“And I’m an ass**le,” said Alaric helpfully.
Everyone laughed nervously. There was a soft “thump” as the plane stopped rolling down the runway, followed by the sound of clamps affixing to the wheels and windows. This was one plane that wouldn’t be flying anywhere until it was certified infection free. Blue antibacterial foam began cascading down the windows, blocking our view of the airfield.
“The foam they use to sterilize planes costs eight dollars a gallon,” said Alaric. “It takes approximately two thousand gallons to sterilize a plane this size.”
Becks gave him a sidelong look. “Why do you know these things? What inspires you to learn them?”
“It impresses the ladies,” said Alaric. They both laughed. Shaun didn’t. I turned to look toward the front of the plane, and waited.
The blue foam slowed from a torrent to drips and drabs, finally stopping altogether. A steady stream of bleach followed it, washing away both the remains of the foam and any biological agents foolish enough to think that hitching a ride on an EIS plane was a good idea.
“Overkill much?” muttered Shaun. I surreptitiously reached over and squeezed his knee.
Alaric must have heard him, because he held up the security information booklet and said, “If they had any reason to believe we’d flown through or over an active outbreak, they’d be rinsing the whole plane down with formalin. Twice. And we’d be praying the plane was properly sealed, since otherwise, we’d probably melt.”
“It’s just our way of saying ‘thank you for flying EIS Air,’ ” said Dr. Shoji, shrugging on a lab coat as he emerged from the cockpit. His black T-shirt and shorts were gone, replaced by khaki pants and a loudly patterned Hawaiian shirt covered with purple and yellow flowers. I raised an eyebrow. He shrugged. “It’s camouflage. I’m supposed to be the visiting director of the Kauai Institute of Virology—which is technically true, even if I’m not here on the business of the Institute—and this is what they expect. I’d wear shorts if I thought I could get away with it, but the CDC dress code forbids exposed legs. Something about caustic chemicals.” He waved a hand, clearly unconcerned.
“Why are you up and moving about the cabin?” asked Shaun. “Not in the mood to get gassed because you had a cramp, thanks.”
“Ah—sorry.” Dr. Shoji produced a small remote from his pocket and pressed a button.
The “fasten seat belts” sign turned off, and the voice of the autopilot said, “We have finished external decontamination. Please rise and collect all personal belongings. An EIS representative will be waiting on the jet bridge to confirm your current medical condition and offer any assistance that may be required. Once again, thank you for flying with EIS Air. We appreciate that you have many choices in government-owned health services, and would like you to know that the EIS has always been dedicated to the preservation of the public health, above and beyond all other goals.”
“Wow. Even the private planes have to say that shit,” said Shaun.
Alaric stood, snagging his laptop bag from the overhead compartment as he asked, “By ‘offer any assistance,’ do they mean bandages or bullets?”
“I don’t know.” I stood, stretching, before retrieving my jacket from the overhead bin. I shrugged it on, checking to be sure my holster was covered. I probably wasn’t legally allowed to carry a concealed weapon—my field license almost certainly expired after I died—but I wasn’t going to tell unless someone asked me. “It probably depends on your test results.”
“You are a ray of sunshine and I don’t know how we got by without you,” said Becks.
I nodded sympathetically. “I’m sure it was hard. But it’s all right. I’m here now.” Inwardly, I was ecstatic. She was acknowledging me in the present tense. She was admitting that, real Georgia or not, I was the one they had. And it felt wonderful.
“If you’re done squabbling with each other, please follow me,” said Dr. Shoji. He walked back to the plane door, where he opened the control panel next to the lock and pressed a button. There was a hiss as the hydraulics released, and the door slid open, revealing an airlock. I closed my eyes, shuddering.
We were going into an EIS facility. An endless succession of white halls and people dressed in medical attire rose behind my eyes. I pushed them aside. It wasn’t like I had a choice. If I wanted to develop fun new phobias, however justified, I was going to deal with them. However I had to.
Shaun’s hand was a welcome weight on my shoulder. “Hey,” he said. “It’s cool.”
I opened my eyes and forced a smile, glad that my sunglasses kept him from seeing my eyes. He knew how scared I was if anyone did—I was still enough of the woman I’d been programmed to be to react in ways he recognized—but that didn’t mean I needed to shove it in his face. “Cool,” I echoed, and followed him into the airlock.
I was expecting to find men in cleanroom suits waiting for us with blood tests in one hand and guns in the other, ready to shoot if our results were anything other than perfect. It was a little odd that the EIS had a manned jet bridge, rather than using one of the safer, more convenient automated systems, but it was possible they hadn’t wanted to attract the attention a major renovation would draw. They were trying to keep the CDC from taking them seriously, and being the kind of small, unassuming organization that still needs to process incoming passengers by hand would help with that.
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