Mason’s been distant the past few days. Not mean or less attentive, just distant. It’s been distracting me, and I wish he’d tell me what’s on his mind. I suspect he’s just worried about the doctor coming tomorrow, but I’d feel better if I knew for sure.
Since I went out with the soldiers, we haven’t been seeing the fog from our walls. This is encouraging, although some of our troops seem to be getting a bit restless without anything to do. A few of them have been trying to convince the captain to expand their scouting territory; however the captain has been adamant that he doesn’t want any surprises.
All four of us have been given the day off tomorrow, along with strict instructions on where we’re not supposed to go. The captain isn’t taking any chances with the doctor’s arrival. It feels a bit extreme if you ask me, and I can’t help wondering if there’s more to the situation than meets the eye.
Since we all have the next day off for a change, we decide to stay up later than usual. We’re already relocated to a larger group tent on an obscure corner of the property. When Jared scores some cards we figure we may as well take advantage of some downtime. Rummy and five-card-stud we play first. Now, we’ve move onto spades.
Brie’s the first one to yawn. Jared shortly follows—then Mason and finally me. Baby bear is curled up next to me and has been sleeping for the past few hours already. Reluctantly, we pack up the cards and hunker down for the night.
Even from our obscure corner, the commotion wakes us earlier than we planned in the morning. Jared and Mason go off to get us breakfast as planned, while Brie and I set the tent to rights. It’s not until Mason and Jared return that we hear the disturbing news.
“The doctor’s here, but apparently they lost a few men on the way.” Jared announces, handing Brie her breakfast.
“What do you mean?” I ask as Mason hands me my own plate.
“I guess as far as you were able to push the infection back here, it’s still pretty bad to the north of us. The weapons they have aren’t nearly as effective as you are, so they lost a few men to the fog before they were able to escape.”
“Are they sure that they didn’t bring the infection here?” Brie asks, looking scared.
“I’m sure the doctor wouldn’t allow it.” I reassure her. “I take it they got to skip the quarantine, though?”
Mason nods. “But I agree—the doctor wouldn’t have brought them if there was any risk.”
“Have you heard from the captain yet?” I ask.
Mason shakes his head. “He’ll send word when we’re clear to move about freely. I feel better knowing you’re safe, anyway.”
I resist the urge to roll my eyes. Mason means well, and he just wants to keep me safe. It really is more endearing than annoying, even if he does know I’m probably the safest person left in this new, deranged world we’re living in.
Of course he knows that, I chastise myself. The government getting their hands on me is his primary concern. I’m just grumpy about being cooped up in a tent all day.
It takes nearly all day for the captain to send someone to give us the all clear. Well the somewhat clear, because the captain is sure that some of the soldiers escorting the doctor are spies for the general. This means we have to be careful who we talk and disclose out identities to. All of the captain’s men have instructions to keep their mouths shut. I know that I have the respect of the soldiers who escorted me beyond the wall. I doubt that they would turn me in to someone they don’t even like.
As we wander through our designated areas, a soldier comes up to Mason and pulls him aside. Something tells me the other shoe is about to drop.
As Mason walks back towards me, the look on his face confirms my suspicions. Something’s up, and he obviously doesn’t like it. Brie notices too. She grabs my hand and gives it a quick squeeze before she joins Jared a few feet away.
“They want to see you.” He tells me. I figured as much. We leave Baby bear with Brie and Jared, and make our way to the main building in silence. Mason grips my hand the whole way as though I might disappear.
I watch Mason as we go. The depth of our relationship is closer more quickly than normal because of all the insanity. We have a bond beyond my imagination. I stop quickly and turn to face him.
“Mason,” I start before almost losing my nerve, “I want you to know how important you are to me. I love you, Mason.”
His eyes reflect warmth. “I love you, too, Kat. I can’t imagine life without you.” He looks around. “Even without all of this. I think I loved you since you first plowed me over.”
I laugh, remembering how we met. “I was so embarrassed.”
“You were adorable.” He plants a soft kiss on top of my head. “Still are.”
The door to the building opens and a soldier motions for us to enter. “Guess our alone time is up for now.” Mason says.
“Yeah, let’s go see what they want now.”
We aren’t led to the captain’s office as usual. Instead, we’re brought to a generic office in the basement, a place I’ve never ventured into before. The captain joins us after a few minutes.
“Sorry for all the sneaking about. As of tomorrow, I’m sending all of the troops that escorted Dr. Ford on a supply run, which will buy us at least a few days without raising any suspicions. The doctor wants to see you of course, but it’s too big of a risk today.”
I hide my smirk as Mason calls him out, before I have the chance to. “You didn’t call us in here for this, though, did you captain?”
Captain Jennings runs a hand down his face. “No, no I didn’t. I’m sure you’ve heard of the difficult time the doctor had on his way here. We’re concerned that the infection is moving quickly towards us from the north. I only know of one way to stop the advance.”
Mason eyes me worriedly. I look at him, “Can you give me a moment with the captain?”
I can see the frustration in his face, but he gets up without any complaint. I wait until he shuts the door behind him. “Captain, I know it goes against all the rules and protocols you guys have, but I can’t ask him to stay behind again. I’ll go, but only if he comes with me.”
“You understand the danger?”
I nod. “We did pretty well before we came here. He won’t hinder any of our efforts in the field.”
“Okay.” The captain concedes, “If it will help you to have him there, go ahead and bring him.” He actually smiles. “You sure showed our boys last time, anyway. It doesn’t seem to me that we have much to worry about if you’re there.”
I return his smile wholeheartedly. “Thanks, captain. This will definitely make us both feel better.” I go to the door and open it to find Mason leaning up against the wall. I motion for him to come back in.
I wait until he settles in his chair before I start. “I have to go out again-“
“Aw hell Kat, not again,” He complains, but stops when I hold up a finger.
“The captain has given you clearance to accompany me on these, er, trips, also.” I have to try hard not to smile when I see his obvious relief.
The grin on his face speaks for itself. “When do we leave?”
I find myself again in army gear. The ride in the back of the windowless vehicle still disorients me. The difference is that this time, I have Mason’s reassuring presence by my side and his hand in mine.
This trip is bumpier than the last, and it reminds me to tell Mason to brace his feet when we stop. My lesson is still fresh from last time, thanks.
We lurch to a halt, and Mason gives me a grateful look for my advice. I see a few new faces amongst the soldiers, but there is definitely a camaraderie here that was absent at the beginning of our last voyage. Even as we file out into the sunlight, this time the soldiers stay back and prepare to help only if needed.
Mason walks me to the front of the triangular formation of soldiers. He stops at the very end as I continue towards the metallic fog. It no longer intimidates me, or instills fear in my heart. It seems to take me too long to get close to it. Is it? No, it couldn’t be.
But it is. As I try to get closer, it shrinks back from me. It’s as if it knows it will get hurt. I stand still momentarily and try to process this new information. If the fog is retreating because it recognizes my blast will cause disarmament, then it has not just a consciousness, but a joint consciousness that allows it to communicate within itself. Everything that’s infected is attached. Could this begin to solve the mystery of where the infected people go?
I move closer, advancing forward until the fog almost completely surrounds me. It stays back from me at about a fifty foot diameter. The circle is most prominent where it almost closes off behind me. Panic paints Mason’s features. The soldiers seem tense as they raise their weapons and poise to shoot. If I move any further inside the fog, all hell will break loose behind me—even if it would probably be incredibly effective.
The energy courses through me. If there are any remaining doubts that I’m growing more powerful, they’re gone now. My body hums and wants to unleash its fury on the surrounding threat. I place my palms facing each other in front of me. Turning my hands outward, I push the energy out and let out an astonished laugh as the energy flows out. It’s a strong stream similar to when I channeled the lightning, but all on my own this time. At the river, I thought it was simply a short-term after effect from the lightning strike. It’s obvious now that it’s not. Something more has changed in me, and I have far more power and control than before.
While I zap the cloud, this is the closest I’ve ever been to the fog. It’s certainly the first time I’m prone to really pay attention. Guilt washes over me as I watch the fog writher and disappear. I can swear I hear a hissing sound as though it’s in pain. Neither this nor the guilt is enough to make me stop. Too many lives are at stake for that.
I rotate as I go. When all of the fog in sight disappears, I throw a few spheres in random directions for good measure. As I approach Mason, I can’t help but notice the look on his face. “Wow, Kat. That’s certainly different than before.”
“There’s more, too.” I quickly explain my theory regarding the nanobot’s collective consciousness and watch as his expression moves from awe to concern.
“But that could mean…” His voice trails off as he begins to realize the ramifications.
“That could mean a lot.” I climb into the armored vehicle and sit down. Turning my head to face him, I grab his hand. “I think it’s time to talk to the doctor.”
When Mason and I return, we fill Brie and Jared in on our suspicions. They both quickly jump to the same conclusions that Mason and I do. Brie immediately goes in search of the captain to pass along the message that we need to meet with him and the doctor as soon as possible—which
We go to the basement, which I now see is Dr. Ford’s temporary workspace. A wall (which apparently possesses mobility) has been folded into a pocket space. The room is now twice as large, with an obvious lab set up in the new area.
Captain Jennings and Dr. Ford are waiting for all of us. Dr. Ford greets us each with a warm hug. We take a moment to catch up. The doctor tells us how well our friends have fit in to the Columbus complex. Jack and Mariette, Becky and Nate are doing very well there. This is a relief. At least my efforts help save some people, even though it can’t begin to offset my destruction.
It doesn’t take long for us to get down to business. Mason, Brie, Jared and I fill the doctor in on our experiences since leaving Columbus. His eyes widen at the appropriate parts. He only interrupts one time when I tell of the sample I had grabbed. “Do you still have it?” He asks. His eyes alight with excitement.
“We had it in the Jeep before we were brought here.” Mason says, and we all turn to Captain Jennings.
“To be honest, I don’t think they’ve touched it since we retrieved your belongings.” He picks up a phone and mumbles a few short phrases before hanging up. “One of my men will bring us any remaining items shortly.”
We continue with our discussion. Just before I’m able to address yesterday’s occurrence, a knock sounds at the door. Captain Jennings calls them in, and three soldiers enter. One carries the wrapped up hoodie containing the sample for Dr. Ford. The other two carry trays of food and drinks. I glance at the clock on the wall. To my surprise it’s lunchtime already.
Dr. Ford immediately unwraps the gross hoodie and begins to examine the specimen we found. Now in the light of day, it’s easy to tell that it was previously a foot. It still appears metallic, though more a tarnished silver than a shiny metal. Before Dr. Ford makes the new toy his primary occupation, I hurry to relay yesterday’s events, and our suspicions.
This is also the first Captain Jennings hears our theory, and his concern is relevant on his face. Dr. Ford is in full scientist mode, his curiosity overshadowing his concern at the moment. We eat and speculate as Dr. Ford moves over to the lab area and immediately begins testing his sample. I follow him with a sandwich and gently remind him to eat before I sitting back down to finish my own lunch.
Captain Jennings seems to be contemplating something important. Eventually, indecision leaves his face, and he looks at all of us. “Dr. Ford, I think you need to hear this information too. You may already have been informed of some of it, but I think it’s important that we’re all on the same page here.”
Dr. Ford sets a timer and grabs his still untouched sandwich before sitting back in his seat. Captain Jennings begins again. "There’s some information I’ve been reluctantly withholding for the purposes of national security. I realize under normal circumstances that including teenagers in these matters is unheard of, but we no longer have that luxury. You four have consistently and effectively shown both discretion and perseverance. And frankly, I just don’t give a shit anymore.
“When the infection first started, it spread more quickly than anyone could’ve anticipated. Even with all of the protocols we had in place for national security, we were not fast enough to beat the spread. The Nation’s Capital was overtaken, before we even had a chance at evacuation. We haven’t had contact with any of our nation’s leaders since the first day of the infection.”
“Then who’s running the government?” Jared asks, incredulous.
“Military leaders have been faking it, for lack of a better phrase. You four have been so busy out in the field that you wouldn’t have noticed the president has failed to address a concerned nation yet. People started asking questions, and with the situation we’re facing, we had no choice but to instate Marshall Law throughout the remnants of the nation. The spread of fear and panic is almost as dangerous as the spread of the infection.”
“You can say that again.” Brie mumbles. I know she’s thinking back to the first day, and our chaotic escape from Canaan. The memory causes me to shudder, too.
Captain Jennings hit a remote, and the large screen TV behind him springs to life. “This is an interactive map of the infection, from day one, until now. We can see it started at the BioNano rehab facility, where Michael had been learning to use his new leg. You can see how rapidly it spread from there. You can also note the patterns, as you four began your journey. Before you contacted Dr. Ford, we were certainly perplexed as to why there was a certain radius that seemed to be unaffected by the infection. When you started moving, so did the radius.”
“That’s how we made it.” Mason says. “If it weren’t for you Kat, we never would’ve made it out of there.”
Brie jumps in before I can answer. “Kat, you were showing us what you could do right as the infection began to spread. Think about it. If you hadn’t thrown the spheres when you did, we wouldn’t have even made it back to my house to see the news report. Others like Becky and Nate would have never even had the chance.”
I think back, remembering how the fog was present but stayed downtown. At that time we were far too preoccupied with the horde of hysterical people to think much about it.
“And the night before, Kat, when you first tried it. Your energy was already there, already keeping it at bay.”
Dr. Ford nods. “Yes, that’s what I determined once Kat contacted me. I watched your progress to my facility, and the impact it had on the infection as you traveled. The only problem was that it couldn’t hold them off permanently. It took a few days, but eventually once you’d moved on, the infection would take the area back over.”
“Didn’t we determine that back in Columbus? That my energy wasn’t strong enough, and the nanobots were adapting themselves to overpower it?” I ask.
“Yes, but recently our maps are indicating that you’re pushing them back farther than before. It’s taking them longer to regroup and regain the areas you’ve been clearing.” Captain Jennings explains.
Dr. Ford turns back to his lab. “The incident with the lightning you told me about seems to be the turning point in enhancing your power. Since lightning is an organic energy, like the kind you’re able to produce, it’s possible your ability to hold, reproduce, and bind it has been enhanced.” He looks at me a bit sheepishly. “Of course-“
I interrupt him before he can finish. I know this road well. “Of course you have to run some tests, before you can know for sure.” I stifle an eye roll. Even though I dread the tediousness of his tests, Dr. Ford is someone I don’t want to offend.
“Yes, I have a lot of work to do.” Dr. Ford says. The timer dings, attracting his attention. “Captain, please continue; I’ll be listening while I work through this.”
My attention is back to the captain, but it’s Jared that asks the question we’re all thinking. “There’s more?”
“Unfortunately, yes there is. So, now you know that the country’s leaders are MIA and the surviving parts of the country are under Martial Law. There’s confirmation that the infection is spreading eastwardly, over to Europe. We’ve been sharing as much information with them as possible. They have been good at not pointing their finger—however correctly it would be, at us.”
“Whoa.” Brie comments. That about sums it up for me, too.
The captain continues. “Now that our country is being run by a few military leaders, let’s just say things are not operating smoothly. General Carch-well, you know about her. General Brown has been actively working against her. General Rowan keeps playing both sides. I think he’s waiting to see who comes out on top.”
“So, not only are we facing extinction due to the nanobot infection, but behind the scenes our country is falling apart and has no specific leader?” I synopsize.
“Wait,” Mason says. “You said this other General keeps playing both sides. I assume that this means there is a good side and a bad one?”
“Gee, I wonder who the leading General for team bad is?” Brie scoffs.
“Yes,” Captain Jennings says solemnly. “And Dr. Ford has just brought me the most disturbing news to date.”
Dr. Ford sets down his glasses and papers to rejoin us at the table. He sighs as he sits, and I know whatever’s coming next is not going to be good. “Some people are meant to be leaders. They look at a whole picture, a greater good if you will. Others, the power goes to their head. It changes them. This is the case with General Carch. She began her military career as a decorated soldier. After the loss of contact with our leaders, it was decided she would be in charge with her two peers. When that happened, she began to change. It wasn’t noticeable right away, but now it can no longer be ignored.”
“Why?” Jared asks. “I know she’s a pain in our ass, but what, is she all Dr. Evil now?”
This gets a laugh from both the captain and the doctor. “I don’t know if I’d put it quite so eloquently Jared, but yes, I suppose she could be classified as such.” The captain answers.
I turn to Dr. Ford and look for further explanation. “At first, we just thought she was being difficult.” He tells us. “She was given the Columbus location and surrounding areas. General Brown was given our area, and General Rowan was given the West Coast, the area still least affected by all of this. It’s her way of thinking that started to drastically change. I began to notice the change in her when she talked about the infection. It wasn’t long before she approached me with an idea—an idea that deeply disturbed me.
“She feels that this infection happened for a reason. The more I tried to explain to her the horror of this and the ramifications of it all, the more my reasoning seemed to have had the opposite effect. She wants to morph the infection, utilize it to make stronger soldiers and weaponize the current strain. I told her until we get this invasion under control, that it was not a priority. We fought for weeks, while I was using your energy to develop the new weapons for our soldiers. Then one day, she just stopped. I knew even before I confirmed it, that she got someone else to do it for her.”
“Dr. Harris.” I whisper more to myself than anything, but the captain and doctor nod.
“Yes,” Dr. Ford says. “Although, it’s not his fault, she left him no choice when his family was taken as collateral. It’s the first time I’ve ever been grateful to be a perpetual bachelor.” His half smile is more sad than anything.
“Did he succeed?” Brie asks. “Do they now have weapons to infect us with?”
“The day I left, Dr. Harris was beginning testing on the prototype. I know he’s trying to stall but he won’t let his family get hurt, and I don’t blame him.”
I stand up and begin pacing the room. This is an awfully lot to take in at once. Things are worse than I’d thought. A lot worse. I turn back to the others. “What can we do? How do we stop all of this?”
“Our first priority remains to remove all of the infection possible. Until we completely destroy it, we’re just prolonging the inevitable. First, we have to figure out how to defeat them and work with other countries to launch a worldwide attack.” The captain says, looking at me pointedly.
“What?” I ask.
“At this point Kat, you’re our most effective weapon.” Dr. Ford says.
“Oh.” I guess I should’ve known that.
Brie has a troubled face as she looks at me then back to the doctor. “You can’t just extort her.”
“That’s what we’re trying to avoid.” Dr. Ford reassures her.
“That’s what General Carch wants to do.” Mason says tersely, and it’s not a question.
“Yes.” Dr. Ford confirms softly, “She has no regard for Kat’s well-being, only her usefulness. Luckily, others in high places are more reasonable and compassionate.”
Further discussion finds me agreeing to a plethora of testing over the next few days. I trust Dr. Ford, although I know from past experience that the next few days will be boring, annoying, and full of unpleasantness. With all that’s going on, I can find plenty of things to occupy my thoughts in the meantime. How could I say no to helping stop all of this?