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Uninvited guest
Laurie’s eyes were glued to the light of her screens. Xander’s head was propped on her shoulder, mouth slightly agape, breathing the slow and steady rhythm of sleep. The cabin lights were long ago darkened and only a few halos of light were scattered among the seats. Laurie detested sleeping on planes. She found them utterly uncomfortable despite the snuggly shoulder of her intern. Really should give him a real title someday. The passage of night mid-atlantic was torturous for her. Therefore, she stared at her screen, reading and consuming with aimless abandon all she could about the pharmaceutical company Natalie tipped her to.

They changed planes in New York. Laurie was never so pleased to see the run down halls of JFK as then. It’d been a good year since walking on State soil (excluding the US Embassy in Sierra Leone). First thing she did was go to McDonalds for a crappy hamburger and coke.

She dozed on the flight to Dallas, but eventually, they landed and the long, torturous taxi across bridges and endless tarmacs finally brought the plane to their terminal. More freshly rested than she was, Xander figured out their transportation to a cheap hotel situated just outside Ft. Worth. The neighborhood wasn’t the best, but you couldn’t go wrong with a Holiday Inn in her opinion. drew enough revenue to pay for their needs (technically including their salaries), but she wasn’t made of money.

Finally, she collapsed on the bed and slept off the jet lag.
Jet lag sucked.

She did all the right things to combat the change in time zone, but they literally traversed the world from one side to the opposite. It was going to take more than a nap and melatonin to get her wake-cycles straight.

Thus, she was awake most of the night, wallet screens hovering like drones, all over her bed. She wore stretchy shorts and a tank-top, her typical sleep wear, and basically became a recluse until she was alive during the daylight. She sat cross-legged in the center of a cocoon of images with a data pad balanced on one knee.  

Just like all human research trials, Orion Pharmacotherapies had to register their projects with a federal overwatch database. They monitored safety and ethical design of human subjects research and it read like a book of stereo instructions – whatever those were.

She scrolled through names of projects that were mostly beyond her comprehension. After the common cold was cured and the company that cured it made a gazillion dollars, others sought the keys to cure all human maladies. If the cold virus with all of its complexities had a real treatment, anything could be cured. Which was why the Sickness was so frustrating to basically the whole world of science. Nobody could cure it.

One study caught her eye, and she clicked on the link to its description page. The title wasn’t outstanding in any particular way. The odd thing was the date of submission.
It was approved in a fraction of the time of all the other projects.

She scrolled the page, making notes on her data pad as she went. The start date of the project was two years ago. There was information about participant recruitment, design and outcomes to achieve. Something to do with cancer lineages and immortalized cancer cell lines.. A long list of researchers populated the identity of the scientists…
Alberto Watt
Eliza Zamora
Gideon Eaton
Alistair Levine
Raul Diaz

Diaz’s name led her to opening yet another screen and looking up his credentials. Dark hair’ed, and big, flashy smile, she already found him irritating just looking at his picture. Nothing seemed unusual so she went back to the first screen.

Approval for the project that seemed to fly through the red tape of federal instutitions came from the office of Roswell Jenkins, a name that sounded familiar though she wasn’t sure why.

When she clicked on his picture, her brows lifted high.

She’d met him before. When she lived in DC, a gala, she remembered it clearly, particularly when she realized she was speaking with a doctor in a room full of politicians. They weren’t common in politics, though not outstandingly rare. He was an upper level administrator at the National Institutes of Health. Given that funding for the institute was cut dramatically in recent decades compared to the glory-days of its height in the early 2000’s, she assumed he was there to advocate for his institution. He was particularly chummy with Holden, the then Speaker of the House..

She added more notes, wrote out some names on the data pad and connected lines between them. Question marks filled the margins.

There was an address for the trial consistent with the headquarters of Orion Pharmacotherapies, but there was a second address listed as “off-site data analysis” – an odd addition. Why wouldn’t they analyze their data at HQ? Was it a collaboration? So she summoned what felt like the fiftieth screen and looked it up, expecting to find some sort of anonymous office building. Instead, the address wasn’t found at all.

Growling, she flicked to a more powerful satellite image server. All public domain, the grid-like view of streets and corners shifted to a 3d birds’ eye view of the surrounding area. She zoomed in, transitioned to walking-view and found herself staring at a chain-link fence, a brick building boarded up with plywood, and a sign dangling from the door that said CLOSED. An old building filled the view while the little symbol hovering overhead linked the correct address. She had no way of knowing what the building was originally.

Obviously that wasn’t right.

The images must be outdated. They must have demolished and rebuilt on the site. Maybe a bill of sale for the lot..? She soon fell down a rabbit hole for records of land sales.


She went back to the map, walked it frame by frame, but they seemed odd. The building’s image wasn’t quite as sharp as the frames up and down the block. More shadows stretched the yard compared to sunny views surrounding it.

Finally, she saw the time stamp in the corner, and she leaned in close to read the tiny print. That confirmed it. Every quadrant around the building had a last-updated satellite frame from 5 months ago. This one was years older.

Why update everything on the map except this one frame? Was it just not worth updating, or was something rebuilt in its place? What exactly was this building and what went on inside there?
The address was probably an hour south of the city and not an easy drive-by. Laurie’s curiosity may get her killed someday, but the next night, she was in a car and speeding along the highway at speeds that made her intern nervous. The car’s GPS – a rental but still reliable – led them to a semi-small town about half way to Waco. What remained of downtown was a short mainstreet and boarded up businesses. A gas station was closed for the night. An old post-office was never demolished – the US Postal Service was was disbanded ten years ago in favor of de-centralized mailing services. Finally, the GPS brought them to a scenery she recognized. The map of the area formed in her head. Sure enough satellite images shown true. They drove toward the brick building, car rolling ever-slower.

When she saw someone standing on a corner, she turned a block premature. The shape carried a rifle at the ready. “Damn, Xander. Did you see that?!” she asked him. He was already snapping pictures.

Laurie circled the area twice more, but never made it closer. The only thing they made out were flood lights, a tall fence, and people standing guards on corners. Guests were clearly unwelcome, which meant Lawrence had to find out what was happening in there as soon as possible.

Frustrated, but not wanting to probe any further, they parked along the curb on main street while she thought. She glanced out the window, studied the old post-office, and promptly got out of the car. A little rummage through the trunk pulled out a crow-bar. It wasn’t long before she shoved open the back door and let herself inside.

Nobody cared about old USPS buildings. Faded grafitti decorated the exterior, nobody came around here in a while. Metal file cabinets lined a stock-room. Xander worriedly held a flashlight over her shoulder as she rummaged through the drawers. ”Bingo,” she said, pulling out a list of mail routes.
In the more hospitable rays of daylight, Lawrence and Xander pulled up to an old farmhouse. She stepped into the sizzling rays of a morning Texas sun, but coming from Moscow, her bare shoulders soaked up the warmth. She wore and jeans and a tank top, but Xander was more comfortable in a polo and khakis. He always tried to look professional, like maybe it would make his cute little baby cheeks seem more grown up.  She was locking the car and slinging a handbag over her shoulder when the creaking of a screen door slammed open.

She paused half way up the walkway, shade of an oak tree shielding the quickly forming sweat on her brow.
“Hello there,” she called ahead. The woman on the front porch stood like a cement post, solid and strong despite the appearance of her age. Her back was only slightly curved, her cheeks leathery and wrinkled from years working in the same sun that warmed Laurie.

“You just hold up right there and tell me what’s your business,” the woman on the porch said.

Laurie lifted a brow curiously and glanced at Xander. His eyes were wide like he worried they’d made a mistake. Lawrence stood where she was until invited to come closer. Apparently this town was more wary of strangers than most.

“Good morning, are you Alma Alondra?” Lawrence asked.

Alma nodded, “Yes,” she answered.

Lawrence tried out a gentle smile. “My name is Lawrence. I’m a reporter doing a story on the decline of the postal service. Can I ask you a few questions about your old routes?” When she noticed Alma’s gaze slide toward Xander, Lawrence quickly added an explanation, kicking her head toward him. “He’s my intern. A puppy dog, I promise… Oh,” she said as the strong jaw of a pit bull pushed its way out the screen door, taking up sentry alongside Alma.

Lawrence smiled, and a few moments later, Alma nodded. “You come on up and we can talk on the porch. Sorry I only got two chairs,” she said, glancing at Xander. The intern only shrugged and squat on the front step, minding the broken boards under his butt.

Laurie joined Alma, catching a glimpse of the living room beyond the screen door. An old wall-mounted tv hung against dated wall-paper, show tuned to soap operas. A lumpy couch had a blanket tossed over the back upon which was curled a sleeping cat. Notably, a shot gun was hung on the wall near the tv.

Guns and pit bulls made for quite the atmosphere at grandma’s house.

She smiled at Xander and sat, not even bothered by the stained cushion tied to her seat. A dead fly rested on a little table between her and Alma. “You want anything to drink, hon?” Alma asked, but Lawrence shook her head. She knew Alma only offered to be polite. Declining was the polite thing to do in return. Alma rested back as the dog laid at her feet.

“Great view from here,” Lawrence said, studying the lawn. The neighbors across the street had a house in worse shape than Alma’s.

“The shade tree is good. Hard to find those around this area.” The dinging of a wind-chime filled the silence between them.

“So how long were you in the service?” Lawrence finally asked, easing into the questions. People loved to talk about themselves, so it usually didn’t take long for folks to open up like a book.

“Twenty-three years,” she said, voice pensive.

“Wow, up until the day they closed?”

Alma nodded. The US postal service was dismantled years ago. “Did you ever get other work after that?”

Alma shook her head, “Nah. Retired. My husband worked up until he died. After that, my granddaughter came and lived with me. Her parents couldn’t support her.” Her voice trailed off, lips downtrodden as she leaned over and pat the dog on the head like they shared an unspoken secret.

Lawrence glanced around them. There was no sign of anyone else living here. “Is your granddaughter at school?” It was a weekday, but that feeling started to float around in her gut. A feeling of wrongness. 

Alma was quiet for longer than Lawrence liked. She finally nodded. Lawrence was dying to ask what happened to the granddaughter, but she dropped the line of questioning for now, sensing it was too soon.

“Well that’s good. Education is important these days. Can you tell me a little bit about your route? Any interesting stories?”

Alma opened up after that. She knew her route like the back of her head, probably could have walked it in the dark with her eyes closed. Of course there were always questionable places, but mail carriers learned to watch for signs of trouble. “Delivering to the school was always fun. When my own kids were younger, I’d see them out at recess when I drove up.” A sad smile touched her lips.

A school. Maybe that’s what the old brick building used to be, but when Lawrence was researching the town, she saw the elementary school was on the western side. “The school over on Jackson road?”  She asked.

Alma shook her head, pointing north. “No, back then it was a few streets over that way. It was always nice to see them outside, playing and having fun. Brightest part of my day.”

Bingo, Lawrence thought, growing excited. The brick building they drove around last night was an old school. The new one must have been rebuilt in the years before the postal service was closed, while Alma’s kids were little. Now she had a granddaughter, meaning the kids were grown. So maybe twenty years ago?

Xander was absently playing with his wallet, screen turned from their view. Hopefully he was looking up the details exactly as Lawrence was thinking about the questions.

“Whatever happened to the old school building? It’s all fenced off, right? Is it under construction?”

Alma glanced, lips pressed to a thin line. The school was the address of Orion Laboratories off-site “data analysis” center, connected to a research trial that slipped through federal regulation like sand through fingers. It was all connected to a guy that Natalie shot her way. Alma knew what it was, but Lawrence was a stranger.

“Come inside, hon.” Alma said as she suddenly got up. Lawrence looked shocked, but waved that Xander should stay outside. He could even have her stained up cushion if he wanted it. She hurried indoors, following Alma before she changed her mind.
Inside was eerily quiet. What stood out the most was the obvious lack of a teenager in the home, or else Alondra kept an incredibly strict household. Judging by the cereal bowl left on the counter and the pile of unfolded blankets on the couch, she doubted that was the case. Men’s workboots were discarded in the corner. A back pack slumped on the table. It was almost like the house was a shrine that Alondra did not want to touch.

She handed Lawrence a piece of paper.
“I found that in my mailbox a while ago.”

Lawrence turned it over. A flyer. These things were banned years ago. Too wasteful in a day and age where electronic versions were practically free. The Orion logo scrawled across the top. Her eyes roamed the content quickly and the pieces glued together.
It was a flyer recruiting participants exhibiting symptoms of the Sickness for a research study. The same study that Lawrence found online.

“Your granddaughter had the sickness,” Laurie said quietly, laying the flyer alongside the backpack. Alondra nodded sadly, but then plucked a photograph from a drawer. Another old-fashioned printout. What was with all the print outs? Lack of digital trace, maybe? No way to connect them to a certain entity, other than the logo?

Laurie took the picture. In it was a girl sitting on a teeter-totter wearing a school uniform. She knew it had to be Alondra’s granddaughter, but the woman was smiling, oddly enough. “That’s only a few weeks old. You see, she’s fine. They’re curing her. They even compensated her for the enrollment.” Lawrence had a feeling the compensation was more of a buy-off than gratitude.

”That’s a playground, isn’t it. It’s the school.” She pointed at the background of the photograph. The girl certainly seemed fine enough, staring into the distance. The teeter totter was tipped under the weight of the teenager. The upper end was empty. Other shapes filled the background, but Lawrence couldn’t make them out other than they also wore plain school uniforms.

Alondra nodded, “yes. I tried to sneak over one day and see if I could see her for myself, but they shoo’d me away and said I could contaminate the study. They sent me this picture a few days later to show me she was okay.”

“The people that chased you away, were they police?” Laurie asked.  Alondra nodded, unconcerned.
“Not police, I don’t think, but they were comforting. I know the kids are safe. This isn’t the best area. Drug problems and stuff.”

Lawrence blinked, “Kids… do you know of more that are … enrolled … in the study?”

Alondra nodded. “Yes, but it’s very hush-hush. If word got out that there was a collection of Sickness victims gathered in one spot, they might be endangered. People are terrified of the Sickness. I only know of one other lady whose kid is also enrolled. She’s from a few towns down the road. I think they recruited locally the most.”

Lawrence thought quickly.  When Alondra turned, Lawrence snuck a photograph of the flyer and playground.

Soon after, she gathered Xander and piled back in the car. First thing she did was call Natalie with an update. This was so weird! Which meant they were on the exact right path.
If the task at hand was to forge a police badge or agency id, Laurie would have it in hand by now. 3d printing one of those was easy as pie these days, mostly because the police departments were too strapped of cash in the USA to purchase the technologies for their officers that were standard on plain drivers’ licenses.

Unfortunately, she was trying to impersonate a doctor from Orion Laboratories, and they were clearly up to their eyeballs in high-end technologies. All she needed was a few minutes inside the research space, just to get a glimpse of what was really going on with those kids then get out safely. She didn’t need to linger for days on end, even if they found out she was a fake, she would hopefully be long gone by then.

This meant she had to call in some favors.

But when they rolled up to the school this time, she was wearing a white lab coat. Her hair was pulled up in a bun, and she wore a skirt and heels like a conservative. Xander followed along in a short lab-coat and his typical polo and khakis.
“This is it, Xander. Game face,” she said, window lowering.

She perched an elbow on the open window, smiling up at the ridiculously over-armed guard that hovered at the gate. He wasn’t particularly impressed by Lawrence’s smile. So instead, she handed over the fake NIH badge that supposedly originated from the office of the Director that signed off on the study in the first place. If someone contacted Orion, it would be a little bit of a delay before anyone followed up with NIH to confirm whether or not they actually sent someone to inspect.

“I’m assessing the efficacy of adding additional therapeutic modalities to the ongoing intervention conducted by Orion,” she added.

The guard scanned the ID with a handheld device, and Lawrence breathed a sigh of relief when green flagged her through.

“Thanks,” she said and raised the window. Xander definitely did not have his game-face on. “Just do what we talked about, Xander. Walking in like you own the place goes gets you most of the way there.” He nodded, scowling his brow over-seriously, but at least it was something of an improvement.

She parked and got out, adjusting the coat around her blouse. Her gaze swept the exterior, but the playground was in back. The front offices of the school were transformed to administrative spaces, but only plainly scrubbed staff milled about. “Keep going until we’re stopped,” she said quietly to Xander.

They headed through the main hall, searching this way and that. The interior of the school was completely updated. The classrooms were locked laboratories now filled to the brim with expensive-looking processing equipment. They passed a drug dispensary and work rooms. But it wasn’t until they passed the cafeteria that the first ‘subjects’ were seen.

She stood there at the entrance, Xander at her side. They both stared. The kids were sitting absolutely still, each self-contained within their little space at the table. Nobody talked to each other. Nobody looked around. They just ate robotically. Sometimes someone would dab a napkin at their lips. When the first one carried their tray to the cleaning station, Lawrence was shocked they had that much autonomy at all.
“it’s like they’re robots,” she said, carefully.

One glanced up at her as she proceeded through the room, but the only sound to be heard was the gentle tapping of silverware and the click of her heels on the linoleum. The eyes that flickered up were empty, though, and returned to eating without recognition. A chill crept up her spine. These were Sickness kids, and they were definitely cured. Maybe cured a little too much.

The playground waited outside, and the creepiness did not recede in the sunshine. If anything, it was worse. Kids sat on swings that moved only in the wind. A girl sat on the teeter-totter like Alondra’s granddaughter like she was completely unaware that it was meant to bounce.

Someone spoke up behind her. Xander jumped with surprise, but Lawrence turned with careful serenity.
“Are you Dr. Greene?” A female asked. She was of Asian-descent, probably mid-50s. She also wore a labcoat, but it was embroidered with the name of Orion Labs on the pocket: Opal Von Stein written there.

Lawrence’s smile hid her humor at the identity, “yes, Rachel. Rachel Greene,” she offered a handshake. “Dr. Von Stein, a pleasure to meet you. I’ve read your reports, and Dr. Jenkins sent me to oversee his suggestions.”

“Really?” Mitzui was surprised. “Thank-you for coming all the way from Baltimore, then. As you can see, our serums work quite well, but full restoration of self-spontaneous neural capacities have been troublesome. They follow verbal commands quite well though.”

Lawrence was absolutely winging this, so it was a relief that name-dropping Jenkins worked. She glanced at Xander, wondering about these verbal commands and spontaneous capacities that Opal described were lacking.

The director glanced curiously at Xander, and Lawrence issued her standard response. “He’s my intern,” which in the medical world, actually fit quite well. Opal hummed a response to herself and asked that they follow her back to her office.

Lawrence obliged, glancing one last time at the freaky playground.

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