by Rebecca Zanetti
After all, it really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.
Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, the Director-General of the World Health Organization
Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.
Wind whistled a mournful tune around aluminum buildings and across the jagged tarmac. Dr. Nora Medina shivered in the damp night air and ignored the water splashing over her flip-flops. The soldiers around her, armed to the nth degree, merely added to the pressure building in her chest.
Her nearly bare chest.
She fought to keep her balance while hustling up the metal steps to the third private plane of her day.
She might be the only unarmed person on the quiet tarmac, and the only woman, but enough was fucking enough, because she was also the only person wearing a borrowed white blouse over a pink bikini top, barely-there wrap around her bikini-clad butt, and sandals.
Temper roared through her, and she planted her feet at the top of the stairs, only to slide across the wet surface.
“Ma’am,” said the nearest faceless soldier, reaching for her arm.
She jerked free and rounded on him. “I swear, if one more person calls me ‘ma’am’ or apologizes for the inconvenience of dragging me off a very nice beach in Maui several hours ago, I will take his gun and shoot him.”
The man’s expression didn’t change. “Yes ma’am.”
She bit down a scream. “All right. Listen up. We are in Seattle, and I know we’re in Seattle.” She pressed her hands against chilled hips and tried to stand taller. “Do you know how I know?”
“No ma’am.” Well trained, definitely at ease, the soldier kept his gaze above her right shoulder.
“I know,” she said slowly and through gritted teeth, “because I looked out the bloody window when we were landing. The next time you kidnap somebody, you might want to blacken out the windows.”
“Yes ma’am.” He nodded, ever so slightly, toward the doorway to the plane.
“This is kidnapping, and I’ve had it. We’re in Seattle, and yep, guess what? I live here. So I’m going to head home, take an incredibly hot shower, change my clothes, and then call—well, somebody. Anybody who will tell me what the hell is going on.” Her rant would end perfectly if she could just get past him on the steps, but he easily blocked her way.
“All apologies, ma’am, but our orders are to escort you. Please embark.” He kept his voice level and polite.
She swallowed. There were six of them, one of her, and no way would she win a physical altercation. “Not until you tell me where we’re going.”
“Nora?” a voice called from inside the plane. “Get your ass in here.”
Every nerve she owned short-circuited. Her gut clenched as if a fist had plowed into her solar plexus. Slowly, spraying water, she pivoted toward the opening. It couldn’t be. It really couldn’t be.
The voice she knew well. Male, low, slight Scottish brogue a decade in the states hadn’t quite banished. Her heart thundered, and fire skidded across her abdomen to flare deep. How was this even possible? She steeled her shoulders and approached the plane opening as if a bomb waited inside. So many thoughts rioted through her brain, she couldn’t grasp just one.
Warmth hit her first when she stepped inside, followed by another shock wave. “Deacan Devlin McDougall,” she murmured.
He stretched to his feet from one of the luxurious leather chairs, standing in the aisle—the only place high enough to accommodate his six-foot-four frame.
All the thoughts zinging around her head stopped cold.
Nothing. Her brain fuzzed. The years had been good to him, experience adding an intriguing look of danger to his masculine beauty.
His green gaze, dark and piercing, scored her see-through shirt, light wrap, and bare legs. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for the extraction.”
Her chin lifted. Heat seared through her lungs, lifting her chest, and she slowly tried to control her body. No way would she let him see how difficult he made it for her to breathe—even after all this time.
He wore faded jeans over long legs and a dark T-shirt across a broad chest—no uniform. But the gun strapped to his leg was military issue, now wasn’t it? The weapon, so silent and deadly, appeared at home on his muscled thigh.
His dark brown hair, glinting with red highlights, now almost reached his shoulders. Very different from the buzz cut he’d had years before. His eyes, the green of a Scotland moor, held secrets, unplumbed depths, and promise. Chiseled face, hard jaw, and definite warrior features proudly proclaimed his ancestry, and even now, she could see the Highlander in him.
The door banged shut behind her, and she jumped.
He gestured toward the seat across from the one he’d occupied. The engines roared to life.
She faltered. “Where are we going?”
He reached into an overhead compartment and drew out a plush blanket. “D.C.”
The plane lurched forward, and she stumbled. He grasped her arm, shooting an electrical jolt up her bicep.
His eyes darkened. “I’d wondered.”
“Me too.” As kids, they’d been combustible. So she hadn’t imagined the spark from years ago. She blinked confusion from her vision and allowed him to settle her into the seat. The second he covered her legs with the warm blanket, she finally took a deep breath.
He sat down, gaze somber. “You haven’t responded to my proposition.”
Her head jerked back. “This isn’t, I mean, you—” She gestured around the luxurious plane.
His lips twitched. “No. I did not execute a military extraction and secure three private jets to force you into making up your mind to meet me in person now that I’m settled in the States. Finally.”
She plucked at a string on the blanket. “I didn’t think so.” They’d kept in touch through the years, and when he’d sent her an email two months ago, saying he wanted to meet up with her, she’d needed time to think about it. “I was hoping to use my vacation time in Hawaii to consider, well, us.”
Thoughtfulness, sexy and focused, crossed his rugged cheekbones. “I appreciate that. I’ve been wondering lately if I should’ve fought the divorce.”
Fought it eight years ago? Surprise and a silly feminine hope flushed through her. They’d been married at eighteen and divorced at twenty-five. They’d spent more time apart than together during the marriage with him in the military and her pursuing various degrees. “We were just kids.” The plane lifted in the air, and she tried to relax against the leather. “You said you work for the government now, Deacan.”
“I do.” He tugged a table from the wall and secured the legs.
“Which branch?” she asked softly. What in the hell was going on?
He reached into a duffel bag to retrieve a laptop. “Doesn’t have a name.”
Yeah, she’d figured. Super-secret, code-name, hidden organization. “In your email, you said you had your head on straight and had finished your time as a soldier.”
He placed the laptop on the table to their right, facing them. “I do. I work in the States and for the most part invent strategy and the like. No more violence, and I’ve dealt with the anger.”
She nodded, her body rioting at his nearness. The gun strapped to his leg hinted at another agenda, and she needed time away from him to really figure out if she wanted him in her life again—even as a friend. Leaving him before had nearly destroyed her, and she’d built a good life in Seattle. A safe life. Okay, a boring life. “Why am I here?”
His very presence affected the oxygen, because her lungs quit working properly. He smiled, as if knowing, and waited until the laptop came on. “You’re here because of this.”
She leaned toward him and turned to the side to see a picture of a round blue shape covered by long spikes. Definitely a bacterium. “Coccus shape, mobile, looks a little like Staphylococcus.” She frowned and squinted. “I don’t recognize it, though.”
Deke exhaled, and impressive muscles shifted beneath his shirt. “No. It’s new.”
She blinked. “New?” Fascinating, but not unusual. Her heart started to thrum harder. “What’s the rate of growth?”
“It duplicates in an hour.”
Fast, but not unheard of. She leaned back. “What’s going on, Deacan?”
He scrubbed both hands down his face. “You’re the best microbiologist in the country.”
She bit back a snort. “Lynne Harmony would disagree with you.”
He nodded. “Perhaps. It’s probably a tie between you.”
Now wasn’t the time to discuss Nora’s best friend from graduate school. “Why am I here, and why are you here? It’s no coincidence.” If the bacteria had been weaponized, then the CDC would be on it. “I work for a private company, not the government, and this isn’t one of our samples or, ah, mutations.”
“I know you work for a private company. Of course.”
Yeah, she made her own schedule and only worked on projects she believed in. The government wouldn’t allow her such freedom. Plus, the money was much better. “You know I don’t trust the government.”
“I do know.” Deke punched a couple of keys, obviously unwilling to debate the issue. A picture of a rock came up on the screen.
“Looks like a meteorite,” Nora said slowly.
Her brain clicked into gear as her mind connected a pathway from the bacteria to the meteorite. “No way. Really?”
“Yes. A group of twelve Stanford students took a field trip to the southern Nevada desert to go meteorite hunting, which is actually quite an industry out there. They found a good ten pounder and cut into it, each taking a piece. Apparently bacteria spores were let loose.” He shook his head. “Can you believe it? Bacteria from outer space.”
She glanced at the innocent-looking rock. “Well, yeah. I mean, NASA has been worried for years that we’re sending bacteria into space with each shuttle mission, and we’ve actually tested bacteria that survives in the outer atmosphere.”
He cut a hard look at the screen as if facing an enemy. “But from space.”
She grinned. “Our entire planet was formed by materials from outer space. The bacteria on Earth came from galaxies away when our planet formed. This isn’t a surprise.” She sobered. “That little blob might be the find of the century, but I wouldn’t be here unless something else is going on.”
He shut the laptop and faced her. “The students each took a piece of the rock, and all came down with fevers. Initially E. coli was suspected because they ate a box of doughnuts that morning, but the locality of the infection was in the brain, so anything abdominal was quickly ruled out.”
“You want my research.” For five years, she’d worked for BioGlax Pharmaceuticals, trying to create an antibiotic for drug-resistant bacteria. “Why isn’t the CDC on this?” If her phone wasn’t still in Maui, she’d call Lynne and ask that very question.
“They are. The head of the CDC National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, your good buddy, Lynne Harmony, requested your help,” Deacan said. “I offered to meet your plane and get you up to speed.”
“What?” Nora shook her head. Not only would Lynne never ask for help, she’d call herself and not have the military hijack Nora’s vacation. “Lynne would’ve called me. We usually talk at least once a month.” But they’d both been busy, and they hadn’t talked in maybe, what? Two months?
“I have the CDC team locked down. No communications out or in.”
Nora blinked. “You can’t do that.”
“I can and have.” Deke cocked his head to the side, all patience.
Awareness cascaded through her, and the hair on the back of her neck lifted. “Exactly who do you answer to, Deacan?”
He lifted a shoulder.
“Deke?” she snapped.
He sighed. “The president. But that’s just between us, darlin’.”
Anxiety filled her abdomen. “The president. The actual president?”
Deke sighed. “Yes. Two years ago, after he’d been elected, I was on detail for a foreign trip. It went south, I saved his ass, and we had one of those foxhole situations that’s top secret. Became buddies of a sort, and I’ve been working with him since—trying to move into more of a strategy and planning position instead of shooting and killing.”
Emotion colored his words, although his expression remained stoic. For years, she’d wondered if his humanity would succumb to his need for action and adventure. She’d be crazy to get caught up in his world again. But she’d worry about Deke and his employment later, once she figured out why her vacation had been cut short. “All right. What happened to the students?” Something told her she didn’t really want to know the answer.
Deacan kept her gaze captive. “All twelve were hospitalized, infected with the Scorpius bacteria.”
She frowned. “Scorpius?”
“Yes. The meteorite was probably one of many that fell last year after the Scorpius Comet passed by the earth, hence the name. We had to call it something. Damn bug.”
“Not a bug. Bacteria is different.” Her brain spun. “The bacteria is airborne?”
“No. The kids all took a taste of the rock. A five senses type of thing.” He shook his head. “Tasted salty, apparently.”
Breathed whooshed from her lungs. “That’s unfortunate, but I’m glad the infectious agent isn’t airborne.” Of course, neither was Ebola, E. coli, or meningitis. “Give me the rest of the facts.”
He sobered. “One student seems to have recovered fully. Nine died. Two are experiencing what can only be termed a psychotic break.”
Holy shit. “Nine died? Scorpius killed that high of a percentage of infected?” Unbelievable. She calculated the statistics. “I’m assuming you have medical and historical profiles for each of the students?”
Sand, salt, and oil covered her arms, making them itch. She rubbed her elbows, hunching into herself. “The two survivors with mental issues. Any other symptoms?”
“Odd brain scans and low activity in the frontal lobe,” Deke answered.
Nora frowned. “All right. How far has the infection spread?”
He lifted dark eyebrows. “Why do you think it has spread?”
She leaned her head back against the headrest. “You wouldn’t call in a second team unless we were facing a pandemic. How many?”
She studied him. He’d always been tough, but as he’d shed the look of youth, he’d gained a masculine hardness with an edge. Sexy and dangerous. Intriguing enough that her instincts yelled for her to stay away from him while her heart dared her to jump right into his fire. “What’s the urgency?”
Deacan leaned toward her, bringing the scent of wild forest and man. “The survivors continue to carry the bacteria.”
Nora blinked. “You mean they’re still contagious after surviving? That’s unheard of.”
“Yes. Trace amounts of the bacteria have been found in their saliva. If they bite and break the skin, well…”
“Are you sure?” Finding a cure was crucial, although many people were carriers of deadly bacteria, like MRSA, and they rarely infected people.
“Yes.” Deacan leaned even closer. “One of the infected students is the president’s daughter.”
Nora stilled. “One of the survivors?”
“One of the two experiencing what seems to be schizophrenia. Maybe.”
She breathed out. “Oh.”
Deacan gripped her knees through the blanket. “It gets worse.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Aye. She bit the president. He’s fighting the fever right now.”