Chapter Nine~ Tests
As the sun begins to fall beneath the horizon, it highlights something we haven’t seen much of lately. People; and not just any people. As we get closer, I notice that they’re soldiers. My hand flies to my back pocket. I have numerous security codes from Dr. Ford. I just hope they work.
Mason looks to me and slows the Jeep down as he does. “What do we do?”
“Just go slow.” I tell him. I hope it’s the right thing.
The tension in the Jeep is palpable. We have no idea what to expect. As a rule, when I see a military blockade, I freak out a little. Call me crazy.
We approach the gate and Mason stops the car. We’re surrounded by soldiers now guns drawn.
“Step out of the vehicle.” One of them commands. We do as he says. Brie holds Baby bear tightly. “State your business.” The same soldier brusquely orders.
“We’re on our way to Columbus to meet Dr. Ford from BioNano. He’s expecting us.” I tell them, too scared to move an inch. I wish they’d lower their weapons.
I see the soldier touch his ear then speak softly. I imagine he’s wired to someone who is able to confirm our destination. “Your name?” He asks me.
More murmuring and ear touching. “You have a code?”
I look around me. “It’s in my back pocket. I have to get it out.” He nods and I slowly pull the paper from my back pocket and hand it to him.
“I’ll accept the first one. Don’t use it again. You all have to go through the medical checkpoint before you can continue. Standard procedure.”
His eyes fall on Brie. “What is that?”
Brie looks panicked. “That’s a baby bear.” I pipe in before anyone else can answer. “He’s a specimen.” Not really, but I wasn’t giving him up now.
The talking soldier bristles and settles his gun on Brie. “Is he infected?”
“No,” I answer quickly. “He’s perfectly fine. Dr. Ford needs to know why.” I really hope whoever’s on the other end of that headset doesn’t have the ability to confirm my lie.
“Well, then I guess he needs to get checked by medical, too. You can drive your vehicle through. One of you. The rest of you follow me.”
He starts towards a green tent. All of us but Mason follow. He drives the Jeep through the space the soldiers made in the barricade. I don’t take my eyes off him and hang at the door of the tent until he makes his way over to me.
The medical staff is nicer than we expect. They examine Baby bear curiously, but ultimately clear all of us for any possibility of infection. Lucky for me, none of their tests include electricity.
Once we’re cleared from the medical tent, we are taken to a makeshift mess hall. The smell of hot food (something we haven’t had in days) fills the air and makes me realize I’m hungry. From the looks on everyone else’s faces, they’re hungry, too.
Jared, Brie and Mason all nervously talk amongst themselves. I’m too busy eyeing the soldiers around us. They’re so somber and controlled; it’s a little intimidating. Though, this being the front lines of this new war I suppose that they have to be. I mumble a quick thank you when I accept my tray of food, and follow everyone to an empty picnic style table.
The food doesn’t look very appealing, but it smells good and hot. We all dig in. It tastes better than it looks. That could just be because it’s the first real meal any of us have had in a while.
It feels like it’s been weeks since we’ve left Becky and Nate with Jack and Mariette. In reality, it’s only been a few days. I suppose it doesn’t help that we haven’t had a real night’s sleep since then, either.
The talking soldier comes up to our table as we finish eating. “We can offer you each a bunk tonight, if you would rather wait to travel until the morning.” His demeanor had softened somewhat, but he still seemed detached in a way.
It’s appealing—the thought of resting outside of the Jeep. I’m too anxious to see Dr. Ford to vote yes though. But it’s not just me, so before anyone else can answer I say, “Can we let you know in a little bit?”
“Sure.” And he walks off again.
“What do you think?” Brie asks, her eyes looking a bit hopeful if you ask me.
I shrug. I want to hear what everyone else thinks first.
“I think we should go.” Jared says, surprising me. “We shouldn’t wear out our welcome here.”
“I agree.” Mason adds.
“Sorry, Brie.” I say. She groans. “We can be in Columbus by morning. I’ll bet they have actual rooms there with showers and everything.”
Yeah, it’s low, but I went there. The prospect of a shower will be too hard for her to resist. I’m right; I can see she’s caving. “Alright,” she relents, “let’s go.”
I don’t start to feel better until the barricade is far behind us. I suppose we’re lucky. I can’t imagine we would’ve gotten through a barricade on a main road so quickly. Being around so many people again is disconcerting. It’s hard to turn myself off of high alert.
Mason and I rest as best we can in the back of the Jeep. Baby bear cuddles up on my chest to keep me warm. I really try to relax and go to sleep. My mind and body suffer from exhaustion, despite the energy that remains coursing through me from this morning…was that just this morning? I’m having a hard time thinking straight.
Eventually, the rhythmic pattern of the street lights entrances me, and my heavy lids fall. My thoughts are incoherent, but I’m too tired to care.
When my eyes open again, I can see dawn streaking across the sky. I realize we’re not moving and that wakes me. Maneuvering Baby bear onto Mason, I sit up a little and try to find the threat through the window.
“Relax, it’s just a red light.” Jared assures me. He speaks softly, and I notice Brie sleeping in the passenger seat next to him.
I relax slightly and really take a look at my surroundings. It’s far more urban than anyplace we’ve been since we left home.
“It’s weird, right?” Jared catches my eye in the rearview mirror. “Being here, it’s so…normal.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “I just hope it’s as safe as it seems to be.”
Me, too.” Jared agrees before he gets lost in his own thoughts.
I stretch as best I can. I’m as well rested as I’m going to get, it seems. I focus on the scenes outside my window: a neighborhood just beginning to awaken. “We have to be getting close.” I say to Jared.
“We’ll be there soon.” He replies. “We should probably wake them up.”
“Give them a few more minutes.” I say. They look so peaceful; why force reality on them so quickly?
“What was the address again?” Jared asks. I read it to him quietly. He notices the tension in my voice. “Are you ready for this?”
“I don’t really have much choice, do I?” I sigh. “I just hope that Dr. Ford has some answers for us, and some insight on what to do next.”
“Me, too.” Jared answers. Brie begins to stir, and Mason follows quickly after.
“Wow,” Brie’s mouth hangs open. “Where are we?”
“We’re in Columbus.” Jared answers.
“Yeah, we’re almost there.” I add.
“Cool.” Mason says, stretching. “I’ve had enough driving for a while.”
“I think we all have.” Brie agrees. “Look at all these people.”
Jared turns and smiles at her. “I know freaky, right?”
“Hey, isn’t that the street?” Jared turns the Jeep before we pass it by. I have no doubt when the building comes into view that it’s the right one. Another military barricade surrounds it. Of course we have to go there.
“Ready, guys?” Jared asks. This time I have the slip of paper in my hand with the security codes on it. “Because here we go again.”
Please, please, please let this have been the right decision. I don’t think any of us can handle anything else at this point.
Jared drives up to the gate and parks the Jeep. I roll down my window behind him. The guard approaches slowly. “Can I help you?”
“We’re here to see Dr. Ford. He’s expecting us.” I tell him.
“Katarina Greene…and guests.” I look at everyone and shrug.
“One moment.” He goes back into his gatehouse.
We all wait quietly and anxiously for him to return. When he does, he buzzes the gate open. “Drive to your right and park in lot D. Someone will be waiting for you there.” He waves us through.
The buildings and parking lots are nondescript. Every so often a soldier walks by, looking very busy, but not really doing anything I can see. Compared to everything we’ve been through the last few days, the place seems a bit anticlimactic.
Maybe I’m just being pessimistic. I mean, anticlimactic is a good thing at this point, right?
Jared parks the Jeep in the appropriated lot, and before we can get out a soldier approaches us. He seems much more laid back than any of the other soldiers we’ve encountered so far.
“Welcome.” He smiles. “Glad you guys made it. I’ll bet it was a hell of a trip getting here. I’m Jerome and I’ll show you guys around. Dr. Ford is in a meeting for a couple more hours. We weren’t expecting you this soon. I’ll show you to your rooms and get you some food while you wait.”
Baby bear sticks his head up, and Jerome notices him for the first time. “Bear?”
I nod. “A survivor, if you will.”
He shrugs. “This way.”
I’m glad he’s leading. Once we enter the building, its maze of hallways offers no type of differentiation between them. It’d be very easy to get lost here. We finally get to an elevator. When the doors open, people are everywhere. It’s awfully overwhelming. Jerome weaves us through; their curious stares do not go unnoticed by us. I can tell I’m not the only one freaking out. Our little group stays huddled together defensively.
“We only have two rooms available, but they each sleep two people.” He looks at us. “I’ll leave it up to you to decide who goes where. The rooms are across the hall from each other.”
“Thanks, Jerome.” I say.
“Not a problem. I’ll give you guys some time to get settled. I’ll be back at o-eight-hundred and bring you to the cafeteria to get some food.” He goes back down the hallway towards the throng of people.
“How do you guys want to work this?” I ask. Mostly I look at Brie, it’s really her choice.
“I think it would be okay if Jared and I stay in one room.” She looks at him questionably.
“I’m good with that.” Jared says.
“Alright, let’s meet back out here in an hour.” I say, and we each go into our respective temporary living quarters.
It’s nothing fancy, but it has beautiful things we haven’t seen for a while: beds, a bathroom with a shower, and electricity. I put Baby bear on one of the beds and I charge up first thing. The need for electricity is greater than I originally thought. Mason looks at me. “How are you feeling?”
“Physically, pretty good,” I tell him. “Otherwise, a little freaked out.”
He laughs. “Yeah me, too. Why don’t you take a shower?”
The idea of one perks me right up, but I don’t want to seem selfish. “Are you sure you don’t want to go first?”
“Nah, go ahead. I’ll get some of our stuff unpacked.” He smiles. I can tell he’s relieved to be here.
“Alright, I’ll see you in a few.”
After so many days without a shower this is heaven. I try not to take too long; it’s only fair for Mason to have his turn, too. Hmm, the idea of Mason in the shower sends funny feelings deep within my gut.
I shut off the water and grab a towel. I have exactly one pair of clean clothes left and try to remember to make laundry a priority later. I get dressed quickly and towel dry my hair as best I can.
When I go back into the room, Mason is watching the small TV. He stands when he sees me and throws his shirt off. “Good timing. I’ll be out in a few.”
Wow. The shirt-less-ness is a first. Dang. I manage to snap myself out of it just in time to catch the mischievous grin on his face. “Ok, I’ll be here.”
I can’t help but grin while he shuts the door. Our relationship had only first started when the infection begun, forcing us into this extreme situation. We’ve been so tense, so on guard. It’s a refreshing change to see playful Mason again, even if it’s only temporary.
I carefully comb through the snarls in my hair and wince when yanking through the worst of the knots. Finally, I win the battle and pull my hair back. Putting my comb back in my bag, there’s a knock on the door. “Five minutes.” A voice calls.
I tap on the bathroom door and reiterate the message to Mason. Enjoying his playfulness will have to wait until later. My stomach growls, and I’m thinking food is probably a good thing. With two minutes left to spare, Mason joins me. He shoves his shoes on and pulls a shirt over his head before we go into the hallway together.
Brie and Jared are fresh and clean too. It’s a small bit of luxury we haven’t had, and normalizes everything just a bit for us. Normal is nice. Weird, but nice.
“I called Becky,” Brie tells me. “They’re all doing well. I told her about this place, offered to send someone for them, but they want to stick it out for now.”
“I hope that’s the best choice.” Mason says.
“We’ll have to try to talk some sense into them soon.” I say.
“Good luck trying to get Jack to leave.” Jared points out.
Hmm, I’d have to think of a way to convince him.
Jerome pops around the end of the hall. “C’mon guys, you must be starving.”
“Got that right.” Brie smiles.
Jerome leads us through the maze of hallways—this time into a large, cavernous room. It has an institutional feel to it, but the delicious smells that a rational person would never think of associating with institutional food detract it. Marietta’s kitchen was the last time anything smelled this good. I boost Baby bear on my hip. His nose and energy are awake because of the smell. This raises my hopes that the hot food here will be better than our last hot, indiscernible meal at the barracks. Don’t get me wrong. It was good and I’m grateful for it. I just prefer to not play guess-my-food if I don’t have to.
This huge kitchen/dining area is set up cafeteria style. Jerome leads us to a line and hands us each a tray. “Just point to what you want and they’ll get it for you.”
I point to some eggs a plate is put in my hands. I do the same for the bacon next to it. Yep, this place is okay in my book.
After filling our trays, we find a table. Jerome sits with us and explains different areas we’ll be seeing. He also tells us the few ground rules. Simple, logical things really: no theft, no violence, that sort of thing. It’s the last rule that raises my hackles a bit. We can’t leave without permission. Not crazy about that one stipulation.
Even though taking a shower was wonderful and the food rocks, I’m still overly anxious to meet up with the good doctor and get some answers. I turn to Jerome. “Do you know when the doctor will be available?”
“When we’re done here, I’ll take you to his office.” Jerome answers.
I nod and eat a little faster.
Dr. Ford’s office is really quite bare. There are no diplomas on the walls, or any other personal touches. Tan walls, a desk and some chairs, but not much else.
I look at Mason. He gives me a small, reassuring smile—no doubt sensing my nervousness. Brie and Jared go off with Jerome to explore and take Baby bear with them. Mason insist on staying with me. I’m glad he does, even if I knew he would.
The anticipation’s killing me. Just when I think I can’t stand one more second, the door opens. Dr. Ford’s familiar face is now somewhat haggard. He smiles when he sees us. “Kat, Mason, I’m so glad you guys made it safely.”
“Thanks, doc. Us, too.” Mason shakes his proffered hand.
“Hey, doc.” I say, shaking his hand when Mason releases it.
“I’m not even sure where to begin.” Dr. Ford sits across from us behind the desk. “What’s it like out there?”
I shudder involuntarily, but it’s Mason who answers. “Not good.” He says quietly.
Dr. Ford rakes a hand across his face. I can see the tension in his eyes. “Did you see many survivors?”
I shake my head. “We didn’t see any. One family but only their daughter was infected, no one else.” Except that one group, my conscious sneers at me.
“What happened?” The doctor asks, “Did they all succumb to the infection?”
Mason answers softly. “Kat saved her.”
Dr. Ford’s eyes grow as wide as saucers. “Hmm. Maybe we should continue this in the lab.”
“Hey, doc?” Mason asks as we get up. “We can keep Kat’s, er, abilities to just us for now, right?”
“Of course.” Dr. Ford assures him. “This way.”
The lab is just that, a lab. Lots of white and things I’d probably break on contact. I sit on a stool: a safe place away from all of the equipment.
“May I start with a blood test?” He asks me.
“Okay.” Needles are not my favorite thing, but I figure this is part of the package.
While I focus on Mason, Dr. Ford draws the blood. The process is quick and surprisingly painless No way am I watching the needle.
“Good, I’m going to have some tests run on this. As soon as I know the results, I’ll let you know.” Dr. Ford smiles, “Now, onto the next step; let’s see what you can do.”
“Um, I think we need some more room.” Mason says.
“Yeah, doc. I don’t want to hurt your lab.” I say.
“Oh, right.” He looks sheepish. “Good point. Follow me.”
A couple of elevators and a stairway later, Dr. Ford opens a door. Sunlight blinds us and we find ourselves on a roof. Dr. Ford points down to an unused mostly dilapidated, basketball court. “Let ‘er rip.” His excitement is almost overwhelming.
I look at Mason, who shrugs. All well, here goes nothing. I motion for them to stand back as I create the now familiar energy sphere in my palms. Dr. Ford’s eyes almost pop out of his head. I throw it at the one remaining basketball hoop and watch its obliteration.
When I turn back to Dr. Ford, his mouth is open along with his eyes. “Th-that is just incredible! Never seen anything- can you do it again?” He sputters” He sputters.
I throw one more that’s not quite as strong. We all watch as it pops in the court below. Suddenly, the doors next to the court fly open and five armed guards step onto the court. I shrink away from the edge and out of sight. Mason follows my lead. To our shock, so does Dr. Ford.
“Um, shouldn’t you tell them it was just a test—that everything’s okay?” I ask.
“Nah, they could use the excitement.” Dr. Ford says before leading us back towards the lab.
He’s all business when we return. He asks question after question. I answer honestly. Mason begins to doze off a little. Dr. Ford keeps at it until there’s a soft knock at the door. I giggle when Mason almost falls out of the chair.
It’s Jerome, informing us it’s lunchtime. Dr. Ford leaps up with one final parting question. “If I can find something to get a sample into, can you give me one of them? A smaller one, perhaps?”
My eyes dart towards Jerome and I’m glad that Dr. Ford kept his question vague. “Sure, doc. Anything to help.” Jerome eyes me curiously but doesn’t say anything.
“Oh, Jerome,” Dr. Ford says, “There was an incident of sorts on the old basketball court. I’d like someone to get me a sample.”
I see Mason suppress a smile. “Sure thing, Dr. Ford. We’ll get someone on that asap.” Jerome answers.
“Thank you. I’ll see you two later.”
“Bye, doc.” Mason and I call as we follow Jerome.
Brie and Jared are waiting for us and hold a table. They didn’t get their food yet, which I think is sweet. It makes me happy that even in all of this insanity, Brie and Jared found each other.
Lunch seems much too quick: tasty, but short. As soon as Jerome gets up, I know he’s bringing Mason and I back to Dr. Ford. I promise Brie to talk later and head back for round two of testing.
Measuring the level of Dr. Ford’s excitement, it doesn’t surprise me that he has something set up to test my energy. I give him smaller, less powerful spheres and a larger one before I feel the need to recharge again.
He loves this almost as much as the first demonstration. It makes me feel awfully self-conscious, but it’s in the name of science, right? Can’t let my bashfulness stand in the way of possibly saving the world.
After an hour or so of analyzing data, Dr. Ford turns to Mason and me. “It’s utterly remarkable.”
“Um thanks, I guess?” I’m not quite sure what the appropriate response is for such a statement.
“No, really. It’s an organic energy, something like lightning. You’ve mutated it and adapted it to your body.”
“What about when it runs out?” Mason asks quietly. I know this has been bugging him for a while now.
“We’ll have to run some more tests to determine that.” Dr. Ford answers, not quite meeting my gaze.
Testing fills the next two days. It’s redundant, therefore rather boring. Dr. Ford insists it’s all necessary. Mason remains dutifully by my side, throughout every grueling step. I miss Baby bear, who spends his days with Brie and Jared and only bunks with us at night. I’m beginning to feel as though I’m stuck in some sort of never-ending, test-filled purgatory.
After what seems like forever, Dr. Ford finally turns from his computer and puts his glasses down.
“Enough for today, doc?” Mason asks hopefully.
“Well, yes and no. You guys were very patient through the question portion, and I assume that’s because you’re anxious to get to the answer part.” Dr. Ford pauses. “We’re at the part where I have some answers.”
Oh. I guess that’s good, right. Yeah sure, answers are good. I’m not sure why the butterflies in my stomach seem to disagree.
“Kat, this energy you’ve harnessed is part of you now. If you use too much of it, it will drain you, but you are able to replenish it on your own without an external source. This just takes more time.
“As to how it affects the nanobots,” he continues, “they were set on replication. We don’t know what glitch happened to make them to go out of control. It reset something in them. It seems this new form of biological energy you have completely reboots them.”
“That’s all good news, right?” Mason asks.
“Yes, all good news. My concern is the rate of which we’ll be able to use this to slow and ultimately stop them. Poor Kat will not be able to stop them alone. I have to find some way to duplicate this energy.”
Haven’t I sort of already been though? I thought they were falling back: slowly, sure, but back nonetheless.
“What do you mean?” Mason asks him. “I thought it was already working?”
“I see I’ve kept you guys a bit cut off in here the last few days. The latest maps do show a decline in the advance of the infection on the path you took to get here. The problem I’ve found is that the rebooted ‘fixed’ nanobots are still succumbing to the mutated ones.”
“So they’re re-infecting the fixed nanobots?” Mason asks quietly.
“Unfortunately, yes.” The doctor sighs. “If we could get enough of Kat’s new organic energy, we can stop them. Unless I can replicate it, we will only be able to keep a small area contained and uninfected.”
“Can you do it, doc? Replicate it, I mean?” I ask, finding my voice.
“I’m not sure. I’m going to try, though. Why don’t you guys go explore the rest of the facility today? I’ve monopolized you enough. If I need anything, I’ll have Jerome find you.”
“Alright, doc. Good luck.” I say.
Mason echoes my goodbye and we head in search of Jared and Brie.