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The lights were flashing, red to green to red. “What was your son’s name, Rick?” I asked.

“Ethan,” Rick said, his smile growing more sincere and coloring with sorrow. “Ethan Patrick Cousins, after my father and his mother’s grandfather. Her name was Lisa. His mother, I mean. Lisa Cousins. She was beautiful.” He closed his eyes. “He had her smile.”

The lights stopped flashing.

“We’ll remember their names for you, if it ever comes to that,” I said, “but it won’t be today. You’re clean, Rick.”

“Clean?” He opened his eyes, looking at the test kit like it was some alien thing he’d never seen before. Then, slowly, he removed his finger from the needle and pressed the transmission button. “Clean.”

“Which is a damn good thing because there was no way I was taking care of your mangy cat,” said Shaun.

“He’s right,” I said, moving to offer a hand to Rick, to help him off the ground. “Shaun would have tossed her out the window at the first truck stop we passed.”

“Now, George, don’t be silly,” chided Shaun. “I would’ve waited for one that had a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign. It wouldn’t do for Lois to not have any friends.”

Rick and I exchanged a startled look before we burst out laughing. I started to cry at the same time, and pulled Rick to his feet before slinging my arms around his shoulders and using him to steady myself. Shaun walked over and put his arms around the both of us, joining our laughter and smashing his face into my hair to hide his own tears. I knew they were there; Rick didn’t need to. Some secrets don’t need to be shared.

We stayed that way until the sound of tires alerted us to the approach of the biohazard convoy. Hastily, we pulled apart, trying to get ourselves into something that approached composure; Rick wiped his face with one hand, while Shaun dried his cheeks and I raked my fingers through my hair before shoving my sunglasses up the bridge of my nose. Looking to Shaun, I nodded and started toward the sound of the approaching vehicles, carrying my bagged test in one hand, digging my license beacon out with the other.

The convoy stopped about twenty yards away from the forerunning vehicle; my poor, abandoned motorcycle. The Memphis CDC didn’t play around. They’d sent a full unit: two troop carriers with their standard Jeep-style frames surrounded by steel-reinforced clear plastic armor, a white medical van nearly twice the size of ours, and, most ominously, two of the vast armored trucks media pundits call “fire trucks.” They were huge, painted safety orange with red biohazard signs blazoned on all sides, and their hoses didn’t squirt water; instead, they delivered a nasty high-octane variant on napalm mixed with a concentrated form of insecticide. Once a fire truck sprays something down, it’s sterile. The soil would be dead for decades, and anything that happened to be in the radius and alive when the trucks came wouldn’t be breathing afterward, but the area would be clean.

One of the men in the foremost troop carrier raised a microphone as we approached, and the loudspeaker at the front of the car blared, “Put down your testing units and step back. Clean units will be put in their place. Do not approach personnel. Failure to comply with instructions will result in termination.”

The headlights of the convoy were almost blinding, even through my sunglasses. I raised the hand with my license to shield my eyes, and squinted at the troop carrier. “Joe? Is that you?”

“Got it in one, darlin’,” the voice replied, less formally. “Just go ahead and set those units on down, if you’d be so kind?”

“I’m leaving my license beacon with the test,” I called. “It includes important medical data.” If these people made me take my glasses off, the glare from their headlights would probably blind me.

A new voice, female and substantially more clinical, came over the loudspeaker. “We know about your retinal condition, Ms. Mason. Please comply with instructions.”

“We’re complying, jeez!” shouted Shaun, dropping his bagged testing unit and putting his license beacon on top. I bent to put mine down, somewhat more gently, and Rick did the same. The three of us then started backing away.

We made it about twenty feet before Joe’s voice came over the speaker again, saying, “That’s far enough, darlin’. You three hold tight, now.” The door of the medical van opened and three technicians in biohazard containment suits emerged. I could hear the chugging of their positive pressure unit as it cycled the air, keeping outside particles from entering their sterile zone.

Moving with the sort of grace that implied hundreds, if not thousands, of hours spent in the bulky suits, the technicians walked over to collect our test kits and beacons, putting three sealed kits in their place. With this accomplished, they retreated, and Joe’s voice called, “Please approach, open the testing units, and stay where you are until you’ve checked out clean.”

“It’s like playing Simon Says,” muttered Shaun as we started forward.

“Where I grew up, Simon didn’t usually have a truck full of napalm pointed at you,” said Rick.

“Pansy,” said Shaun.

The testing units left by the CDC technicians were Apple XH-229s, only slightly less advanced than the top of the line. Shaun whistled low under his breath.

“Wow. We really are a threat.”

“Something like that,” I said. I picked up the first kit and broke the seals with my thumbnail before removing the plastic lid. It was designed to cover my whole hand, all the way to the base of my wrist. There were at least fifteen visible points of contact. Grimacing, I rolled my sleeve up and slid my hand inside.

The mist of antiseptic across my skinned palm was deceptively soothing, a feeling that lasted only a second before needles drove themselves into my already damaged flesh, starting to sift through my blood looking for active viral bodies. The lights began to cycle, moving from red to yellow to green as the more advanced medical processes kicked in.