McBride turned on his MP3 player, chose a Dvorjak concerto, and took several deep breaths. The music filled him and lifted his spirit, and he smiled. He had been so relieved to make it out of grad school, where even some of most promising students listened to blaring rock 'n' roll or even hip hop while they were working. Even as a teenager, youth culture had struck him as vapid and hollow, and he had been more than happy to put it behind him.

He felt good: relaxed, ready to focus, and confident that through his ongoing experiments he would eventually identify the various genetic strains comprising the new and virulent flu virus. In medical research the first or five-hundredth try could yield the desired result; the task was to be forever diligent, to keep going and remain alert. This was what it would take to clearly identify the genetic makeup of this new flu that had already reached the status of a pandemic last year.

The morning's auspicious beginning lasted only until McBride slid his key into the locked drawer on the right side of his desk and discovered his printouts were missing. He could always print another copy, but it was immediately unsettling that someone had been in his desk. He knew some other staff members had keys, but he had never found his papers disturbed before. He shook his head, trying to dismiss it, and entered his login into his PC.

His computer buzzed, and up popped a flashing notification: "Access Denied." McBride froze. His right hand remained extended toward the keys. He leaned forward to reread the message as if it would miraculously change. It didn't. "Access Denied."

Perhaps he had mistyped his password. It was early; maybe his coffee hadn't kicked in yet. He rubbed his fingers together like a magician preparing for a trick. Slowly and carefully, he typed in his password.

"Access Denied."

Taking a deep breath, he fell back into his chair, trying to recall his actions of the day before. He recalled putting the latest printouts away and locking his desk drawer, just as he had done at the end of work for the last three months. He was absolutely sure of that. He performed the same "closing up shop" routine at the end of each workday since he was always the last one out. He always kept his lab coat in the same place. Even pens on his desk were carefully arranged for easy access and coding. What had happened in the night?

"Ethan?" he called.

Willis was reading some research printouts and didn't seem to hear him.

"Ethan," McBride called again. His voice echoed around the large room and rattled notes stuck on walls like little flags.

Willis looked up.

"The printouts of my research on the flu virus are missing. Do you know what happened?" McBride asked. He knew better than to expect much help from Willis, but there was no one else to ask.

Willis stood up, placing the papers on his bench. "They're missing?" he asked. McBride watched as the older man strode over to the cold room with his graying ponytail wagging behind his head. It was hard to read the man's expression because of his scruffy beard. Willis was a generation older than McBride, but from their conflicting demeanors, one would have thought that McBride was the older scientist with a cresting career and Willis a flashy young upstart, bragging about his sexual conquests and blasting Cream and The Allman Brothers loud enough through his headphones that it could be heard across the lab. Even physically, they were at odds. McBride was short and stocky with dark brown hair, short and stiff as a scrub brush, his body as methodical and purely functional as his brain. Willis was taller and much thinner. He swayed when he walked, almost as if he were dancing. He was known for constant innuendoes and the occasional filthy joke, but McBride knew a lot of bitterness lurked underneath.

Looking up at the computer screen quizzically, Willis paused. "Interesting," he said softly. He didn't smile, which was unusual, as Willis almost always wore a nervous smile. Now McBride felt his coffee kick in and felt shaky. He wished he had Willis's practiced veneer. Nothing seemed to ruffle him; everything slid off that greasy exterior.

"Denied access?" Willis mused. "Maybe it's your computer's time of the month." He leaned over and typed in his own code. The computer welcomed it and quickly responded. "Nope," Willis said, logging out. "She seems to like me just fine." And there it was, that oily smile of his.

This was a sensitive project with a high security rating. McBride couldn't hide his disappointment that Willis didn't have any insight into either his missing printouts or his expired login. McBride rarely enjoyed working with Willis, but today he found him deeply unnerving, repugnant even. The man was a staff veteran and had worked at Novilis for more than fifteen years. He had been the first to greet McBride upon his arrival five years ago and had charitably offered his own warped guide to the intricacies of office politics. The company's social environment had been a novel experience for McBride, fresh out of his self-imposed quarantine at California State's microbiology lab in Fullerton. There he'd had the luxury of only communicating with his professors. Here, he had to ask about everyone's weekend, mother, grandmother, child, and dog.

Willis knew precisely what McBride was working on. The flu vaccine was the biggest thing Novilis had developed in the last ten years easily, and it couldn't have come at a better time. The company had stumbled recently, and there were rumors of cutbacks, even layoffs. With government funding being poured into the search, this vaccine would resuscitate the company's bottom line and maybe even be the dawn of a new era for Novilis. Vaccines rarely made any money, but propelled by public unrest, this one was going to be the exception. As a result, all company resources had been devoted to the work.

Company President Alvin DiAngelo had even held a video conference with the Elmira, New York staff to emphasize the importance of the project. Lang Hofferman, the department director who usually kept accounts of such minor items as the stained interior of the break room microwave and vacation scheduling, now reminded them of the importance of this project daily.

"The data is gone, too, huh?" Willis said. He carefully checked the other shelves. Then he walked over to the microfridge and then the aspirator, half-heartedly poking and peering, and then finally returned to his papers without another word. McBride watched him anxiously, knowing that Willis was just trying to get him off his back, yet still hoping the research would turn up. It was no secret that Willis was selfish and lazy, but he was also a sycophant and usually made a big show of trying to be the most unselfish and helpful researcher in the lab. Yet somehow today he couldn't be bothered. McBride shook his head in disgust.

"Maybe you should talk to Hofferman," Willis finally offered without looking up.

McBride blanched. No one wanted to discuss anything with Hofferman, who was not a doctor but a bureaucrat with a useless MBA at best. He could chat about paper clip inventory and the price of emollients, but the man had absolutely no understanding of research. He only grudgingly approved needed purchases and constantly harped about costs. Everyone knew that money was tight at Novilis, especially now. Hofferman, however, had a death grip on the laboratory budget and was grimly determined to squeeze every penny out of it.

"It'll be all right, man," Willis assured McBride. He chortled to himself. "It's not like you're asking him to smoke a joint in the break room with you."

"I just want access back. I can print new copies of the damn data," McBride said, his voice rising despite his best intentions to remain calm. This was important, and all Willis could do was make jokes about illegal drugs? He was almost trembling. Why now? He was so close to determining which virus was causing the new round of a possibly deadly flu. He couldn't sit around until someone fixed what was obviously just a dumb computer error.

That someone was definitely not Hofferman. He barely knew how to use email. Still, whom else could he talk to? IT? Those guys didn't even understand English, much less speak it. And then there were the missing printouts… McBride grimaced sourly. He checked the clock. It was eight a.m.; Hofferman would be at his desk, calculating nonstop. He arrived every day at precisely 7:58. Some of the researchers seriously debated whether or not he had a metronome built into his body.

McBride returned his coat to the rack and headed up the stairs to Hofferman's second-floor office. He had no idea how to broach the subject. How could he explain the loss of such vital research and his inexplicable inability to access his computer? Hofferman had placed him in charge of the research, overseeing an eight-person team. This was his first major assignment. He recognized both the importance of the work and the significance of his position.

"The company has big plans for you," Hofferman had told him.

Now what? McBride reflected. If a duffer like Willis could hang on for fifteen years, well, they weren't going to fire him. Still, he shuddered to think about the consequences of this inexplicable gaffe.

Susan Johnson, the secretary, grinned at him as he knocked on the office door. A tall, thin blonde with a few sun-kissed freckles and a gap between her front teeth, she was infallibly genial while seemingly harried beyond human endurance. Her desk already resembled the interior of a home flattened by a tornado.

"Hiya, McBride, how goes it?" she said, flashing him a quick smile while hunting through a stack of papers for a lost invoice or something.

"I gotta talk to Hofferman."

"I'm sorry to hear that! Well, you're in luck. 'The doctor is in,' as it were."

"Thanks, Susan, I…I'm sorry, how are you?"

Susan looked at her desk, shrugged with a sad grin and flipped her hair, indicating that McBride was to follow her.

She led him to the gaudy inner office with its lengthy rosewood desk, pine siding, and plush leather visitor chairs. Hofferman had decorated the wall with his framed diplomas, pictures of his family and their two dogs, and what looked like a bad copy of a Dali. The watches weren't so much melted as squished

.

Hofferman looked up and smiled broadly at McBride. "Come in, come in," he said cheerfully. McBride walked slowly forward, feeling like a doomed man greeted jovially by his executioner. Hofferman indicated a chair. McBride slumped into it. His stomach bubbled, and he felt the awful taste of bile in his mouth.

"Good news, I'm assuming?" Hofferman said. "You know the company sure could use some. That Rohn flu looks like it could turn out to be a killer, and there's lots of pressure to come up with a vaccine. I'm getting calls all the time from top government officials. The Feds are really pouring money into this."

"Yes, sir, I understand," McBride managed. Hofferman's arms strained the fabric of his suit when he flexed, and McBride found himself staring as his boss rambled on. Hofferman flexed unnecessarily several times while retrieving a single piece of paper. McBride remembered when the man had talked about starting a workout routine, and it now seemed that Hofferman had stumbled onto the secret of manufacturing muscle. He appeared grimly intent on getting the most out of it. Hofferman struck another pose and this time his chest stretched his white shirt. When he twisted his neck to look at his monitor, McBride noticed how thick his neck had become; his head seemed disproportionately small. Human beings were such a vain and inefficient species, McBride thought, and then glanced down at his own stomach, pressing against his white button down. Jesus, was Kendra getting him fat now?

"Did you see the latest press conference on the flu?" Hofferman continued. McBride shook his head. He had never had an appetite for TV. "You should take a minute to keep up," Hofferman counseled. "You spend far too much time staring into computer screens and reading printouts. You're the ultimate 'lab rat,' you know that, McBride?"

"Yes, sir." He'd heard that before and knew better than to protest it now.

"Look at this," Hofferman said. He swung his computer screen around so McBride could see it. After several agonizing seconds struggling with his computer mouse, Hofferman finally clicked on a video clip on CNN.com. Apparently his computer skills were progressing.

US Surgeon General Dr. Charles Witherspoon was standing in front of a group of reporters. "He's one of ours," Hofferman said excitedly. "He was once a medical researcher at the company like you and eventually became Chief of Operations before being tapped by the Federal government."

McBride nodded, still unable to address the problem that had brought him to Hofferman's office. McBride thought Witherspoon was unprofessional, and more than one colleague shared his opinion. Witherspoon was given to overwrought responses to seemingly trivial situations. Just a few months ago, he had fired off an alert about some nasal spray that reportedly could alter the sense of smell. Later tests indicated that the nasal spray actually did alter the patients' senses of smell—by opening their nasal passageways, which is what the product was advertised to do. McBride couldn't believe that a man that shortsighted had ascended to such a prominent position in medicine.

However, Witherspoon had been out front on the Rohn flu. Initial reports on the disease hadn't caused any particular alarm. The flu was not immediately deadly; that seemed clear. Then, as the number of people who got sick increased, the media accounts grew shriller. Americans had become jaded after neither the supposedly dangerous avian flu nor the much-heralded H1N1 delivered the full-on plague the media had promised. As a result, despite the news stories, the Rohn flu initially evoked merely a few yawns. However, medical findings showed that it affected the body's organs and weakened them. At least a dozen people who had come down with the flu and recovered soon experienced fatal pancreatic and/or liver failures. That connection had begun to get people's attention.

"We realize the public wants answers," Witherspoon was saying. "We are proud that people have so far handled this disease in stride. We've had epidemics before in this country. Americans know their government is doing everything possible to combat this disease."

At the press conference, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Lauren Jessence, accompanied Dr. Witherspoon. They had become a daily fixture in the news, making simple, common-sense declarations about hand-washing and giving homely advice for care almost as if they were publicists for the disease. Chicken soup sales tripled. However, as the number of reported illnesses and related lost work hours mushroomed, both of them began to look tired and at their wits' end. Jessence's sallow features, in particular, began to sag badly as she tried to reassure viewers and weathered the badgering of reporters. Standing side-by-side in an American Gothic pose, the two white-haired old people seemed to illustrate the ominous nature of the disease and the ineffectiveness of the government agency they represented.

"We expect to have a vaccine shortly," Witherspoon was saying. "Researchers have isolated the virus and have developed the first vaccines. Animal testing should begin this week."

"He's referring to your work," Hofferman interjected, nodding at McBride. McBride felt adrenaline dump into his bloodstream like someone had slid a long cold needle deep into his spinal cord. This morning couldn't get worse.

"We expect results within the next month," Jessence added.

"Mass inoculations were not our first choice," Witherspoon continued, "but became the solution that evolved. We need to stop this dreadful disease in its tracks."

Jessence then launched into a brief discussion of how the international medical community had once isolated and defeated smallpox. "That's our hope with Rohn flu," she said in a monotone. "We can quarantine those who get the disease and we can inoculate the rest of the population. In a very short time, no human hosts will be available. All we need is a safe vaccine."

Hofferman muted the computer. "That's what's important, the vaccine," he noted. "You can't believe what people are saying about this flu. Some people think the government is covering up deaths! The bloggers are up in arms about it; it's all over Facebook and, you know, Twitter."

Despite his mounting concern, McBride struggled not to roll his eyes. Hofferman didn't know the first thing about any of the social networking sites he'd mentioned—he was just parroting what he'd heard on the news.

"Do you know a bunch of Pentecostal ministers announced that the Rohn flu was one of the riders of the Apocalypse, the pale rider signifying death? Crazy. A couple of nights ago, I saw a news story that a Cardinal predicted the disease marked the beginning of Armageddon."

He picked up some printed sheets on his desk, flexing several times for emphasis. "Headquarters is shifting all the bizarre emails to me." He read quotes. "Could Rohn flu turn into Ebola or one of those other horrific diseases usually confined to Africa? Didn't the CIA start AIDS? Is the Rohn flu the latest effort to wipe out the Third World?" He shook his head.

"Sounds like we've got our own intellectual Third World right here," McBride commented dryly.

Hofferman grunted. "Sad," he said. "Now the flu is a right-wing conspiracy. Or is it a left-wing effort to force universal health care? This flu started in Canada. Everyone had nice thoughts about Canada. How could a deadly flu start there? Isn't it too cold up there?"

"The French," McBride said. "Blame the French." He was glad the conversation hadn't gotten around to him. In fact, Hofferman seemed to be avoiding it. Still, he couldn't bullshit like this forever.

Hofferman laughed. "You'd better hurry up before the whole world goes crazy," he said. "This company is counting on your team to identify the virus so we can get that vaccine in place."

Before some other company develops one first, you mean, McBride thought to himself. He felt a cold chill. This was not going to be very easy. "We're working as fast as we can," he said.

"Good, good," Hofferman said. He settled back into his chair expectantly.

That was the invitation to explain why he was here. In a flash, McBride knew how to slip the news to Hofferman. He launched into the densest technical labspeak he could muster. "Sir," he began, "as you know, after isolation, the DNA of the virus appears as a negative supertwist or as an open circle with at least one single-strand scission. Under the denaturation conditions usually applied, such as heating in the presence of formaldehyde or application of alkali, Form I molecules could appear as 'relaxed' circles without single-strand scissions. On the other hand, Form II molecules show partial or complete strand separations. With that knowledge, my team and I have started the process of isolating and identifying the pathogen."

He could see Hofferman's eyes start to glaze over. A little more, he decided, and Hofferman would be numb. Then he could tell him the printouts were missing. "Maintaining the molecules with denaturation solution finally transformed them into partially denatured circles exhibiting strand separations easily measurable on electron micrographs. Denaturation maps of Form I molecules are being constructed by computer and compared with denaturation maps derived from partially denatured Form II molecules," McBride recited prolixly.

"Amazing," Hofferman gurgled. He glanced at his computer as if hoping to find some relief there.

"Unfortunately," McBride continued, "when I came in this morning, all the research was gone."

Hofferman blinked. He tried to say something, but only his lips moved. Finally, he turned around to get a glass of water. This was bad. Incredibly bad. The sound of the water being poured from the pitcher sounded like a cascade. He turned back, clearing his throat. "Gone?" His voice rose in pitch, stretching the tiny word out to two, almost three syllables.

"Yes, sir." McBride waited for the blast to follow. Hofferman was able to work himself into quite a lather. He seemed to have a switch: one minute, he was placid; the next, he was red with rage. Last week, he had fumed for three days after being informed that a researcher had "borrowed" findings from a colleague and added them to her own work.

"Now, I could easily reprint the missing data, sir," McBride continued, "but I seem to have lost access to my computer."

Hofferman's mouth ratcheted open by degrees, and McBride braced for the onslaught. At that moment, Hofferman's computer beeped, indicating a message of highest importance. Hofferman, huffing and puffing, turned to his keyboard while McBride waited with growing anxiety. As Hofferman read the message, his eyebrows went up, and he seemed flustered. He glanced sideways at McBride, then reread the message very carefully. Finally, he turned back to McBride, a strange expression on his face. "Anything else?"

"No, sir."

"Then we're done. Thank you," Hofferman said abruptly. He looked down at the printed copies of emails, showing the bald top of his head to McBride.

McBride was stunned. "What do you want me to do?" he said.

"Go back to work," Hofferman said without looking up. His voice was cold and flat and caromed off the desk.

McBride stared at him. "On what?"

Hofferman glared at him with his dark, narrow eyes. "You are the virologist," he said fiercely. "You find something to do."

McBride was stunned. He could not move. Hofferman began shuffling the papers, ignoring him. Finally, McBride eased out of the chair. He was overwhelmed. He fairly staggered down the hallway and back into the laboratory. Mindlessly, he put on his coat and sat down on the stool next to his work area. He felt so helpless. Months of work were gone. He had been so close.

"Are you all right?" someone said softly. He glanced up. It was Kendra Mayfield, a nurse who had become a lab technician. She had also become his girlfriend. Straight, dark hair framed her plain but open face. Today, it clearly showed concern. "You look sick."

He murmured what had transpired, including Hofferman's strange reaction.

She thought about it. "Did you see what he read on the computer?" she asked.

"No."

"Maybe I can find out," she said.

"How?"

She smiled at him. "Women have ways of getting things done, Pres."

"Thanks."

"Have you told anyone about your lost data and lack of access?"

"Just Hofferman. And Willis knows."

Kendra made a face. "You trust him?"

McBride rolled his eyes. There was no answer to that. How could he trust Willis? How could he trust anyone here? From the day he entered Novilis, he always had to keep one eye on his research and another on his coworkers, any of whom would steal an idea without a second thought and would report any supposed anomaly to Hofferman. McBride glanced around. Everyone seemed to be watching him. Was he just worked up, or was there really tension in the air?

"Kendra," Willis called, "if your Romeo can spare you a moment, I require your assistance."

They both winced. Willis could be unbearable.

"Later," Kendra spit out under her breath and walked stiffly across the hard tile floor to Willis's work area. The one person he could count on was walking away. McBride watched her as Willis smiled broadly and put his arm around her shoulders. Kendra flinched. Was she putting on weight, too? He hated himself for even thinking that.

He sat up. Moping was not going to help. He had been abruptly shunted off the project. Why? What had he done? Was he going too slowly? He was working as hard as he could, poring over computerized virus models late into the nights, pushing his team accompany him. What could he do? He rapidly organized his thoughts as the music sifted around him and calmed him. He was off the project. He felt as though he had been kicked in the stomach. Everything on his desk seemed so far away. As it turned out, even his ruthless organization couldn't keep chaos at bay.

Of course, he thought, he could have reported something, chosen a virus from among as many as twenty options, and freed up animal tests on the vaccine. That would be Willis's approach. He often cut corners. McBride had rejected that direction out of hand. He already knew very well what happened with such methods.

He recalled sitting in court about two years ago. DiAngelo was trying to explain his opposition to the placement of a warning label on a radiation gel created to treat the effects of cancer treatments. The gel had been developed in the lab, but had not been properly tested. Instead, one brave employee tested it and reported back that it had worked. That was enough for Novilis.

Three people died before Novilis was hauled into court and sales of the product were frozen. McBride was subpoenaed as a witness about the product's development but was never called to testify. He came away particularly upset that no one else seemed concerned about the ensuing judgment against the company.

"The cost of doing business," Willis told him with a shrug. "Collateral damage."

McBride knew that term and didn't like it. It meant civilian deaths caused by military action against the enemy. It sounded better than murder but meant the same thing. Finally, not wanting to simply sit in the lab, McBride began to clean around his desk, moving pens and equipment as if reshuffling would provide the magic answer. Three months, McBride thought grimly. All that work gone. And Witherspoon? He was saying the vaccine was almost ready for human use.

Idly, McBride retrieved a slide. The heavy metal compounds were already in place. He would have to mold the negative stain around the virus particle to create a negative image. That would allow him to clearly see the virus interact with the animal tissue's cells. It was something to do. Lab technicians were filing in. He needed to do something.

His phone rang. "Hey, Pres," a voice said cheerfully. "I have completed initial animal testing with the Rohn vaccine per your request. Can you come down to review the data?" It was Rob Connelly, the portly man who managed the animal research facility. McBride suspected he may be an alcoholic, but at least he was easy enough to work with.

"Completed? We're not ready to commence animal testing, "McBride said, puzzled. "It will be weeks."

He heard Connelly pause. "But I got batches of the test vaccine two weeks ago and was told to get started."

"You're kidding."

"No, sir." Connelly said. "When Willis brought them down, he told me this was a priority and to get to work as soon as possible."

"Connelly, I… let me call you right back." McBride closed his eyes and put the phone down while Connelly was still speaking. What the hell was going on? He looked over at Willis. The older man was innocently peering through his microscope.

As calmly as possible, McBride stood up. He took a deep breath and tried to control his pulse rate. Kendra asked him if he trusted Willis. He hadn't answered. Now that it was too late; the answer was clear. How could Willis have submitted vaccine samples if he didn't know the composition of the virus? He must have stolen the research. It was as simple as that.

McBride stared at the older man. He had been in one fight in his life, in high school, in algebra class. A freshman, he had been in the same class with graduating seniors and was the constant target of Jeff Fisher, the school's soccer and basketball star, for answering their professor's queries correctly. That was the point of going to class, right, to learn something? Finally, one day Pres's rage boiled over. The professor wrote out a lengthy algebraic equation on the chalkboard and asked if anyone wanted to give it a try. "I nominate The Prez," Fisher said, grinning broadly. "As everyone knows, he likes 'em long and hard." The class tittered. Pres stood, his face flushing, and walked over to Jeff Fisher. Fisher was out of his chair in a second, towering over Pres. With no hope of winning a fight, Pres swung wildly for Jeff's face but came up short when Jeff leaned back, and the punch landed on his throat. Jeff immediately grabbed Pres and started wailing away, but he quickly fell off, clutching his closing windpipe. Pres sustained a black eye and a few bruises, but Jeff Fisher never said boo to him again.

His veins coursing with rage and fury, McBride strode toward Willis. He could hear the pounding in his ears. The thump of his heart created a drum roll that accompanied him as he walked slowly across the floor. His hard heels cracked against the tile, adding to the staccato sound. What was he going to do? He didn't know.

Someone was using the ultracentrifugation, but the whirring noise was muffled by McBride's own heartbeat. Even the music emanating from various desks faded away. McBride's world grew silent, save for the rushing of his own hot blood.

Willis must have caught a hint of his looming presence. He leaned back, staring straight ahead, and then slowly turned. For a moment, the two men looked at each other. "I was told not to tell you," Willis said.

"I don't believe you," McBride replied coldly.

"It doesn't matter what you believe," Willis said and smiled. It struck McBride that this was the first genuine smile he had seen from Willis, and it was not a pretty thing, like watching a shark smile with a dead seal pup dangling from its toothy mouth.

"What the hell is going on?" McBride shouted, knowing that he should remain professional but unable to contain his anger.

"It doesn't affect you," Willis said calmly.

"That's ridiculous! Who could it affect more?"

"The company," Willis fairly hissed. He turned back to his research.

The company? McBride wanted to scream. What did the company have to do with this? Willis had taken the research and had initiated tests without doing a shred of research on them. He was not even on the team developing the vaccine. He had simply out-and-out stolen everything.

"The needs of the many…" Willis began.

"Dwindle to nothing when there's one man's fortune to be made!" McBride finished in fury.

Willis shrugged. "Then you understand," he said quietly, and returned to his work.

Surrounded by silence, McBride spun and walked out the door. He threw his coat onto the closet floor and marched up the stairs. He hoped the staff heard him leave the lab, and Hofferman heard him coming.

Johnson was sitting at her desk. She did not try to exchange pleasantries this time—McBride was clearly past that.

"I'm going home," McBride told her flatly. "I'm sick of this shit." He didn't wait for an answer but marched away. Already he felt the sweat on his brow cooling—it wasn't Susan's fault, why was he swearing at her?

"Um… feel better?" she called after him.

Less than twenty minutes later, he was pulling into the driveway of his apartment. The short drive had done little to diffuse his temper. Outside, the wintry weather in upstate New York brought him a chill. What now? Had he blown a big problem into a full-on catastrophe? He still had no idea what was going on. He wished he were back home in Pomona, on the other side of the continent. He wouldn't have even made the trek if his family doctor, Abe Crossland, hadn't called his brother, a vice president at Novilis, and recommended him for this job. McBride hadn't really wanted to work so far away, but Abe Crossland had been encouraging.

"Do you really want to hold someone's sweaty hand? You prefer research to patients," Crossland reminded him. "You can do important work. Maybe you'll discover a cure for cancer or something really significant."

Maybe, McBride thought, I'll have all my work stolen out from under me.

He slammed the door behind him, knocking icicles off the eaves. The apartment was cool and empty. He filled it with his frustration, pacing from room to room. What was he supposed to do? Go back to work? Supervise the animal experiments? Why? So Willis or someone else could pilfer the results again? He was deeply unhappy in New York State, and his research was one of the few things that brought him any comfort or relief. You could spend your whole life studying one person and never figure that person out, but the laboratory held a sterile kind of hope. True, it took diligence and patience and great care, but Pres honestly felt that given enough time, any problem could be solved in a laboratory. Well, any scientific problem, that was. Human beings, he would never understand. He surveyed his mostly empty apartment where he only slept and showered with its cheap particleboard furniture and unused couch. He felt his gut through his cheap cotton shirt—he was getting fat! Who was he, living in this anonymous apartment, grinding away in the lab just to have his research stolen by a sloppy coworker? His life felt pointless; he felt like a stranger, even to himself.

His cell phone rang. Kendra came across clear, but muffled. She must have been standing outside, trying to talk in the cold air. "You went home?" she asked.

"Yeah," he snapped. "What did you expect me to do?"

"Well, I don't know," she countered. "I mean…yes, Willis is a creep, but maybe try to look at it positively? Does it really matter who got credit, just so long as the vaccine worked? No one cares about whose name is on the bottle. There were 300 million Americans hoping for a cure, and billions more worldwide."

McBride began to cringe. Maybe he had overreacted.

"You're paid to do a job. You were doing it. Nobody's looking over my shoulder to see what I'm doing because, well, my work isn't half as important as the work you're doing. You must have been on the right track. Pres, if there's recognition to be had, you'll get some," Kendra continued. "Was that what you were upset about? Who gets credit?"

McBride's shoulders sagged but he made no answer.

"Who won last year's Nobel Prize for Medicine?" Kendra asked him.

"Well, actually it was split between two parties, actually a total of three scientists, there was the French team—"

Kendra cut him off. "Okay, Pres, who other than you knows that?"

"No one," he admitted. He felt like an idiot. He was an adult. He needed to act like one. "I'll be back to Novilis tomorrow," he said wearily, "and I'll make sure the vaccine tests are done properly."

"I think you're doing the right thing," she told him. "I think it'll pay off down the line."

"Thank you," he said.

"Well, I'm not done, Pres. I got a copy of the memo Hofferman received when you were in his office. Would you like to hear it?"

McBride smiled grimly. He could hear in Kendra's voice both that she was cold and that she was smiling. "Now how on earth did you get that?"

"Well…maybe you've noticed that Hofferman is pretty clueless about his computer? And that Susan doesn't much care for her boss?"

"Yes, of course, but…"

"As his assistant, she reads all of his work email. You know, we talk every day, just to keep up with each other. I asked her what the email said, and she just printed off a copy for me. She was more than happy to do it!"

Pres rolled his eyes. How he would function in society without Kendra, he didn't know. "Can you read it to me?"

"Sure."

"It's from Charles Crossland. Who's he?"

"Vice president," McBride said. "He oversees the research wing."

"Here's what he wrote: 'Expedite testing. Willis is doing most of the work, anyway. If McBride comes by, do not address the subject with him. We don't want to lose someone of his caliber, but we can't sleep on this opportunity. He wouldn't accept the use of an attenuated vaccine, anyway. It's an imperfect solution, but our cost-benefit analysis shows it to clearly be the best path.'"

McBride gasped aloud.

"He didn't say anything bad about you."

"Attenuated viruses?" McBride repeated. "No, they can't be serious about that."

"What's an attenuated virus?" Kendra asked.

McBride took a deep breath. "An attenuated virus means it's still alive. You put it in a foreign culture or an egg or even animal tissue, and then inject it. That's what was done with polio, yellow fever, chicken pox. The MMR vaccine uses that approach. You can create a vaccine a lot faster that way. The viruses are generally dying or altered in some way through laboratory cultivation, but there's still a significant risk that they could reproduce or mutate."

"Don't the vaccines all have live viruses?"

"Not anymore," McBride told her. "These days, most vaccines use recombinant DNA sequencing. Some have harmless toxins produced by the virus or components of viruses, but they can't reproduce. Injections for influenza typically use recombinant DNA. The whole idea is to activate the immune system. That's what's wrong with attenuated viruses. They work, of course, but no one wants the virus to mutate and produce a more virulent form. With attenuated viruses, you need booster shots. There's always the danger someone with a low immune system will get the disease or pass it on. That's not what I was working on. I wouldn't have consented to it!"

He suddenly could see what was happening: Willis knew how to play the political game. Willis was the white knight, charging ahead to lead the company to success. McBride would be the small figure in the background, waving his arms as he slowly vanished in the distance.

Attenuated viruses? McBride shook his head. Yes, it could be a safe vaccine. People still got polio shots. But in this instance, the risk far outweighed the reward. Viruses were like every living thing: they evolved constantly to survive. There's no way to guarantee that another polio epidemic wouldn't occur when the virus mutated. That was also true with the Rohn flu. He was not going to be party to that.

"Jesus. This is a huge deception. They are lying to me and to the American public. Am I going crazy?" McBride sputtered. "Kendra, I can't go back to work."

"Pres," Kendra said in exasperation. "I thought we just went through that."

"You don't understand," he said. "I can't be associated with an attenuated virus vaccine when I'm not even sure the vaccine contains the correct weakened virus. It's too soon. It's too dangerous."

"You said that other vaccines used it. Besides, the company has to move fast or lose their opportunity. You just said it's easier to use an attenuated virus."

"Unless we know specifically which virus it is, which is what I had been working so long and hard on, it's a hit or miss proposition to use any attenuated virus. There are worse things at stake than Novilis going belly up," he said.

It was true, but it just sounded like a lame excuse to his ears. The real reason he wanted to leave, he finally admitted to himself, was because he wanted to leave. He just wanted to do research, important research, without having to guard his research from jealous coworkers, or flatter his vain, incompetent boss, or get beers and watch the Giants with the guys in Animal Testing. He could see himself in the mirror on the back of the closet door. Stress was already adding lines in his forehead. Was that the beginning of a jowl hanging down under his chin? He could feel weariness flood over him. He had to leave, had to flee this wintry gulag and get home to California and regroup. He had to get as far away from Novilis as possible. He told Kendra. She listened without speaking and he could hear hurt in her silence.

"Do you want to go with me?" he asked hesitantly. She was his one source of comfort in New York, and he knew he would miss her horribly.

"I've got a good job. I was born and raised here. My family is here," Kendra said.

"I understand," McBride said. He had never felt so sad in his life. Still, he knew his East Coast misadventure was over.

"Pres, I…I've got to go back inside. My break is over, and I'm freezing," Kendra said. She hung up the phone.

McBride flipped shut his cell phone. This disastrous day was complete. He was alone. What a mess he had made of everything. An attenuated virus? That was something the public would need to know. Maybe he should call Witherspoon or Jessence. As if they'd listen. He felt helpless.

He went upstairs and began to pack. His suitcase wasn't big enough for everything, but he didn't feel the need to bring more than was absolutely necessary. He didn't want any souvenirs of this place.

He called his mother. "I'm coming back home," he told her.

"Good!" she said. "Just in time for the Winter Solstice ceremony!"

"Mom, I…we may have to forgo my participation this year."

"Oh, you will be there," she said cheerfully. "We dance at midnight with candles and incense. I think twenty-five or thirty women are coming. No men, of course, but we'll make an exception for you! Who knows, maybe you'll meet a nice girl…"

McBride was about to protest that he had a girlfriend and then recalled that he no longer did. "You're too kind," he said wearily. His mother the twenty-first-century hippie. She had enjoyed the 1960s so much that she had never left.

By four p.m. he was ready to go. His leased car had been returned to the dealer. He hadn't even thought about buying a plane ticket. He'd just take a shuttle to Corning Regional Airport and catch a commuter to LaGuardia or Kennedy. None of it mattered. He just wanted to get as far away from there as possible.

The cell phone rang again. He flipped it open and looked at the number: Kendra.

"When are we leaving?" she asked.

"You're going with me?"

"Pres, if you think I'm going to stay here with Willis, then you really are going crazy."

'25 percent of authors' net profits from the sale of this book will be donated to the New York ASPCA, an organization dedicated to the well-being of dogs and other animals.

Copyright © 2011 Unconditional Loss. All Rights Reserved.