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Authors: Mira Grant

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BOOK: Blackout
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It was made of hardened ceramic and heat-resistant plastic polymer. All the metal detectors in the world wouldn’t be able to catch the fact that I was carrying it, and the guards’ reluctance to touch me when they didn’t have to meant I was pretty much safe from a pat down. It was mine. They wouldn’t take it away from me, because they wouldn’t know I had it. Not until I needed them to.

The gun had been holding down a piece of folded paper. I picked it up with my free hand, unfolding it, and read.

Georgia—

This is all the protection we can give you right now. We’re still working on an exit plan. Trust Dr. Shaw. She’s been working with me for a long time. Keep cooperating. They can’t know you’re planning to escape. You have to keep trusting me
.

The gun was enough to buy a
lot
of trust. I kept reading, and stopped breathing for the second time in as many minutes as I saw the second part of his message:

I have received confirmation from my West Coast contact: Shaun Phillip Mason is alive. I repeat: Shaun is alive. He’s been off the grid for a little while, for reasons I hope to have the opportunity to explain soon, but he
is
alive, and he
will
be waiting when we get you out of here. Whatever they say, whatever lies they try to make you believe, believe
me:
Shaun is alive. All we have to do now is keep you that way long enough to get you back to him
.

Yours—G
.

I sank onto the stool, staring at the letter. My fingers were creasing the paper, rendering some of the words almost illegible, but that didn’t matter. I knew what they said. They were burning behind my eyes, lighting up a darkness that I hadn’t even realized was there.

Shaun was alive. I wasn’t making educated guesses. I wasn’t just telling myself something I wanted to believe: Shaun was actually and genuinely alive. That, or the CDC had planted Gregory to earn my trust… But the gun nixed that line of thinking. I paused, turning my attention from the paper to the pistol just long enough to eject the clip and check that it was loaded. It was. Those tiny bullets made all the difference, because no matter how hard the CDC was trying to make me believe them, they weren’t going to give me a gun.

“There you are.” Dr. Shaw stepped around the screen, moving with a silence that made it plain how much
she’d been exaggerating the sound of her footsteps before. She plucked the paper from my hand, not seeming to mind when she ripped it in the process. “Thank you for cleaning up the lab, Georgia. I’ll just go feed this through the shredder while you finish undressing. You can leave your clothing here. No one will disturb it.”

My eyes widened as I glanced from her to the gun and back again. Dr. Shaw followed my gaze and nodded understandingly.

“I appreciate that you have little privacy in your current circumstances, but I assure you, no one will touch your things while you’re here. I take privacy concerns
very
seriously.” Her smile was thin and cold, briefly recalling the way she’d first presented herself. “You have my word.”

Gregory said I could trust her, and she wasn’t sounding the alarm over my possession of a weapon. I swallowed to clear my throat, and nodded. “I’ll get ready.”

“Thank you. Call for Kathleen when you want the robe.” She paused, as if one more thing had just occurred to her, and added, “You may keep your underwear.”

“I appreciate that.”

“I thought you might.” Dr. Shaw walked away, her heels clacking on the floor, as if to illustrate that outside this small, screened-in space, we were playing by the CDC’s rules.

I may not enjoy playing by other people’s rules, but I’ve had enough experience to be good at it. I slid off the stool, putting the pistol back where I originally found it, and disrobed, piling my white pajamas over the gun. If any of Dr. Shaw’s technicians weren’t in on things—and I had no real reason to believe that
any
of
them were in on things—they’d need to actively look before they found anything awry.

While I stripped, I heard the oddly reassuring sound of a shredder coming from the main room. Dr. Shaw had been telling the truth about disposing of Gregory’s message. I just hoped she’d have the sense to take the trash with her when she left.

Kathleen was waiting when I stuck my head around the screen. She held a plain white robe out to me, smiling pleasantly. “Dr. Shaw is ready for you now.”

“Tell Dr. Shaw I’m almost ready for her,” I said, and ducked back behind the screen to shrug into the robe. With one last, regretful glance toward the pile of clothing concealing my new gun, I turned to head out into the room.

Kathleen was still waiting. Her smile brightened as she saw that I was dressed. “This way,” she said, beckoning. “We’re going to begin by measuring your basic neurological responses.”

“Meaning what?” I asked, following her.

“Meaning we’ll be applying electrodes to your scalp, asking you neutral questions and watching to see how your brain waves change as you respond. Dr. Shaw has been petitioning for permission to do a sleep study, but so far, they’ve refused.” Kathleen frowned, like the refusal was somehow a personal insult. She led me toward a complicated-looking machine where Dr. Shaw and two of the technicians were waiting. “I’m sure she’ll be granted permission sooner or later. For the moment, conscious brain wave studies will have to do.”

“For
today
,” said Dr. Shaw, snapping a connector into place. “Georgia. So glad you could join us. If you would be so kind as to take a seat, we can begin getting you ready. Please remove the robe.”

I froze. “Please
what
?”

“Remove the robe.”

“Why did you give it to me if—?”

“Modesty and science are not always compatible,” said Dr. Shaw. “Kathleen?”

“Yes, Dr. Shaw,” said Kathleen, and took hold of my robe’s collar, tugging just hard enough to make sure I knew she was there. “If you would be so kind?”

I bit back a sigh. I’ve never been the most modest person in the world, and my time as the CDC’s favorite new lab rat was rapidly eroding what little modesty I possessed. I undid the belt, letting Kathleen peel the robe away, and took a seat in the indicated chair. It was covered in clear plastic that made little crunching noises as I slid myself into position. Worse, it was cold.

So was the greenish gel that Dr. Shaw’s technicians began applying to my throat, shoulders, and stomach. I frowned. “I thought this was going to be a brain wave test?”

“Yes, but since we have limited time, and you’re going to be immobilized anyway, I’m taking this opportunity to get a clear picture of your vital signs.” Dr. Shaw smiled. “I’m very fond of efficiency.”

“I’m beginning to see that.” The technicians, including Kathleen, were taping sensor pads to my front.

“There’s just one more thing that you might object to. I apologize, but I assure you, it’s necessary to ensure the accuracy of my tests.”

I gritted my teeth, steeling myself for something I wasn’t going to enjoy. “What’s that?” I asked. “You need me to sing Christmas carols while you measure my brain activity?”

“That could be entertaining, and you should feel free if it helps you relax, but no.” Dr. Shaw produced a pair
of scissors from her pocket, holding them up for me to see. “Your hair will interfere with the placement of the sensors on your scalp. I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut most of it off if we’re going to get a clear result.”

For a moment, I simply stared at her. Then I started to laugh. I was still laughing when she began cutting my hair, and barely got myself under control in time for the testing to begin. The real test—the test of whether or not I could survive the CDC—was still ongoing. But I was starting to feel like I might actually stand a chance.

Subject 7c continues to respond to stimulus, and has begun questioning the conditions of her containment. She—and it truly is impossible to avoid assigning a gender, and even an identity, to a subject that has been awake and interactive for this length of time—continues to adhere closely to the registered template. Her responses are well within the allowable parameters. Perhaps too well within the allowable parameters; early concerns about cooperation and biddability were not unfounded.

It may be necessary to begin preparing the 8 line for release. I will continue to observe and study 7c, but do not believe that 7d would offer any substantial improvement in the problem areas.

—Taken from an e-mail sent by Dr. Matthew Thomas, July 23, 2041.

Preparations to separate the members of our group are nearly complete. Maggie keeps saying we shouldn’t split the party. Privately, I agree with her. This is madness. We will separate, and we will each of us die alone. And yet…

Something must be done. If Shaun’s paranoid ravings are correct, and the mosquitoes were engineered for release when a news cycle truly needed to be buried—one such as the cycle we were prepared to unleash when we left Memphis—then it is our responsibility to find a way to save the world from them. How arrogant that
looks! “Save the world.” I’m not in the world saving business. I’m a journalist.

But it seems the world has other ideas. Maggie and I leave for Seattle tomorrow. I’m terrified that I will never see London, or my wife, again. And a small, traitorous part of me is elated. I thought we no longer lived in an age of heroes.

I was wrong.

—From
Fish and Clips
, the blog of Mahir Gowda, July 23, 2041. Unpublished.

Six

D
eciding to hit the road took only a few seconds—the amount of time necessary for a thought to travel from my brain to my big mouth. Actually leaving took longer. Dr. Abbey wasn’t sending us out to die; if anything, she was sending us out
not
to die, something she took great pains to make sure I understood.

“This isn’t just about the mosquitoes, Shaun,” she’d said, while running yet another blood test and getting yet another negative result. “I wasn’t exaggerating when I showed you those distribution maps, or when I talked about the number of lives you could save by bringing me some live specimens. But it was never just about the mosquitoes.”

George had sighed in the back of my head then, sounding so tired it made my chest ache. She was dead. She shouldn’t have been tired anymore. But she was, and it was my fault, for refusing to let her go.
She wants you to get exposed again
.

“Are you fucking kidding?” I’d asked, too startled to remember to keep my voice down.

And Dr. Abbey had smiled, that bitter half twist of her
lips that I normally saw only when she thought no one was looking, or when she murmured endearments to her huge black dog, the one with her dead husband’s name.

“Someday you’re going to have to explain how it is you’ve managed to create a subconscious echo that’s smarter than you are.” Still smiling, Dr. Abbey had looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I need to know if you can shrug off the infection a second time, outside lab conditions. If you can, that changes everything.”

Swell.

The next four days rushed past in a blur, with all of us preparing to do the one thing I’d sworn I’d die to prevent: We were getting ready to go our separate ways. After everything I’d done to keep us together, to keep us alive, I was going to scatter us to the winds, and pray everyone came home again. We started as a news site. Somewhere along the line, we became a family. Me, and George, and After the End Times. That was all I needed. I’d already lost George. Did I have to lose everyone else, too?

Alaric would be staying with Dr. Abbey; that hadn’t changed. He was our best technician. If it became necessary for the lab to move while we were still on the road, he’d be too useful for Dr. Abbey to just ditch, and he’d be able to keep the rest of us aware of its location. Besides, I didn’t trust him in the field when his sister’s safety was on the line. He was likely to do something impulsive and get himself hurt, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to force myself to stay on the road instead of running straight back to Dr. Abbey and her advanced medical facilities. Especially since by “advanced,” I meant “better than a first aid kit.” We were still off the grid. If one of us got messed up, the hospital wasn’t going to be an option.

Maggie and Mahir, meanwhile, were going to head farther up the coast, leaving the wilds of Oregon for the dubious safety of Seattle. Maggie’s plan was to go back
on
the grid as soon as possible, reclaiming her position as heir to the Garcia family fortune, and presenting Mahir as her latest boy toy. “People like their circuses when the news gets bad,” she’d said, a perverse twinkle in her eyes. “I’m a Fictional, remember? I’m going to tell them a story so flashy they won’t even think to ask where I’ve been.” Alaric wasn’t thrilled about the “boy toy” part, but it was solid. They would use her celebrity as a cover while they made contact with the Seattle underground, and located the man everyone called “the Monkey.” He could cook new IDs for my whole team, IDs that were good enough to let us disappear forever, if things came to that.

BOOK: Blackout
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