! Look out!”
Alaric’s shout came through my headset half a second before a hand grabbed my elbow, bearing down with that weird mixture of strength and clumsiness characteristic of the fully amplified. I yanked free, whirling to smack my assailant upside the head with my high-powered cattle prod.
A look of almost comic surprise crossed the zombie’s face as the electrified end of the cattle prod hit its temple. Then it fell. I kicked the body. It didn’t move. I hit it in the solar plexus with my cattle prod, just to be sure. Electricity has always been useful against zombies, since it confuses the virus that motivates them, but it turns out that when you amp the juice enough you can actually shut them down for short periods of time.
“Thanks for the heads-up,” I said, trusting the headset to pick me up. “I’ve got another dead boy down. Send the retrieval team to my coordinates.” I was already starting to scan the trees, looking for signs of movement—looking for something else that I could hit.
“Shaun…” There was a wary note in Alaric’s voice. I could practically see him sitting at his console, knotting his hands in his hair and trying not to let his irritation come through the microphone. I was his boss, after all, which meant he had to at least pretend to be respectful. Once in a while. “That’s your fourth catch of the night. I think that’s enough, don’t you?”
“I’m going for the record.”
There was a click as Becks plugged her own channel into the connection and snapped peevishly, “You’ve already got the record. Four catches in a night is twice what anyone else has managed, ever. Now please, please, come back to the lab.”
“What will you do if I don’t?” I asked. Nothing seemed to be moving, except for my infected friend, who twitched. I zapped him with the cattle prod again. The movement stopped.
“Two words, Shaun: tranquilizer darts. Now come back to the lab.”
I whistled. “That’s not playing fair. How about you promise to bake me chocolate chip cookies if I come back? That seems like a much better incentive.”
“How about you stop screwing around before you make me angry? Immune doesn’t mean immortal, you know. Now please.” The peevishness faded, replaced by pleading. “Just come home.”
She’s right, said George—or the ghost of George, anyway, the little voice at the back of my head that’s all I have left of my adopted sister. Some people say I have issues. I say those people need to expand their horizons, because I don’t have issues, I have the Library of Congress. You need to go back. This isn’t doing anybody any good.
“I don’t know,” I said. I used to be circumspect about talking to George. That was before I decided to go all the way insane. Madness is surprisingly freeing. “I mean, I’m having fun. Aren’t you the one who used to nag me to get my butt back into the field? Is this field enough for you?”
My smile faded. “Fine. Whatever. If you want me to go back to the stupid lab, I’ll go back to the stupid lab. Happy now?”
No, said George. But it’s going to have to do.
I poked my latest catch one last time with the cattle prod. It didn’t react. I turned to stalk back through the trees to the ripped-up side road where the bike was parked. Gunshots sounded from the forest to my left. I paused. Silence followed them, rather than screaming. I nodded and started walking again. Maybe that seems callous, but I wasn’t the only one collecting virtual corpses for Dr. Abbey, the crazy renegade virologist who’d been sheltering us since we were forced off the grid. Most of her lab technicians were either ex-military or trained marksmen. They could take care of themselves, at least in the “killing stuff” department. I was less sure about bringing the zombies home alive. Fortunately for me, that was their problem, not mine.
Alaric’s sigh of relief made me jump. I’d almost forgotten that he and Becks were listening in from their cozy spot in the main lab. “Thank you for seeing sense.”
“Don’t thank me,” I said. “Thank George.”
Neither of them had anything to say to that. I hadn’t expected them to. I tapped the button on the side of my headset, killing the connection, and kept walking.
It had been just under a month since the world turned upside down. Some days, I was almost grateful to be waking up in an underground virology lab. Sure, most of the things it contained could kill me—including the head virologist, who I suspected of having fantasies about dissecting me so she could analyze my organs—but at least we knew what was going on. We had a place, if not a fully functional plan. That put us way ahead of the surviving denizens of North America’s Gulf Coast, who were still contending with something we’d never anticipated: an insect vector for Kellis-Amberlee.
A tropical storm had blown some brand-new strain of mosquito over from Cuba, one with a big enough bite to transmit the live virus to humans. No one had heard of an insect vector for Kellis-Amberlee before that day. The entire world had heard of it on the day after, as every place Tropical Storm Fiona touched discovered the true meaning of “storm damage.” The virus spread initially with the storm, and then started spreading on its own as the winds died down and the mosquitoes went looking for something to munch on. It was a genuine apocalypse scenario, the sort of thing that makes trained medical personnel shit their pants and call for their mommies. And it was really happening, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it.
The worst part? Even if no one wanted to say it out loud, when you looked at the timing of everything going wrong—the way it all happened just as we started really prodding at the CDC’s sore spots—I thought there was a pretty good chance it wasn’t an accident. And that would mean it was our fault.
There was no one standing watch over the vehicles. That was sloppy; even if we cleared out the human infected, there was always the chance a zombie raccoon or something could take refuge under one of the collection vans and go for somebody’s ankles when they came back with the evening’s haul. I made a mental note to talk to Dr. Abbey about her tactical setup as I swung a leg over the bike. Then I put on my helmet—Becks was right, immune doesn’t mean immortal—and took off down the road.
See, here’s the thing. My name is Shaun Mason; I’m a journalist, I guess, even though right now all my posts are staying unpublished for security’s sake. I’m not technically wanted for anything. It’s just that places where I show up have a nasty tendency to get wiped off the map shortly after I get there, and that makes me a little gun-shy when it comes to telling people where I am. I think that’s understandable. Then again, I also think my dead sister talks to me, so what do I know?
About a year and a half ago—which feels like yesterday and an eternity at the same time—George and I applied to blog for Senator Peter Ryman’s presidential campaign, along with our friend Georgette “Buffy” Meissonier. Before that, I was your average gentleman Irwin, wanting nothing beyond a few dead things to poke with sticks and the opportunity to write up my adventures for an adoring populace. Pretty simple, right? The three of us had everything we needed to be happy. Only we didn’t know that, so when the chance to grab for glory came, we took it. We wanted to make history.
We made it, all right. We made it, Buffy and George became it, and I wound up as the last man standing, the one who has to avenge the glorious dead. All I know is that part wasn’t in the brochure.
The road smoothed as I got closer to our current home-sweet-home. Shady Cove, Oregon, has been deserted since the Rising, when the infected left the tiny community officially uninhabitable. We had to be careful about how visible we were, but Dr. Abbey had been sending her interns—interning for what, I didn’t know, since most universities don’t offer a degree in mad science—out at night to patch the worst of the potholes with a homebrewed asphalt substitute that looked just like the real thing.
Fixing the road was a mixed blessing. It could give away our location if someone came looking. In the meantime, it made it easier for supply runs to get through, even if no one seemed to know how we were getting those supplies, and it would make it easier for us to evacuate the lab when the time came. Dr. Abbey didn’t care how many of us died, as long as her equipment made it out. I had to admire that sort of single-minded approach. It reminded me of George.
Everything reminds you of me, George said.
I snorted but didn’t answer. The roar of the wind in my ears was too loud for me to hear my own voice, and I like to pretend that we’re having real conversations. It helps. With what, I can’t quite say, but… it helps.
Barely visible sensors in the underbrush tracked my approach as I came around the final curve and entered the parking lot of the Shady Cove Forestry Center. The building was dark, its vast pre-Rising windows like blind eyes staring into the trees. It looked empty. It wasn’t. I drove around to the back, where the old employee parking garage had been restored and strengthened to provide cover for our vehicles.
Since it was a pre-Rising design, I didn’t need to pass a blood test to get inside, and was able to just drive straight to my assigned slot, shutting off the bike. I removed my helmet and slung it over the handlebars, leaving it there in case I needed to leave in a hurry. I approach everything as a potential evacuation these days. I’ve got good reason.
Cameras tracked my progress toward the door. “Hello, Shaun,” said the lab computer. It was pleasant and female, with a Canadian accent. Maybe it reminded Dr. Abbey of home. I didn’t know.
What I did know was that I don’t like computers pretending to be human. It creeps me out. “Can I come in?” I asked.
“Please place your palm on the testing panel.” An amber light came on above the test unit, helpfully indicating where I needed to put my hand. Like any kid who lives long enough to go to kindergarten doesn’t know how to operate a basic blood testing panel? You learn, or you die.
“I don’t see the point of this.” I slapped my hand down on the metal. Cooling foam sprayed my skin a bare second before needles started biting into my flesh. I hate blood tests. “You know I’m not infected. I can’t be infected. So why don’t you stop fucking around and let me inside?”
“All personnel must be tested when returning from the field, Shaun. There are no exceptions.” The amber light blinked off, replaced by two more lights, one red, one green. They began flashing.
“I liked this place a lot better before Dr. Abbey got you online,” I said.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” replied the computer blithely. The red light winked off as the green one stabilized, confirming my uninfected status. Again. “Welcome home.”
The door into the main lab unlocked, sliding open. I flipped off the nearest camera and walked inside.
Dr. Abbey’s people have had lots of practice converting formerly abandoned buildings into functional scientific research centers. The Shady Cove Forestry Center was practically tailor-made for them, being large, constructed to withstand the elements, and best of all, in the middle of fucking nowhere. Entering from the parking garage put me in the main room—originally the Visitor’s Welcome Lobby, according to the brass sign by the door. That explained the brightly colored mural of cheerful woodland creatures on the wall. People used to romanticize the natural world, before the Rising. These days, we mostly just run away from it.
Interns and technicians were everywhere, all rushing around on weird science errands. I don’t understand most of what Dr. Abbey’s people do, and that’s probably a good thing. Mahir understands a lot more than I do, and he says it makes it hard for him to sleep at night.
Speaking of Mahir, the man himself was storming across the room, a look of profound irritation on his face. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” he demanded.
“That’s an interesting philosophical question, and one that would be better discussed over a can of Coke,” I replied amiably. “It’s good to see you, too.”
“I have half a mind to punch your face in, you bloody idiot,” Mahir said, still scowling.
Mahir used to be George’s second in command. Since she can’t run a third of the staff as a voice in my head, Mahir took over the Newsies when she died. I sometimes think he’s angry with me for not being angrier with him over taking her place. What he never seems to quite understand is that he’s one of the only people in this world who loved George the way I did, and having him on my side makes me feel a little better.
Besides, it’s funny as hell when he gets pissed. “But you won’t,” I said. “What’s our status?”
Mahir’s glare faded, replaced by weariness. “Alaric is still attempting to find out what keeps happening to our mirror sites. We’ve put up six new reports from the junior bloggers in the past hour, none of which touch on the Gulf Coast tragedy, and three of them have vanished into thin air. I think he’s going to start pulling his hair out before much longer.”
“This is what happens when you piss off a government conspiracy.” I started walking toward the kitchen. “How’s Becks doing on the extraction plan?”
Mahir answered with a small shake of his head.
“Aw, damn.” Alaric’s little sister, Alisa, was in Florida when Tropical Storm Fiona made landfall. She managed to survive the first wave of infections, through a combination of quick thinking and dumb luck. After that… Alaric was unable to step forward to claim her, since Dr. Abbey said that if one of us left, all of us left. We thought Alisa might wind up placed with a foster family, but things in Florida were too bad for that. She wound up in a government-sponsored refugee camp. She was sending regular updates and had managed to stay mostly out of trouble. Still, it was clear that if we didn’t find a way to get her out of there soon, Alaric was going to do something stupid. I understood his motivation. Family’s the most important thing there is.
“Yes, well. It is what it is.” Mahir paced me easily. He wasn’t always a field man, but he’d been working out since we arrived at Dr. Abbey’s—something about not wanting to die the next time we wound up running for our lives. “Dr. Abbey requests the pleasure of your company once you’ve had the opportunity to clean yourself up.”
I groaned. I couldn’t help it. “More blood tests?”
“More blood tests,” he confirmed.
“Motherfucker.” I scowled at nothing in particular. “Immunity is more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Yes, absolutely, being mysteriously immune to the zombie plague which has devastated the world is a terrible cross to bear,” said Mahir, deadpan.
“Hey, you try giving blood on a daily basis and see how you feel about it.”
“No, thank you.”
I sighed. “Is this another of those ‘no caffeine before donating’ days? Did she say?”
“I believe it’s not.”
“Thank God for that.” Don’t get me wrong. No one knows why I seem to be immune to Kellis-Amberlee amplification—something the CDC has been telling us is impossible since the Rising, by the way. You get bitten, you amplify, simple as that. Only it turns out that with me, it actually goes “you get bitten; you get annoyed; you have to take a lot of antibiotics, because human mouths are incredibly dirty and dying of a bacterial infection would suck; you get better.” I understood why Dr. Abbey needed blood almost every day. It was just a lot of needles.
Becks was in the kitchen when we arrived. She was sitting on the counter, holding a can of Coke. “Looking for this?” she asked.
“My savior.” I walked toward her, making grabbing motions. “Gimme. Gimme sweet, sweet caffeine.”
“The word is ‘please,’ Mason. Look it up.” She tossed me the can, a gentle underhand lob that wouldn’t shake the contents up too much. The team does that a lot these days—throws me things to double-check my manual dexterity. My recovery after being bitten was too miraculous to believe. We’re all waiting for it to wear off and for me to go rampaging through the lab.
I made the catch and cracked the tab, taking a long, cold drink before putting the can down on the nearest table and asking, “Have any of the new guys made it in yet?”
“The first batch is in processing now,” Becks replied. “We managed to net twenty-four infected tonight, including your four.”
“Cool.” Our lovely hostess needed a constant supply of fresh subjects, since her experiments required a couple dozen at any given time, and her lab protocols didn’t leave many of them alive past the three-day mark. Snatch-and-grab patrols were going out twice a week, minimum, and at the rate they were working, Shady Cove was going to be free of the infected in under three months.
“I guess.” Becks slid off the counter, giving me a calculating look. “What were you doing out there tonight, Mason? You could have been killed.”
“That wasn’t my first solo in these woods.”
“It was your first one at night.” She shook her head. “You’re starting to scare me.”
“And me,” said Mahir.
And me, said George.
“You don’t get a say in this,” I muttered. Mahir didn’t look offended. He knew I wasn’t talking to him. In a more normal tone, I asked, “So what do you want me to do, Becks? I don’t speak science. I barely speak research. Things are a mess out there, and we’re stuck in here, spinning our wheels.”
“So maybe it’s time you stopped spinning.” The three of us turned toward Dr. Abbey’s voice. Like the lab computer, it was pleasant and Canadian-accented. Unlike the lab computer, it was coming from a short, curvy scientist with bleached streaks in her shaggy brown hair. Her lab coat was open, exposing a bright orange CEPHALOPODS UNION #462 T-shirt.
I raised an eyebrow. “Okay, I’m listening. What have you got in mind?”
Dr. Abbey held up a thumb drive. “Get your team and meet me in the screening room. It’s time we had a little talk about what’s going on in Florida.” She quirked a small smile. “You can bring popcorn.”
“Science and snacks, the perfect combination,” I said. “We’ll be there.”
“Good,” said Dr. Abbey, and left.
Mahir stepped up next to me. “Do you have any idea what that’s all about?”
“Nope.” I shrugged, picking up my Coke again. The second drink was just as good as the first had been. “But hey. We may as well get started. What’s the worst that can happen?”
—From Fish and Clips, the blog of Mahir Gowda, July 16, 2041.
Managing things without Georgia has never been what I would term “easy,” but it’s never been harder than in the past few months. The devastation wreaked by Tropical Storm Fiona would have been terrible even without the additional horror of a newly discovered insect vector for Kellis-Amberlee infection. The loss of life would have been appalling even if so many of the lost had not gone on to attack and infect their fellow men. I find myself watching the news feeds and wishing, more than ever before, that Georgia Mason were with us today.
Georgia had a gift for reporting the news without letting sentiment color her impressions: She saw the world in black and white, no shades of gray allowed. It could have been a crippling disability in any other profession, but she made it her greatest strength. If she were here, she would be the one reducing bodies to statistics, rendering disasters into history. But she’s not here. She, too, has been reduced to a statistic, has been rendered into history. All of which means that I, unprepared as I am, have been forced to do her job.
May posterity show mercy when it looks back upon the work we do today. We did what we could with what we had.
—Taken from an e-mail sent by Dr. Matthew Thomas, July 16, 2041.
Subject 7c is awake, responsive, and self-aware. Subject has asked several conditionally relevant questions, and does not appear to suffer any visual or cognitive disorders. Subject self-identifies as “Georgia Mason,” and is able to recount events up to the point of physical death (see GEORGIA C. MASON, AUTOPSY FILE for details of injury).
We are prepared to continue with this subject for the time being. Full medical files are being transmitted under a secure encryption key.
—Graffiti from inside the Florida disaster zone, picture published under Creative Commons license.
GEORGIA MASON LIVES.
I have to give Dr. Thomas this: He recovered quickly from the question I obviously wasn’t supposed to be asking yet. “I don’t think you understand what you’re saying.” He retrieved his pen from the floor. “Maybe you need to sit down.”
“My eyes are wrong. I could possibly be convinced to believe in a regenerative treatment that erased my scars. I could even accept that it was a deep enough dermal renewal to remove my licensing tattoo.” I raised my wrist, showing him the spot where my personal information should have been permanently scribed. “But there’s nothing that could have repaired my eyes. So I ask again: How long have I been a clone?”
Dr. Thomas narrowed his eyes. I stood up a little straighter, trying to look imposing. It wasn’t easy to do in a pair of CDC-issue pajamas.
“This is highly irregular…” Dr. Thomas began.
“So is cloning reporters.” I took a final sip of Coke before forcing myself to put it down. The caffeine was already starting to make me jittery. The last thing I wanted to do was finish the can and have my hands start shaking. “Come on. Who am I going to tell? I’m assuming you’re not planning on giving me a connection to the outside world anytime soon.”
Dr. Thomas gave me a calculating look. I looked back, wishing I had the slightest idea of how to look earnest and well meaning with my strange new eyes. Living life behind a pair of sunglasses was so much easier.
Finally, he nodded, a familiar expression flickering across his face. I’d seen it worn by a hundred interview subjects, all of whom thought they were about to pull one over on me. None of them ever seemed to realize that maybe my degree in journalism included one or two classes in human psychology. I may not be good at lying, but oh, I know a lie when I hear one.
“As I said before, this is highly irregular,” he said in a lower, warmer tone of voice.
Trying to win my trust through confession. Pretty standard stuff, even if the situation was anything but standard. “I know, but please. I just want to know what’s going on.” I’ve never done “vulnerable” well. It wasn’t on the final exam.
Maybe the fact that I was actually feeling vulnerable behind my facade of journalistic calm was showing through, because Dr. Thomas said, “I understand. You must be very confused.”
“Also frightened, disoriented, and a little bit trying to convince myself this isn’t a dream,” I replied. I picked up my Coke again, not to drink, but to feel it in my hand. It was a poor substitute for the things I really wanted—my sunglasses, a gun, Shaun—but it would have to do.
“You have to understand that this is an experimental procedure. There was no way we could predict success, or even be sure that you would be yourself when you woke up.” Dr. Thomas watched me as he spoke. He was telling the truth, or at least the truth as he understood it. “To be honest with you, we’re still not sure how stable you are.”
“I guess that explains the men with the guns, huh?” I took a sip of Coke without thinking about it, and decided against putting the can back down. I deserved a little comfort. Resurrection turns out to be really hard on a person. “So you’re waiting for me to flip out and… what, exactly?”
“Cloning is a complicated process,” said Dr. Thomas. “Modern generations are infected with the Kellis-Amberlee virus while in the womb. Their bodies grow up handling the infection, coming to… an agreement with it, if you will. Adult infections have been rare since the Rising.”
“But cloned tissue is grown under clean-room conditions,” I said. “How did you introduce the infection?”
“Aerosol exposure when the…” He stuttered to a stop, obviously unsure how to proceed. Their reports probably referred to me as “the subject” or “the body” at that stage of the process. Using a proper pronoun would involve giving too much identity to something he’d been treating as a lab experiment.
The temptation to point that out was there. I let it pass. I needed an ally, even one who thought he was getting me to cooperate, more than I needed to score a few points just to make myself feel better. “How far along in the growth cycle was the tissue?” I asked.
“Halfway,” he said, visibly relieved. “We used techniques developed for organ cloning to accelerate the growth of the entire body. The immune and nervous systems were fully mature. We even used a blood sample on file at the Memphis installation, to be sure the exposure involved the strain of Kellis-Amberlee with which you were originally infected. It seemed the most likely to be compatible with your system. For all that we work with this virus every day, things like this, well, they aren’t precisely an exact science…”
Things like this absolutely are an exact science. They’re exactly what the Fictionals tell us to expect once mad science gets involved. I decided that was something else that didn’t need to be pointed out. Instead, I seized on the thing he was doing his best to avoid saying. “The men with guns are here because there’s a chance I’m going to spontaneously amplify, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Thomas. He looked genuinely sorry as he continued. “It will take a few days to be sure your system has properly adjusted to the infection. Until then, I’m afraid your movements will be carefully monitored. You can use the intercom to request food or drinks, and there will always be an escort ready if you need to visit the sanitary facilities. Showers will be available to you on a regular basis.”
“Can I ask for an Internet connection?” I asked.
He looked away as he answered. “That isn’t a good idea yet. We’re still running tests, and we don’t want to stress you more than is absolutely necessary. Hard copy reading material can be provided, if there are specific subjects you’re interested in.”
“Carefully censored, so as not to ‘stress’ me?” He had the good grace to look embarrassed. That didn’t make me feel any better. “If you’re trying to avoid stress, you should know that isolation stresses me.”
“That may be, but you’re going to have to live with it for a little while longer. I’m sorry. It’s necessary for your health.”
Something about the way he said that made my throat close up. A dozen nightmare scenarios flashed through my mind, all of them beginning in the dangerous seconds following the gunshot that killed me. I took a long drink of Coke to steady myself, and asked, “Is Shaun okay? Did he make it out of Sacramento? Please. Just tell me if he made it out of Sacramento.”
“It’s July of 2041. It’s taken us a little over eight months to get you to the point of being both awake and aware of your surroundings,” said Dr. Thomas. He delivered this apparent non sequitur in a hurried almost-monotone, like he wanted to get what he was about to say out of the way as quickly as possible. “A great deal has changed during that time.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Why aren’t you answering me? What are you trying to—”
“Miss Mason, I can’t give you the answers you’re asking me for. But I am truly and sincerely sorry for your loss.”
I gaped at him, openmouthed. I was still gaping when he stepped out of the room, the door closing behind him. I didn’t move. Not until my Coke hit the floor with a metallic clink, so much like the sound of a bullet casing being dropped. My knees went weak, and I sank into a kneeling position, my eyes fixed on the blank white door.
My cheeks were wet. I reached up with one hand, touching my right cheek. My fingertips came away damp. “I’m crying?” I said numbly. Retinal Kellis-Amberlee robs its victims of the ability to cry. Somehow, the idea that I could cry now was even more unbelievable than the idea that I was a CDC science project.
I staggered to my feet and stumbled over to the bed, where I collapsed atop the covers and curled into a ball, hugging my knees to my chest. The tears came hard after that, leaving me shaking and barely able to breathe. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I fell asleep.
I dreamed of funerals. Sometimes they were mine, and Shaun was standing in front of a room full of people, awkwardly trying to pretend he knew what he was doing. Those were the good dreams. Those were the dreams that reflected life as I knew it. Other times—most of the times—it was his face on the picture in front of the funereal urn, and either I was delivering a eulogy in a robotic monotone, or Alaric was standing there, explaining how it was only a matter of time. Once I was gone, no one really expected anything else.
The room was dark when I opened my eyes. They ached in a totally unfamiliar way. I shifted enough to free a hand to rub them, and discovered that my eyelids were puffy and slightly tender. I considered getting upset about it, but dismissed the idea. Either this was a normal side effect of crying, or Dr. Thomas had been right to be concerned, and I was starting to amplify. If it was the first, I needed to learn to live with it. If it was the second, well. It might be somebody’s problem. It wasn’t going to be mine.
I sat up on the bed, squinting to make out shapes in the darkened room. Even with the retinal Kellis-Amberlee, I probably couldn’t have seen in a room this dark. Still, dwelling on it gave me something to do for a few seconds, while I waited for my eyes to stop aching and let my thoughts settle down into something resembling normal. I wasn’t usually this scattered. Then again, I hadn’t usually just come back from the dead. Maybe I needed to cut myself a little slack.
Minutes slipped by me almost unnoticed. It wasn’t until my butt started going numb that I realized how long I’d been sitting there, paralyzed by the simple reality of the dark. “Fuck that,” I muttered, and slid off the bed, only stumbling a little as my feet hit the floor. There. Step one had been successfully taken: I was standing up. Everything else could come from there.
If I remembered correctly, the wall with the door would be about six feet in front of me. I started forward, holding my hands out in a vain effort to keep myself from walking face-first into anything solid. I felt a little better with every step. I was up. I was doing something. Sure, what I was doing was basically creeping my way across a dark room like a heroine from one of Maggie’s pre-Rising horror movies, but it was something, and that was a big improvement over what I’d been doing before.
It’s amazing how effective simple disorientation is as a mechanism for controlling people. Reporters use it whenever we think we can get away with it. We try to be the ones in control of the environment, using everything from props and street noise to temperature to keep people either completely relaxed or totally on edge, depending on the needs of the piece. Well, the CDC was trying to disorient me, and I’d been playing right into their hands. Who cared if I was a clone of myself, being kept under lock and key in a secret facility somewhere? I was still Georgia Mason—call it “identity until proven otherwise.” And if I was going to be Georgia Mason, I couldn’t sit around feeling sorry for myself. I needed to do something.
My hands hit the one-way mirror. I stopped, leaning forward until my forehead grazed the surface of the glass. If I squinted, I could make out the hallway on the other side. It was like trying to look through a thick layer of fog; if the lights in the hall hadn’t been on, I wouldn’t have been able to see anything at all. As it was, I was only getting outlines. The walls. The equally deceptive “windows” looking in on those other, empty rooms. Were they waiting for their own secretly cloned residents? Was I the first, the last, or somewhere in the middle?
“Stop it,” I muttered, wrenching my way out of that line of thought. It was something I needed to think about—probably at great length, and potentially as part of an exposé on illegal human cloning being conducted by the CDC—but this wasn’t the time. Here and now, it didn’t matter if they had a damn army of clones. I was the only clone I cared about.
I was the only…
I stepped away from the mirror, staring into the darkness in front of me. If the CDC was monitoring me on a hidden video feed—and I had absolute faith that the CDC was monitoring me on a hidden video feed, that’s what hidden video feeds are for—they’d probably think I was having a seizure. Let them think what they wanted. My frozen stare was as close as I could allow myself to come to cheering and punching the air in raw triumph.
They’d almost managed to catch me in their little logic puzzle, I had to give them that, but I’ve spent my entire life pursuing the truth ahead of all other things, and I know a lie when I don’t hear one. Dr. Thomas tried so very hard not to give me any firm answers… and that was the problem. He said he was sorry for my loss. He wouldn’t let me have an Internet connection, not even one that wasn’t capable of transmitting, only receiving. And he never, not once, went so far as to say that Shaun was dead. Why wouldn’t he tell me Shaun was dead?
Because he didn’t have any proof. The old Internet rallying cry: pics or it didn’t happen. There was no way he could invent a believable story that I wouldn’t be able to poke holes in, and if he’d been telling the truth, he would have been happy to prove it.
Shaun was alive.
I could be a clone, up could be down, and black could be white, but Shaun had to be alive. If I were in their shoes, the only thing that would have convinced me to clone a potentially recalcitrant reporter—and let’s face it, I was renowned for my stubbornness, especially when people were trying to tell me what to do—was the need to have that specific reporter on my side. The CDC wouldn’t have brought me back unless they needed me to do something for them. And there was only one thing I could do that no one else could.
I could make Shaun stop.
Shaun was alive, and he was doing something they didn’t approve of. Shaun was doing something they wanted stopped. But this was the CDC—they were the good guys. Whatever he was doing had to be something I would support stopping, right? Shaun was always good at making trouble, and I was usually the one in charge of stopping him. Take me out of the picture, and well…
For a moment, I lost myself in the pleasant fantasy of the CDC telling me that they were done processing me, everything was fine, and I could go. They’d hand me a pair of sunglasses and show me the door, sending me out into the world to find Shaun and give him a brisk smack upside the head. I was the only one he’d listen to, after all.
Regretfully, I set that pretty daydream aside. If they just wanted to make Shaun settle down, they’d hit him with a tranquilizer dart or something. Cloning a single sterile organ for a transplant patient cost millions of dollars. My shiny new factory-issue body probably came with a price tag somewhere in the billions. Shaun could cause a lot of trouble if he wanted to, but he wasn’t capable of that much trouble—certainly not enough to justify the cost of resurrecting me.
So what had he done that justified it? What did they want from me that they couldn’t get from him? My fingertips brushed the edge of the door. I stopped, turned, and paced in the opposite direction, letting the fingers of my other hand whisk along the wall. Fine; so they hadn’t brought me back from the dead for purely altruistic reasons. I knew that when I woke up. I represented too much money and too much time to be a purely scientific exercise. If this had happened before the Rising, human cloning might have been seen as a way to enhance and extend life. Worn out your body? Get a new one! Every cosmetic procedure imaginable in one easy step. Well, assuming you considered having your brain—whatever it was they did to my brain—having your brain somehow extracted and inserted into a whole new body “easy.”
That was before the Rising. Our modern zombie-phobic society would never embrace something that brought people back from the dead, even if they came back without all those antisocial cannibalistic urges. When I got out of here—if I got out of here—I was going to have a lot of extremely fast explaining to do, unless I wanted to find myself getting shot dead for the second time in my life.
There was something wrong with that phrase. I reached the wall, turned, and continued pacing.
Shaun was alive, Shaun was causing trouble, and they weren’t willing to risk getting caught in a lie if they told me he was dead. That might mean they were planning to use me against him somehow, convince me to spill private information about where we hid our network keys and offsite backup drives. That idea felt thin, like there was something I was missing, but it was a start. Every article begins with a line that can be twisted, somehow, into a hook.
Fine: The CDC brought me back so they could use me as a weapon against the only person in the world I loved more than I loved the truth. How they were planning to do that, I had no idea. Shaun knew I was dead. If anyone in the world knew, without question, that I was dead, it was Shaun; he’s the one who pulled the trigger. Seeing a woman who looked like me might make him pause for a second, but it wouldn’t be enough to bring him running.
The door opened abruptly, sending light flooding into my absolute darkness. I recoiled, more from the expectation of pain than anything else, stumbling to a stop and catching myself against the wall.
The light didn’t hurt my eyes the way it would have before my resurrection, but it still made them sting, blinding me for a few disorienting seconds. I raised a hand to shield them, squinting through the brightness at the man standing in the doorway. He wasn’t moving, and hadn’t moved, as far as I could tell, since he opened the door.
I dropped my hand. “Hello?” I hated the uncertainty in my voice. I was still unsteady, and the CDC was controlling too damn much of my environment. I hate being controlled.
Having two things to hate actually helped. I stood up straighter, frowning at the man silhouetted in the doorway. Being in pajamas should probably have made me feel vulnerable. Instead, it just made me angrier, like it was one element of control too many. Let them take away my connection to the outside world, my autonomy, and hell, even my body, but they weren’t allowed to dress me.
“I said hello,” I said, more sharply. I took a step forward. “Who are you? What are you doing in here?” Belatedly, it occurred to me that maybe walking toward a man I couldn’t really see was a bad idea. Human cloning was illegal, after all, and it was entirely possible that there might be people at the CDC who didn’t want me up and walking around.
“I saw you on the monitors,” said the man. He had a low, pleasant voice, with just a hint of a Midwestern accent. He stepped out of the doorway, moving back into the hall, and giving me my first real look at his face. His skin was a medium brown with reddish undertones, a few shades lighter than Mahir, a few shades darker than Alaric, with a bone structure I thought might be Native American. He had straight, dark hair, worn loose and almost as long as mine. It grazed his shoulders, tucked behind his ears to keep it from getting in his face. I’d have to remember that trick, at least until I could get my hands on a pair of scissors. He was smiling cautiously in my direction, like a man facing a snake that could decide to bite at any second.
I’d never seen him before in my life. But he was wearing hospital scrubs, with a CDC nametag pinned to his chest. That made him, if not an ally, at least a vaguely known quantity.
“Who are you?” I asked, taking another step forward. “Did Dr. Thomas send you to check up on me?”
“No,” he said, with careful patience. “Like I said before, I saw you on the monitors. You looked unsettled. I thought I’d come down and see if you needed anything. A glass of water, another blanket…”
“What if I wanted to go to the bathroom?”
He didn’t miss a beat. “I’d call for guards to escort us there, so I didn’t get fired. But I’d be happy to get you some water and an extra blanket first.” He took the clipboard from under his arm, flipping back the top sheet. “Are you having trouble sleeping? This says you had some caffeine earlier. I know that when I have too much coffee, I can’t sleep for love or money.”
“I was sleeping just fine,” I said. “Then I woke up. My internal clock is all messed up. It might help if I knew what time zone we were in.”
“Yeah, it probably would,” he agreed. “I’m Gregory, by the way, Miss Mason. It’s a pleasure to see you up and about.” He turned his clipboard as he spoke, holding it against his chest with the paper facing me. “You had everyone concerned for a while there.”
I’ve had a lifetime of experience in the fine art of not reacting to things. Still, I froze as my eyes found the block letters on the top sheet of Gregory’s clipboard, clearly intended for me to see.
YOU ARE NOT SAFE HERE.
Gregory’s expression begged me not to react, like he knew he was taking a risk, but had gauged it a worthwhile one. I managed to school my face into something close to neutrality, tilting my chin slightly upward to hide the unavoidable wideness of my eyes. I would have killed for my sunglasses in that moment, if someone had offered me the opportunity.
“I’m not sure you can blame me for that. I was technically dead at the time.”
Relief flooded Gregory’s expression. He nodded, turning his clipboard around like he was reading from it, and said, “That’s true. You weren’t legally alive until you started breathing independently.”
“That’s interesting. Who got to make that fun call?”
“It’s part of the international agreement concerning the use of human cloning technology for medical research,” Gregory said, flipping over another page. “As long as the clone never breathes independently of the life-support machines, it’s not a living entity. It’s just meat.”
“So you’re allowed to call me a clone?”
“Dr. Thomas said you’d reached that conclusion on your own, and that we were allowed to reinforce it, if it came up. Said it would make you more confident in your own identity.” Gregory glanced up from his clipboard and smiled. “I don’t think anyone expected you to figure it out so soon.”
“That’s me, refusing to meet expectations,” I said, struggling to keep my tone neutral. This man said I wasn’t safe. Did I trust him? Could I trust him?
Did I have a choice?
“All we expect from you now is that you keep getting better,” said Gregory, with the sort of firm, bland sternness I’d been getting from medical authority figures since I was seven years old. He turned his clipboard around again, showing me the second sheet of paper.
I AM WITH THE EIS. WE ARE GOING TO GET YOU OUT OF HERE. GO ALONG WITH EVERYTHING THEY ASK YOU TO DO. DO NOT ATTRACT ATTENTION.
I nodded. “I’ll do my best,” I said, replying to both what he’d said aloud, and to what he’d written down for me to see. “Thanks for stopping by.”
“Well, you’ll be seeing a lot of me. I’m one of your night attendants. Now, are you sure I can’t get you anything?”
“Not just yet,” I said, and paused, suddenly alarmed by the idea of being left alone, again, in the dark. “Actually… I don’t know if this is something you can do, but can you turn the lights back on? Please? It’s so dark in here with the door shut that I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back to sleep.”
“I can turn the lights back on,” Gregory assured me. “I can even turn them up halfway, if you’d like, so that you’re not trying to sleep with things lit too bright.”
“That would be great,” I said. Tomorrow, I’d have to start trying to talk Dr. Thomas into giving me a lamp.
“I’ll do it as soon as I get back to the monitoring station,” said Gregory, putting a subtle stress on the word “soon.” “If you decide you need anything else, all you need to do is say the word. The monitors will alert me immediately.”
“Got it,” I said, suddenly glad I didn’t talk in my sleep. “It was nice meeting you.”
“Likewise, Miss Mason,” said Gregory. He turned his clipboard around one final time, hiding the message written there, and took another step back. The door slid shut almost instantly—too fast for me to have rushed out of the room after him, even if I’d been inclined to try—and I was plunged back into darkness.
I stayed where I was, counting silently. The lights came on as I reached a hundred and forty-five. The monitoring station, wherever it was, was approximately two and a half minutes away for a man walking at normal speed. That was good to know. That meant it would take at least thirty seconds for someone to run from there to here. There’s a lot you can do in thirty seconds, if you’re really committed.
I walked back over to the bed and climbed under the covers, stretching out with my hands tucked under my head as I stared up at the ceiling. So the EIS was getting involved… and they weren’t on the side of the CDC. That was interesting. Interesting, and potentially bad.
The EIS—the Epidemic Intelligence Service—was founded in 1951 to answer concerns about biological warfare in the wake of World War II. EIS agents were responsible for a lot of the earliest efforts against infectious pandemics. Without them, smallpox, wild polio, and malaria would never have been eliminated… and if they’d been aware of the Marburg Amberlee and Kellis flu trials, the accidents that led to the creation of Kellis-Amberlee might never have occurred. They’ve always had a reputation for ruthlessness, focus, and getting the job done. It’s too bad the Rising put an end to most of what they did. In a world where there’s only one disease making headlines, what are a bunch of disease detectives good for?
But the branch held on. No matter how much the CDC restructured, no matter how the funding shifted, the EIS endured. Every time there was a whisper of corruption from inside the CDC, the EIS was there, dispelling the rumors, cleaning up the mess. Most people wrote them off as a bunch of spooks who refused to admit they weren’t necessary anymore. I’d always been one of those people.
Maybe it was time for me to reevaluate my position.
Gregory came from the EIS; the EIS was part of the CDC; the CDC brought me back to life. Gregory said I wasn’t safe here; Gregory spoke to me on his own, without barriers or guards. Dr. Thomas wouldn’t come near me without an armed guard. Dr. Thomas was willing to let me believe Shaun was dead. I probably couldn’t actually afford to trust either one of them. But given a choice between the two…
If the EIS was willing to get me out of here, I was willing to bank on my ability to escape from the EIS. I let my eyes drift closed, rolling onto my side. It was time to start playing along and find out what was going on, because when Gregory and his friends broke me out I was going to break the whole thing open.
I didn’t dream of funerals this time. Instead, I dreamed of me and Shaun, walking hand in hand through the empty hall where the Republican National Convention was held, and nothing was trying to kill us. Nothing was trying to kill us at all.
—From Postcards from the Wall, the unpublished files of Georgia Mason, originally posted on July 16, 2041.
The difficulty with knowing what something is and how it operates is that you’re likely to be wrong, and just as likely to be incapable of admitting it. We form preconceptions about the world, and we cling to them, unwilling to be challenged, unwilling to change. That’s why so many pre-Rising structures remain standing. Our generation may be willing to identify them as useless, archaic, and potentially deadly. The generations that came before us regard them as normal parts of life rendered temporarily unavailable, like toys put on a high shelf. They think someday we’ll have those things again. I think they know they’re wrong. They just can’t admit it, and so they wait to die and leave the world to us, the ones who will tear all those death traps down.
Sometimes the hardest thing about the truth is putting down the misassumptions, falsehoods, and half-truths that stand between it and you. Sometimes that’s the last thing that anybody wants to do. And sometimes, it’s the only thing we can do.
—From Dandelion Mine, the blog of Magdalene Grace Garcia, July 16, 2041. Unpublished.
I keep writing letters to my parents. Letters that explain what happened, where I went, why I ran. Letters that tell them how much I love them, and how sorry I am that I may never see them again. Letters about how much I miss my house, and my dogs, and my bad-movie parties, and my freedom. I sometimes think this must be what it was like for everyone in the months right after the Rising, only the threat of the infected was never personal. They didn’t kill all those people because they wanted to, or because their victims knew some inconvenient truth. They did it because they were hungry and because the people were there. So maybe this isn’t like the Rising at all. With us, it’s personal. We asked the wrong questions, opened the wrong doors, and Alaric will try to say that it was never my fault, it was never my idea, but he’s wrong.
I always knew there was an element of danger in what we did, and I went along with it willingly because these people are my heart’s family, and this is what I wanted. So I keep writing letters to my parents, saying I’m sorry, and I miss them, and I may not make it home.
So far, I haven’t sent any of my letters. I don’t know if I ever will.
Dr. Abbey’s screening room was originally the Shady Cove Forestry Center’s private movie theater, intended for teaching bored tourists and wide-eyed school groups about safely interacting with the woods. I’ve watched a few old DVDs that Alaric dug out of the room’s back closet. Most of them said “safely interacting with the woods” meant being respectful of the wildlife, and backing away slowly if you saw a bear. Personally, I think “safely interacting with the woods” means carrying a crossbow and a sniper rifle whenever you have to go out alone. I’ll never understand the pre-Rising generation… but sometimes I wish I could. It must have been nice to live in a world that didn’t constantly try to kill you.
The screening room was in disarray when we started crashing with Dr. Abbey. Now, barely a month later, it was as close to state-of-the-art as could be achieved with secondhand parts and cobbled-together wiring. That was Alaric’s doing. I’m sure Dr. Abbey’s people could have handled everything eventually—this wasn’t the first time she’d uprooted her entire lab with little warning—but Maggie got uncomfortable when she didn’t have access to a big-ass screen. So she batted her eyes at our last surviving tech genius, and Alaric, who was probably glad to have something to distract him from his sister’s situation, started flipping switches. The result was something even Buffy might have been proud of, if she hadn’t been, you know, dead.
The room was set up theater style, with gently curved rows of chairs descending toward the hardwood floor. Dr. Abbey was standing in front of the screen with her arms crossed, leaning against the built-in podium.
“Sorry we took so long.” I held up my bowl of popcorn as I descended the steps, shaking it so she could hear the kernels rattle. “You said we could stop for snacks.”
“That’s true; I did. One day you’ll figure out how to tell when I’m serious.” There was no actual rancor in Dr. Abbey’s tone. I stopped being able to really piss her off the day she learned that I couldn’t amplify. I guess there are some advantages to being a human pincushion.
“Did you bring me any?” Maggie was sitting in the middle of the front row. She turned to look over the back of her seat. Her curly brown-and-blonde hair—brown from nature, blonde from decontamination and bleaching—half hid her face. She was one of the only women I knew who managed to make that combination look natural, largely on account of having a Hispanic father, a Caucasian mother, and really good skin.
“Sure.” I started down the steps. Becks and Alaric followed me.
“Hey, Dr. Abbey,” said Becks.
“Hello, Rebecca,” said Dr. Abbey.
“Gimme popcorn,” said Maggie. I leaned over to hand her the bowl. She beamed, blew me a kiss, and started munching.
Out of all of us, Maggie was the one who didn’t have to be here. Alaric, Becks, and I were the ones who broke into the CDC facility in Memphis. While we were there, a man we thought was our ally showed his true colors, and the newest member of our team was killed. Her name was Kelly Connolly. She worked for the CDC, and she wanted to do the right thing more than almost anyone else I knew. The fact that her name will never go up on The Wall is a crime and a sin, and there’s nothing I can do about it. There’s nothing anyone can do about it.
Maggie wasn’t there for any of that. Maggie could have said, “It’s been fun; see you later,” and left the rest of us to carry on without her. I wouldn’t have blamed her. She had a life, one that didn’t involve becoming a fugitive, or sleeping on an army cot in an abandoned park building. When her house was rendered unsafe, she could have just asked her parents to buy her a new one. She was the heir to the Garcia family fortune, possibly the richest blogger in the world, and she had absolutely no reason to be standing by us. But she was standing by us, and that meant she could have all the popcorn she wanted.
Dr. Abbey straightened, taking the remote control from the podium. “If you’re all settled, I’ve got a few things to show you.”
“We’re good,” I said, dropping into a seat.
Behave, said George. You could learn something.
“You mean you could learn something, and explain it to me later,” I said, making only a cursory effort to keep my voice down. The others ignored me. After everything we’ve had to deal with, I guess knowing the boss is crazy isn’t such a big deal anymore. That’s fine by me. I have no particular interest in ever being sane again.
Becks and Alaric took the seats to either side of me. Maggie got up and moved to sit next to Alaric, bringing the popcorn with her. Becks smiled at them a little wistfully. I tried not to let my discomfort show. Becks and I slept together once—just once—before she realized exactly how crazy I really was. I hurt her pretty badly over that. I didn’t mean to, but that doesn’t excuse it, as both she and George were happy to point out. Sometimes I regret the fact that I’m probably never going to have a normal adult relationship with a woman who has a pulse of her own. And then I remember how deep the shit we’re in already is, and I’m just glad I don’t have anyone left for them to take away from me.
“Finally,” said Dr. Abbey, and pointed her remote at the back of the room. The projector came on, filling the screen with an outline of the Florida coast. “Florida,” said Dr. Abbey needlessly. She pressed a button. The image pulled back to show the entire Gulf Coast. A red splash was overlaid across the characteristic shape of Florida itself, covering almost two-thirds of the landmass.
Alaric winced, fingers tightening around a handful of popcorn with an audible crunch. That was the only sound in the screening room. That, and the sound of George swearing in the back of my head, inaudible to anyone but me.
Dr. Abbey gave us a moment to study the image before she said, “This is the most recent map showing the airborne infection following Tropical Storm Fiona. I know of six labs that are currently trying to sequence the genetic structure of the mosquitoes involved.”
“Why?” asked Becks. “What does that matter?”
“This isn’t a new strain of virus, which means it has to be a new strain of mosquito. If we know what species they were derived from, we’ll know what temperature range they can tolerate.”
A voice spoke from the back of the theater: “Derived from?”
“Mr. Gowda. Glad you could join us. And yes, derived from. Surely you don’t think this happened naturally?” Dr. Abbey shook her head. “Mosquitoes can’t spread Kellis-Amberlee because the virus is too large. You can’t make it smaller; it would become unstable. That means you need a larger mosquito if you want an insect vector.”
“Yeah, because who wouldn’t want that,” muttered Becks.
“Who made it?” asked Mahir. I turned in my seat to see him descending the stairs. He was frowning deeply. That was nothing new. I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him smile.
“Good question,” said Dr. Abbey. “Now, as I was saying, if we know what species the mosquitoes are derived from, we’ll know what temperature range they can tolerate. If we’re looking at Aedes aegypti—the mosquito responsible for the American yellow fever outbreaks—then we’re dealing with a mosquito confined to warm climates. Like so.” She pressed another button. The image progressed, printing an orange zone on top of the red. “That’s the maximum projected range for Aedes aegypti. They won’t be able to get a foothold on the colder parts of the country, although it’s doubtful we’ll be cleaning them out of the Gulf Coast anytime soon.”
“What are our other options?” asked Mahir.
“We have about a dozen possible candidates, although some are more likely than others. If you want to see the doomsday option, look no farther than Aedes albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito. It’s been nominated for the title of ‘most invasive species in the world,’ in part because the damn thing can survive anywhere. It sets up housekeeping, and that’s the end of that. Reach for your bug spray and kiss your ass good-bye.” Dr. Abbey clicked her remote again. The image pulled back, showing the entire continental United States. A third band of color appeared around the first two. This one was yellow, and extended almost all the way to the Canadian border. “Good night, North America. Thank you for playing.”
“Isn’t there anything we can do?” asked Maggie.
Becks leaned forward in her seat. “I have a better question. Why are you telling us this? We already knew things were bad. You could have just given us a written report.”
“Because I wanted you to understand exactly how bad things are out there.” Dr. Abbey pressed a different button. The map was replaced by a slideshow of pictures out of the flooded streets of Florida—still flooded, for the most part, even this long after the storm, because no one had been able to get past the ranks of the infected long enough to clear out the drains.
Mobs of blank-eyed, bloody-lipped zombies waded through the dirty water, their arms raised in instinctive fury as they closed ranks on the rare remaining uninfected humans. Their numbers were great enough that they clearly weren’t trying to infect anymore; they had the critical mass the virus always seemed to be striving for. There was nothing left of the people they’d been before the storm touched down. All that remained was a single, undeniable command: feed.
Maggie gasped as a still picture of a young boy with his abdomen ripped completely open flashed across the screen. She twisted and buried her face against Alaric’s shoulder. He raised one hand to stroke her hair, his own eyes never leaving the screen.
This is horrific, said George.
“Yeah,” I whispered. “It is.”
We knew how bad things were—there was no way we could avoid knowing—but the government had been doing a surprisingly good job of suppressing images from the infection zones. Something about the way journalists who tried to sneak into the cordoned areas kept winding up infected, shot, or both was doing a lot to discourage the curious. Most of the pictures that made it out were fuzzy things, shot from a distance or using cameras attached to remote-controlled drones. These pictures weren’t fuzzy. These pictures were crystal clear, and the story they told was brutal.
“Where did you get these?” asked Mahir. He seemed to remember that he should be descending the stairs. He trotted quickly down the last few tiers, settling at the end of our row.
“I have my sources,” said Dr. Abbey. “Most of these were taken in the last week. Since then, the body count has continued rising. We’re looking at a death toll in the millions.”
“I heard a rumor that the government is going to declare Florida officially lost,” said Becks.
“It’s not a rumor. They’re making the announcement next week.” Dr. Abbey pressed another button. The still pictures were replaced with a video, clearly shot by someone with a back-mounted camera as they were running for their life. A mob of infected pursued the unseen filmmaker down the flooded, debris-choked street, and they were gaining. Maggie glanced up, hearing the change in the room. As soon as she saw the screen, she moaned again, and pressed her face back into Alaric’s shoulder.
“They can’t do that,” said Becks.
Yes, they can, said George.
“Yes, they can,” I said. The others looked at me, even Maggie, who raised her head and stared at me with wounded, shell-shocked eyes. “Alaska. Remember? As long as they can prove they’ve made every effort to preserve the greater civilian population, the government is not only allowed to lock down a hazard zone, they’re required.” Shutting down a state would mean proving they’d done it to save the nation. Somehow, I didn’t think that would be all that hard of a sell. Things were too bad, and people were too frightened.
“We have to go to Florida,” said Alaric abruptly. “We need to get Alisa.” He sat up in his seat, almost dislodging Maggie. “The refugee camp is inside the state borders. When they closed Alaska, they didn’t evacuate all the camps.”
Becks, Maggie, and Alaric started talking at once, all of them raising their voices to be heard. Even George got in on the action, although I wasn’t relaying her comments to the others—yet. If they didn’t settle down quickly, I’d probably start.
Mahir beat me to it. “Quiet!” he roared, standing. He walked over to the rest of us, focusing his attention on Alaric. “I’m sorry, Alaric, but there’s no way. Going into Florida would be suicide.”
“I don’t care.” Alaric stood, stepping forward so that he and Mahir were almost nose to nose. Mahir was easily four inches taller. At the moment, that didn’t seem to matter. “Alisa is the last family I have left. I’m not letting them abandon her in a hazard zone.”
“And as your immediate superior, I’m not letting you throw your life away running into a hazard zone.”
“Does he really think that’s going to work?” asked Becks.
“Would you have done it for his sister?” Alaric thrust out his arm, pointing at me. “If it were George in that hazard zone, would you have stopped him? Or would you have been putting on your protective gear and saying it was an honor to die trying to save her?”
“Hey, guys, let’s settle down, okay?” Maggie cast a nervous look in my direction as she stood and tried to push her way between them. “Inciting Shaun to kill us all isn’t anybody’s idea of a good time.”
“I don’t know,” said Dr. Abbey. “It might take care of a few problems. It would definitely cut down on the grocery bills.”
She’s really not fond of helping, is she? asked George.
“No, she’s not,” I replied, and stood. Becks, who was now the only one still sitting, gave me a worried look, like she wasn’t sure whether I was about to try defusing the situation or start punching people. I couldn’t blame her. Before Memphis, I wouldn’t have been sure either, and it wasn’t like I’d been exactly stable since then.
But the one thing I learned in Memphis—the one thing I was sure of now, even if I hadn’t been sure of it before—was that my team was the only thing I had, and if I didn’t want to lose them, I needed to take care of them. Somehow.
“Okay, everybody,” I said. “Settle down.”
“Shaun—” Alaric began.
“You’re part of everybody. So shut up. Mahir? We’re not abandoning Alaric’s sister. We wouldn’t abandon yours, we’re not abandoning his.”
“I don’t have a sister,” said Mahir.
“Yeah, well, join the club. Alaric?” I took a step toward him, letting my anger show in my eyes for a fraction of a second. Alaric paled. I might not be willing to lose my team, but that didn’t mean I was willing to let certain things go. “Calm down. We’ll figure this out. And don’t you ever, ever use George against any of us, ever again. Do I make myself clear?”
Alaric nodded, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “Extremely.”
“Good. Thanks for trying to calm things down, Maggie.”
She didn’t say anything. But she smiled wanly, and I knew the comment was appreciated.
Good job, said George.
“Thanks,” I replied. I looked to Dr. Abbey and asked, “Why are you telling us this? It’s like Becks said—you would have just left a note on the refrigerator, if all you wanted to do was make us aware that things are shitty. Everyone knows things are shitty. This isn’t news.”
“Not that it’s stopping ‘everything in Florida is shitty’ from dominating the news cycles right now,” said Becks. “What impresses me is the way it’s dominating them without most people actually knowing anything.”
“Welcome to the modern media world,” said Alaric.
Dr. Abbey had been waiting while we got the last of the nervous chatter out of the way. Not saying a word—not yet—she pressed a button on her remote. The video froze and vanished, replaced by an atlas-style road map. It could have been anywhere in the world, if not for the label identifying the thickest line as the border between Florida and Alabama. A small red star popped up on the Florida side of the line.
“The Ferry Pass Refugee Center,” said Dr. Abbey serenely. She’d been setting us up for this moment. I would have been impressed, if I hadn’t wanted to punch her. “The middle school has been turned into a holding area for people who were evacuated from the primary outbreak zones before evacuations ceased.”
“You know where Alisa is?” Alaric’s voice was suddenly small. We’d been getting updates from his sister since she was transferred to the camp, but she’d never been able to tell us where that camp was located. Alaric thought it was because things were too hectic, and the rest of us were willing to let him keep thinking that until we had something better to tell him. Because in my experience, when people are kept isolated “for their own safety” and not told where they are, those people are probably never going to be seen or heard from again.
“Camps were established in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama after Tropical Storm Fiona hit. People were assigned to them supposedly at random, although the Florida camps received a higher than average percentage of the poor, children without surviving parents, and journalists who’d been arrested inside the quarantine zone. The Georgia camps were evacuated last week. They’re evacuating the Alabama camps tomorrow.”
“And the Florida camps?” asked Mahir.
“Are considered a lower priority, due to the chance that they’ve already been contaminated. Luck of the draw, I suppose.” Her tone was blackly amused, like it was that or start breaking things. “One more tragedy for a summer already packed chock-full of tragedies.”
“They can’t do this,” said Becks.
“It’s already done. The only question is whether they’re going to get caught, and so far, the answer’s been ‘no.’ Things are chaotic. No one knows exactly what’s going on, and the people carrying out the orders aren’t the ones giving them. As long as no one ever gives the order that says ‘let those people die, they don’t matter,’ nothing illegal is being done.” A small, bitter smile twisted the edges of Dr. Abbey’s lips. “Trust me. I’m a scientist. We know all about the art of skirting ethics.”
“We have to go to Florida,” said Alaric. He grabbed my sleeve, eyes wild. “We have to! They’re going to let her die! Shaun, you have to help me; you can’t let my sister die!”
He’s right; you can’t, said George. You can’t go to Florida, either. So what are you going to do?
The answer was obvious, at least to me. I gave Alaric’s hand a reassuring pat before removing it from my sleeve, folding my arms, and focusing on Dr. Abbey. “What do you want us to do?”
She lifted her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“You made a big production out of telling us things suck in Florida. We knew things sucked. You just wanted us to really believe it. So you’ve got us. We believe.” I let my smile mirror hers. “It’s classic media manipulation. Present the facts in the scariest way possible, and wait for your audience to sell their souls for whatever you think they need.”
“And what could I possibly have that you would need?”
“Beyond the whole ‘shelter and hiding us’ thing, which we already have, you know where Alaric’s sister is. That means you know someone who’s involved with the camps in Florida. Can you get her out?”
Alaric’s eyes widened, and he focused on Dr. Abbey with new hope. “Is that why you told us all this? Can you get Alisa out of Florida?”
“It’s possible,” said Dr. Abbey, putting her remote back on the podium. “I could pull a few strings.”
“Thought so.” I looked at her appraisingly. “Now I know you don’t want to cut me open, because I’m a better test subject alive than I’d be dead. And I know you don’t want to kick us out for basically the same reason. So what do you want?”
“I do want you to leave, actually. I just don’t want you to stay gone.” Dr. Abbey shook her head. “Remember what I said about the mosquitoes?”
“Which part?” asked Maggie. “The scary part, the really scary part, the legitimately terrifying part, or the part that makes suicide sound like an awesome way to spend an evening?”
“That last one, probably. As I said before, there are labs working to sequence the genetic code of the mosquitoes. But they’re working with inherently damaged data, because they’re working with dead specimens.”
Becks stared at her. “You want us to go out and catch mosquitoes for you?”
“Not all of you. Just him.” Dr. Abbey pointed at me. “If you can get into one of the infection zones and catch some live specimens, we may be able to determine their base species—or at least make a better, more educated guess—without needing to wait for the gene sequencers to finish running. Plus, we can study their behavioral patterns, maybe come up with ways to avoid being bitten.”
“This is all assuming I survive the bug hunt,” I said dryly.
“You’ve survived everything else you’ve run up against, even when there’s no way you should have. I’m willing to take the chance.” Dr. Abbey sighed, raking her brown and bleach-yellow curls back with one hand. “Look. I realize this isn’t exactly the nicest thing I’ve ever done to you people.”
“You’re a mad scientist,” said Maggie, in what may well have been intended as a reassuring tone. “We don’t expect you to be nice. We just go to bed every night hoping you won’t mutate us before we wake up.”
Dr. Abbey blinked at her. “That’s… almost sweet. In a disturbing sort of a way.”
“Maggie’s good at sweet-but-disturbing,” said Mahir. “Are you genuinely telling us you have the capacity to extract Alaric’s sister from danger, and will not do so unless we agree to your request?”
“I’m telling you I have the capacity to try.” Dr. Abbey shook her head. “Please don’t misunderstand what I’m offering here. I can’t guarantee anything. The mosquitoes haven’t reached Ferry Pass, but that doesn’t mean they won’t. It also doesn’t mean there won’t be another form of outbreak before we can get there. All I’m offering is a chance, and yes, sometimes, chances have to be paid for.”
Alaric gave me a pleading look. The others followed suit, even Dr. Abbey, all looking at me with varying degrees of hope, or reluctance, or resignation. In that instant, I knew that what came next was entirely my decision. Maybe I was the crazy one, maybe I was the one who felt like he had nothing left to lose, but I was also their leader, and the only one my team had left. They needed someone to tell them what to do. Even Mahir, for all that half the time it seemed like he was the one who was actually in charge, needed me to be the one to pull the trigger.
“I didn’t sign up for this shit,” I muttered, as quietly as I could.
Good thing you’re such a natural, then, isn’t it?
I managed to bite back my laughter before it could escape. The team might be used to me talking to myself, but that didn’t mean they’d forgive me for laughing at a time like this. I turned my laugh into a smile, calling up all the old tricks I’d been forced to learn back when I was a working Irwin and needed to smile despite pain, or terror, or just plain not wanting to be the dancing monkey for a little while.
“You know we can’t all go, right, Doc?” I asked.
Dr. Abbey nodded. “I know.”
“Alisa’s going to need ID, papers, everything. There’s no way she can use her real name. It wouldn’t hurt for the rest of us to have a fallback plan, either. I want to send Mahir and Maggie up the coast. There’s an ID fixer there who comes pretty highly recommended.”
“The Monkey,” said Alaric.
“I’ve heard of him. He’s supposedly the best, and things are going to get worse before they get better,” said Dr. Abbey, apparently unperturbed by my desire to split the team. “I’m even willing to supply an unmarked car, to help them get there.”
“And someone’s staying with you, to coordinate.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“I’m going with you,” Becks said, stepping up next to me before Alaric could speak. She raised a warning finger in his direction. “Don’t argue. You aren’t good at fieldwork, you don’t like being away from your computer, and if Dr. Abbey can get Alisa out of Florida, your sister will want to know that you’re safe. We won’t be.”
Alaric deflated slightly, looking ashamed. I couldn’t blame him. He was clearly relieved not to be the one going, and just as clearly felt like he should have insisted on it.
“Hey,” I said. He didn’t look at me. “Hey.”
This time Alaric’s attention swung my way. “What?”
“Becks is right. Alisa needs you more than we do. Stay with Dr. Abbey. Keep the crazy science lady happy, or at least non-homicidal. We’ll be back as soon as we can. Okay?”
For a moment, I didn’t think Alaric was going to give in. Finally, he nodded. “Okay,” he said. “If that’s the best way.”
“It is.” I looked to Dr. Abbey. “Well? What are we waiting for? Let’s get this show on the road.”
She smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.”
—Taken from an e-mail sent by Alisa Kwong to Alaric Kwong, July 19, 2041.
But I’m scared a lot, too. There are ten girls sleeping in the classroom with me, and also our chaperone, Ms. Hyland. I don’t think anyone here realizes my e-diary can also transmit. They’re not supposed to be able to do that. That’s why the people let me keep it. I don’t know what I’d do if they took it away from me. Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving me this for last Christmas. I think it’s saving my life.
They’re starting to say scary things when they think none of us are listening—or maybe they don’t care anymore whether we’re listening or not, and that’s scary, too. Please come get me. Please find a way to come and get me. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I’m really scared, and I need my brother.
—From Adaptive Immunities, the blog of Shaun Mason, July 17, 2041. Unpublished.
This morning I woke up, and for almost ten minutes, I forgot that George was dead. I could hear her in the bathroom, getting her clothes on and waiting for her painkillers to kick in. I could even see the indent her head left in the pillow. And then I turned to get something from my bag, and when I looked back, the indent was gone. No one was in the bathroom. I was alone, and George was dead again.
It’s been happening more and more often. Just those little moments where something slips, and it becomes possible, for one beautiful, horrible moment, to lie to myself about the world. I won’t pretend that I mind them, or that I’m not sorry when they end. I also won’t pretend that I’m not afraid.
The last big break with reality is coming. I can practically hear it knocking at the door. And I’m terrified I won’t have time to finish everything I need to do before it gets here.
I’m sorry, George. But I’m afraid I might want you back so much that I’m willing to let myself let you down.
I barely glanced up from my book when the door slid open. It was an outdated sociology text written when people still lived in the middle of Canada, but it was a book, and in the absence of access to the Internet, I was so starved for data that I’d take what I could get. They still wouldn’t let me have anything but hard copy, for fear that I’d somehow figure out a way to hopscotch off the local wireless network. As if. Techie tricks were Buffy’s forte, and Buffy had left the building.
The door slid closed. I kept reading. Dr. Thomas cleared his throat. The sound was a dead giveaway. After a week with nothing to distract me, I’d learned to recognize my regular visitors by the things they couldn’t help, like the way they breathed—or, in Dr. Thomas’s case, the annoying way he cleared his throat. I turned a page. Dr. Thomas cleared his throat again.
“I can keep this up all day,” I said pleasantly, even though the fact that I was the first one to speak proved I couldn’t actually stand spending any more time sitting silently and pretending I wasn’t bothered by Dr. Thomas standing there, watching me. “You know what you need to do.”
“I think you’re being unreasonable.”
“I think that I legally became a human being as soon as you detached me from your crazy mad science clone incubator, which means I’m entitled to basic human courtesy.” I turned another page. “It’s up to you.” Gregory wanted me to play along. Well, I was playing, but that also included a certain amount of understandable resistance. A totally complacent Georgia Mason would never have been believable, to anyone.
Dr. Thomas sighed. Finally, he said, “Hello, Georgia. May I come in?”
“Why, hello, Dr. Thomas.” I looked up, dog-earing the top of the page to keep my place. “Would it make any difference if I said you couldn’t?”
“No,” he said curtly. I was starting to learn the limits of his patience. It was difficult, more so than learning to tell his footsteps from the footsteps of the guards who usually accompanied him. If I pushed him too far, they’d gas the room, and I’d wake up to find that whatever tests I’d been balking at had been run while I was unconscious.
When I finished with my exposé of this place, the CDC was going to wish they’d been willing to leave me dead. I kept that thought firmly in mind as I plastered a smile across my face and said, “Well, then, come on in. What can I do for you?” I paused, something else about the situation registering. I’d only heard one set of footsteps. “Where are your guards?”
“That’s part of why I’m visiting. We’ve been reviewing your test results, and we’ve decided I don’t need them in your quarters.” Dr. Thomas’s smile looked as real as mine. Whoever made the decision to send him into my room without protection had done it without asking how he felt about it. And clearly, how he felt wasn’t good.
“Does that mean they’ve also decided I’m not a danger to society?”
“Don’t be too hasty, Georgia. It simply means they’ve decided that spontaneous amplification is not an immediate danger. We still have a lot to do before we can be confident your body is prepared to function outside a laboratory setting.” Dr. Thomas adjusted his glasses with one hand, something I’d learned to read as a nervous tic. “You may not feel particularly protected, but I assure you, this is the cleanest, most secure environment you have ever been in.”
“It’s definitely the most boring,” I agreed, twisting around to face him. I’d been sitting cross-legged on my bed for long enough that my thighs ached when I moved. That was good. It looked like I wasn’t doing anything. I was actually tensing and relaxing the muscles of my core, strengthening them as best I could without a better means of using them. I’d asked a few times about getting access to an exercise room, or at least a treadmill. So far, I’d had no luck. That meant I was getting my exercise where I could, and through whatever means available.
I never thought I’d be so grateful to Buffy for making me and Shaun sign up for that stupid virtual Pilates class.
The thought of Shaun, even that briefly, was painful. I pushed it away. I was still holding tightly to the belief that he was alive, but it was hard, and getting harder as Dr. Thomas continued not giving me anything to work with. I had to believe Shaun was alive. If I didn’t, I was going to go insane.
Assuming the CDC didn’t drive me crazy first.
“I thought you’d been provided with reading material?” Dr. Thomas gave my book a meaningful look. “That was what you requested, wasn’t it?”
“ ‘Something to read’ was on the list, yes, but I provided authors and titles, and nothing I’ve been given has been remotely like the things I asked for.” I blew a wayward strand of hair out of my face. “I’ve been asking for a haircut, too. Any idea when I might be able to get one? If it’s too hard to find someone on your staff who’s cut hair before, you can give me a pair of scissors and I can do it myself.”
“No, I’m afraid I can’t give you a pair of scissors, Georgia, and I’ll thank you not to make a suggestion like that again, unless you’d like to have your silverware privileges revoked.” Dr. Thomas frowned in what I’m sure was intended to be a paternal manner. He’d been trying that a lot recently, acting like he had a fatherly interest in my welfare. Maybe if my own father had ever shown that sort of interest, I would have believed it. As it was, all he’d managed to do was get on my nerves. “Asking for potential weapons is not a sign of mental stability.”
“Pardon me for arguing, Dr. Thomas, but I’m a clone living in a post-zombie America. I’m pretty sure not asking for potential weapons would be a much worse sign. Besides, I’m not asking for weapons, I’m asking for a haircut, and giving options if there’s no way to get me someone willing to do it.” I kept smiling. It was better than screaming.
Dr. Thomas sighed. “I’ll see what I can do. In the meanwhile, you’re going to need to do something for me.”
I stiffened. “What kind of something?” I asked carefully.
“We need to run some special tests tomorrow, in addition to the ones on your usual schedule. There’s some concern about your internal organs. These tests won’t be quite the noninvasive sort that you’ve become accustomed to, I’m afraid. They’ll be rather painful, and unfortunately, the nature of the needed data requires you to be awake during the process.”
“And they’re dealing with my internal organs?” I raised my eyebrows. It was a sign of how numb I was becoming to their endless tests that I couldn’t even work up a mild level of concern over the idea of my kidneys shutting down. “Are my internal organs doing something they’re not supposed to be doing?”
“No, no, not at all. We just want to be sure they’re not going to start doing something they’re not supposed to be doing. They’re much younger than you look, after all, and there’s always a chance for biological error.”
“I don’t really have a choice about this, do I?”
Excerpted from Blackout by Grant, Mira Copyright © 2012 by Grant, Mira. Excerpted by permission.
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