All CDC properties start at Level 1, including the bathrooms and reception areas. No special training or equipment is needed to enter one. Level 1 biohazard facilities work with agents that don’t harm healthy adult humans. Level 2 biohazard facilities work with things that can harm healthy adult humans, and will usually have some precautions in place to deal with contamination. It’s only once you hit Level 3 that you start needing major protective gear. With the door standing open, I could hear the faint hiss of air being drawn into the hall, caught by the negative pressure filters. Airborne dangers could get in, but they would never make it out.
The guards stared at the sign. Dr. Shaw cleared her throat. “Gentlemen?”
The younger guard actually jumped. “Ma’am?” he asked.
“I realize you’re simply trying to do your jobs, but I assure you, no amount of staring at the wall will get us to my lab. Can we proceed?”
“Just a moment.” The older guard murmured something to his companion before raising a hand and tapping the skin behind his ear. “I’ll be right back with you.”
“Subdermal communications implant,” I muttered. “Slick.” Buffy would have loved to get her hands on one of those. With the way I went through the ear cuffs I used to contact my team, something subdermal would have—would have—
I touched the top edge of my left ear, where my ear cuff should have been. I hadn’t even thought about it since waking up, and now that I remembered it, I felt naked without it. Somehow, I found that reassuring. It was one more piece of evidence that I was still me, even if I was someone else at the same time. For the first time, I felt myself feeling sorry for the Georgia Masons who had been cloned, studied, and killed before me. How many of them ever knew they weren’t the woman they thought they were? How many of them touched their ears, feeling naked and wondering whether they’d get the chance to be properly clothed ever again?
I hoped none of them. If they hadn’t been able to escape—and clearly, they hadn’t, because I wouldn’t have been here if they had—then there was no reason they should ever have needed to feel like this.
The guard finished his muffled conversation with whoever was on the other side of his connection and turned to face Dr. Shaw, tapping the skin behind his ear one more time as he did. “I apologize for any delays we have caused you,” he said, stiffening to ramrod-straight attention. “My superior informs me that you have security of your own beyond this point, and that our services will not be required.”
“Thank you for confirming that,” said Dr. Shaw, with a smile that could have been used to chill water. “Now, if you gentlemen would please let us pass, I have a series of tests to begin.”
“Of course.” The older guard stayed where he was. The younger stepped out of Dr. Shaw’s way as she advanced toward the door. He mumbled something that could have been “Ma’am,” or could have been a short prayer of thanks. I didn’t hear it clearly, and I didn’t care. We were getting away from the guards. That was what really mattered here.
Kathleen entered first, followed by George, Dr. Shaw, and finally, me. The door slid shut behind us as soon as my heel cleared the doorway. Dr. Shaw reached out and pulled the piece of paper off the bottom of the sign, folding it neatly and tucking it into the pocket of her lab coat.
“Never underestimate the power of a man’s fear, Georgia,” she said, sounding almost distracted, like part of her was no longer paying attention. “Level 3 labs are no more dangerous to the well prepared than eating at an Indian take-out. Yet somehow, just the name is enough to strike fear into the hearts of man, even though each and every one of us is a walking Level 4 biosafety lab in this brave new world we’ve created.”
“Words have power,” I said.
“True.” She shook her head. “Well. This way, please.” She began to walk briskly down the hall, heels cracking hard against the tile.
Kathleen and George exchanged a look. “Excuse me, Doctor?” called Kathleen.
“Yes? What is it?”
“Do you want us to come with you, or do you want us to initiate cleanup procedures in lab bay two? You’re going to need it later tonight.”
Dr. Shaw paused, head tilted at what was clearly a contemplative angle, even when viewed from behind. Finally, she nodded. “Yes; that sounds like the correct course of action. Georgia, come with me. We really do need to get started.” She started walking again, not looking back. I hurried after her.
We passed through three more doors, each of which Dr. Shaw opened with a swipe of her key card. The second door also required a fingerprint check; the third was equipped with a retinal scanner. This was starting to look less like a Level 3 biosafety facility, and more like some sort of maximum security prison for the infected. The distant, steady hiss of the negative pressure filters just made that thought more difficult to shake off.
I was getting distinctly uneasy by the time we reached the fourth door. This one was flanked by blood test units that looked disarmingly like the ones we had in the garage back in the house in Berkeley. “You’ll need to provide a sample for analysis,” said Dr. Shaw. “It’s just a technicality, at this point in the facility, but it came with the security system, and we couldn’t disarm it without deactivating several other functions.”
“What functions?” I asked, moving toward the testing unit on the left.
“All will be made clear shortly.” She slapped her palm flat against the right-hand testing unit, cleared her throat, and said, “Identification, Danika Michelle Kimberley, authorization beta alpha zeta nine four nine two three. Designation, investigative physician. Affiliation, Epidemic Intelligence Service.” Her accent was suddenly British, softer than Mahir’s, with a rolling edge that I’d heard only from bloggers who lived and broadcast near the Welsh border.
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