Jim walked beside the stretcher carrying a barely conscious Sandburg into the medical tent while a shocked Simon and Linda followed behind. Jim squeezed Blair's hand reassuringly as his eyes opened sleepily and he looked about in confusion. The grad student's face was sheet-white, with beads of sweat dotting his forehead and upper lip, giving his complexion a waxy appearance.
Like death warmed over, Jim thought. No! Not going there. He forced a smile to his face and patted Blair's shoulder as he moved restlessly on the stretcher, his face twisted in pain. "Come on. Just relax, buddy. They're going to take good care of you."
Blair lifted a shaky hand in a gesture of understanding, then sank back down and closed his eyes. Jim stopped at the entrance to the tent, sentinel sight following his ill partner until he disappeared beyond the shadows in the tent. He looked at the soldier on sentry duty. "What happens now?"
"Isolation," Crockett replied.
Jim shifted from one foot to the other restlessly. His eyes took in the man's name. "I'd like to see the doctor from the CDC, Lieutenant Crockett."
The soldier shook his head. "He's busy. My orders are to protect him from interruption."
"This isn't an interruption," Jim ground out, anger and worry sharpening his tone. "This is about the condition of my friend." He turned as Colonel Garner walked over and demanded to know the problem. "The problem is that this has become personal to me," Jim replied, pointing inside the medical tent, "and I'd like to know what's going on."
"I strongly suggest you back off and let us do our work before a lot of people die." Garner walked away, then paused and looked back at Jim. "Including your friend."
Jim dialed up his sight once more in an effort to track Blair and check on his condition. Peripherally, he was vaguely aware of another soldier taking over sentry duty in front of the tent. His eyes picked up Doctor Stone inside handing a patient some kind of medication in a small cup. Realizing there was nothing more he could for Sandburg at the moment, and knowing he would not be allowed inside to check on his partner, Jim walked back to Simon and Linda.
"Would you mind keeping an eye on Sandburg for us?" he asked the vet. He waved his hands about helplessly. "Just whatever you can do."
"Yeah, sure." Linda shrugged and Jim knew she felt as useless as he did. "As much as I can do."
The two men watched her walk back to the isolation tent and begin speaking with the soldier there. Simon tapped Jim's arm. "Come on. Let's go."
They made their way onto the main street, watching as more patients were carried past them while other townsfolk lined up outside a medical tent for tests. The whole town seemed silent, in shock.
"Think the kid's going to be all right?" Simon asked finally.
Jim stopped walking but continued to stare ahead. "I hope so. No one here has died yet. Now, I'm holding on to that for now, but something's bothering me about this virus." He turned to look at Simon. "I mean, most of the town is flat on its back. Why aren't we?"
"Could have something to do with our immune systems. Fisker and Dr. Conway aren't affected either. Only thing that's bugging me right now is if Sandburg's going to be okay." He shook his head sadly and Jim smiled, knowing Simon had a soft spot for Sandburg, though he rarely admitted it. "Other than that, I feel fine."
"Yeah, me, too. But if this virus is airborne, we're already exposed."
They continued on down the street in silence for some time, each lost in their own thoughts. In the distance, a soldier was watching the incoming road and Jim thought something looked out of place, then realized what it was. Reaching out, he grasped Simon's arm and steered him over to the side of a building.
Peering around the corner, Jim gestured at the man just ahead. "That guy doesn't have a mask on. He looks all right."
They watched as Crockett, the soldier they'd seen at the isolation tent, walked up to the man without a mask. Dialing up his hearing, Jim listened in on the conversation.
<You wanted to see me?> Crockett asked.
The other soldier scowled at him. <Garner wants you at the motorcade. Get your ass over there.>
<This better be the word to go. I didn't sign up to baby-sit this town,> Crockett grumbled. He glanced around the area, and Jim and Simon ducked back out of sight. < Do you think maybe you should put your mask on?>
The soldier shrugged but pulled his mask from its pack and strapped it on. Jim motioned to Simon and the two men sidled further along the edge of building.
Simon tapped Jim on the shoulder. "What's going on?" he whispered.
"A private just gave orders to our favorite lieutenant. It's not the Army I know." Jim looked over his shoulder at Simon. "Crockett also referred to the word 'go.' Like they're waiting on something."
Simon stared at him. "What the hell's going on here, Jim? Are these guys for real or what?"
"Got me, Captain."
"All right. Let's take a look around." As he moved off, Jim caught his arm and stopped him.
"It's probably better if we're not joined at the hip."
Simon nodded. "Right. Be careful."
Jim waited a few minutes to allow Simon to walk off in one direction, then made his way toward a group of soldiers gathered by one of the trucks. Clearly visible in the rear of the vehicle were several large metal canisters. Stopping behind a pile of drums, Jim extended his hearing once more and listened in on the men's conversation.
<Should we dump more in? >
<Did you get the main line again? >
<This morning, yeah.>
<Good. After the shipment arrives, we're out of here. >
He was so focused on the conversation in front of him that he didn't hear the men approach from behind. He heard faint words and had to drag his hearing back to concentrate on them when he recognized Garner's voice barking at him.
"I thought I'd discouraged you from walking around." There was a pause and Jim shook himself mentally from an almost zone-out. It was times like this he needed Sandburg at his side to talk him through the extension of his senses. "Ellison, I am talking to you."
Jim blinked a couple of times to get his bearings and turned slowly to face Garner. Crockett stood at the colonel's side, a menacing expression on his narrow face.
"Just trying to clear my head," Jim began. His eyes flickered toward the isolation tent and the next thing he said was completely truthful. "I was thinking about my friend in the tent."
Garner ignored his concern. "I'm ordering anyone still standing confined to their homes. You can stay at the inn."
Jim didn't grace either man with his acceptance. Shoving his hands into the voluminous pockets of his jacket, he strode away, not bothering to look back.
Crockett glared after the detective with a grim look. "We should do something about him...something permanent."
Garner shook his head. "We're almost done here. It doesn't help the plan if we're cop killers. In the meantime, we'll keep him on ice."
Blair rolled over on the narrow cot and tried not to moan as someone shook his shoulder, awakening the pounding in his head. The vomiting had stopped an hour or so ago, and the cramps in his stomach had lessened though an occasional spasm still curled him into a ball of misery. His head felt stuffed with cotton and he doubted his legs would support him if he tried to stand.
Looking around the tent, he could see no one he recognized and hoped that meant that Jim and Simon had not yet succumbed to the virus. A small plastic cup was thrust under his nose and he almost gagged at the pungent smell. "What's that?" he asked, swallowing convulsively to dispel his nausea.
"Just a light sedative to keep you calm."
Blair accepted the cup and looked at the stretcher opposite him, its occupant sleeping deeply and snoring softly. "How are the other people? Did you find an antidote yet?"
The blue-suited figure patted his shoulder. "Relax. You're being given the best of care."
A voice Blair thought sounded familiar came from the front of the tent. "Doctor, can I see you for a moment?"
The doctor tapped the cup in Blair's hand. "Drink that down. It'll ease your cramps."
Waiting until the doctor walked away, Blair took another tentative sniff at the contents. Feeling whatever was left in his stomach threatening to reappear, he hurriedly dumped the medicine back into the bottle. Slumping back onto his pillow, he concentrated on taking several slow, deep breaths. He moaned as a familiar pain in his gut heralded the futility of his actions and he rolled to his side, reaching for the emesis bowl.
Jim met up again with Simon and Linda in the main street, outside the vet's clinic. He wasted no time in getting to the concern uppermost in his mind. "Any word on Sandburg?"
Linda shook her head and looked toward the isolation tent. "Still inside. They won't give me specific information."
On the way back from his encounter with Garner and Crockett, Jim had pondered the events they were now embroiled in. Casting his mind back to when Simon and Blair first arrived, he tried to find a common thread that would explain why only Blair had been struck down with the virus, despite all of them staying in close proximity until now. His gaze wandered to the medical tent.
He sighed and forced his attention back to the matter at hand. He would be no help to Sandburg if he couldn't figure it out. "Simon, did you have any of the local water since you've been here?"
"City boy like me?" Simon lifted a bottle of water. "I've been drinking bottled water and so has Sandburg."
Jim nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, me, too."
"My place has its own well, but the rest of the town works off the main line supply. Why?" Linda asked.
Jim fobbed off her question for the moment, his mind still attempting to work through the facts at hand. "Meet me at your office in ten minutes." Turning away, Jim crossed the road and headed up the main street.
Blair cracked open gummy eyelids and looked up at the ceiling, momentarily confused about his whereabouts. An echo of pain cramped his stomach and his memory returned.
The isolation tent. He'd been sick. He rolled carefully onto his back and took stock of himself. Aside from a pounding headache and a mild queasiness, he felt better than he had a few hours before. He felt sticky with sweat beneath the blankets and his bulky jacket, and a careful sniff told him he was in dire need of a shower.
Faint voices from the tent's anteroom a short distance away caught his attention and, recognizing Doctor Stone's voice, slightly raised, the tone angry, he eased himself into a sitting position. The room swam for a moment and he closed his eyes briefly, puffing air in and out of his mouth.
"There's a lot of flack falling on me," he heard Stone say.
"I'm aware of that. You're not alone on this."
Blair thought that was Garner's voice. Swinging his legs over the side of the portable bed, Blair hunched forward and hung his head, wondering whether getting up had been such a good idea. He heard Stone speak again.
"If there are any problems with this operation, I need to know now. This thing better go off exactly the way we planned. There's absolutely no margin for error here. I'm talking about human or mechanical."
His curiosity piqued, Blair swallowed down his nausea and stood up. He shivered in the chill air of the tent and tottered toward the anteroom.
"I've got to know right now if this thing is going to go as planned. Are we absolutely clear on this, gentlemen? I mean, absolutely clear?" Stone asked.
"ETA of the train is right on schedule."
Blair nodded to himself. Definitely Garner.
"Good. We've got a short window after recovery kicks in for these people."
"Once we're out of here, I don't want anything to lead back to us," Garner continued. "No ID's of any kind. Have them double-check and triple-check. When we're gone, I want us to be invisible."
Blair raised a hand to his head and closed his eyes again as dizziness assailed him and he simultaneously sweated and shivered. Walking slowly, feeling almost as sick as he had before, he stumbled back to his bed and lay down with a sigh. Another voice echoed as he drifted into an exhausted and fevered sleep.
"I'll take care of it. There's no way anyone will be able to identify us."
Jim could hear Simon and Linda chatting quietly as he opened Linda's office door and stepped inside. He held out a bottle of water to the vet and she accepted it, eyeing him quizzically.
"I got this from the tap in the diner," the detective explained. "I was wondering if you could run a basic screen on it."
"Sure, but how could a virus that's airborne be in the water system?" She reached over and flicked the switch on her computer.
"I overheard these jackasses in camouflage talking. They put it in there."
Simon surged to his feet. "What?"
"Whoever these clowns are, they're not the US Army. I don't know what they're up to, but they're strong enough to immobilize a whole town." Jim clenched his jaws, his anger mounting at the thought of the agony Blair and the townsfolk had suffered at the hands of these men.
"Well, let's take a look." Linda poured a small amount of the water into a test tube then slotted it into a centrifuge.
"What else were you able to find out?" Simon asked as they watched with interest.
"I overheard somebody talking about a shipment they were waiting on."
Simon's frowned, the concern on his face clearly evident as he realized the gravity of Jim's information. "Shipment? Is that what this is about? They inoculate the town with some virus, so nobody knows anything?"
"Yeah. People in the containment tent aren't getting any better because they're doped up with something. And with the martial law that they've imposed, everybody walking is going to be contained." Jim took a deep breath as he thought of a sick Sandburg at the mercy of men with no conscience. He forced his attention back to Linda. "Now how long is this going to be?"
All three turned in surprise as Crockett and two other soldiers strode into the office. "Anyone not under treatment goes to the inn," Crockett ordered. He held out his hand. "We also need the keys to your vehicles and your weapons if you're carrying them."
Simon snorted and turned away while Jim stood his ground and shook his head. "I don't think so."
Simon looked around at the unmistakable sound of a weapon being cocked and found the barrel of a gun aimed unwaveringly at him.
"Don't make this any harder, guys," Crockett advised. "Hand over your weapons, now."
Simon sighed, then nodded to Jim, and both men unzipped their jackets and dug beneath them for their service revolvers. Out of the corner of his eye, Jim could see Linda studying the computer screen intently. He shifted slightly to one side, hoping to divert any attention away from her.
Simon appeared to have the same idea as he blustered at Crockett. "I don't believe this. We're law enforcement officers."
Crockett, however, was unmoved. "In this situation, it doesn't matter. The military's in charge. You'll get everything back after the quarantine's lifted."
Jim held his breath as Crockett's attention finally shifted to Linda, and he stepped over to her, one hand held out, palm up. With a sigh of relief, Jim heard the soft snick as she switched the monitor off.
Crockett didn't even look at it. "You, too. Keys."
"I have a place in the back," Linda said. "Why would I be dragged out of my own home?"
"I'm just following orders, Doc." His features hardened and the soldier standing behind him straightened his stance. "You want to do this the hard way?"
Linda shook her head silently and, picking her keys up from the desk, dropped them into Crockett's waiting hand.
The lieutenant waved them ahead of him out the door. "Let's go. And just a reminder...under the rules of martial law, any violations and it's within my authority to shoot to kill."
Not if I get you first, Jim thought as they filed out and made their way down the stairs. If anything happens to Sandburg, you can forget martial law.