Arden is still in the airlock when she sees her wife. In the biosuit, Leni has no curves, save the bulky slope of her shoulders, no expression save the faint flickers of movement beneath her visor. But the warmth she exudes is real; Arden swears she can feel it even if, after all the long weeks of isolation, it’s impossible to accept. In just minutes, Leni’s hands will be touching her, running through her hair, matted and sweaty from the layers of nitrile rubber and memory alloys.
A day ago, Arden had given up. She could barely believe it when Leni’s voice came breathless through the speaker.
“Baby, they’ve done it. A cure.”
The destination had been Leni’s choice, an obnoxious dip into sun and surf, complete with umbrella drinks and skewered pineapple. They’d been enjoying it mostly, even if Arden fretted over the mosquitoes swarming the tide pools. Even if she rewashed the glasses in the hotel room, and felt secretly relieved to get back on the plane.
“You could at least fake some disappointment,” Leni said as she watched Arden fasten the seatbelt, tug on it to make sure.
Arden’s reply still lodges inside her like a shard of glass. “And maybe we can pretend we’re house hunting while we’re slapping down a quarantine.”
Later, she’d repeat this crack as they trudged up the steps of some run-down Victorian, and Leni would laugh despite the discontent seething beneath her professionally mild expression. This newly infected zone, with its kale and rosemary spilling over the front yards, was a newfound target for gentrification. There was even a fusion restaurant about to open on the corner.
“Too bad no one’s going to eat there,” Arden said. “A few more goners and we’ll be able to afford a five bedroom.”
Leni’s smile flattened. “Stop it.”
The outbreak was still in Stage One then, and the orders were to tread lightly. Go from house to house, the medics trailing you in the van, ready to take a temperature or draw some blood. It was a casual process, friendly even though the Health Department and the CDC had given up on words like community and outreach. Those were too democratic, implied choice in an age where antibiotics were a punch line.
“Most people are reasonable,” Leni insisted. They could be convinced to get their kids a booster even if they’d digested some of the fear mongering flushed through the Internet. But Arden remained wary. The real work was identifying the holdouts, the crazies who’d try to fight, and who stashed assault weapons in their garment bags.
“Suffer stupid,” Arden said, “And the world suffers with you.”
Leni was Arden’s doffing partner. The only other woman on their team when the swine flu broke in Costa Rica. Arden was new, the dour hard-ass brought in from Montreal to weed out the softies. Their last chief had been a pushover, so nice he shat out his life in a Keriya port-a-potty.
Leni and Arden argued through most of the trip, about niggling points of protocol, about Leni’s kindness — leniency Arden called it — toward the locals.
“You waste your time talking to them,” Arden remembered saying. “Provide false reassurance. Then they go home, infect a grandmother or a spouse.”
“You don’t know that.” Leni removed the plastic sealant around her boots and stood up abruptly. The rain, pounding off their makeshift decontamination tent, had sent the tarp sagging worryingly close to her head.
“Educate, and someone educates them right back, with lies. Nonsense. Rumours,” Arden said. She lunged forward, irritated by Leni’s obliviousness, and poked her gloved hand into the tarp, watching as the collected moisture rolled off the tent.
Leni started slightly at her sudden proximity, but didn’t move. Instead, Arden saw a hint of bemused challenge creep into those green eyes.
“Teach a man to fish,” Leni said.
“Teach a man to fish,” Arden said, “And he gets ciguatera.”
Leni let out an exasperated laugh, and Arden felt herself lighten, felt the warmth of her own smile tug at the muscles of her face.
She checks the gauge, confirms there’s clean air circulating in the corridor, and taps lightly on the thick glass of the porthole. Then the door lifts, leaving the two of them even more alone together.
They still don’t know for sure. It was just a small raking of teeth over skin, a slight depression in epidermis, no blood, nothing punctured. She remembers Leni’s painful grip as she shoved her into the taxi. There was no use calling for a team or an ambulance at that point. Once Arden was isolated, they could keep her indefinitely. The problem was letting her out.
“It’s not what you think,” Arden said. She was pulling at her collar, trying to get Leni to look. “It’s not that.”
But Leni had already turned away. She rolled down the window and dipped her face out into the cold night air, and for a second, Arden thought she was going to puke.
Leni slumped back into her seat and wiped a damp sleeve over her eyes.
“A supply closet, Arden? Really?”
That was the plan anyway. They’d cordoned off an eight-block radius that morning, were going through the infected zone house by house, before moving on.
“We all know what you’re doing?” Lorena Lauder said. She folded her arms as the cadre of flak-jacketed corpsmen trampled through her kitchen, rooting noisily through her cupboards and the pantry. “You make us think they died. Then you pack them off in your vans to work in those Frankenfields, growing the damned cancer corn.”
Leni, still the good cop, cleared her throat. “Ms. Lauder. Nobody’s trying to harm you or your child. We’re just trying to confirm …”
“Mrs. Lauder,” Arden cut in. “We’ll give you a few minutes to say your goodbyes to the body.” She emphasized that last word, paused to give an irritated nod to a corpsman on the narrow stairway leading upstairs. “If you tell us who else is in hiding.”
Lauder’s lips quivered. “He isn’t dead. My Charlie isn’t even sick.”
And Arden could only stare at the sheer belief in the woman’s eyes. Nowadays, the CDC dictated immediate incineration, bodies burned within an hour of expiration, but there were stories with this one, of tiny hands pressed against the windows of disposal vans, of toddlers, mourned in their beds the night before, lifting their window shades to morning as they gazed down on startled passers by.
“Rumours and desperation,” Arden said, but it made a morbid kind of sense. Who’d bring their kid in to get burned if there was a chance?
They’d found a child’s corpse that morning hidden behind a hastily sawed-out pocket of drywall, another in a dumpster behind a liquor store.
“He’s not…” Lauder said again.
From upstairs, one of the corpsmen barked in surprise, and a wailing followed the sound of hurried boots on the stairs. A boy, about three, clung fast and very much alive to the pleasantly baffled corpsman. He was a mess, Arden noted, smearing his tear stained cheeks over the soldier’s skin.
The corpsman grimaced and deposited the boy gently on the floor.
“Got a recovery here,” he said, shrugging. “Or a false alarm?”
The boy grabbed at the hem of the soldier’s jacket, trying to hoist himself back up. Stricken with embarrassment, Leni reached apologetically for his mother’s hand, but Arden was staring uneasily at the corpsman as he wiped the spit from his face and tugged off his gloves.
“Wait,” she said.
Lorena Lauder pushed Leni away. “Charlie! You stay away from him, you hear?”
But the soldier was already reaching for the boy as the tiny, jagged teeth sank into his fingers.
But the miracle was short lived. After a week, a few months, if they were lucky, the resurrected would go into a panic, start crying and screaming and clinging to the parent or the nearest available adult. And there was nothing for that adult to do but cling back, try to hang on to what they’d already lost once. Once the virus jumped, whatever animated the host would leave the body like an abandoned vehicle.
When the adults started contracting it, everyone thought they were suicides. Losing your kid twice, people said. Who the hell would want to live after that?
In truth, it became stealthier as it weakened, eerily counterintuitive to the tactics meant to slow its spread. In the adults, there were no counterfeit deaths or resurrections. Instead, it slipped past every blood test, every symptom check, until there was just enough in its host to pass it on, and some available sucker nearby. Statistics showed it was the hardcore lonely who lived the longest, hermits who’d have otherwise died choking on tuna salad in their rent-controlled apartments.
But there was hope now. Oh, miracle, a breakthrough. The white coats had gotten the virus to stop replication in test subjects, and that, Leni said, called for celebration.
She was ebullient the night they announced it, Arden remembers. Full of that manic hope tinged with sheer exhaustion. In a few months, they might have a longer breather. Maybe they could finish out their vacation, go somewhere better.
“I’m surprised you got her this far,” Virgie Swales said to Leni. She brought her gaze back to Arden. Virgie was a tech working down in epidemiology, and Arden had often caught that stare during stat meetings.
Arden glanced cautiously over at Leni, who was already walking toward the bar, pulling a fifty from her pocket to catch the bartender’s attention. Leni liked to get Arden drunk. It was a last-minute tactic to make her stay a few more minutes at a party, linger over dinner, and Arden found it charming at first. Once, when they were attending a conference in Buffalo, she’d even succeeded, switching off Arden’s phone while she took a shower. The Department called the landline in the room.
“From the way you two argue,” Virgie said. She stubbed out a barely lit Pall Mall in the window condensation, waved off the bouncer who was glaring at her. “I thought you’d hit a rocky patch.”
Arden watched as Leni caught the man’s attention, leaning into the brass railing that fronted the tap. Then she turned and met Virgie’s gaze. “It’s not exactly smooth sailing. No.”
Even then Arden told herself she’d meant the job, the endless hours raiding apartments and herding stasis kids into armed vans, but when she saw Virgie’s eyes lingering on her, the lie dissipated with the remainder of the cigarette smoke.
Virgie said nothing, perhaps waiting to see if Arden would extricate herself, if she’d start talking about a quarantine S.N.A.F.U. or those religious wackos ODing on Vitamin C. Then she plucked up the unfinished butt.
“Mind going somewhere I can smoke this?” she said.
With Leni’s back still turned, Arden let Virgie take her hand, let herself be pulled through the crowd toward the exit. Surely, the cold air would snap some sense back into her, but Virgie stopped and opened the door to the supply closet instead.
Leni would be making her way through the crowd by now, craning her neck and trying not to spill both drinks as she elbowed her way closer. She’d probably think Arden had taken a call, gone off to find a quiet corner where she could shove the latest spread stats through her working memory.
Long enough for Virgie to smoke a whole cigarette, maybe two, but Virgie only lit up and took a single drag, luxuriating in the smoke amid the stale darkness of the closet. Then she dropped the butt and let her hands find Arden’s waist.
Arden remembers being drawn into the pungent scent of the tobacco and the warmth of Virgie’s lips. Long enough for this, she thought. Long enough to make everything worse.
What she first noticed was Virgie’s arms tightening around her, her mouth becoming suddenly more urgent, pressing so hard against her own, she thought she’d choke. It was when she pulled back for air that Virgie fastened herself to her neck, and her cheeks, Arden realized with a tinge of mild revulsion, were soaked with tears.
“Don’t go,” Virgie said. “You can’t go.”
Arden tried to pull away, to see Virgie’s face in the dim light bleeding beneath the door, but Virgie wouldn’t move. That’s when she felt it: a shock of pain as Virgie’s teeth pressed into the skin above her collarbone. Arden gasped, lifted her leg and kicked, wincing as Virgie fell back against a box of pint glasses and slid to the floor. She was wailing now, thrashing about in the small space, her hands grabbing at Arden’s legs.
Arden kept her eyes on Virgie’s flailing form as she reached for the door.
“I’ll get help,” she said as she opened it and let the light and the shame flood into the darkness. Virgie slumped face forward to the concrete, the life already ebbing out of her.
When Leni found them, exactly one minute later, Arden was standing between the gathering crowd and the closet, her phone pressed to her ear. Leni tried to push forward, shoved Arden’s arm down to see inside.
“Leni,” Arden spat. “Stay away from her.”
“Did you?” Leni said.
She watches as Leni stoops slightly, and with a cutter, slices through the tape that fastens Arden’s gloves to the sleeves of the biosuit. She peels the rubber back gingerly, back over the fabric like she’s performing an operation.
“How are you feeling?” she says.
“I can’t breathe,” Arden says. “But that’s the suit.”
“Sure,” Leni says. Arden can hear a slight quaver in her voice. A coat of fog clings to her visor.
“One injection,” she’d told Arden. “Walk in the park compared to Rabies, right?”
Arden forces a smile as Leni slices through the final layer of Arden’s sleeve, exposing her arm. The cold air laps softly against her skin.
“Just a little longer,” Leni says, using the tone she’d used on Lorena Lauder, on those children, and the villagers in Costa Rica.
A shudder passes through her as she feels Leni’s fingers touch her bare skin. They’re still gloved, but there’s heat and pressure as she feels her way down, searching for the right point. The tears come almost without warning, a congestion of longing and regret rising within her.
“I’m so sorry,” Arden says.
“There’s no point to that now,” Leni says. The words sound terse, and Leni averts her eyes as she bends Arden’s arm. Then more gently, “Can you make a fist?”
Arden does as she’s told. She’s gotten this far and she should follow procedure, but as she swallows, the tears start up again. Leni blinks up at her as if she’s registering something.
“We’re almost finished, baby. Just hold on.”
The endearment sounds alien and unearned, and Arden feels her knees buckling as the walls fly up around her. She drops down to the tarp, and reflexively Leni reaches out, falls into Arden’s embrace.
She’s so tired, Arden thinks. So very tired. And she’s felt so alone.
“A little longer,” Leni says.
Gently, Leni pushes Arden away, but the exertion has now completely fogged up her visor. Cursing, she unzips her hood and yanks it over her head, lets loose the tenderness in her expression, the green eyes that once made Arden’s breathing go shallow on their own. Arden lies back, feels grateful that Leni cries with her as she kneels and reaches for the syringe.
“It’s okay, baby. Just stay with me. It’s all I ever wanted you to do.”
Arden feels her heart slow, listens to the sound of Leni’s voice as she gently raises her arm, kisses the exposed skin and bites.