Chapter 1

MARCH 25, 2015, 10:35 P.M.
CDC RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT FACILITY
BALTIMORE, MD

The photo is solid in its pewter frame, a weight in her hands to match the weight on her heart. Her fingers move across the smooth glass pane, the family tucked within, tracing circles around their faces with a soft smile, a reflection of the picture. She sighs, puts the frame back on her desk, an anomaly in the otherwise sterile office. The photo is the only thing in the room that holds warmth.

She pushes away from the desk with a calculated motion, her face a hardened mask as she considers the screen before her. Love and betrayal, the only worlds she’s known, and once again they’ve found her together.

So this is how it ends, as it always does, as you always knew it would.

She pauses for a second before rising and walking out of the office, greeted by a barren reception area, where the rest of the staff have long since gone home. Her heels clip along the concrete floor as she walks a well-traveled path through narrow halls.

She reaches a heavy locked door at the end of the first-floor wing, then takes a keycard from the lanyard around her neck and swipes it through the security checkpoint. A corridor looms ahead, glowing with an anemic fluorescent light. A silent guard stands at the opposite end, his great gray bulk obstructing an elevator.

“Checking in for a moment,” she murmurs, flashing her card. “I have somewhere to be.”

He nods and moves aside, dull eyes watching as she presses her hand against a cold glass pane. The handprint analysis confirms her identity, but she can feel the half-breed’s eyes follow her long after the doors slide shut. She presses B3 to access the underground level, the elevator hums and rumbles into the earth, and the doors open into another long, green-tinged hall.

The fourth door on the right is unlocked with another swipe of her card and a passphrase she knows by heart.

She finds him standing at the one-way mirror overlooking a windowless lab, out of place amongst the white coats in his dark tailored suit. Then again, so is she, in her expensive pencil skirt and black heels. A designer store mannequin lurking underground with the rats.

Her eyes, a deep, murky brown, regard the viewing window with cool detachment. Technicians dressed in thick synthetic coveralls and clinical white jumpsuits move carefully from station to station. The hum of the air filtration system is the only sound in the otherwise soundproof room.

“Anything new?”

He coughs lightly, but doesn’t turn to greet her. “You didn’t come all the way down here to ask that, Barbara,” he murmurs, a touch of disdain in his voice.

“No,” she agrees, unfazed, “but while I’m here, why don’t you tell me?”

His expression remains neutral as he watches the technicians at work, hands casually clasped behind his back.

“We’ve had six successful trials in guinea pigs, rats, and most recently, a sow.”

“Human trials?”

“None.”

She narrows her eyes, navigating around the lie in an oft-played dance. “That you’ll admit to.”

His eyes remain dead, but there’s a glimmer of recognition, a suggestion. “You know as well as I do, that would be unethical…Barbara. But if there were human trials, they may have been moderately successful.”

She snorts, but the pause before her name sets her on edge, as though he knows something he shouldn’t.

I know something too, she thinks, recalling the report on her desk with a flash of bitter rage.

“They’re close. Two months, perhaps three,” he says, oblivious to her anger. “That is…provided there are no complications.” His lips linger on the word “complications” and he finally turns toward her. Her mouth tightens.

“There will be no complications, Michael. Do you understand me?”

He has the nerve to smile, a sly upward twitch of his lips. The force of her words appears lost on him. He’s always enjoyed a challenge, and she is nothing if not a challenge. “I understand perfectly.”

She sighs, deliberately softening, reaching for the man with skilled, knowledgable hands. He doesn’t react as her fingers brush the sleeve of his suit, as she sidles up to him with oddly placed affection. She lets her gaze match his, watching the work behind the glass.

The white suits are diligent, focused, all of them wearing identical expressions, identical features. Even now, after many years on the project, it’s disarming to watch the clones, the half-breeds, move as if they were one unit, one mind.

He doesn’t notice as her hand slips into his jacket pocket, finding the thing she seeks with stealthy fingers.

“Do you think they know what they are?” A whisper to cover the rasp of fabric on fabric as she withdraws.

“Yes,” he says plainly. “They know. They just don’t feel it.”

“They don’t feel anything.”

He makes an unintelligible sound in the back of his throat in neutral agreement.

She presses her lips together, forcing her eyes to stay trained on the glass even as she backs away. “Goodnight, Michael.”

He doesn’t respond, just continues watching through the window as though in a trance.

There will be no complications.

She grips the tiny vial in her hand as she makes her way back through the halls, tossing a curt “goodnight” to the guard as she breezes past, eager to escape this place and its secrets.

When she finally emerges, the night air is a welcome reprieve from the recycled atmosphere, the stale white walls. Her heels click a frantic staccato on the pavement as she crosses the parking lot, slowing twice to cast furtive glances over her shoulder, but there’s nothing but the breeze, the stars, the hollow light of a single looming lamp.

#

Her family is asleep by the time she returns. The hall light glows dimly, revealing the outlines of plush furniture, gleaming floors; a nice home. A rich home.

She slips off her heels and tiptoes up the stairs in stocking feet, creeping quietly to her daughters’ shared bedroom. Amelia’s book light is still glowing, half under the covers. Barbara smiles softly, a pang of love welling up as she shuts off the tiny bulb and reaches out to trace a finger along her daughter’s pristine cheek. She does the same for her second daughter, Olivia, pressing a gentle fingertip to the girl’s lips in a silent kiss.

“Goodnight, loves.”

She slips out of their room as quietly as she came. Her own bed is thick, soft, but she cares little for its luxuries. Her husband snores, and she curls against him, resting a hand on his chest. He sighs in his sleep but doesn’t wake, turning instinctively toward her warmth, hand rubbing against her hip.

She sleeps.

The news comes four hours later, the phone at her bedside trilling in the quiet morning haven. She jumps for it, instantly awake and pulling on her robe to take the call in the privacy of the hallway. Her husband rouses with a soft, questioning snort, but she’s already gone, padding down to the hall to the sewing room.

“Barbara.”

“We’ve had a breach.”

She’s instantly awake at the words, the unfamiliar edge in Michael’s voice. “Where? Which lab?”

“Ours,” he says.

“No,” she hisses, “No, it’s not possible…the containment protocol—”

“There was a failure in the locking mechanism. One of the half-breeds brought it through decontamination before we realized…”

“How?” she demands, her voice rising, but there’s no response. “Michael?”

“They don’t know yet,” he whispers, spitting his consonants like seeds, leaving enough of a delay that she fears he’s not telling her everything.

“How bad is it?” She clutches a hand to her neck as if to protect her throat, sagging against the back of the door.

“It’s bad,” he murmurs, his strangely soothing voice rumbling at her ear. “They’re gone.”

“Gone?”

“Dead. They’re all dead.”

Her stomach lurches. She can’t bring herself to reply, to acknowledge what he’s said, because it can’t be true.

They’re all dead.

“You knew this was a possibility when we started the project. So did they. We knew the risks.”

Ire gets the better of her. They didn’t have a choice…and now, neither do we.

She swallows, unable to manage more than a strangled sigh, incapable of thought with the alarms ringing in her head. “What about the vaccine?”

“Gone,” he says, and at this single syllable he finally shows a crack of remorse in his facade.

“Michael, I—”

“There’s concern,” he continues flatly, “that the infection has already spread. They want us to keep this quiet, of course, following standard emergency protocol. You understand.”

A cold seed plants itself in her consciousness as she realizes the magnitude of his words, the implications.

“Come as soon as you can,” he says finally. “There will be a hearing.”

Laughter threatens at the back of her throat, and she bites her tongue to keep from shouting. Her hands shake as she closes the call, throwing the phone with all the force she can muster, as though it were the killer, not their work.

They’re all dead.

His words will haunt her for the rest of her life.

…but how long will that be?

The thought is ice water in her veins.

What do I tell them? she wonders, fear spiraling in the pit of her stomach. Steve…the girls…oh, God, what have we done?

The shaking in her hands becomes more insistent, almost violent, and she darts into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. She bites on her forearm to stop herself from screaming.

They’re all dead. We’re all dead.

She stumbles to the sink and gags, but nothing comes up. Her shaking hands struggle with the faucet and she splashes cold water on her face, willing herself to wake. She stares at herself in the mirror, wide-eyed, until she doesn’t recognize the shape of her own face, until her reflection holds no meaning.

The seed grows, sprouts, and blooms, a great, black flowering horror.

The only thing left…

She pads downstairs in the early light, grabs the gun from the top of the dining room cabinet, dust from the wood box coating her fingers. The pistol is small but heavy in her hands; her fingers tremble as she checks the chamber.

Loaded. Like it was waiting.

The bedroom is dark when she returns to find her husband hasn’t stirred. The bed is still warm when she climbs in, wrapping herself around him, eliciting a muffled, “Hon?” from his lips.

“It’s nothing,” she whispers, surprised at how easily she controls the shaking in her voice, even more so that he doesn’t notice the cold butt of the weapon now cradled against her stomach. “False alarm.”

Maybe, if she can bring herself to believe it, it will be the truth.

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