Rosa stared at her computer monitor. Her heart raced, fear soured her mouth, and her hands shook. Twenty minutes. She had twenty minutes to justify her existence, or else she would be ejected from the top secret facility, or… Air locked in her lungs. Or she could find herself a lab rat in one of the other scientist’s experiment.
The perky ’50’s housewife would probably demand it, rejoice in using Rosa as a control subject. The witch.
The screen flickered to life. This satellite feed was in color. Verdant forests. Gray granite patches of bald mountain. Snow-capped peaks. Longitude and latitude coordinates scrolled like gibberish along the bottom. Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. The camera focused on a meadow, then backed out. Motion disturbed the dots of clearing in the woods.
Here we go again.
Two opposing forces raced toward the pasture. Her fingers twitched. She should mark the tribes, allow the computer to distinguish them in the upcoming battle. And for what reason? To learn nothing. Again.
Rosa stabbed the mouse button. The video paused. She needed something that would make a difference in the hearing to come. Anything. Heck, she’d settle for a mothership or gray aliens. She propped her chin in her palm and hit the play button. If she discovered the reason why the crazies rushed headlong into battle, maybe she could save her neck, along with the rest of her.
The northern crazies jumped the zig-zag line of wood fence bordering the pasture. The wind blew, whipping through pine boughs. Sunlight sparked on metal. A shed. They were racing for a shed. Big whoop.
She minimized the video. She was so screwed. Hanging her head below her shoulders, she clutched it between her palms. Squeezing counteracted the pressure threatening to blow the top off her skull.
Tears burned her eyes. She blinked then scrunched her lids together to hold back the moisture. She was a Robelski. She would not give anyone the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
The door lock clicked.
Throwing her shoulders back, she straightened and raised her chin. She was ready.
The light on the black box by the door shifted from red to green. A smile fled Marcus Westmoreland’s face as he stepped into the lab. “What is it? What’s happened?”
Marcus. He was the reason she was here. What would happen to him if she got voted off the island? But she knew. He would remain at the mercy of one black-haired witch.
“Solange.” The woman’s name was a razor blade in Rosa’s throat.
“Solange?” Marcus wrinkled his nose. “I thought I smelled something foul. What did that bitch want this time?”
Closing the door, he leaned against it. If only he could keep the world out forever. But the world, or more importantly the council, waited for her in ten minutes.
“Rosa? What did the cow want?”
“Oh, you know. The usual.” Rosa went for casual, but her voice cracked like an egg dropped from thirty-thousand feet. “My head on a platter.”
Snorting, Marcus reached for her hand. “Like that’s going to happen.”
She tucked her hands under her armpits. Touching him now, just when she was about to lose him, was cruel beyond words. “I don’t see how you can prevent it.”
“Is that a challenge? You know I always rise to a challenge.” Marcus was not the kind to accept no for an answer.
Being armed with gobs of money must do that to a person. How many people had actually told a Westmoreland no? Few, she’d bet, even during the apocalypse they still wielded power. But this time she didn’t see how he would have a choice.
He dropped to his knees in front of her. Gently, he pried her hands free then clasped them in his own. “Tell me what happened, then we’ll brainstorm our options, weigh the pros and cons, then win the battle, and maybe banish that dragon Solange once and for all.”
Her lips twitched. The fool always had to introduce a nerdy element into every serious conversation. “I’m being asked to give a presentation on my research in front of the general and the others.”
Lines appeared in Marcus’s forehead. “And?”
And? And? Wasn’t that enough? Didn’t he understand? “Hello. My research isn’t currently producing results. Not a one. You heard the rumors. Budget cuts. My project may be cut.”
She flinched at the harsh word and deadlier repercussions.
“O-Kay.” He drew out the syllables, indicating he clearly didn’t see. “Lots of us have been asked to give updates on our work.”
Pushing out of her chair, she paced the lab. The soft soles of her sneakers snicked along the linoleum. She milked her fingers, prayed for inspiration. “Yes, but you have numbers. Hard data. Graphs and pie charts. Bullshit to bamboozle them with.”
She had videos. Showing the same thing time after time.
Marcus shadowed her movements. “DNA doesn’t actually lend itself to pie charts. And even then, I haven’t crunched most of the data. I’ve just been generating it.”
“Yes, but you’re generating numbers. Stuff.” She shook her hands. Why couldn’t he understand? He was normally smarter than this. “My study hasn’t gone anywhere. They’re going to kick me out. You know what happens if I have to go out there?”
She froze. God, it didn’t even bear thinking about. Stars twinkled in her peripheral vision. Great. Now, she’d forgotten how to breathe.
Marcus wrapped his arms around her. Bracing his feet apart, he anchored her in place. “Hey, now. You aren’t going anywhere. And what is with this talk about your research not having produced any results? Balderdash. Pure and simple balderdash.”
She flapped her arms. If only she could fly way from this place, all her problems would be solved. Right. That was crazy talk. The loco-train wouldn’t stop running just because she could fly. She folded her arms over Marcus’s. Breathe. She had to breathe.
Marcus pressed a kiss into her hair. “That’s better. Now, what did Solange actually say?”
Rosa inhaled deeply. Keep to the facts. Don’t mention the need to pile drive the woman into the last century. “She said I’m nothing more than a glorified secretary, and they have enough secretaries. She said the council wants to see me.”
“But she didn’t mention anything about projects being cut?”
“Not in so many words.” Rosa pursed her lips. Really? She needed his support, not him poking holes in her theories. “But she did point out that I’m not a doctor with a fancy string of letters behind my name.” Or maybe that was the janitor. Same difference. “Why not get rid of me?”
Marcus kissed her ear, then shifted away. “You’re the only one whose research has produced anything concrete.” He flapped a hand at the DNA sequencer sitting on the lab bench. “I have been so busy running samples that I haven’t actually had time to process any of the data. Or look for meaning in the gobs of information I’ve produced. And I’m hardly the only one.”
She stepped away then pivoted about to face him. “Yes, but—”
“No, buts.” Marcus shook his finger at her. “We’re a team. If they’re crazy enough to cut your project, then I have plenty of work for us to do together. No secretary can do that.”
Blowing her bangs out of her eyes, she planted her fists on her hips. “So you think they will cut my project because I’m not producing results?”
He stared at the drop ceiling and moved his mouth as he counted to three. “Why do you keep letting Solange get to you?
“Why? Why?” She wanted to ram her elbow into his gut or stomp on his instep. “You’ve seen her. You know what she’s like.”
Beautiful. Smart. Manipulative as all get out. But the thing that really stuck in Rosa’s craw was that it worked. Almost everyone in the facility rushed to do her bidding.
“I see an ugly, manipulative bitch, who uses people then discards them like dirty underwear. And so does General Simbury.”
She grunted. The general had actually snapped at Solange a few times. Perhaps…
Marcus opened his arms. “Now come here. We need to be calm for the upcoming meeting and holding you usually works.”
It did, but… She tapped her foot. Damn it. If this was their last embrace, she didn’t want to ruin it by being stupid or having a temper tantrum. Stumbling forward, she landed in his arms. “So, General Simbury is immune to her dubious charms, but what about all the other men with brass on their shoulders?”
Her fate lay in more than one set of hands.
Marcus held her close, then stroked her back. “If they kick you out, I’m going, too. I can have a plane on the tarmac before we pack our stuff. After four months buried ten times deeper than a corpse, I fancy some sunshine. What do you say to an all expenses paid vacation on my family’s private island? We can go skinny dipping without fear of encountering any crazies.”
“Sounds like paradise.” Closing her eyes, she buried her face in his neck.
“Or we could join your family in Arizona.”
Her family. Her family? God, they would know she was a failure. She was not a failure. She straightened in his arms.
He flashed her wicked smile. “There’s the fighter I fell in love with.”
Love. Love? Neither of them had ever mentioned love before, not once in the four months they had been together. She swallowed. Hard.
“What?” He leaned back, snaring her in his gaze. “Did you think this was just an end of the world fling?”
Had she? No, she’d thought… Now was not the time for this conversation. But they might not have another opportunity. She gripped his firm buttocks and squeezed. “You have the worst timing.”
“Me? I have the best timing ever. Doctor Who envies my timing.”
Tension unlocked her shoulders. “You asked me out on a date when the apocalypse began. And now just as I’m about to be fed to the crazies, you tell me you love me. That’s bad timing, or you want a relationship but not one that lasts for very long.”
He exhaled slowly. “I did not hear you love me back. Maybe, you’re short-timing it.”
Doubt played havoc in his hazel eyes and his fingers spasmed along her shoulder blades.
For a man who could be so cocky at times, how could he doubt that she loved him? She mentally slapped herself upside the head. “I love you.”
He smiled. “Took you long enough. A whole two minutes after I said it. You do know that little delay will cost you.”
She pinched his butt, hard, to pull his attention back to the task at hand. “What is the plan of attack for the committee meeting? I don’t have anything.”
“Sure you do. I’ve seen you scribbling in your notebook every time you watch a video.”
Sighing, she stepped out of his embrace and removed the little green book from her desk. Maybe he could see something she didn’t. “It’s just the same old observations except…” She sucked on her bottom lip. That last video, the leader had yelled.
He snatched the book and thumbed through the pages. “Ah, ha! You found something.”
“I don’t know if it means anything.” She flipped to today’s notes. Her finger bumped over the ridges and valleys of her writing.
“Everything means something.” He winked, letting her know he spoke of more than just her research.
Rising on tiptoe she kissed his cheek. They had always meant something. Funny how the end of the world clarified so many things.
Marcus flicked the page. “Start with that.”
She didn’t even know what the scream at the end of the battle meant, and she was supposed to be the behavior expert. “But—”
He pressed his lips to hers. There and gone before she could respond. “No buts.”
He kissed her again.
This time she managed to open her mouth before he pulled away. “—even know—”
His lips lingered.
Screw it. She couldn’t change the results of her research. She might as well enjoy the time she had left. She clutched his shoulders, stood on tiptoe, and leaned into him.
Breathing hard, he broke off the kiss but licked the taste of her from his lips. “You do realize that every time you speak down about your research, I will be forced to kiss you?”
“I do suffer to make this relationship work.”
“Kissing me is not an incentive to stop a certain behavior.”
He waggled his blond eyebrows suggestively. “I know.”
“You should kiss me properly.” Clutching his head, she angled his face just so and held him in place. This kiss wouldn’t end until she was ready. Her heart raced; heat spiked through her. She broke away. “Thank you for the distraction.”
And he meant it. Seems like lately, they could only provide solace as their work hadn’t discovered a single answer.
He squeezed once, then released her. “Ready to face the committee?”
She slipped her hand in his then picked up her notebook. “Together.”
Was it wrong of her to want him by her side? He wasn’t the one who controlled the men with their fingers on the triggers.
Taking a deep breath, Rosa cleared the sliding doors. She paused, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dim lighting. Slowly, hulking shadows separated into oblong tables and high-back office chairs. The classroom set up followed the curved walls of the amphitheater. Blank computer screens sat on the table of four desks. The fish-eye cameras on the top blinked red. Someone was watching.
Chewing on the earpiece of his reading glasses, General Simbury scrolled through his tablet. He didn’t glance up.
Rosa’s stomach tightened. Had they already made their decision? Was this hearing about her research just a formality?
Marcus brushed his fingers down her spine before retreating to the corner to stand just inside her spotlight.
The door sighed shut. The silence drummed on her ears, beating back the thud of her heart. Her nose twitched. The room stank of despair, of lost hopes, and rotted dreams. Squaring her shoulders, she crossed to the table and woke up the tablet to enter the time stamp of the last video. She would not fail her family. They needed her to find a cure.
General Simburg hooked his wire rim glasses around his ears and glanced up. Atop his square head, his salt and pepper buzz cut twitched. “Rosa. Dr. Westmoreland, I do not believe I asked you to attend this meeting.”
Rosa inhaled. God, she hadn’t thought of that loophole. Fraternization was against the base’s policy, but if the general wanted to make an issue out of it, he should have done so four months ago when they had first shacked up. Surely no one thought they played Dungeons and Dragons behind closed doors? Well, not all the time, anyway.
Marcus clasped his hands behind his back. “Rosa and I are a team. I plan to use her insights to target my own research.”
General Simburg leaned back in his chair. “It’s nice that some researchers are cooperating.”
The screens fanning out alongside the general blinked to life. Five of the images were in silhouette.
On the sixth, a woman squinted. Her dark brown hair was restrained in a severe bun on top of her head. Understated make-up accented her tilted brown eyes and high cheekbones. White letters at the bottom of the monitor identified her as Admiral Minerva Shelley.
Great. This was even worse than Rosa had thought. Her faceless executioners lined up on a raised platform with coliseum steps. She had seen how this ended; and it was never good. She shook her fingers to get rid of the anxiety.
Marcus cleared his throat.
Right. She would take the offensive. They may have called her here, but she would not go quietly into the crazy outside. “General Simbury. Admiral Shelley.” She addressed those with the guts to identify themselves. “I’m glad I have the chance to brief you on my research.” She tried not to gag on the lie. “I found something interesting in the videos just this morning.”
The general squinted. “You have discovered something new?”
“Yes, sir.” Rosa licked her lips, glanced down for a glass of water. Nothing. They meant to keep this hearing short. “I do not know quite what it means but I think it has potential. Maybe enough to give us a small edge.”
Instead of crossing her fingers at the lie, she aligned the bottom of the tablet with the lip of the desk. A second later, she tapped the play arrow.
The screen on the general’s right blinked out the silhouette and replaced it with the end of the battle.
“As you can see, this man is one of the alphas of his tribe.” Opening the side menu, she activated a pointer and settled it over the figure in the center with a red crown. The battle ended. Many of the tribe fidgeted and panted. “Typical of other battles, we see the tribe still on high alert, ready to face a new threat.”
And in this state, they were more dangerous, more violent, than during the initial attack. Too bad she’d spilled that finding in an early meeting.
Rosa set her thumb and index finger on the leader and zoomed in. The leader threw back his head and screamed silently. The hair on Rosa’s arms stood on end. There was something primal happening, something that eluded her. She changed the camera to focus on a few members of the tribe. “Notice their breathing has slowed. Their posture is relaxed.”
“And they’re verbalizing again to communicate with their field soldiers.” The general cut his attention to Marcus. “Sit down, Dr. Westmoreland.”
A guard stepped out of the darkness.
Goram! Rosa jumped sideways, knocking her kneecap against the table leg. Pain blitzed her nerves, clarifying her thoughts. Where had he come from?
The guard’s lips twitched as he set two scarred plastic chairs in front of the table, then disappeared into the distant corner.
Plopping down, she rubbed the sting. She would have a bruise tomorrow.
Marcus pulled his seat closer to hers. “We know the leaders retain the ability to speak.”
Rosa jabbed him in the gut. She could have passed that bit off as a new finding, but her lover had gone and reminded the brass. “While we have experienced the alphas talking before, this is the first time they’ve vocalized to their own people. And had a response. Perhaps the speech centers aren’t as dead as we thought.”
The general smiled. “Well, well, well. This is a very good development Rosa.”
She leaned back in her seat. Thank God. They were impressed. She wouldn’t be booted out.
“Do you think the tribe will respond to commands from others?” General Simbury smoothed his fringe of gray hair. “Or is this a sign this pandemic is waning and citizens might be returning to their senses?”
Well, frak, he did have to ask the hard questions. She took a deep breath, time to begin the verbal song and dance. “I’m afraid, we’d be premature to draw any conclusions based on one isolated incident. I haven’t observed this behavior in other tribes.”
Admiral Shelley straightened in her chair.
She was going to interrupt. Rosa had to make her point, prove her study’s continued worth. “Which is why I propose to observe them as much as possible. We need to know how important this vocalization is, how frequently it occurs, and if it produces other responses. Only then, will we know if we can use it to undermine the alphas and take back control.”
Admiral Shelley glanced down. The edge of a tablet appeared in the frame for a second. “As you say the affected don’t speak, so how do the alphas control their tribe?”
And they were back to that. “I—”
Marcus set his hand over hers. “There hasn’t been any concrete scientific evidence to prove one theory over another.”
When Admiral Shelley put down her tablet, the camera backed out showing her laced fingers clenched on her desk. “So the telepathy theory is still on the table.”
Rosa mentally smacked her head. The telepathy idea had some fanatical supporters. She hoped the admiral wasn’t among them. “I am sorry, ma’am, but I do not have access to the data on those conducting that research. Personally, I highly doubt humanity spontaneously developed telepathy.”
“Then what is your theory of communication?” The admiral leaned forward.
Frakin’ A. Rosa licked her lips. What she wouldn’t give for a glass of water to stall for time. “Body language must be part of it. Not the overt signals the military is accustomed to, but something more subtle. For so many to have been affected in such a short period of time, I would think it was a latent gene that could have been activated, or maybe a chemical trigger. I’ll talk to a few of the animal behaviorists to learn how other species communicate and look for those patterns.”
The general tapped on his tablet. “You now have access to the findings of every research project in this base, Ms. Robelski.”
Rosa pushed back in her seat. Every scientist closely guarded their research after the disappearances of Parker and Patel. Especially after it had been rumored, they had been exiled when they’d produced no new data.
“So you don’t know how they’re communicating?” The admiral pushed for the admission.
“Nothing concrete. Yet.” Marcus’s shoulder brushed hers.
Rosa inhaled a whiff of pine and her tension eased. She blinked. Holy crap! Could it really be so simple? So basic? She faced Marcus. “What if it is by scent?”
“Scent?” The admiral used her stylus to scratch her scalp. “We know they stink but…”
“And why would they need to develop a new language?” The general shook his head. “Body language makes better sense.”
Marcus gripped her hand. “Scent. It is only one of our senses that doesn’t need to be processed before eliciting a response.”
Her heart raced. Could she really have hit upon the key? Could it really be so simple? “That must be how they tell each other apart in battle. And the sniffing, and why some tribes will fight others, but a few merge without blinking an eye.”
“And why so few are able to wield weapons in battle.” Marcus raised their clasped hands between them. His body shook with excitement. “Their lizard brain is in control. Smashing, pounding, and beating don’t require much brain power.”
Rosa bounced on her seat. She would revisit the videos, find out which way the wind was blowing and who was the aggressor. She could find proof! “The our army can use smoke bombs, or even stink bombs to throw off the crazies.”
Marcus nodded. “We can also see what damaging the olfactory centers in the brain do.”
“Brain damage?” Rosa didn’t to go that far. Not yet.
Marcus held his thumb and index finger close together. “Just a little damage.”
“Scent?” The admiral snorted. “Preposterous.”
Cripes! Rosa had forgotten their audience. “Humans are animals. Highly social, herd animals. We each have a unique scent which allows dogs to track us.”
Marcus slowly lowered their hands but didn’t release her. “The chemical receptors in our brains are highly developed. If the alphas emitted chemicals in their scent, others with matching receptors would respond. Hence the tribal definitions.”
“As for why they’d need a new language, humans are the most adept at stealing ideas. The societies which have the densest populations also have the most variety of languages and dialects. India, for example. And I think in New Guinea there is a new language for every square mile.”
Marcus grinned. “We speak of the scent of fear. And we have proven that pheromones elicit a sexual response.”
Rosa blushed. He would have to mention that.
“Then why aren’t we affected?” The general drummed his fingers on the table.
Rosa shrugged. “We must not have the receptors. Making us oblivious to their scent.”
“I’ll look for a mutation. It might not be a big one, just enough to change a receptor a little.”
“How do we use this scent to bring the crazies back into the human fold?” The general removed his glasses and stared down at his tablet.
“The mutation could be fixed with gene therapy.” Marcus leaned back in his chair.
“Or, we can find another chemical to bind with the receptors, stopping all communication. We don’t know what consequences that will have.” At best, Rosa knew they might end the crazy. Or kill everyone in the process.
The admiral pointed at them through the monitor. “That is all very interesting but how does that fit in with the new video?”
“What new video?” Rosa scooted forward on her seat. They had a new video?
With his tablet in his lap, General Simbury spun in his chair. “This was the reason we asked you here.”
He tapped the screen.
The image of the screaming alpha disappeared. In its place, a large group of twenty to thirty people headed toward a farmhouse. They threaded like snakes through the fields of grain that stretched out like shag carpeting. A silver sphere identified a silo. A patch of white revealed a barn. The brown square behind a green roof gave evidence of a garden recently harvested.
Rosa peered at the screen, but held her tongue. What was she supposed to see? She had weeks worth of footage showing the crazies attacking. Even their battle technique was simple.
This tribe ran straight toward the farmhouse.
Light burst from near the house. Someone was firing a gun. The crazies did not slow or change tactics. Two more fell. Three. They disappeared under the cover of trees. Then two raced up the porch and ran inside.
Others funneled around the house and invaded the barn.
Muzzle reports flashed. Crazies fell. More filed in to take their place and swarmed the outbuilding.
Rosa’s stomach clenched. “The crazies are attacking a group of those unaffected.” She swallowed hard. The unaffected hadn’t been attacked since the outbreak. “Wh-Where is this?”
The general checked his screen. “Somewhere in Missouri.”
There had been plenty of hold outs in the wheat belt. So many that helicopters had taken blood samples to see if they were immune. Perhaps they were wrong. Wiping at the sweat on her upper lip, Rosa found her voice. “What town is closest?”
A moment later, the crazies emerged from the barn and house with people struggling between them.
Rosa rose from her seat. “Are they taking prisoners?”
The crazies gathered in the dirt patch where a garden must have stood. They pushed and shoved their captives to the ground, then formed a solid wall around them.
Two men burst through the wall of crazies. The man on the right motioned with his hands. In his shadow, Rose watched his mouth open and close. “He’s speaking.”
“We think they might be forming an alliance.” The general pinched the bridge of his nose.
“We have monitored this particular cluster of survivors for two weeks.” The admiral frowned at her desk. “Their numbers have been dwindling by ones and twos during this time, picked off by this tribe of crazy.”
The people in the garden shifted. Some glanced at the barn over their shoulder. “They are talking.”
“Yes. We’ve already established that.” The admiral rolled her eyes.
Rosa blushed with embarrassment. “Not the crazies, the captives. The crazies and the captives are having a conversation.”
On screen, the alpha on the right raised his rifle and aimed at the head of the woman closest to him.
Rosa held her breath. Would he shoot?
The screen filled with static, then darkness.
She shoved back her chair and walked toward the general. “What happened next?”
“We do not know. The satellites moved out of range. “The general tossed his tablet onto his desk. “You don’t think they’re drafting one big bad, crazy army, do you?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think those farmers were not affected by what is going on.” Rosa milked her fingers. “They seem pretty self-sufficient. But we know that the crazies have turned into raiders after eating all the food in the cities and towns. ”
Marcus joined her to stare at the blank screen. “How did the crazies find them?”
The general puffed out his cheeks then sighed. “This particular set of survivors headed into town in search of medicine. They could have been followed.”
Rosa paced to the first row of desks then back. She needed more information. “When will the next satellite be over the area?”
“In too damn long.” The general checked his watch. “Three hours, ten minutes. Does this change your theory?”
“No. People spoke multiple languages before the outbreak, and we’ve always known the alphas could speak.” But three hours was definitely too damn long to wait to find out if the farm family had survived. Because her family needed to go into town for supplies.
And the nearby town was full of crazies.