Stalnaker scoffed. “They’ll never get it to stick.”
“You sure of that?”
There was a moment of silence before Stalnaker said, reluctantly, “I guess I’m going to Pennsylvania.”
“Yes,” Don agreed. “I guess you are.”
* * *
While the identity of the Mayday Army’s deserter has been protected thus far, it must be asked: Why did this man decide to turn on his compatriots? What did he see in that lab that caused him to change his ways? We don’t know, but we’re going to find out…
July 7, 2014: Somewhere in North America
The location doesn’t matter: What happened, when it happened, happened all over North America at the same time. There was no single index case. It all began, and ended, too fast for that sort of record keeping to endure.
On migratory bird and weather balloon, on drifting debris and anchored in tiny gusts of wind, Alpha-RC007 made its way down from the stratosphere to the world below. When it encountered a suitable mammalian host, it latched on with its tiny man-made protein hooks, holding itself in place while it found a way to invade, colonize, and spread. The newborn infections were invisible to the naked eye, and their only symptom was a total lack of symptoms. Their hosts enjoyed a level of health that was remarkable mostly because none of them noticed, or realized how lucky they were. It was a viral golden age.
It lasted less than a month. Say July 7th, for lack of a precise date; say Columbus, Ohio, for lack of a precise location. July 7, 2014, Columbus: The end of the world begins.
The only carrier of Marburg Amberlee in Columbus was Lauren Morris, a thirty-eight-year-old woman celebrating her second lease on life by taking a road trip across the United States. She had begun her Marburg Amberlee treatments almost exactly a year before, and had seen a terminal diagnosis dwindle into nothing. If you’d asked her, she would have called it a miracle of science. She would have been correct.
Lauren’s first encounter with Alpha-RC007 occurred at an open-air farmer’s market. She picked up a jar of homemade jam, examining the label with a curious eye before deciding, finally, not to make the purchase. The jam remained behind, but the virus that had collected on her fingers did not. It clung, waiting for an opportunity—an opportunity it got less than five minutes later, when Lauren wiped a piece of dust away from her eye. Alpha-RC007 transferred from her fingers to the vulnerable mucus membrane inside her eyelid, and from there made its entrance to the body.
The initial stages of the Alpha-RC007 infection followed the now-familiar pattern, invading the body’s cells like a common virus, only to slip quietly out again, leaving copies of itself behind. The only cells to be actually destroyed in the process were the other infections Alpha-RC007 encountered in the host body. These were turned into tiny virus factories, farming on a microscopic scale. Several minor ailments Lauren was not even aware of were found brewing in her body, and summarily destroyed in Alpha-RC007’s quest for sole dominion.
Then, deep in the tissue of Lauren’s lungs, Alpha-RC007 encountered something new, something that was confusing to the virus, in as much as anything can ever confuse a virus. This strange new thing had a structure as alien to the world as Alpha-RC007’s own: half natural, half reconfigured and transformed to suit a new purpose.
Behaving according to the protocols that were the whole of its existence, Alpha-RC007 approached the stranger, using its delicate protein hooks to attempt infiltration. The stranger responded in kind, their protein hooks tangling together until they were like so much viral thread, too intertwined to tell where one ended and the next began. This happened a thousand times in the body of Lauren Morris. Many of those joinings ended with the destruction of one or both viral bodies, their structures unable to correctly lock together.
The rest found an unexpected kinship in the locks and controls their human creators had installed, and began, without releasing each other, to exchange genetic material in a beautiful dance that had begun when life on this world was born, and would last until that life was completely gone. Oblivious to the second miracle of science that was now happening inside her, Lauren Morris went about her day. She had never been a mother before. Before the sun went down, she would be one of the many mothers to give birth to Kellis-Amberlee.
* * *
It’s a beautiful summer here in Ohio, and we have a great many events planned for these sweet summer nights. Visit the downtown Columbus Farmer’s Market, where you can sample new delights from our local farms. Who knows what you might discover? Meanwhile, the summer concert series kicks off…
July 8, 2014: Atlanta, Georgia
Chris Sinclair’s time at the CDC had been characterized by an almost pathological degree of calm. He remained completely relaxed even during outbreaks of unknown origin, calling on his EIS training and his natural tendency to “not sweat the small stuff” in order to keep his head while everyone around him was losing theirs. When asked, he attributed his attitude to growing up in Santa Cruz, California, where the local surf culture taught everyone to chill out already.
Chris Sinclair wasn’t chilling out anymore. Chris Sinclair was terrified.
They still had no reliable test for the Kellis cure. Instead of charting the path of the infection, they were falling back on an old EIS trick and charting the absence of infection. Any place where the normal chain of summer colds and flu had been broken, they marked on the maps as a possible outbreak of the Kellis cure. It wasn’t a surefire method of detection—sometimes people were just healthy, without any genetically engineered virus to explain the reasons why. Still. If only half the people showing up as potential Kellis cure infections were sick…