Nicole came in, surrounded by half a dozen boys. Aubrey’s stomach immediately turned. She couldn’t believe that they’d been so close, and Nicole had never told her. She’d made Aubrey think she was alone, the only freak.
But Nicole could never be a freak. She could be different. She could be infected—a Lambda—but she’d never be a freak. She’d never have people look at her like she wasn’t good enough.
Nicole broke through the ring of boys that surrounded her and hurried over to Aubrey.
“Aubs!” she said, excited. “You’re here! And with Jack, too.”
“Hey, Nicole,” Aubrey said. “Looks like you have friends wherever you go.”
THE OFFICER AT THE FRONT cleared his throat loudly and Laura sat up a little straighter in her chair.
“Please settle down,” the man said as he waited for the stragglers to find their seats. He didn’t look like the type of person who was used to having to ask twice.
“My name is Colonel Jensen. You undoubtedly have questions. In time, they will all be answered. For now, I just want you to know that you’ve made a very short list. Here in this temporary facility, we’re housing more than twenty-six thousand persons between the ages of thirteen and twenty. This is just one of many facilities around Utah, and there are facilities like this all across the nation now. And this virus, which you’re all very familiar with, is not limited to just the United States. Countries all across the world are dealing with similar testing regimens. This operation is trying the world’s manpower more than any crisis in recent human history.
“This is to say nothing of the war that we’re waging here on our own soil against a threat the likes of which the world has never known.”
It was all Laura could do not to smile, and she began biting the fingernail on her pinkie to keep her mouth occupied. The likes of which the world has never known. She’d been part of it. She’d been in the middle. It was her, and they were all completely oblivious.
If only Alec could see me now.
The officer stepped back from the podium and fiddled for a moment with the TV remote.
“You’ve been shielded from the news for the past several days. I don’t have time to list all of the battles we’ve been engaged in, but let me illustrate briefly what we’re dealing with.”
He clicked a button and an image of a bridge, twisted and collapsed, appeared on the screen.
“The Hernando de Soto Bridge,” he said. “Where Interstate 40 crosses the Mississippi. The steel beams were melted right off their piers on Tuesday. I’m told that takes 2,600 degrees.”
Laura marveled at the thought. None of the teams ever met each other, but she wished she’d been able to see that one in action. Did they create fire? Some kind of energy beam?
He clicked the button again and a picture of a flooding stairwell appeared. “A coordinated attack took place on the pump stations in the New York City subway system. The cause of the damage here is less well understood, but the pumps themselves seem to have deformed in some way.”
She bit down harder on her finger. Deformed. Deformed was good.
He clicked another. An enormous industrial pier was burning, next to a partially sinking ship. “We don’t know what the hell happened here, but it was four days ago, and the fires are still burning.”
He turned off the TV and stepped back to the podium. “There are dozens of other photos to show you, but I think you get the idea. This country is under attack. It’s coordinated and planned. This week it was the destruction of key transportation hubs. Last week, it was power facilities. Before that it was the commercial sector—shopping malls and restaurants and theme parks.”
Someone in the back row raised his hand, and the colonel pointed to him.
“Why would their attacks be coordinated, but so different from week to week?”
Laura stopped chewing on her finger and clenched her jaw.
The colonel nodded for several seconds, as if mulling over the question. “This is just conjecture,” he said, “but I think part of it is because it spreads our forces. They attack dams, so we guard dams; then they attack ports, so we defend ports. We’re spreading ourselves thin. Second—this is terrorism. Their goal is to hit targets that create terror and cripple the country.”
Laura wondered if that really was all they knew, or if it was all he wanted to tell a group of kids. Surely they had to know how the teams operated, how they got their orders. Had things gone to chaos when Alec was killed in the avalanche?
A tall girl raised her hand. “What does this have to do with us?”
Someone else—a woman in a civilian business suit—stepped forward. “The terrorists who are carrying out these attacks are people your age—usually in their late teens, and—”
A guy stood. “Are you accusing us?”
“No,” the woman said emphatically, motioning him to sit. “We’re not accusing you. I’m with the FBI, and have been working closely with the Centers for Disease Control. Here’s their latest information: The terrorists are usually ages seventeen to twenty-one. And they all—everyone we can identify—have the Erebus virus. This virus, unfortunately for you, can attack anyone but will only infect a host during certain stages of brain development. I could spend the day in this room with you, and touch you and share your dishes, and I’ll never become infected—the brain is fully developed during the late teen years and early adulthood, so the virus won’t affect me. But at some point in your recent past, the virus infected all of you, and altered the growth of your brains.”
She held up her hands, as though to stop an inevitable question.
“You might hate me for saying this, but you’re the lucky ones. Everyone in this room has symptoms that can be beneficial and lack symptoms that are too detrimental to function. There are people out there who are so debilitated by this virus that they are only surviving in a hospital.”
Jack—the boy who had sat in the cell across from Laura’s—raised his hand. “I don’t get it. You’re saying we’re not to blame, we’re the healthiest ones—so why do you have us here?”
Another man stepped forward. Judging by the sheer number of pins on his chest, he looked to be the highest-ranking person in the room. He strode to the podium and took it with both hands.
“Because it’s time to fight fire with fire. What’s your name, son?”
“Oh, yes. Jack, you’ve been designated as having hypersensitivity. I’m told that you can see in the dark, can hear through soundproof glass, can read a book from a hundred feet away, and can hear a heartbeat from fifty yards, through a brick wall. Is that correct?”
“More or less,” Jack said.
Laura was impressed. That was something that would have been useful on their team.
“Well, imagine the other team has someone like you. Don’t you think we’d want to even the odds?”
Jack sat down and the girl next to him leaned into him a little bit.
Laura felt an unexpected pang of loneliness. She’d had friends. Well, Dan had been a friend. Alec had been an arrogant boss. Still, it’d be nice to have someone to talk to.
“Here’s the deal,” the man said. “You all have a bracelet attached to your legs. That’s because, despite our best efforts, we can’t confirm one hundred percent that you’re not terrorists—or that you won’t become terrorists. You are living weapons and our intel suggests the real terrorists are all American citizens—kids, just like you. On the other hand, you can be extremely helpful to our cause.