“The Rivers of Eden” is a new story from Futurismic alumni Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold. It’s a dark little piece set in a future Waco, Texas.
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The Rivers Of Eden
by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold
Gleaming monitors displayed DNA recombinance in false-color animation. Adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. There was a hypnotic, mechanistic elegance to the rippling strands.
“The four-fold dance flows like the rivers of Eden,” said Dr. Sarahbeth Mitchell, her head bowed as was proper.
“Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates.” Elder Joe McNally’s voice resonated with a deep East Texas accent. “Each rising from the wellspring of existence. Each flowing into the ocean of life.” His fleshy lips slipped into a smile not echoed in the droopy folds around his pale eyes. “Not unlike faith itself.”
“Not unlike faith itself,” she repeated.
To hell with faith and to hell with McNally. At least she had her work — including the work she concealed from her sponsors. She had often wondered about the wisdom of her decision to join the Davidites in order to avoid the Caliphate, but soon, very soon, her work would make them both history.
The Elder clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels in a imitation of reflectiveness. “Have you ever wondered why we have both faith and free will, Miss Mitchell?”
That was a joke — the only free will left in the world was distributed among those immune to or uninfected by the Tawhid plague. Not to mention that McNally was totally uninterested in the free will of others: his project, dancing there on the screens in front of them, was a new plague, one that would reimprint the temporal lobes, sabotaging the Establishment in favor of the message of Christianity. A complex problem, on a par with the Tawhid plague itself, with the added difficulty of improving the meme-bombs so that they launched imperatives rather than suggestions. McNally’s plague of faith was to be reinforced with strong social messages, calling Christians from their underground bunkers and remote compounds in a holy tide of arms controlled by McNally himself.
And making the whole world like this hell where she dwelled, this fundamentalist enclave on the fringes of the New Islamic World Order.
“As a simple woman, it is not given to me to think on questions of religious philosophy,” she said.
McNally chuckled. His shiny black shoes moved out of her line of vision as he began to pace the lab. “I didn’t mean the masses out there, you know — I meant those like you and me, the ones who can still make decisions. The ones who can change the course of the world.”
“I would not presume, Elder.” But of course she would. There were plagues and there were plagues, and McNally wasn’t the only one who wanted one from her. Her progressive contacts in the Islamic underground outside the compound wanted a plague that attacked the temporal lobes and rewrote the mental software of faith back to a simulacrum of old-fashioned religious free will. Undoing the biological chains of the Tawhid plague and undermining the Establishment, but retaining the power and virtues of faith.
Sarahbeth had other plans. Her plague would do away with them all — the Davidites, the Caliphate, the world as a reflection of God’s word. If He existed, surely He had not meant His creation to come to this. Then let people find faith in the light of reason, if it was there to be found. Sarahbeth doubted that very much.
She had developed a modified coronavirus sufficiently distinct from the wild versions to avoid existing immunities, then built on some of the original Lebanese programming from the Tawhid plague for her own work. She had over two thousand strains, all tested in high-resolution emulation of the human body and brain.
Now she needed a human test subject.
The sound of McNally’s footsteps stopped behind her as he laid his meaty hands on her shoulders in a gesture which could be interpreted as friendly, but which she knew was not. “With our free will, we are the ones who can act as God’s agents,” he murmured close to her ear.
Sarahbeth forced herself not to squirm. “In faith, Elder.”
On the monitors, gene sequences continued to flow in twinned spiraling streams, the four rivers of Eden transforming into a wavering, particolored snake.
All this Eden needed now was an apple.
Norman Patenaude watched eagerly through the window as Dr. Sarahbeth Mitchell walked across the square of the former Baylor University campus. Her head was meekly lowered as befitted a modest woman, her dark skirt swinging around her calves. She was easily twice his age, but there were few women in the compound as pretty.
Luckily, he was saved from the sinful thoughts teasing him by the ring of the duty phone at his elbow.
“Sons of David,” Norman said in English — God’s language. “It’s a great day in the firm hand of the Lord.” Then, in Arabic, “How may I serve you, God willing?”
“Praise be his name,” responded the caller, also in Arabic. Norman felt his stomach tighten, in a different direction than it had at the sight of Dr. Mitchell. The Davidites were tolerated by the Emirate of Texas and Oklahoma, but that did not change the fact that Norman’s parents had been killed during the Establishment Wars, fighting the Muslims in the Battle of Baton Rouge.
The caller switched to English. “Hello Norman. How’s the God business today?” It was Billy Mahmoud Finnegail, director of security for the Emirate in Waco. The Caliphate might tolerate the Christian enclaves, but they kept close tabs on them nonetheless.
“Same as ever,” Norman said.
“We’ve had some reports of interesting activity among the Davidites,” Billy said casually. “Does the phrase ’Rivers of Eden’ mean anything to you?”
If he waited too long before answering, he would give himself away. “No, sir.” Bearing false witness was a sin, even unto the enemies of the Lord; nonetheless, he deliberately paused for consideration, as he had been trained during his three years with the Security Deacon before he joined Elder McNally’s personal service. “I mean, Genesis 2, I guess. Like in the Koran too.” Now pause for puzzlement. “Should it mean something?” He was innocent of incorrect thought or wrongdoing.
Billy laughed. “I was asking you, Norman. Peace.”
Sarahbeth sat alone in the unmarried women’s refectory, eating a Granny Smith. The crisp flesh of the apple melted on her tongue with a bracing sourness laced with sweet, making her smile. It was almost midnight, and most of the chairs were stacked on the tables. Food banks blinked and hummed along one wall, and the lights were already dimmed.
Another bite, and she found the pip she’d been looking for. A hair-fine filament curled from one end. Sarahbeth dug it out of the apple and slipped it into the mesh covering her hair, tucking back a stray strand in case anyone was watching from the shadows of the refectory.
The familiar current pulsed from her hairnet into her cerebral cortex, gold-bearing complex organic molecules embedded in her glial cells serving as an antenna. The template for the engineered molecules had originally been deposited there by a transient virus. The signal was picked up and routed by the pirate neural chain to a bioprocessor the size of a rice grain, itself a carefully engineered growth-limited cancer introduced by yet another virus. The bioprocessor assembled the signal into sensory inputs, which were then injected into her Wernicke’s area and the corresponding regions of her visual cortex.
“My friend,” said her handler, an anonymous woman who always wore a burqa. The garb made Sarahbeth want to shudder, but her handlers were able to manipulate her flow of supplies, and so she played along with their wishes. And when it came right down to it, the burqa was less threatening than the hair net and the long skirts she was forced to wear here in McNally’s tiny empire.
The language the woman spoke seemed to be English, though with the symbolics of preprocessed speech, that wouldn’t have to be the case. Sarahbeth used to fear embedded programming, having her brain hacked, but once she realized that McNally hacked her consciousness on a daily basis without benefit of cutting edge biotech, it had become the lesser of two evils.
Her handler continued. “We have grown concerned about your recent reticence. Inbound resource shipments suggest that matters will soon be resolved. This cannot be tolerated without authorization. If you do not contact us, extreme measures will be taken. In four days, seek an orange with three scars on one end.”
The woman flickered and was gone, subsumed into the shadows of the refectory.
Sarahbeth stared at the spot where the image had disappeared. Somehow, her handlers had noticed that she was not playing entirely by their rules, probably by doing pattern analysis on the biologicals coming into the compound. Lately, Elder McNally had been stocking up on culture bases, preparing to go from experimental development to full-scale production. He had clever men responsible for burying the details of her work in a flood of random orders for related genetic feedstock, chemicals, and equipment.
Apparently not clever enough.
Her contacts wanted their plague, and soon. But what would they do if they didn’t get it?
She was almost ready; she could promise without delivering, and by the time her own plague hit the streets, it wouldn’t matter anymore.
Sarahbeth pulled a Davidite-approved postcard from her bag. With an old-fashioned ink pen, she wrote a note to her sister — a note that would be read by her handlers as well, who would find hidden meanings in the loops and whorls of her wavering cursive. It was time for a little less reticence.
The rivers are ready to flow, her code said to those with eyes to read it.
It was hot, hotter even than usual for a summer in Waco. Norman Patenaude was off the phone shift for a change, and despite the heat, he had taken the mail he was supposed to censor out to the grounds to sit beneath a wilting pecan tree. After less than half an hour he was already beginning to regret it. The high walls around the Davidite compound blocked any hope of a breeze, and the asphalt paths through the grounds softened and stank beneath the summer sun. The limestone walls and red tile roofs of the Spanish revival buildings wavered in the heat. Even the turkey vultures had found a place to hide, while he was here of his own free will, sweat running down his shirt and the nose-tingling stink of traffic hissing by on the other side of the compound wall.
Another dozen postcards, and he would go back inside. Postcards were only allowed to those in good standing with the Deacons — message on one side, address on the other. No envelopes to hide secrets from the Lord or the Security Deacon.
Two requests for interlibrary loans of books Norman had never heard of — Fifth Head of Cerberus and Mysterious America. Both sounded vaguely sinful. He set the cards aside for the Deacon to review.
Three pen-pal notes, each with the discreet green dot of the Outreach Deacon on the bottom left corner — those went into the outgoing bin. No one had yet been converted as a result of the writing campaign, but it gave the children something to do.
A note to someone’s sister asking about her health, followed by a verse from Ecclesiastes: “unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” Norman flipped the card over.
Dr. Sarahbeth Mitchell. One of Elder McNally’s “specials.”
Norman didn’t know what the “Rivers of Eden” project was exactly, but Dr. Mitchell worked on it and it was important. Finnegail had said the words just yesterday on the phone. The Security Deacon had been mighty upset when Norman reported the brief conversation.
Now Dr. Mitchell was sending a message to the outside, to the unsaved — talking about rivers.
Normally a verse from the Bible wouldn’t have set off any alarm bells, but Finnegail had just mentioned the Rivers of Eden project. And now this. Norman knew he should take the card to the Security Deacon, tell him his suspicions, but he couldn’t shake off the sight of Dr. Mitchell hurrying across the lawn the other day, meek and proud at the same time. He knew she didn’t really believe. She was tolerated because she was special, one of those who did God’s work despite her faith instead of because of it. Dr. Mitchell had been some kind of big deal professor before the Final American Establishment, and like a lot of women, she’d been terrified of the burqa, the Shariat, and all the evil stories about the Caliphate.
And now she was inside Elder McNally’s walls for life. When the Female Accountability Decree had first been issued, Dr. Mitchell had signed herself over to the Elder’s custody, desperate to avoid being forced into an Islamic marriage on the outside. He’d read all about it in her security file.
Norman liked to read the files on pretty women.
If he went to her with the card, would she be grateful? He knew what she would go through if he took it to the Security Deacon. No, he couldn’t do that: he’d seen the sadness around her eyes when she was meek. Those lovely eyes didn’t need any more occasions for sadness.
He slipped the card in his pocket and went looking for Dr. Mitchell.
Sarahbeth sat on a cedar bench protected from the heat by wild rose and mustang grape vines, contemplating the tailoring of viruses and the unfairness of life. Two decades ago when she’d been in graduate school, work on human subjects was forbidden to American researchers. With no such constraints, Indian and Lebanese biotech had rapidly outstripped that of the U.S. and Europe. Their leading edge technology had created the Tawhid plague in a gray market lab in Aleppo, Syria, and soon it had been exploited by the Caliphate. The Establishment Wars swept the world, the plague creating a sudden army of the faithful, and then came the 30th Amendment to the Constitution and America’s joyful accession to the Shariat.
All because some true believers in the Middle East had played around with viral architecture — and had no laws limiting their research.
“Dr. Mitchell?” A young man interrupted the useless thoughts, the past that couldn’t be changed. At least she had a future to live towards.
She turned her attention to the pale-skinned redhead with the big ears. She’d seen him before, following Elder McNally around.
Sarahbeth bowed her head. “It’s Miss Mitchell, sir.” She would be dutiful; this close to the end of everything and the beginning of everything else, she must remain obedient.
“I’m not a ’si-sir,’” he stuttered.
She didn’t raise her head. “You are a man grown.” Although little more than a boy. “I am an unmarried woman. I owe you my obedience. How may I serve you…sir?” To her chagrin, she couldn’t resist that little pause at the end.
His feet shuffled on the pavement in front of her and she heard him gulp. “P-please look up. And call me Norman.”
“That would be improper.” Women did not look men in the eye when speaking; that had been drilled into her often enough by now.
“Please.” He sounded almost desperate. In another time and place, his post-adolescent urgency might have been amusing, even endearing, but here, now, he had McNally’s ear.
Making him a loaded gun.
She looked up. “How may I serve you, Norman?”
The young man handed her something — the card to her sister. Her message to her contacts outside who were threatening extreme measures if they didn’t hear from her.
If this postcard didn’t get sent, her time was running out.
“I’m the mail censor this week,” he said, his voice wobbling.
Sarahbeth forced herself to sound amused. “My sister’s health is hardly a subject of apostasy.”
“No, ma’am, I suppose not. It’s just…”
Repressing the guilt she felt at the gesture, she took Norman’s hand in both of hers, glancing around first to be sure they weren’t being watched. But the climbing roses and vines to either side protected them, keeping out the hot Central Texas winds and prying, zealot eyes.
She stroked his wrist with her thumb and saw him swallow. Given the way the rank-and-file Davidites were treated, Sarahbeth was willing to bet Norman hadn’t been touched by a woman since his mother last hugged him. “What is it you want, Norman?”
“Ma’am, I…it’s the Rivers of Eden, ma’am.” His voice tumbled in a squeaky rush. “They know.”
Her fingers tightened involuntarily around his hand, and it felt as if the saliva had magically disappeared from her throat. Who were they? She licked her lips. “I’m sure I don’t understand…Norman.”
“Ma’am, I know it’s a special project, you’re working on it, the Security Deacon’s furious because Billy Finnegail asked about it, and now you’re sending mail about rivers outside right after that and there’s been a security breach and there could be all kinds of trouble and I just wanted to see if you were okay.” He took a deep breath.
“Norman.” She dropped her head again, assuming the aspect of meekness while her grip tightened around his wrist. “I’m afraid.” At least that much was true. “I need a man to protect me. What should I do?”
Her own skin crawled at her words, but Norman twitched so hard Sarahbeth wondered if he was close to orgasm. The celibacy imposed on the young Davidite men was a form of slow torture. Of course, women had it worse beneath them, but then a woman did not have the moral integrity to be her own agent, ever — something on which the Davidites and the Caliphate were in whole-hearted agreement.
Sarahbeth fought back the bitterness she battled constantly just as Norman yanked his hand out of hers, his face red and his breathing heavy. “Ma’am, I can’t approve this card, but I…I can lose it.”
At that, he turned, stumbling in his hurry to flee temptation, running off past the draggled row of pecan trees and into the nearest building.
With a sigh, she followed him.
Norman burst through a set of double doors without seeing where he was going, fleeing his shame, the hot pounding of his heart and the sinful straining of his crotch. Dr. Mitchell had turned to him in need and sweet innocence, and he had responded with lust beyond any he had ever known before.
He kept running, finally stopping halfway down the hall, and leaned against the wall, taking a deep breath. Here it was cool and dry, the opposite of outside.
Shoes squeaked on the tiles and he turned. It was Dr. Mitchell, drawing him to her like the sun drew a planet into orbit.
“This building is restricted,” she said. “Do you think it’s wise for you to be here?”
“I didn’t think, I just ran.” From you. His voice faltered. “My sm-smart badge. It allows access. B-because I’m on the Elder’s staff.”
“I know that.” She sighed. Fingers brushed his shoulder then dropped away again. “But the things I’m working on in my lab are dangerous.”
Norman didn’t answer at first, his mind playing around what he knew, his face hot from the brief touch of her fingers. “You were immune to the Tawhid Plague.” He remembered that from her file.
She nodded. “I caught the infection, but something didn’t take.”
“The plague didn’t take for my mom and dad either,” he said. “They were killed in the Battle of Baton Rouge. Afterwards, my aunt sent me here and the plague died out.” He looked into the doctor’s eyes. “But that’s what you’re doing with the Rivers of Eden. Making a new plague. A Christian plague.”
The doors of the building opened again, and Elder McNally entered with several of the Security Deacon’s men, hard-eyed body-builders with bright smiles.
Norman and Dr. Mitchell started apart as if they had been locked in an intimate embrace. In his imagination, they had been, and the thought was as bad as the deed.
The elder stopped next to them, shaking his head. “Norman, I won’t have you distracting Miss Mitchell.”
Dr. Mitchell bowed her head. “Sir, this is my doing.”
McNally gave an amiable chuckle. “I can’t discipline you. The Lord needs your skills too much.”
Norman’s stomach twisted; McNally was quite capable of punishing him for his fantasies.
Or what if they had monitored the conversation? What if they were aware that Norman knew too much? He didn’t want to think what would happen to him then.
“Leave him here,” the doctor said, her eyes still respectfully lowered. “He will be patient zero. We’ve discussed the need for a human subject to confirm the simulations.”
McNally smiled, shaking his head slowly, a gesture of disbelief. “I do declare, Miss Mitchell, sometimes I think the good Lord might have erred when He did not make you a man.”
Norman didn’t agree — Dr. Mitchell was perfect as she was. And now he would be near her as her patient zero, whatever that was.
“Give him a cot here,” McNally said to one of the security men. “And take his badge. He doesn’t leave this lab without my personal approval.”
McNally stared at Norman. “Pray on this son. Pray hard.”
Then the Elder and his followers swept away in a tide of pale robes and dark linen suits, without a backward glance.
The next afternoon, Sarahbeth received a delivery she hadn’t expected. Two kilos of chilled agar, several dozen test packets of varying grades of fertilizer, and a small brown envelope of seed.
She tore open the envelope. Sure enough, the seeds had the telltale filaments. Her postcard hadn’t gotten through, and now her outside contacts wanted to talk.
Norman lay on his cot, reading his Bible, paying her little attention for a change. She sat down on a stool in front of one of her lab benches, a notebook in front of her, and slipped one of the seeds into the mesh of her hairnet. There was the familiar pulse of current before her handler flickered into being.
The image of the woman in the burqa was noisy and the resolution lower than normal; they’d rushed the message.
“Since we have not heard from you, we must regard your situation as unstable. You will have to abort the work. Set a fire to the lab within forty-eight hours of receiving this message, large enough that the Waco Fire Department will respond. We will have colleagues on the fire crew who will try to find you and get you out. Otherwise, we will have to storm the compound.”
And with that, the woman in the burqa was gone.
Sarahbeth leaned back, staring at the place where her messenger had been. Everything was moving too fast — her contacts were forcing her hand.
She swiveled in her chair to face the young man she had taken responsibility for. “Norman.”
He looked up from his bible with a smile, his trust — love even — transforming his homely features. Sarahbeth repressed a sigh.
“It’s almost time for you to be patient zero.”
He put his Bible aside and came over to her, touching her elbow, gentle, shy. “That’s my job now, isn’t it?”
She nodded and rose. “Yes, it is.” It seemed unfair that she had to use this trusting boy-man to carry out her plans, but taking fairness too much into account was how Western Civilization had gotten where it was today.
She went to the freezer banks and gazed at the vials, over a decade’s worth of work.
132. What her outside contacts wanted. Induced low-grade fever, temporary amnesia followed by lassitude, then a shift in temporal lobe chemistry and a wipe of selected memory tags in the cortex and hindbrain. That variant essentially erased the effects the Tawhid plague and rebooted the software of faith, the routines in the human subconscious that responded to prayer and meditation with a sense of being touched by divinity.
384. What McNally wanted. Also induced low-grade fever, with seizures likely in eight to ten percent of the population. Then a boost to the software of faith, along with spreading Christian memes via mRNA meme-bombs of unparalleled virulence. Mandatory believers, at levels deeper than even the Tawhid Plague had managed.
599. Her virus. Her solution. Similar pathology to the other viruses. Plus the use of a different class of mRNA meme-bombs to entirely wipe faith from the human consciousness, replace it with rational processes and an open path to self-knowledge. No better, probably, than what had gone before, not in a moral sense, but 599 was as close as she could come to restoring freedom of thought and belief to this world. Unfortunately, her virus had unstable side effects, including the possibility of retrograde amnesia going back ten, maybe even fifteen years.
599 also had a completely false data trail, both in her lab notebooks and on the computer systems. Not that anyone from McNally’s security team who had ever audited her had enough genetics to understand what they were reading.
Sarahbeth checked out one of her two vials of 599 and set it in the fast-breeder. “You’ll get your chance soon, Norman. I’m brewing up a test batch for you.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Just wait for now.”
He sat down again, still trusting, and she dialed the fast-breeder to maximum production.
Norman came out of the little toilet cubicle in the lab to find Dr. Mitchell watching him with a smile on her face. His breath hitched in his chest, and to his shame he could feel his face flush.
That smile didn’t mean anything, he told himself. His heartbeat didn’t listen. “Ma’am?” he said, his voice cracking like an old egg.
“It’s time, Norman,” she said.
His crotch strained, causing his blush to deepen.
“For you to be patient zero,” she added gently.
“Oh.” He sat down on his cot and crossed his legs, praying for the hard-on to go away. To distract himself, he gazed around the large room: the row of windows on one wall, the tables and racks of gleaming glassware, the metal stands and electronic test equipment, the cluster of monitors and computers at one end.
She perched next to him, tucking a swirl of her brown hair into her hairnet. She was so close he could feel her warmth, smell her female scent. Her breath stirred the tiny hairs on his right forearm. Dr. Mitchell took his hand and started rubbing his knuckles.
“A long time ago,” she said, “when I was trained, we had—”
“Not that long ago, ma’am,” Norman blurted.
She actually laughed at that, her hazel eyes bright and wide for a moment as her shoulders drew back and her chin came up. That was when Norman knew he loved Dr. Mitchell, not just with a sinful yearning of the flesh, but soul to soul. In the eyes of the Lord.
“Shhh,” She touched her lips with one finger.
For a moment, he thought she might touch his, too.
“A while ago,” Dr. Mitchell continued, “however long that was, we had a thing called ‘informed consent.’” Now she looked sad again, with her usual frown and slumped shoulders. “That’s been gone since the Establishment. But I’m something of a traditionalist.”
“&;lsquo;Informed consent,’ ma’am?” This time his voice didn’t crack.
“That means I tell you what I’m going to do before I do it.” She squeezed his hand. “Here in the lab, I mean.”
“Yes.” Dr. Mitchell looked at the floor, almost mumbling. “I need to infect a human, to see how it progresses outside the simulations.”
He shivered. “What will it do to me?”
“Faith, Norman,” said Dr. Mitchell. “Have faith. This will set you free.”
“Kind of like the truth does, huh?”
“Ever wonder why the rivers flowed away from Eden?” she asked quietly. “Why would water flee perfection?”
Then Dr. Mitchell dropped his hand. She walked back to her bench — that’s what she called it, though it didn’t look anything like a bench to Norman. There she sliced an apple and set it onto a tray along with a large syringe. She stood there, breathing, staring down at the tray for a while, then brought it back to him.
“Have some apple. “ Dr. Mitchell slipped a piece into his mouth, her fingers brushing his lips, and he shuddered. Then she tugged his right sleeve up from his biceps almost to his shoulder, and swabbed his skin with alcohol.
He chewed the apple as she picked up the syringe. “Is this informed consent, Dr. Mitchell?”
“No,” she said, and plunged the needle into his arm.
Patient zero developed a fever of 39.4 degrees within an hour of injection, Sarahbeth noted in her lab book early the next morning. Patient has since stabilized slightly below 39 degrees. Seems to be resting comfortably. Introduced saline drip at 18:30 hours.
She’d only needed to wait about eighteen hours until Norman entered the infectious stage. Though he was dozing, his nose had started running. He’d even sneezed twice already.
What she didn’t record was that she’d spent part of the night on the cot with him, holding him, pretending…what? That he was a son? A lover? She’d never had a child, and the few tussles she’d had with fellow students, grad students, and assistant professors before the Establishment of the Caliphate hardly qualified as the other. When she was young, she’d been too driven to devote enough time to a relationship, and now there was no opportunity. Not unless she fancied the prison of marriage, or being stoned as an adulteress.
So she’d held Norman while he moaned and tossed, hadn’t pushed his hands away when he found her hips, not knowing what exactly possessed her. It certainly didn’t feel like desire, but it did feel like tenderness.
And she had to smile when even in his sleep Norman twitched nervously as his hands strayed.
Now the sun had come, and with it, the rusty-hinge song of the grackles in the pecan trees outside her lab window, screeching the dawn of the first pulsing heat of the day. Bells tolled for prayer, for breakfast, for the first shift, all these bells, always demanding something of her. Beyond the walls, the muezzins wailed morning prayer as all traffic stopped and thousands of doors clicked open, thousands of people knelt in prayer on the roads and sidewalks, their clothes rustling and settling about them. She could hardly remember a time without bells and wails, and at the same time, that long-vanished blessed silence filled her waking dreams.
Sarahbeth turned and looked over at Norman. His pale complexion was flushed, and sweat generously graced his temples. She buried her face in her hands. What if something was wrong with her virus? What if there were adverse side-effects…or Norman were killed? He was just a kid, he had no idea. Her virus was supposed to set him free, but did he need that?
She shook her head and rose. Fire. She had to set a fire. She had set the process in motion, but she needed outsiders to complete the circle, to be infected with her plague and spread it beyond the compound and far into the world with a message of individual moral responsibility.
Her contacts had said they would come for her disguised as emergency workers, but that was immaterial now. What mattered was the virus, sweeping north to Dallas and the plains beyond, and south across the hot Texas Hill Country to Austin.
Sarahbeth began to gather her lab notes, some shelf liner, a pile of paper smocks — anything that would burn. She built the pile on her lab bench next to the tray with the empty syringe and the withered brown apple slices. The door creaked open behind her and she turned.
Elder McNally. Alone.
“You never returned to your dormitory last night, Miss Mitchell,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “Were you, ah, training your patient?”
Sarahbeth repressed the sharp retort she would have liked to throw at him and bowed her head. “I need to monitor his condition. He’s in the mid-course of the infection.”
“384, I trust?”
Her head shot up and she stared at McNally, her hands growing suddenly cold. Had she ever shared the viral family lists with him?
“I’m not such an idiot as you think,” McNally said, as if she’d asked the question aloud. “The labels on the vials in your lab freezers are there for anyone to read.”
She drew a ragged breath. “You have no idea what those different virus families are.”
“Yes,” the Elder said, “I do.”
She gazed at him, unable to answer.
He stared back, storm-gray eyes calm as a prayer. “384 is the plague of faith, the plague that will bring light back into a world of darkness. The Rivers of Eden. Do you want to tell me what are the other two are?”
“Strains that didn’t work out.”
“And what will the results be if we test that?”
Once again, she had no answer.
McNally advanced on her with a graceless lumber, one heavy hand coming down on each shoulder. “I’ve always admired you, Miss Mitchell,” he said softly. “I might be persuaded to be lenient in the matter of your attempted betrayal. To that end I’ve left orders we, ah, not be disturbed.”
Her stomach roiling, she feigned acquiescence. “But what about Norman?”
His hands slid from her shoulders to her waist. “He’s in the course of the infection, is he not? He won’t notice.”
Sarahbeth allowed her hips to be drawn forward until her pelvis touched his. Pretending to support herself on the table, she reached behind her for the syringe. In one smooth motion, she brought it up and stabbed Elder McNally in the eye.
His scream could probably be heard throughout the compound; she would have to work fast. Ignoring the Elder where he lay on the floor of the lab, writhing and moaning, she pulled Norman up from his cot, and dragged him to the windows of the lab.
Norman groaned and put a hand to his forehead. “Huh… Where am I? Who are you?”
She tugged open a window. “A friend. And this is an emergency. You need to get away from this building.”
He gazed at her blankly as she pushed him out into the bushes.
Muttering something strangely like a prayer, Sarahbeth closed the window again behind him.
One hand pressed to his eye, McNally was trying to get up as he cried and cursed. Sarahbeth snatched a ring stand off the lab bench, raised it high, and slammed the heavy cast-iron base into McNally’s head. She hit him a few dozen more times just to be sure, and then threw up in the corner of the lab.
When she stopped gagging, she opened four gas jets one by one. “I name you Pison,” she told the first jet. The next was Gihon, then Hiddekel, and finally Euphrates. At the last, she wiped away the tears streaming down her face with the back of her hand. “Flow, rivers of Eden, flow.”
Luckily, there was still no sign of Security. Sarahbeth slipped down next to a silent, cooling McNally with the lighter in one hand and allowed herself the luxury of telling him in vivid detail exactly what she thought of him. She could barely breathe from the reek of the gas when she finally heard the sound of running, booted feet down the hall.
Sarahbeth smiled and clicked the lighter.
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