Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2009. This story ties in with my previous works, Three, Jurisdiction, Let Vengeance Ring, Recruitment Day and A Visit to Camp Grizzly and the Ringbearer shared universe. Further information about the The Agency, the Ringbearer shared universe and a list of associated stories can be found at the DariaWiki.
Sharon Reeve pointed to a faintly visible, man-sized shape and said, "There's your target, Gunny." As she spoke, it started to move among the buildings.
"Anything else?" the man asked.
"You have to make that determination yourself."
The Gunny concentrated and unconsciously, lifted his right hand, upon the middle finger of which rested a silver Defender Ring. After several seconds, he calmly nodded and had clearly made up his mind of what to do.
Meanwhile, Sharon lifted a pair of electronic binoculars and observed the target area 500 meters away. Only her long experience with The Agency prevented her from flinching at the series of loud reports that erupted beside her. Looking down range at the fluttering remains of the target, she said, "Very effective Gunny, though a Ma Deuce isn't exactly what I'd call subtle."
The marine grinned and patted the heavy machine gun floating in the air beside him. "You didn't say anything about subtle and a .50 caliber round will blow the head clean off of a Zack and with any luck, the one behind him, too."
"I can't argue with that." Gazing at the weapon, Sharon said, "I know your affinity is metal, but I have to say that imagining up a fully functional machine gun is still pretty impressive."
He shrugged, "I manned one during the Sino-Korean Outbreak from the Inchon landing until they made me a Ringbearer at Chosin."
"That's also where you got your nickname, right."
He rolled his eyes. "If you went by what I was feeling at the time, 'Tired Dog' would've been a more accurate name."
"But nowhere near as colorful."
"My wife Ruth hates it."
Sharon chuckled and said, "I can see that."
After the Gunny concentrated for a moment, the machine gun dissolved. "What's next?"
"Your next objective is..." Sharon stopped when she heard the chime of an incoming message. She took a small PDA-like device from a belt holster and read the message:
Agent Sharon Reeves and Ringbearer Nathan Morgendorffer: report to base for immediate field deployment.
"So much for extended cross-training."
Having just received the same message through the Defender Ring, Nathan said, "Marines, Ringbearers, and The Agency. Some things aren't different."
Agency Sector Headquarters. Earth SCR-001
When the dimensional portal opened, Sharon and Nathan stepped through and into a familiar laboratory where Richard, their supervisor, was waiting for them.
He waved them to a pair of seats next to a workstation. "Sorry for the interruption, but we have a situation that calls for Nathan's experience and abilities."
"An HST infestation?" Nathan asked. "What type are we looking at, and what's the intensity level of the outbreak?"
"Zombies – and it appears to be an isolated Class Two," Richard informed them. "You two will determine the source and nature of the outbreak to assess the risk of it spreading planet-wide and requiring an interdiction."
"We're not going to stop the infestation?" Nathan asked, shocked.
"If you determine the source is from another universe, yes. If it is native to this Earth, we will allow the natural course of events to occur."
Nathan closed his eyes and recited one of the first concepts of The Agency, "The residents of every reality have the right and responsibility to determine their future and it is our duty to insure that they do."
Richard said, "I know it's difficult for someone from your background, but Archangel would not have sent you here if he thought you could only see things from your native viewpoint."
Sharon asked, "Where will we be going?"
Richard tapped a key on the computer keyboard, and a holographic projection of the target planet appeared. "Earth D-1506. Lawndale, Maryland. The county is currently quarantined by the United States government and is thought to be the only location infected. However, since there are no likely sources of a new pathogen, Intel suspects that it came from somewhere else, perhaps any of a number of testing laboratories in the Maryland and Washington D.C. area."
"Which means that there may be infected individuals outside of the quarantine zone," Sharon said. "Have they identified a Patient Zero?"
"Not yet. Intel so far has unusual data that they are trying to sort out, but it appears that this pathogen may have an infectious, latent phase. Nathan, that's where your ring abilities will come in handy."
"Lawndale," Nathan said. "Does this world's version of my son and grandchildren live there?"
"Yes, they do."
Nathan slowly nodded. "You don't need to worry about telling me to avoid them. I've already learned my lesson."
Daria lay on her bed, leafing through a book. "Quarantine, martial law, general curfew. Even I never pictured things getting this bad in Lawndale."
Equally as bored, John Lane spun around on the office chair next to Daria's computer desk. "I always thought being in the middle of a plague would be more exciting."
"It would be nice if we actually knew what we were facing. Ebola, Black Plague, Anthrax, or even Hoof and Mouth disease. No, all they can say is to report 'unusual symptoms' to the authorities."
John spun around the other direction and said, "I think that they're trying to hide some other big screw-up and are just using an infection as a reason to keep everybody inside."
"I'd believe that, too."
"Maybe aliens have landed on the Washington Mall."
Daria closed her book and sat up. "Why do they always land on the Mall? Why not something that at least looks like an airport or a spaceport?"
"Makes too much sense?"
"Good point. After all, what alien in their right mind would want to show up on Earth?"
John got up and went over to the bed to sit back down. "Slumming?"
"Smartass," Daria said, reaching over to playfully squeeze his hand, inhaling in surprise when she touched it. "You're cold."
"That's a fine 'how are you.'"
"No, I mean that you skin is cold."
"Or you're a little hot," he said with a wink.
"John, I'm serious." She reached up and touched the side of his neck. "Cold there, too. Are you feeling all right?"
He shrugged. "A little hungry, but what else is new? A rare steak would taste really good right now."
Sharon passed the electronic binoculars to Nathan and said, "I think that's the command post, what do you think?"
From their vantage point on a hill overlooking the town, Nathan examined the town square filled with military vehicles and pre-fab buildings. "I agree."
Beyond the command center, an OH-58 scout helicopter circled the town while sensors in the globular mast above the rotor scanned the surrounding countryside. On the high school football field, two UH-60s waited with squads ready to intercept anyone trying to break the quarantine.
"Let's get a closer look." She plucked a tiny, bumble-bee shaped robot from a canister on her belt and placed it on the ground. After she put on a pair of sunglasses, the robot came to life and flew off toward the compound.
Nathan watched and said, "Very nice, but I'm willing to bet the command staff are inside a sealed area even that little bug can't get inside."
"Don't forget that I'm a P11 telepath," Sharon said, glancing at her bare hand as a reminder of her former life. "And my little bee has a relay that goes through my control glasses. All she has to do is get close and I can scan for keywords like 'zombie.' Once I locate a target, I can listen to surface thoughts or conversations to gather intel."
It took almost fifteen minutes for the bee to reach the camp. Sharon flew it around the compound to get a good idea of the layout and she sketched a map for Nathan on a touchpad. Choosing the largest prefab structure, she let the bee land on the room and she began to listen to the stray thoughts that wafted through the camp.
Nowheresville...Damn itch...Yes, sir...Miss August...Coffee...Bored...Biohazard level IV...
"That's it," she whispered, concentrating down to that mind.
"Anatomically and physiologically, they're dead. No pulse, no heartbeat, no respiration, and core body temperature that remains at ambient. They shouldn't have any brain functions at all, let alone what appear to be fully normal brain activity."
"You said that they have an appetite?"
"For raw meat. We surmise the pathogen is actually digesting the food."
"Do we have any idea of how it's transmitted?"
"Nothing concrete; it's either physical contact or possibly airborne. But hell, they've barely isolated the damn thing. We'll let you know as soon as we know."
"Have you figured out how it got here?"
"We have. An infected technician came to Lawndale to visit family. We've located almost all of the other technicians not locked down at the laboratory and so far, they're all free of infection."
"Let's hope the rest are, too. Keeping this county isolated is bad enough. We don't need this getting loose in someplace like Baltimore or D.C."
"I hope so, too."
Sharon let the contact fade and took a moment to rest. When she looked up, she said, "Sounds like what you Ringbearers call a 'Captain Trips' trigger."
"Laboratory release," Nathan said and looked at the ground in dismay. "Which means we won't be allowed to stop it."
"Hold on," Sharon said. "We need to find this lab first. This wouldn't be the first time an outside agency introduced something into a research lab or someone decided to investigate a strange meteorite."
Nathan nodded, somewhat encouraged. "Did you get anything else?"
"Yeah, it sounds like the infected have normal brain functions."
"That doesn't match any of the Zacks that Ringbearers have encountered before."
Sharon took a deep breath. "So both of us might be in new territory."
"Now that you've had your chunk of uncooked cow, will you humor me for a second?" Daria said, holding up a thermometer.
John put his empty plate in the dishwasher and said, "Fine." He took the thermometer from Daria, stuck it in his mouth and patiently waiting a minute. He then pulled it out and said, "Are you happy now."
Daria's face lost color as she looked at the device. "No, I'm not."
Seeing the real concern on her face, John said, "What's wrong?"
"According to this thermometer, your temperature is below ninety-four degrees."
"It must be broken."
Daria stuck the thermometer in her mouth and waited. After a minute, she took it out and read the result. "Ninety-nine."
"Okay, so I'm a little cold."
"A little? You should be showing signs of hypothermia. Shivering, confusion, loss of motor control."
"I feel fine, I tell you."
"I'm sure you do, but your symptoms are very unusual." At that thought, Daria fell back against the counter and dropped the thermometer.
"What?" John asked.
"They said to report unusual symptoms. I think that a body temperature as low as yours with no sign of hypothermia counts as unusual. Not to mention the fact that I've never seen you eat rare beef before, let alone something closer to raw."
"Yeah, hmm. Look, we need to let Mom and Dad, as well as Quinn know. We've all been exposed."
John nodded. "You, more than anyone else."
Sharon tapped Nathan and said, "Let's get moving. They're heading out to check on a new case. We can use that fancy glamour ability of yours to stay out of sight and get a good look at a case under controlled conditions."
"I'll be ready," he said, fingering his ring.
Using his ring's glamour ability to create an illusion of their invisibility, the agents made their way down to the command post and waited. When a medical team appeared, they hopped onto the back of the combat ambulance and hitched a ride to the newly reported case.
When the ambulance stopped, Nathan said, "We have a problem."
"This world's version of my son and granddaughters live here."
"Great. But, we still have a job to do. Let's get the information and make damn sure we stay out of sight. Can you detect a zombie inside?"
"One on the upper floor, about midpoint in the house and toward the back."
While two members of the medical team went inside wearing full self-contained protective suits, two more set up a decontamination tent immediately in front of the house door. Around the lawn, two soldiers hammered "Quarantined Building: Absolutely No Admittance" signs into the ground.
"I can use my ring to fly us around back and up to the second floor to observe. I hope you don't mind, but I need to know."
"It's a little irregular, but all right. As long as we're not noticed."
When they moved around and looked in, a teenage boy with black hair and blue eyes sat on the bed, nervously waiting.
"That's him," Nathan said. "He's a zombie."
Sharon's face held a look of slight disbelief. "Other than looking pale, he doesn't look, or act, like any zombies I've heard of."
"If he's recently deceased, he won't look that different, but yes, he's acting very strangely. I've never encountered a zombie that sat still in a building full of people."
Sharon said, "You mentioned your granddaughters, but never mentioned a grandson."
"This would be the first one I'm aware of, but you never can tell between realities."
The two medical team members entered and the boy stood up. Behind the doctors, the agents could see a woman and a teenage girl with glasses waiting outside.
One of the men offered his gloved hand and said, "Hello, John. I'm Dr. Osgood and this is Dr. Sanjay. We're here to check you out."
"You mean to see if I'm infected with whatever has this town sealed off."
"In a nutshell, yes. If you'll allow us to take a few readings, we'll be done shortly."
Working slowly because of the bulky suits, the doctors attached various small probes and devices. After they completed the task, they removed the sensors and Dr. Osgood said, "John, you may wish to sit down."
Solemn, he did and said, "How bad is this stuff? Am I going to die?"
The doctors looked at each other for a second or two before Osgood said, "Let me say up front that we don't understand this at all. The finest medical minds in the country are working in completely new territory."
"I really don't like the sound of that."
"John, you're body temperature is only a couple degrees above the air temperature, you have no pulse and no blood pressure. If it wasn't for the normal EEG scan showing unimpeded brain function and normal senses, we'd have to say that you were dead."
"Run that by me again."
"By all physical measures, you body is dead. But, your brain continues to operate as usual. Have you had a craving for raw meat?"
"Um, yeah. I'd just finished a raw side of rare steak just before we called."
"That is another symptom of this condition. Those affected turn into obligate carnivores. Even then, they show a very strong preference for raw meat and animal products."
"Anything else I should know?"
"Even though your tissue is technically dead, it does have the ability to repair itself. This seems to be directly tied in to consuming raw meat."
"I'm not going to turn into some kind of cannibal, like in a zombie movie?"
"As far as we can tell so far, no. You're impulse control is unchanged. Just as you wouldn't have considered eating a human when you were hungry before, you're not going to now."
John nodded, more than half in shock. "What's going to happen to me?"
"For now, you'll remain here and this entire house will be placed under guard to insure nobody enters or leaves. In the long term, I honestly have no idea."
"What about?" John said, motioning toward the door.
"So far, about half of those exposed to this syndrome will be affected. Anyone who is susceptible in this house is already infected and those resistant will have no problems. However, we don't know yet if resistant individuals may be carriers, so the entire house will still have to stay put."
"Any more questions?" Dr. Osgood asked.
When John shook his head, the two doctors stepped out into the hallway.
After they closed the door, Osgood said, "He's infected, so we'll have to place guards around the house to insure quarantine. The army will provide you with food and supplies, including a special diet for the young man."
Daria said, "Can we, uh, see him?"
"There's no reason not to, young lady. Everyone in this house is either already infected, or is resistant."
"Mom?" Daria said, going to the door.
"Go ahead, sweetie. Your father and I will take care of things from here."
Sharon and Nathan watched as Daria came into the room and gave John a gentle and supportive hug.
Sharon said to Nathan, "Something tells me that young man is not your grandson."
When she didn't hear a response, she turned and saw the anger building in her partner. "Nathan!" Sharon sharply hissed.
Very reluctant, he turned and said, "She is my granddaughter."
"You can't do anything."
Nathan clenched his teeth. "I know, but it doesn't stop me from pretending."
Nathan paced back and forth in one of the two rooms at the Dutchman Inn that the agents had rented. "Why in the hell is that a young man is living in the same house with my granddaughter?"
Seated at a small vanity and secretly relieved that Nathan was showing more grandfatherly concerns than Ringbearer ones, Sharon said, "I didn't probe deeply, but it is clear that they are romantically involved."
"Which really makes me wonder what my son was thinking!" he exclaimed.
"I have a feeling that there's a fairly lengthy story behind it."
Nathan stopped pacing and plopped down on the bed. "My wife's told me that ever since I got back from Korea that I'm easily agitated. She's right, as usual."
"I think some agitation can be excused," Sharon said.
"It's more than that. Getting this ring saved me from becoming something very different. In every universe that I've checked, the Nathan Morgendorffer there became a very angry and bitter man who abused almost everyone around him, including his family. His anger consumed him and he never lived to see his grandchildren."
"The times I have tried to contact the local version of my family, it's been a disaster. I care for every version of my family and I want to help them...but I can't. They think I'm a monster."
"If it helps any, what I sensed was genuine concern and caring between that boy and your granddaughter."
Nathan nodded his head a couple times. "It helps."
After a moment of silence, Sharon said, "Let's get back to business."
Holding her PDA-like controller, Sharon said, "We can confirm that we have an infectious agent zombie outbreak on this planet. However, it doesn't fit any previously recorded types."
Nathan turned back to face Sharon. "Check. This is a new one." His Ring gave of a tiny blue flash and then he walked over to a wall, where a holographic display appeared with a couple of graphs as the ring transmitted data to the Corps headquarters at Nova Valdris, D-476:
Temporal Position - 16:24:59 UT – 4 September 1998 CE
Location – D-1506
==ALERT! Active HST infestation zone
==UNKNOWN LEVEL CLASSIFICATION
==ALERT! Multiple unknown-level Reanimates in zone
==Infestation Intensity Level Status: CLASS TWO
==ALERT! Active pathogen in area
==Method of transmission UNKNOWN
"Next step is to track down the source of the infection. Since space/time tracking isn't showing a divergence in this reality, the odds are that this is a local phenomenon."
"But we need to confirm it."
"Correct." Sharon shifted around on the chair and said, "Something else bothering you. Is it not being able to act against the zombies immediately?"
"You haven't been poking around in my mind, have you?"
"No need, it's plain on your face."
"A big part of me wants to stop the zombies right now. That's the whole reason for a Defender Ring; to stop the undead and protect the living. I've been good at it ever since they gave me the ring. But then, that boy was acting..."
When Nathan didn't finish the sentence, Sharon did, "...like a human instead of a crazed beast."
"I could destroy him with almost no effort." Nathan shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. "But it wouldn't feel right; it would feel like killing a person and that is not what we're about."
"In my opinion, we need to get more information before we even begin trying to think about what to do, if anything. To do that, we need to visit the lab where this all started, which I conveniently picked up from a surface scan of the good doctors."
"Let's go right now."
The military cordon around the laboratory left no doubt that they had reached their target and the television news trucks beyond that indicated that the facility was no longer secret. "That's going to complicate gaining access," Sharon said. "They're going to have more than visual sensors protecting the access points."
"Let me try to portal one of your bees inside."
Sharon took out another bee and said, "Give it a try."
"I've never tried to make a portal this small," Nathan said. After a couple seconds, there was a faint white flash and a portal about 12 inches in diameter appeared in front of Sharon.
She released the bee and it flew through. The passage caused a momentary disorientation for the visual feed, but within a second, it cleared and she saw that the bee was inside. "Made it," she said. "With a little luck, I can pick up the information we need from surface scans and not have to break in."
Nathan closed the portal and waited, keeping his glamour of invisibility around them to avoid attention.
As dusk fell several hours later, Sharon parked the bee in a hidden corner and shut it down. Taking off the control glasses, she said, "I'm done for the evening."
Nathan placed a mess kit plate on in front of Sharon, placed a rock on it and he held forth his Ring to transmute it into a firm, blue gel. "Dinner is served."
"That is one thing I really like about having a Ringbearer as a partner," Sharon spoke up, pulling a chunk of the gel loose, setting it on the plate of her mess kit and smiling as it transformed into a slice of meat with an unusual looking glaze. "This ambrosia stuff is great, and we don't have to worry about carrying food or obtaining local supplies."
Nathan looked up from his bowl of five-alarm chili. "Were you able to pick up anything?"
"This is definitely where the virus was developed, but I don't have a definite peg on whether or not they had some kind of outside help."
"Could they have been working on a virus brought here from somewhere else?"
"No, this was an engineered virus for some kind of 'Eternal Soldier' program to allow a soldier to continue fighting even after supposedly fatal injuries. I don't know yet if they had help in creating it."
"Why don't they leave the 'super soldier' ideas in comic books, where they belong?"
"You've got me."
"Do we stay here?"
"As much as I'd like to stay in those rooms we have in Lawndale, I think we better stay close in case something happens."
After they ate dinner, Sharon watched as Nathan used his ring to manipulate the earth and make two underground shelters. Next, he turned the leaves of the forest floor into omnicloth tarps, maintaining the natural color pattern to create perfectly camouflaged coverings for the shelter openings. "No wonder you Ringbearers don't get paid – that Ring provides all the room and board you'll ever need."
"You should see the bed I made for Ruth," Nathan said. "Hmm..." Leaving the tarp open, he crawled into one shelter. Once again, the ring flashed as more earth transmuted into wood, metal and omnicloth, appearing and flowing backwards – it's like watching something in slow-motion on the screen, she thought – as the Ringbearer created a simple yet sturdy twin-sized bed for each shelter.
The Agent looked past the Ringbearer. "Okay – now you're just showing off."
"Never sleep in a sleeping bag when you can have a bed," Nathan said, crawling out and going to the other shelter.
"You take that shelter and I'll take this one."
As she crawled into her bed, Sharon said, "I'm going to set up my controller to scan EM communications to alert us if any unusual activity starts."
"Well, good night," Nathan said.
A little after midnight, Sharon was startled awake by an irritating tone from her controller, followed by an artificial voice saying, "This is the Emergency Alert System. The quarantine around Lawndale Maryland has failed and plague outbreaks have been reported in numerous cities. The President has issued an Executive Order declaring Martial Law in the following states: South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. Except for essential personnel, all citizens are to remain in their homes until further notice. Report any unusual symptoms to your local Emergency Management Center immediately."
Sharon grabbed the controller and continued the scan, finding an active military channel. A stern voice on the radio said, "Operation Pasteur is in effect. All infected are to be brought to collection points immediately. In the case of infected personnel that refuse to comply, the use of lethal force is authorized."
"Aw, dammit," Sharon growled. She quickly moved to Nathan's shelter and rapped on the tarp. "The shit has hit the fan."
As soon as Nathan's eyes opened, his ring flashed; his shields went up immediately with a thin blue shimmer, and a holographic display visible only to him appeared:
==ALERT! Active HST infestation zone
==Infestation Intensity Level Status: CLASS THREE
==Alert Command IMMEDIATELY
==HST shields deployed
He crawled out fully prepared for action. "It got worse."
After Sharon had passed on the news, he said, "I knew something bad was going to happen."
"We need to get into that lab and discover the ultimate source of this virus." She reactivated the bee and created a mental picture of where she was at in the lab that she telepathically sent to Nathan. "Can you get us there?"
Nathan placed his hand upon her shoulder, and the two vanished in a rapidly disappearing point of light.
Nathan kept his glamour active around himself and Sharon as she rested against a wall near the isolation ward of the laboratory. She said, "Sorry, having to probe that deep so many times is hard on a person."
"I can help with that." Nathan said, and reached out to touch her arm.
Sharon immediately felt better. "Thanks."
Sharon shook her head sadly. "Unfortunately, yes. No sign of outside instigation or influence. This is a local development."
"I was afraid of that."
"Are you okay?"
Nathan shook his head. "No, it's tearing my guts out."
"You haven't run off on your own," Sharon said. "I take it that means you're not going to, either."
"I remember Richard telling me soon after I was transferred, 'What if someone had intervened on Earth D-476 and stopped the zombie outbreak before the Ringmasters got together to make the first Defender Rings?' Maybe something special will happen here. I hope."
"I hope so, too."
Shouting, muted by the heavy walls, came from the isolation area. Moving closer out of concern, Sharon paled as the almost shouted thoughts inside the room threatened to overwhelm her.
"Stand down, soldier!" one voice shouted.
"No, sir!" came the reply.
"That's an order, corporal."
"It's illegal, sir!"
"Dear God, we're people, not cattle," a third voice said.
Nathan whispered, "Stand firm, corporal."
The officer yelled, "Wayne, Boyd, target Nielson. The rest, keep your present targets!"
"Sir?" yet another voice said. "He's one of us."
"Not any more. Do it!"
The officer said, "Target Nielson now or I will blow your head off myself."
"Drop the weapon, lieutenant," one more voice said.
"That's enough insubordination out of all of you!" the officer ranted. "Fire!"
Rapid fire gunshots and cries came out of the room for several seconds and then silence.
Awash with the last thoughts of too many inside the room, Sharon didn't notice Nathan open a portal until he vanished through it. "Aw, damn," she said.
Wearing a book bag stuffed with supplies and trying to be as quiet as possible, Daria gathered together a few of John's things and put them into his book bag. When Nathan stepped through the portal, she jumped in surprise and said, "Who are you? What are you doing here? Isn't it enough that you took John away at gunpoint?"
Nathan held up both hands in front of his chest. "I'm here to help, please don't be upset."
"How did you get in here?"
"It would be best if I didn't explain."
"Right. A whole squad of Marines took John away. Ten big guys to escort one seventeen-year old boy and you say you can help, but won't explain how you got in. What can you do?"
He smiled and politely didn't say anything about what she was clearly planning to do. "The less you know, the better. Please, just let me help."
Nathan sighed. "Because it's the right thing to do."
"Why should I trust you?"
"I, I have an obligation to your family and..."
Sharon stepped through a portal and said, "I was hoping that you were here."
Daria stepped away from Sharon and demanded, "Who the hell are you, how did you just appear out of thin air, and what do you want?"
In a tired voice, Sharon said, "A, I'm his partner. B, advanced technology, and C, I'm here to keep Nathan out of trouble."
"Please, let me save," Nathan turned to Daria, "John, right?"
She nodded. "His name is John Lane."
Nathan said, "One person. I know I can't save them all, just one."
"Can't save them all?" Daria said, sounding very worried. "The government is planning on killing the infected, aren't they?"
"Yes," Nathan said.
Daria said, "Please, help him."
Sharon raised her hand. "Hold on, just hold on for a minute." She took the controller from her belt and entered data onto the compact touchpad. A holographic display appeared above it showing what looked like a bundle of green lines. The view zoomed to one line and as Sharon manipulated data, it would shift, turn red for a moment and then shift back, followed by an annoyed grunt from her. Finally, the line shifted slightly but didn't turn red. Sharon turned the display off and said, "There's one way we can do this and I need to get some help from higher up the chain of command."
"I can't believe that they would let us interfere."
"Technically, we won't be interfering. I'll be back, so don't go anywhere."
Watching Sharon step through a portal, Daria sat down on the bed and said, "This can't be real."
"It's very real," Nathan said, kneeling on the floor so that he could look at her face to face. "I don't know what she has in mind, but I trust her."
Daria nodded and sat silent for a while before saying, "You look a lot like my father."
"I'm a distant relative."
"What are you, agents for some secret agency or something?"
"You could say that."
A wave of relief flowed away from the young woman, which Nathan picked up on. "Thank you, whoever you are," Daria quietly said. "I love John and I've been very worried."
As abruptly as she left, Sharon returned through a portal and said, "Daria, follow us. I will warn you that you will never return to this house or see the rest of your family again."
"What?" Daria said.
"We can conduct surveillance through time. You were planning on going to see John and maybe try to break him out of the holding area at the high school track."
Wary, Daria said, "Yes, but that's fairly obvious."
"Thirty-three minutes from now, you will attempt to reach your boyfriend and be captured by the guards, who will lock you inside the others. Fifty-seven minutes from now, two F-15Es will drop two Mark 77 napalm canisters each on the track area to incinerate everyone held within."
Nathan suddenly made the connection and said, "You're going to recruit them. But what about the infection?"
"You get to heal them," Sharon said.
"Recruitment? Healing? What are you planning?" Daria asked
Sharon replied, "We work for an agency that protects universes from outside influences. One way we recruit is to rescue people who are about to die and replace their body with a simulacrum. That way, we don't interfere with the natural progression of time in that reality. We will explain it more in detail later."
"What if we don't want to work for you?"
"You can join the greater planetary community and lead a life that you choose."
"What if I don't want to leave and go with you?"
"I'm sorry, but the only alternative to going with us is to die as you would if we weren't here. We're offering you, and the young man you love, life."
"What about my parents and my sister?"
"They will mourn your loss - but I'm sure that they would prefer that you live, even if they can't know about it."
"You promise that you can save John?"
Sharon nodded. "We're going to save them all."
"I'm not sure if I can heal them," Nathan said. "If they really are dead, then they've been that way for too long."
"Their minds are still in there, so something is still alive. It's their only hope."
Daria's expression indicated that she'd made up her mind. "I'll do everything I can. When do we go?"
"In about twenty minutes. Just in time for you to be captured."
"Captured?" Daria said. "Why do I have to go through with it?"
"To preserve the continuity of this reality. Without us being here, you would be captured, so you must or this reality will diverge from its natural course. Don't worry, you will be safe."
"Either you're telling the truth, or I've gone completely insane. Let's do it," Daria said. "But shouldn't we wait somewhere else, in case my mother comes up or something?"
Nathan reassured her by saying, "They won't notice a thing."
A couple hundred people, from small children to the elderly, were locked inside the track at Lawndale High School. The worried and dejected looks on their faces had much more of an effect on Daria than their pale, lifeless skin. It made her furious at those responsible, as well as the guards holding rifles against her back as they prodded her through the gate and locked it closed.
John pushed his way through the crowd toward Daria, saying, "What are you doing here?"
"I brought you a few things," she said, handing over his backpack and moving away from the gate and the watchful guards.
"How did you get in?"
"Well, um, I was captured trying to sneak in and thrown in instead. I don't think the guards are very happy."
"We've got to get you out of here!" John said. "We all have a really bad feeling about this and the guards are really getting itchy-fingered."
At a whisper, Daria said, "I know. Just hold on for a few minutes."
"What do you mean, 'hold on?'"
"Something's going to happen. Something that will help everyone here."
"Shh. Stay quiet. We don't want to attract any attention."
"Yes. You'll see," Daria said and then checked her watch. "In twelve minutes."
Nathan watched the sky and the high school through binoculars while Sharon intently studied the holodisplay of her controller. A pulsing blue dot slowly moved along the single thread she had magnified, inching closer to a yellow reference line crossing the thread.
Seeing movement, he said, "The guards are moving away from the compound."
"Two minutes," Sharon said.
"Can we grab them now?"
"No. One of the guards might notice."
Back inside the track area, word spread among the infected that the guards had left. Daria reached for John's hand and held it. "Soon. Very soon."
"Why are you so nervous?" he whispered.
"Things are going to be cut pretty close."
Someone in the crowd yelled, "They're going to do something to us in here! That's why the guards left!"
"Yeah!" Someone else shouted. "We have to get out!"
Daria looked at her watch. "Dammit," she muttered as she and John were pulled along with the crowd moving toward the gate.
"What's wrong?" John said.
"We need to say inside the fence. It's a long story."
John asked, "How can we stop them?"
Random shouts from the crowd grew louder as they pushed against the fence and rattled the heavy lock and chain holding the gate closed.
"I don't think we can. We can only hope the gate holds."
Observing, Nathan said, "The targets are rushing the gate."
"One minute, thirty seconds," Sharon said.
After watching the crowd beat against the fence, John asked, "What's so important about staying inside? Nobody is going to run that far in a couple minutes."
"It's a timing issue," Daria said. "Our rescuers don't have that long to work."
"They can round them up in the time it takes to load everybody onto the helicopters or busses or whatever they're using, whoever they are."
Watching the crowd, Daria said, "Please, just trust me."
"I trust you. I don't understand, but I trust you."
Sharon said, "One minute."
The fence posts started to loosen in the ground and the chain link fence bow away from the pressing crowd. "Hurry," Nathan said. "It won't last much longer."
The crowd stopped and recoiled back as shots rang out from the distant guards and a couple of inmates fell, crying out in pain.
"Bastards," Nathan said. "They're firing on civilians and some are down."
Sharon said. "You may have to heal them first. Hold on, just a little bit longer."
Angry shouts came from the confined crowd, but they backed away from the fence, pulling the wounded along with them.
"Thirty seconds," Sharon said.
Daria held John close and whispered, "I love you."
"You're not certain this is going to work."
Hearing the approaching sound of jet aircraft, Daria said, "It's a gamble."
At low altitude over Lawndale, the Weapon Systems Officers aboard two Strike Eagles confirmed data on their control panels. The lead WSO said, "Target locked and weapons armed. Release in three...two...one...release."
Two metallic silver ovoid bombs dropped from each aircraft and fell, tumbling toward the track.
The jet roar caused the crowd to look up in surprise as the aircraft passed overhead and for a moment, the guards attention was also on the two aircraft.
Sharon watched the blue pulse reach the reference line and the automated system took over. There was a brief flash in the stadium as the infected victims were portaled away and lifelike simulacrums set in their place. Less than a second later, the falling canisters hit the ground and ruptured, spraying burning jelled gasoline over the entire track area while momentum carried some beyond the track and into the abandoned guard areas.
Nathan said, "Please tell me you got them."
"Everyone. Now, it's our turn to go."
Agency Sector Headquarters. Earth SCR-001
The large auditorium was filled with the loud, confused talk of the rescued people. Richard stood at one corner and concentrated on the wash of fear and disorientation emanating from them, slowing enveloping the emotions and calming the crowd. When talk fell to a murmur, Richard said, "Welcome, everybody. I apologize for the abruptness of your rescue, but rest assured that you are now safe."
One man shouted, "It looks like we're still prisoners."
"For the moment, you are quarantined. As each of you is cured, you will be processed out of here to start a new life."
"If we're to be cured, why the new life?"
Richard motioned to a table holding a stack of pamphlets. "This will give you complete information. But in short, you are no longer on the Earth you knew. As far as everyone there knows, you died when four napalm bombs exploded inside the compound. I work for an interdimensional agency. Some of you may wish to join our operations while others may choose to join the greater community. For the children and minors among you, proper adoptive homes will be found. You will be able to choose your future with one exception: you cannot go back to your home Earth. Please, for now, pick up one of the pamphlets and read it. I will answer any questions you have later."
"What about the people who were shot?" Daria said.
Richard smiled to himself at the person who asked the question and said, "They will be healed as soon as possible."
"Why aren't you wearing protective gear?" John said. "Aren't you worried about being infected?"
"I am," Richard said. "My protection isn't obvious. You are correct that we don't want the pathogen to spread. This room is fully self-contained, and will be heavily sterilized after everyone has been cured and cleared of any residual pathogens. Now, if you please - let us start helping you."
Nathan (along with five other Ringbearers on TDY with The Agency) stepped into the room. "Each of us will take one of you at a time", he said. "We'd like to start with volunteers, since your pathogen is different from any similar types that we've encountered before, and it may take, um, more resources than we expect to cure each of you. We're not sure yet how long this is going to take, so please be patient. Once we have things figured out, we'll start with the seriously injured next."
"Why should we trust you?" someone said. "I'm not interested in being a guinea pig."
"Some rescue," another person complained.
Daria said, "I'll go. I know I'm not infected, but I must be covered with the virus. You'll need to disinfect me before I can leave, so let's do it and show these people that you're telling the truth."
"I'll go, too," John said as he stepped forward. "I'm infected and if Daria says you can be trusted, I will."
"This way," Nathan said, leading them through a doorway and down a hall to a small room that contained an examination bed and a couple of chairs. "Please, lie down and make yourself comfortable, John. Yes, Daria told us about you."
"Great, now can you tell me about you?"
After Nathan briefly explained Ringbearers and the Defender Rings, he said, "Any more questions?"
"No," John said as he got onto the bed, dazed but still trusting Daria. "What do I need to do?"
"Lie still and let me know if you feel any discomfort."
"I can do that."
Nathan extended his hands over John and lowered them. When his fingertips touched the young man, John yelped in pain and jerked away. "That hurt."
Nathan looked at the small burns caused by the touch and said, "I'm sorry, I'll have to avoid direct contact."
"What happened?" Daria asked.
"Defender Rings were really meant to destroy the undead. I guess it doesn't like me touching zombie skin, so I'll have to keep my hands away. It's a little harder, but it shouldn't make a difference."
Nathan held his hands over John again and concentrated. A blue light formed and spread over the teenager's body. His eyes closed and his breathing slowed, and then stopped. Nathan kept his focus and after what seemed like hours, John started breathing again, the color slowly returned to his face and at last, his eyes opened. Nathan stepped back and sat down on one of the chairs. "Done."
"I'm cured?" John said.
Daria reached out and touched John's cheek. "It's warm." Encouraged, she swept her arms around him and hugged. "You're warm!"
Using a tiny amount of the remaining energy in the ring, Nathan transmuted any surviving free pathogens into dust, thus sterilizing the room. "He's cured."
Daria said, "You look wiped out."
"His brain had stayed alive while the rest of his body was dead. When I cured him of the virus, his brain died and bringing someone back from death always drains the ring and emotionally drains the wearer."
"I died?" John said. "Dammit, I didn't even get one of those funky near-death experiences."
Nathan chuckled at the young man's humor. "Welcome back, John."
"What now?" he said.
Nathan pointed to a second door in the room. "Go out that way and they'll tell you everything you need to know. It's been a pleasure meeting you."
"Same here," John said. "I don't know a whole lot of people who've saved my life."
"Go on," Nathan said. "And take good care of Daria."
Putting his arm around her waist, John said, "I will."
Opening the door of their still new home, Jake Morgendorffer said, "Richard, my man. How's it going?"
"Very well," Richard replied.
Jake turned and called, "Helen, Richard's here!"
"Just a moment," she called back.
Jake said, "Do you have news about Daria and Quinn?"
"Not this time, but...I have an offer the two of you may be interested in."
Helen came up behind Jake and said, "What kind of offer?"
"Two recently arrived teenagers need a good home."
Hearing Jake and Helen's voices, Daria stepped out from behind Richard. "Mom? Dad?"
"Daria?" Helen and Jake said together.
Richard quickly explained. "You're from different universes, so you are and are not related, if you get my meaning."
After Jake and Helen had smothered Daria with hugs, Jake said, "Is Quinn here, too?"
"No," Richard said. "However, I would like you to meet your adoptive child in another universe, John Lane."
Jake and Helen looked at him and she asked, "Do you have a sister named Jane?"
"Huh?" John said. "My only sisters are named Summer and Penny."
Richard said, "In the universe these two are from, the person you knew as Jane Lane was born as John Lane. Instead of best friends, Daria and John are...romantically involved."
Jake narrowed his eyes. "Romantically involved?"
"As in, he's her boyfriend?" Helen said.
When Richard nodded, John said to Daria, "Oh boy, here we go again."
Across the street and hidden by a glamour, Nathan watched as everyone went inside to continue the conversation. He rubbed a finger over his ring and said, "Yep, we did the right thing."
Thanks to Brother Grimace for beta reading.