“Please, God,” she whimpered. “Please…no…”
She veered into the corridor to her wing and tripped over a body on the floor. They were everywhere. On the floor. In the doorways. Huddled together as though in an effort to attenuate the assault. Heads deformed by stingers. Bodies contorted by pain. Her team. Her entire team. All of the men and women beside whom she’d worked through the years, with whom she had jostled for space over microscopes and in clean rooms, with whom she’d labored and laughed, with whom she’d shared drinks and stories…
Her colleagues…her friends…every single one of them…dead.
Lauren crawled over the cold remains without looking at the woman’s face. She somehow found her feet and managed to stagger through the maze of corpses to the quarantine room.
She stood outside of the airlock, her thumb poised over the fingerprint scanner to disengage the lock, knowing full well what she’d find inside.
This had never been about the three hundred people at the circus or even the hundred and fifty thousand at the Super Bowl. It was never about a political or religious statement to be viewed by millions around the world on live television.
It was much worse than that.
Lauren entered the air lock and passed the chemical showers and isolation suits hanging from the walls. She used her thumbprint to open the final seal and stared dumbly at the stainless steel door as it opened.
She sobbed as she staggered into the chilled room, and found it exactly as she had expected.
The body bags that had been stacked five-high to either side of the room…
The corpses teeming with countless millions of wasp larvae…
Lauren curled up under a blanket on the couch in the living room of her upscale Centennial Park North townhouse, not far from Centennial Olympic Park and the Georgia Aquarium. The space was dark, thanks to the aluminum sheets sealed over the windows and affixed to the seams around the doors. The brass glare from the lone lamp on the table beside her provided the only illumination. It cast strange webbed shadows on the walls from the multiple layers of mosquito netting she had strung up in the center of the room. Inside the mesh tent were only the couch, an end table, and a coffee table on top of which her television perched. Her beekeeper’s suit was folded neatly on the cushion beside her. She fondled the remote control and tried to summon the courage to press the power button to turn it on.
It was Easter Day. More than two months had passed and they were still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Every emergency from the police to the military waited at heightened levels of preparedness, while FEMA was all set to swoop in and manage the aftermath. They all prayed that nothing would happen, and with each passing day, their hopes rose. The public-at-large was blissfully unaware of the threat, and, by Presidential decree, would remain that way until the very last moment. She could feel their overall confidence growing as one week bled into the next without incident, until it bordered on arrogance.
But Lauren knew better. This was the calm before the storm.
The missing bodies were incubating their lethal parasites.
And it was only a matter of time before they were fully mature.
The woman who had served as the host vessel for the wasps that had killed her team at the CDC had been identified as Niraj Khouri, an architect and project manager for New South Construction, the company that had underbid the competition for the expansion of the east wing of the Emerging Infectious Diseases building. Her background had been thoroughly vetted and security clearance issued. The same had gone for each and every member of her thirty-eight man crew, which had been behind schedule and working, fully staffed, on a Sunday to catch up. No one had thought it suspicious at the time, even considering it was Super Bowl Sunday, the day the entire world simply stopped turning. Within minutes of Khouri’s attack, her crew had materialized through the swarms of wasps in the hallways outside of the quarantine room in full beekeeper’s garb, driving wheeled pallets, kicking the bodies of Lauren’s colleagues out of the way to clear a path. They had bypassed the security doors in seconds, heaped the carts with body bags, and vanished back into the construction zone. In less than twenty minutes, from start to finish, a caravan of three New South panel trucks passed through the main security gate, promptly split up, and disappeared onto the highways and back roads. Not one of them had turned up yet.
The man they knew as Dipak Patel had received an incoming call on his disposable cell phone while he was still inside the transport vehicle with the four Marines. One of them remembered thinking it odd that the screen had lit up, but there had been no ringing sound. It had taken a full sixty traumatizing minutes for the wasps to die, with only the thick fabric of their suits and Patel’s body to sting.
No political demands had been made. No organizations had claimed responsibility. No rumors abounded on the internet. It was a perfectly coordinated plan with a motive cloaked in mystery.
More than five hundred people were dead already, and yet it felt like they were just marking the seconds until disaster finally struck on an almost apocalyptic scale.
Lauren pressed the power button. While she waited for the picture on the flat screen to bloom, she lined up the EpiPens on the coffee table and neurotically checked their expiration dates.
Her landline started to ring. A heartbeat later, so did her cell phone. Her pager followed and she heard the chime of incoming email from her laptop. By the time the television came to life, she already knew what must have happened.
An expansive overhead shot of Disney World. She saw the Magic Castle and Main Street USA, and the thousands of corpses lying on the asphalt, stretching as far as the eye could see.
“…in an unprecedented swarming attack that has apiologists struggling to explain…”
She changed the channel.
“…witnessing this live from Times Square…”
More bodies. Everywhere. Smoke roiled over the street from behind the shattered windows of upscale storefronts.
Again, she changed the channel.
“…on what authorities now speculate may have been a coordinated strike by…”
Men and women in suits littered Capitol Hill. Papers blew from open briefcases, the only sign of movement on the jerky footage, obviously shot from a helicopter.
“…have just learned that a radical Jihadist group has claimed responsibility…”
She clapped her hands over her ears to block out the ringing and beeping and chiming and the awful words of the frantic reporters. She saw images of the Mall of the Americas, the Vegas Strip, Atlantic City, Pike Place in Seattle. All locations that had defined America in life, now marked her passing. Bourbon Street, the San Diego Zoo, Centennial Olympic Park…
Lauren closed her eyes for a long moment before opening them once more.
She rose from the couch as if in a trance, walked to the front door, and pressed her eye to the peephole. The wood vibrated against her palms.
A black cloud swelled over the horizon, obliterating the midtown skyline, rushing outward over the units on the other side of the park.
Lauren ran for the safety of the mosquito netting and her protective suit as the ravenous thunderhead devoured her condo with a buzzing sound that drowned out her screams.