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“A conspiracy of misbehavior is what we’re facing here,” she said.

Phillip turned to face her, all grins, and said, “Ma!”

Stacy nodded obligingly. Phillip was a late talker. The doctors had been assuring her for over a year that he was still within the normal range for a boy his age. Privately, she was becoming less and less sure—but she was also becoming less and less certain that it mattered. Phillip was Phillip, and she’d love him regardless. “Yes.”


“Again, yes. Hello, Marigold. Shouldn’t you be in your own yard?”

The Golden Retriever thumped her tail sheepishly against the dirt, as if to say that yes, she was a very naughty dog, but in her defense, there had been a small boy with a face in need of washing.

Stacy sighed, shaking her head in good-natured exasperation. She’d talked to the Connors family about their dogs dozens of times, and they tried, but Marigold and Maize simply refused to be confined by any fence or gate that either family had been able to put together. It would have been more of a problem if they hadn’t been such sweet, sweet dogs. Since both Marigold and her brother adored Phillip, it was more like having convenient canine babysitters right next door. She just wished they wouldn’t make their unscheduled visits so reliably at lunchtime.

“All right, you. Phillip, it’s time for lunch. Time to say good-bye to Marigold.”

Phillip nodded before turning and throwing his arms around Marigold’s neck, burying his face in her fur. His voice, muffled but audible, said, “Bye-time, oggie.” Marigold wuffed once, for all the world like she was accepting his farewell. Duty thus done, Phillip let her go, stood, and ran to his mother, who caught him in a sweeping hug that left streaks of mud on the front of her cotton shirt. “Ma!”

“I just can’t get one past you today, can I?” she asked, and kissed his cheek noisily, making him giggle. “You go home now, Marigold. Your people are going to worry. Go home!”

Tail wagging amiably, the Golden Retriever stood and went trotting off down the side yard. She probably had another loose board there somewhere; something to have Michael fix when he got home from school and could be sweet-talked into doing his share of the garden chores. In the meantime, the dogs weren’t hurting anything, and Phillip did love them.

“Come on, Mr. Man. Let’s go fill you up with peanut butter and jelly, shall we?” She kissed him again before putting him down. His giggles provided sweet accompaniment to their walk back to the house. Maybe it was time to talk about getting him a dog of his own.

Maybe when he was older.

* * *

Professor Michael Mason is the current head of our biology department. Prior to joining the staff here at Berkeley, he was at the University of Redmond for six years. His lovely wife, Stacy, is a horticulture fan, while his son, Phillip, is a fan of cartoons and of chasing pigeons…

June 12, 2014: The lower stratosphere

Freed from its secure lab environment, Alpha-RC007 floated serene and unaware on the air currents of the stratosphere. It did not enjoy freedom; it did not abhor freedom; it did not feel anything, not even the cool breezes holding it aloft. In the absence of a living host, the hybrid virus was inert, waiting for something to come along and shock it into a semblance of life.

On the ground, far away, Dr. Alexander Kellis was weeping without shame over the destruction of his lab, and making dire predictions about what could happen now that his creation was loose in the world. Like Dr. Frankenstein before him, he had created with only the best of intentions and now found himself facing an uncertain future. His lover tried to soothe him and was rebuffed by a grief too vast and raw to be put into words.

Alpha-RC007—colloquially known as “the Kellis cure”—did not grieve, or love, or worry about the future. Alpha-RC007 only drifted.

The capsid structure of Alpha-RC007 was superficially identical to the structure of the common rhinovirus, being composed of viral proteins locking together to form an icosahedron. The binding proteins, however, were more closely related to the coronavirus ancestors of the hybrid, creating a series of keys against which no natural immune system could lock itself. The five viral proteins forming the capsid structure were equally mismatched: two from one family, two from the other, and the fifth…

The fifth was purely a credit to the man who constructed it, and had nothing of Nature’s handiwork in its construction. It was a tiny protein, smaller even than the diminutive VP4, which made the rhinovirus so infectious, and formed a ring of Velcro-like hooks around the outside of the icosahedron. That little hook was the key to Alpha-RC007’s universal infection rate. By latching on and refusing to be dislodged, the virus could take as much time as it needed to find a way to properly colonize its host. Once inside, the other specially tailored traits would have their opportunity to shine. All the man-made protein had to do was buy the time to make it past the walls.

The wind currents eddied around the tiny viral particles, allowing them to drop somewhat lower in the stratosphere. Here, a flock of geese was taking advantage of the air currents at the very edge of the atmospheric layer, their honks sounding through the thin air like car alarms. One, banking to adjust her course, raised a wing just a few inches higher, tilting herself hard to the right and letting her feathers brush through the upper currents.

As her feathers swept through the air, they collected dust and pollen—and a few opportunistically drifting particles of Alpha-RC007. The hooks on the outside of the virus promptly latched on to the goose’s wing, not aware, only reacting to the change in their environment. This was not a suitable host, and so the bulk of the virus remained inert, waiting, letting itself be carried along by its unwitting escort back down to the planet’s surface.