Renowned vaccinologist "Hildi" Hildebrandt has set her sights on beating her brother to a Nobel Prize, and the opportunity to conduct experiments on the International Space Station might just provide the means to obtain that goal.
Chet Hildebrandt should have had that opportunity. But now he'll teach a lesson to them all: his hot-shot astronaut sister, his philandering hypocritical father, and the CDC for not properly appreciating his work. One vial of a virus purloined from the CDC labs and released at his father's marriage seminar should do the trick, without hurting anybody. After all, it's only a mild influenza strain...
Or is it?
Infection Minus Ten Months
Hildi’s nose itched.
She ignored it. While she waited for her lab partner to emerge from the airlock, she checked the seals of her blue biocontainment suit again. Good habits could save her life.
Hildi pulled a coiled yellow air hose suspended from the ceiling and plugged it into a socket near her waist. The deflated suit expanded as air roared past her face. The familiar ballooning sensation saddened her for a moment. She’d miss her work here.
Then she grinned. She’d be wearing a pressure suit in her new job and performing similar cutting-edge work in an even stranger environment.
Her practiced eyes appraised Biosafety Level 4, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most dangerous lab. Everything down and cold. But an adjoining room held liquid-nitrogen freezers filled with hot agents, the deadliest diseases known to man. Francine stepped from the airlock. Hildi’s college friend had never worked in Level 4, but she moved with confidence. Hildi stared into Francine’s faceplate and noted her calm expression. She’d do fine.
Hildi maneuvered past the stainless-steel tables dominating the room. She pulled two-inch test tubes, a push-button micropipette, and other tools from drawers and placed them in the biosafety cabinet, a glorified box with a fume hood and clear front that rested on the work counter. She detached her hose, inhaling the reserved air in her suit.
Humming to herself, she walked into the adjoining room and attached her suit to another hose. Every time Hildi moved in the lab, she repeated the procedure, a necessary inconvenience if she wanted to continue breathing.
She punched a code into the lock of one of the stainless-steel freezers and extracted a vial of the latest X virus that may or may not have killed John Doe.
Returning to the biosafety hood, she slipped her yellow-gloved hands under the clear protective shield, a sneeze guard at a toxic salad bar. She withdrew a tiny sample of the unknown and released it into one of the tubes. After Hildi repeated the protocol many times, she keyed the information into the computer.
Hildi glanced at Francine just as she straightened from a hunched position over a microscope. Francine turned, her movements jerky like a marionette’s. Her suit’s chest zipper gaped, exposing her blue scrubs underneath. She seemed to shrink as her biosuit deflated.
“I’ve got a problem here!” Francine yelled, her voice quavering. The rush of air in their ears turned conversations in Level 4 into a shouting match. Francine fumbled for the zipper with trembling fingers.
Hildi’s heart skipped several beats, then she zipped the suit shut in one smooth motion. “Zippers get worn. They can pop open.”
Francine’s white-rimmed, dark-chocolate eyes returned to normal. “How bad was that?” Her voice still quavered.
“Your suit had positive pressure the whole time. A hot agent couldn’t get in. You OK?”
Francine gave a nervous chuckle. “Sure gave me the jumpy jitters.” She turned back to the scope.
Hildi released the breath she’d been holding. Risk was part of the job. Zippers failed. Gloves failed. Usually it wasn’t life threatening.
She placed the rack of tubes in the incubator cabinet maintained at the ominous temperature of warm blood, and then returned the original sample of hot agent to the freezer. Her mood descended into a gray chasm. She already missed the challenge of Level 4. But she had a job offer that would take her research to a whole new level. She could smell that Nobel Prize. Her brother Chet would never catch up to her now.
Hildi exhaled a heavy sigh that fogged her faceplate. “Done,” she yelled. “Finally I can get out of here and scratch my nose.”
“Thought you’d be used to it after three years.”
“Never. Right now it’s driving me nuts.”
Francine chuckled and headed for the airlock.
Hildi followed. She inhaled the chemical smell as the decontamination shower sprayed disinfectant over her suit. The two of them scrambled out of their blue suits as soon as they reached the changing room. Hildi scratched her tingling nose with ferocity.
Francine grinned at her and walked to the regular showers which contained detergent for washing and a bath of ultraviolet light.
Hildi hung her short suit next to Francine’s long one. She reached up to caress a sleeve of the guardian that protected her against infection. “Thanks for keeping me safe. I’ll be back.”
Hildi stripped and marched naked to the shower. No modesty in this job. Afterward, she tugged on jeans and a mauve T-shirt.
Her lab partner’s perfect complexion glistened as she toweled off. Hildi’s pale skin and red curls contrasted with Francine’s coffee coloring and corn-rowed black hair. Not exactly twins separated at birth.
“When do you get in to Houston?” Francine pulled on black leggings and a flowered tunic then grabbed her tiny purse.
“Around four.” Hildi grimaced. “Rush hour. My favorite time.” She longed for the feel of the afternoon sun on her face, but she wouldn’t enjoy it today.
“I’m surprised Director Hunt gave you such a long leave of absence.”
“It’s a fantastic opportunity.” Her spirits bounced like an acrobat on a trampoline. “But it’s not like I won’t be working.” She grunted as she wrenched her holds-anything-and-hides-everything handbag from her locker.
Francine smiled. “You know, I might just lock you in one of the labs until after your flight leaves.”
Hildi laughed. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Don’t try me. I’m missing you already.” Francine hugged her. “I can’t believe you’ll be gone for over a year.”
Hildi swallowed to keep her voice from cracking. “I will be back for visits, you know.”
“You’d better be.”
They walked through another airlock into a corridor and less-lethal safety levels. The burning, moist smell of giant autoclaves bid a pungent farewell.
“You just don’t want to work with Chet.” Hildi baited her friend.
“Don’t rub it in.” Francine lowered her voice. “Did you hear? Your brother’s in big trouble.” Francine sounded like she relished the thought.
Hildi groaned. “What did he do this time?”
“Chet worked on that new anthrax sample from England without authorization. Director Hunt turned three shades of purple.”
“Hunt’s a bit paranoid about the paperwork, that’s all.”
Francine shook her head. “Your brother has an attitude.”
“I know.” Hildi frowned. “It’s hard to work in the same building with him when he avoids me like—well—the plague.”
“He’s done a good job at alienating everyone around here, so don’t feel special.”
They drove directly to the airport in Francine’s tired green Altima. The Atlanta traffic, abysmal at any time of the day, choked Hildi with exhaust fumes. She turned up the AC. “Sure you don’t mind caring for my cat?”
“Whiskers will be just fine.”
Francine pulled up to departures, opened the trunk, and hefted the bulky suitcases. “What do you have in here, moon rocks?”
Hildi grabbed her carry-on. They chatted until a security officer ordered, “Clear the lane, please.”
Hildi fished in her purse for a tissue and gave Francine one more tight hug. “Thanks for everything.”
“Vaya con Dios.”
Hildi wheeled her suitcases to the nearest door, her stomach fluttering as if she’d just won the lottery. Maybe she had.
Hildi deplaned in Houston after an unremarkable flight. She heaved her suitcases onto their wheels and stepped outside. A tanned man in a polo shirt and jeans held a sign. Dr. Hildebra. Someone hadn’t quite fit her name on the cardboard. Situation normal.
“Evangeline?” He smiled.
“Please call me Hildi.”
Hildi stifled a gasp and flung her starstruck feelings aside as she wiped sweaty palms on her jeans. Larry’s exploits in space were the stuff of legend. She shook his hand.
He loaded her luggage into the trunk of his silver Jaguar convertible. More diesel exhaust assaulted Hildi as they headed south on I-45. She’d expected oil fields and cowboy hats when she first came here but instead found apartments, shopping centers, and malls. Same humidity as Atlanta, same traffic. He chattered nonstop.
Hildi interrupted. “So tell me about the rest of the team.”
“You’ll like them. Jasper Reingold and Frank Schotenheimer.”
Hildi nearly jolted out of her seat. “Frank?” If she’d known, would she have volunteered for this assignment?
In a heartbeat.
Larry’s face held a puzzled frown. “You know him?”
She hesitated. How had Larry missed knowing about her relationship with Frank? Would it jeopardize her chance to work in space? No way to hide it now. “We were engaged.”
“Well, things are about to get interesting.” Larry’s mouth quirked. “The director moved him up from a later mission when our pilot shattered his leg yesterday.”
She stared at the scenery. Frank? On her team? Scenes flashed in her mind. Their first kiss that had warmed her to her toes. Her growing suspicions. The night she confronted him about his gotta-work-late excuses, and he confessed his affairs. Trampled dreams.
Lord, I could use a little help here.
Larry must have sensed her mood. He didn’t say a word for the rest of the trip.
An hour later, they pulled up to the employee entrance of a sprawling facility, the salty tang of the Gulf of Mexico perceptible even this far from the ocean. Shimmers of heat rose from the pavement. After the security guard examined their badges, he beamed. “Dr. Hildebrandt? Welcome. Let me page Dan Stockton for you. He asked me to notify him when you arrived.”
Hildi’s mind whirled. First Frank and now Dan? Last time they’d talked, Dan had been training in Alabama. Probably his idea of a romantic surprise. She tried to submerge a surfacing smile. She wanted to jump into his arms when Dan arrived. Instead, she forced herself into neutral pose. He wore a periwinkle silk shirt with coordinating tie. Always a tie, as if he could never relax.
Larry whispered in Hildi’s ear, “Now you know why he’s earned the nickname Dandy Dan.”
“Hildi.” Dan stepped toward her with an eager grin, glanced at Larry, and stopped in mid-stride.
“You know him, too?” Larry’s glance bounced back and forth between them like a hyperactive tennis ball.
Dan hesitated. “Uh, yes. We’ve met.”
An uncomfortable silence descended. Hildi stared at the polished floor, counting the squares. She didn’t want to tell the mission commander about another relationship, especially when she couldn’t explain it herself. An on-again, off-again, long-distance relationship that was going nowhere.
Larry cleared his throat and turned to Hildi. “Another fiancé? Have we ever been engaged?”
Hildi laughed, relieved he didn’t ask any more questions.
Dan smiled. “Would you rather go to your quarters first or eat?”
Her stomach rumbled in response.
“Perry’s Steakhouse?” Larry still eyed them with suspicion.
“Yes, sir.” Dan spread his arms and planted his feet on the emblem emblazoned on the floor, like a barker at the circus. “Welcome to the Johnson Space Center and phase two of astronaut training.”