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.
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