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She couldn’t help but be impressed he was admitting all of it. No denials, no excuses. None of the It was just an unfortunate accident at the lab kind of thing she had been expecting. No It wasn’t us; it was enemies of the state. No stories, just acknowledgment.

“And now everyone is sorry.” His voice dropped and she had to listen hard to make out his words. “Because we don’t have you, and people are going to die, Juliana. Thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands.”

He waited this time while she thought it over. It took her a few minutes to examine all the possible angles.

She spoke quietly too, now, but made sure there was no interest or emotion in her voice. Just stating obvious facts to move the conversation forward. “You know someone who has vital information.”

Carston nodded.

“You can’t take him or her out, because that would let others know that you are aware of them. Which would expedite whatever course of action you would prefer not to happen.”

Another nod.

“We’re talking about the bad stuff here, yes?”

A sigh.

Nothing worked the department up like terrorism. She’d been recruited before the emotional dust had entirely settled around the hole where the Twin Towers used to stand. Preventing terrorism had always been the main component of her job – the best justification for it. The threat of terrorism had also been manipulated, turned and twisted, till by the end she’d lost a lot of faith in the idea that she was actually doing the work of a patriot.

“And a large device,” she said, not a question. The biggest bogeyman was always this – that at some point, someone who truly hated the United States would get his or her hands on something nuclear. That was the dark shadow that hid her profession from the eyes of the world, that made her so indispensable, no matter how much Joe Citizen wanted to think she didn’t exist.

And it had happened – more than once. People like her had kept those situations from turning into massive human tragedies. It was a trade-off. Small-scale horror versus wholesale slaughter.

Carston shook his head and suddenly his pale eyes were haunted. She couldn’t help but shudder a little internally as she realized it was door number two. There were only ever two fears that big.

It’s biological. She didn’t say the words out loud, just mouthed them.

Carston’s bleak expression was her answer.

She looked down for a moment, sorting through all of his responses and reducing them to two columns, two lists of possibilities in her head. Column one: Carston was a talented liar who was saying things he thought would motivate her to visit a place where people were better prepared to dispose of Juliana Fortis forever. He was thinking quickly on his feet, pushing her most sensitive buttons.

Column two: Someone had a biological weapon of mass destruction, and the powers that be didn’t know where it was or when it would be used. But they knew someone who did.

Vanity carried some weight, shifting the balance slightly. She knew she was good. It was true that they probably hadn’t found someone better.

Still, she would put her money on column one.

“Jules, I don’t want you dead,” he said quietly, guessing her train of thought. “I wouldn’t have contacted you if that were the case. I wouldn’t want to meet with you. Because I am certain you have at least six ways to kill me on your person right now, and every reason in the world to use one of them.”

“You really think I would come with only six?” she asked.

He frowned nervously for a second, then decided to laugh. “You make my point for me. I don’t have a death wish, Jules. I’m on the level.”

He eyed the locket around her neck, and she suppressed a smile.

She returned to her light voice. “I would prefer it if you called me Dr. Fortis. I think we’re past the point of nicknames.”

He made a hurt face. “I’m not asking you to forgive me. I should have done more.”

She nodded, though again, she wasn’t agreeing with him, she was just moving the conversation along.

“I am asking you to help me. No, not me. To help the innocent people who are going to die if you don’t.”

“If they die, it’s not on me.”

“I know, Ju—Doctor. I know. It will be on me. But who’s to blame won’t really matter to them. They’ll be dead.”

She held his gaze. She wouldn’t be the one to blink.

His expression shifted to something darker. “Would you like to hear what it will do to them?”

“No.”

“It might be too much even for your stomach.”

“I doubt it. But it doesn’t really matter. What might happen is secondary.”

“I’d like to know what is more important than hundreds of thousands of American lives.”

“It’s going to sound horribly selfish, but breathing in and out has sort of trumped everything else for me.”

“You can’t help us if you’re dead,” Carston said bluntly. “The lesson has been learned. This won’t be the last time we’ll need you. We won’t make the same mistake again.”

She hated to buy into this, but the balance was shifting even more. What Carston was saying did make sense. She was certainly no stranger to policy changes. What if it was all true? She could play cold, but Carston knew her well. She would have a difficult time living with a disaster of this magnitude if she thought there was any chance she could have done something. That was how, in the beginning, they’d roped her into possibly the worst profession in the entire world.

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