“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.”
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