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Cradle of Life (act one)

Chapter 1

Bad news always found Evelyn Jones in hospitals. Technically, this was only a clinic, but her body refused to recognize the distinction. The glint of stainless steel and the smell of antiseptic were here, and her racing heart recognized them.

An hour ago, her doctor had said today's blood work showed she wasn't infected with the MAPIX virus. They needed to run more tests. The nurse who'd come in afterward had filled six additional vials with Evelyn's blood. Since that time, nobody had checked on her.

MAPIX-negative? The words didn't make sense.

She tried to ignore her stomach, a Gordian knot of confusion that she'd, so far, been unable to unravel. Routine physicals were supposed to be just that, routine. After every one of her other missionary assignments, she'd sat in similar exam rooms, gone through similar physicals, and had similar blood tests. None of those had showed anything unusual.

Unusual--more like bizarre.

Eleven years ago, Evelyn's MAPIX test came back positive. If she'd been misdiagnosed back then, the dozens of tests she'd had since would have discovered that error. Every other test she'd had had validated her MAPIX-positive status--until today. There wasn't any cure, so how could she now test negative?

MAPIX-negative? It had to be a mistake.

And why was it taking so long for the second test? She stared at the blue-speckled linoleum looking for patterns, but the distraction wasn't working. She opened the drawer on the sterile-white cabinet again and saw the same box of latex gloves, six wooden tongue depressors, and pads of notepaper advertising Deanodryl tablets.

MAPIX-negative? It was impossible. Twenty-seven-year-old women didn't suddenly become MAPIX-negative.

She pulled the electronic magazine off the counter and flipped through the magazine covers in this week's download. Again. Across the cover of "Single Woman," a headline promised "Ten Techniques to Purchasing a Share in the Husband of Your Dreams."

Yeah, only Evelyn's family history included a grandfather who'd died from type-one diabetes, a father who'd died from cancer, and a mother who'd died from heart disease. With that background, she wasn't going to purchase a share in any marriage--even if she did have the money.

But, as a MAPIX-negative woman, she'd have a chance. News from the annual census last year included dramatic headlines stating that the population ratio had reached one hundred women for every man. Only two in every million people were MAPIX-negative. If she were one of them, she'd be special. If she were one of them, she'd surely get a proposal to marry. If she were one of them, she could give her husband something even more rare--a son.

She pushed aside her hope, and dread choked at her chest. She wouldn't receive any marriage proposals.

She set the NewsZine tablet down and crossed to the image of watercolor daisies on the wall, hopeful for a different distraction. When she tapped the picture frame's gold edge, the picture transformed into a landscape with mountains mirrored in a sunlit lake. That reminded her of camping trips with her deceased father, and she quickly tapped the edge again. The image became a pastel-blue abstract. Another, and the flowers were back. She ran through the cycle once more before she gave up and left the display on the daisies. That distraction wasn't working.

If only there was a window. When she’d entered the clinic, it was a perfect, Southern California day--mid-eighties, crystal clear skies, and a mild onshore breeze. She wouldn’t be surprised if dark storm clouds had labored in and changed everything.

MAPIX-negative? It was a cruel joke. She sat on the paper-clad table. Where were those test results?

On her sixteenth birthday, Evelyn's parents took her to the local testing facility, just like every other U.S. parent took their sixteen-year-old. One hour of time and a few milliliters of blood determined every person's future. The U.S. government conscripted those citizens who tested MAPIX-negative, men and women alike, into service to breed male children. Those that were infected got on with their lives.

Evelyn had tested positive, so she'd gotten on, graduated from high school, went to college, and joined the Repopulation Project--as a recruiter--to do her part in restoring the male population. The job required trips all over the Western Hemisphere, all of them lasting longer than a year.

If today's tests showed she was MAPIX-negative, she'd have to forfeit the past eleven years of her life and her future would forever change. As much as she'd prayed for a MAPIX-negative result eleven years ago, a negative result now would be disastrous.

She removed the locket from under her blouse and flipped it open. The familiar image of her and Sandra Tanner greeted her. They stood arm in arm in front of the Manaus embassy building in Brazil. Evelyn had still been in physical therapy in the Brazilian Hospital recovering from her coma when Sandra's parents sent her the locket. Evelyn hadn't been able to attend Sandra's funeral, and other than memories, this memento was her most prized possession.

The picture of her and her old mentor had always brought Evelyn strength, determination, and hope. Today, however, even Sandra's memory failed her. With a sigh, she closed the clasp and let it drop back against her chest.

Evelyn picked up the NewsZine again. Before she got past a few pages, there was a knock on the door.

Dr. Harrison came in. She had a huge grin that looked like is if she'd just found a hidden treasure stash. Her cheerful mood pushed Evelyn's nerves toward snapping. She said, "Evelyn, this is John Solberg from the Los Angeles Repop office."

A handsome man in his mid-forties with salt-and-pepper-haired stepped into the room. He smiled, and when he did, the corners of his beautiful, gray eyes crinkled with crow's feet.

Evelyn's throat closed off when he said, "A pleasure to meet you."

She swallowed, then said, "Hello." His handshake felt different from a woman's--firm but still tender.

Dr. Hamilton said, "John's here to escort you to the testing facility."

Evelyn stared at her, unsure if she'd heard correctly. "Isn't that why you took my blood? Isn't that what I've been waiting for?"

John said, "The tests so far have error margins higher than the ones we'll perform tonight. It's standard procedure for a MAPIX-negative result--nothing to be concerned about."

"But, I'm not MAPIX-negative. Why test me a third time?"

Dr. Hamilton patted Evelyn on her shoulder. "The tests we just took show that you are."



Chapter 2

Dr. Michael Fischer slogged through quarterly paperwork--his least favorite task--when his panel computer chimed. He welcomed the distraction, until he tapped the connect icon and saw that it was Debra Kiwi, his supervisor. His annoyance doubled. "Debra, I'm working on those reports right now."

"Never mind that. You need to get down to Los Angeles. We have a new candidate."

"Barbara and her team will leave immediately." He reached for the disconnect icon.

"I want you on this one. It's unusual. The candidate tested negative today, but has tested positive for the past eleven years. I'll send you her info."

"Then it's fraud. Do you really want to waste my time with some criminal investigation? Barbara can handle that."

Debra shook her head. "No. Two separate labs verified the result. Both were negative. Because one was from the University of California, Irvine Medical Center that gives this candidate added credibility."

"Look, just this week, three mothers are delivering. I have tests that demand my attention and cultures that are incubating and all the paperwork that you want completed. I'm too busy."

"Those can wait. Handle this personally and report back to me. Have a good trip." Debra ended the call.

The muscles in Dr. Fischer's gut clenched in anger. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"

Dr. Fischer suspected anybody who tested negative for MAPIX and was older than sixteen. Was Debra so idiotic that she couldn't recognize fraud? Every year, thousands tried to fool Repop. Free housing, free food, and a monthly stipend were more seductive than Lady Luck to those lazy people. They thought a bribe to a naïve lab technician was all they needed to get in. However, his tests always uncovered their deception. Then those con artists and their accomplices received their free room and board--in a federal penitentiary.

Dr. Fischer tapped the cap of his Mont Blanc Bohème on the paperwork-filled, glass desktop. When President White offered him the Directorship of the Repopulation Project's Western Region fifteen years ago, he'd gratefully accepted. He shrugged. What else could he have done? After the MAPIX breakout, those bastards in Congress overreacted and penned impulsive legislation, and within a week, every bit of genetic research in the United States was banned. The President didn't have the balls to veto the damned law.

Dr. Fischer swiveled his chair and stared out of his tenth-story office window office at the Repopulation Compound, one hour north of Santa Barbara. The valley the compound sat in gave a panoramic view of the chaparral-covered hills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Repop's Western Region, which he oversaw, covered all of California, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. The compound's headquarters were here, where there were only two seasons, spring and summer; two types of weather, rain and sun, and the same boring brown hills all year round.

The only interesting distraction was the hundreds of women on the compound. Although most were pregnant or on their rest cycle being pumped full of hormones for their next in vitro insemination, they still craved men. And he was one of the only men around. They weren't shy about their interest in him, either. His tall, six-foot-four frame, neat goatee, and green eyes didn't hurt.

They were full of themselves, though. Even the nickname they gave themselves was pretentious. Eve, the mother of all humanity. These delusional women even likened themselves to that fictional character.

He'd have to cancel his date with that cute little redhead named Susan he'd planned to seduce. Yet another reason to hate Debra Kiwi. The memory of Susan's tight body and freckled legs and fiery bush transformed his anger into arousal. He decided to phone one of his wives who lived in Los Angeles after he got to the V.A. center--unless he found a willing secretary, nurse or doctor.

He turned back to his desk. The personnel schedules, requisition forms, medical supply usage reports, appointment schedules, schooling curriculum, dietary menus, medical reports, administrative updates, and mountains of other things that needed his review and signature every week stared back at him. If Debra wanted him in L.A., it could wait. A break from paperwork might be exactly what he needed. He called the on-site airstrip and ordered the crew to prepare the compound's jet for a trip to Los Angeles.



Chapter 3

Evelyn blushed when John swore. One moment he was strolling with her out of the elevator to the clinic's entrance. The next, he had her pushed against the wall, shielding her with his body. A quick glance through the glass doors revealed why he'd reacted so. The press was gathered outside the clinic.

"How in the hell did they find out?" John asked.

A dozen or so media teams were outside the double-glass doors. There were probably more just out of sight. This wasn't the first time Evelyn had seen these media flair-ups. They could sometimes swarm to dozens of teams.

John said, "I need to make a call."

He turned Evelyn around, led her back to the elevator, and punched the button for the second floor. When the doors opened, he guided her down the hall.

Upon entering Dr. Hamilton's suite, the receptionist asked, "Did you forget something?"

"Wait here," John told Evelyn, then stepped back out into the hallway, closing the door behind him.

"What's going on?" the receptionist asked.

"The media's outside."

"Really? How cool!" The receptionist stood and ran out the door.

Evelyn sat in the plastic, waiting-room chair. The best lesson she'd learned early in her recruiting days was that the media was like a bears. It was best to avoid them.

They had to be here about Evelyn's MAPIX test. But, how did they find out? Medical records were supposed to be confidential. Needles of fear crawled down her spine.

John barged back in and closed the door. "Nobody from Repop is available to help. The police said it's low priority. You don't want to stop and talk to those reporters?"

"I know!" Evelyn said with disgust.

He smiled and his beautiful crow's feet deepened. "Very smart. Okay, the limo's going to pull up right in front of the building. Head straight to the limo. Got it?"

Evelyn stood and nodded. "Straight to the limo."

"The media's going to try to stop us. Don't say a word. Just keep walking."

"Keep walking."

John patted her shoulder. "Good." He led Evelyn by her wrist out the door and to the end of the building, then pressed for the elevator. After an eternity, the elevator bell rang and the doors opened. Nobody was inside. They pushed in, and punched the button for the first floor. The jolt of the elevator moving didn't help Evelyn's already tense nerves.

John faced her. "Listen. As soon as you walk out there, your image is going to be on every press stream on the planet. Tonight, your picture will be in front of nearly every person in the U.S. By the end of the week, it will be on the cover of every NewsZine. Let's make a good impression." He looked her up and down, adjusted a stray hair into place with his fingers, and brushed the shoulders of her blouse. "You look perfect."

The complement intensified her nervousness.

John smiled. "Relax. I'll get you through this." He held up three fingers. "Scout's honor."

"You were a Boy Scout?"

"Not really. Not enough boys to form a troop." She laughed. When the elevator stopped, he asked, "Are you ready?"

"I guess so. Yes."

"Good. Remember, the press will eat you alive if you let them. Don't talk to them. Say nothing. Walk straight to the limo. Don't run, but don't let them stop you. I'll be right there, okay?"

The elevator doors opened, and Evelyn peered out, relieved that nobody was waiting in the hall. "Okay."

John said, "Let's go." They stepped into the hallway, and John led her down the hall and outside, into the blinding sunlight and the deafening crowd that had formed.

The media engulfed them.

Like a pack of dogs at feeding time, the disorganized mass heaved forward. The shoved and shouldered to get closer to their meager portion of the prey. Their barking bashed together into an incoherent drone. Glassy-eyed camera lenses stared at Evelyn with their unblinking eyes.

Evelyn held back her growing ocean of panic with a dam of determination. Through the mass of people, a black limousine stood parked at the curb. John's clamped grip on her arm funneled her toward it. She remembered his words, walk straight to the limo, and managed to move toward it. The car seemed so far away and there seemed to be hundreds of people between her and it. Somehow, John threaded her through.

The reporters reached over each other, and shoved microphones in her face. "Eve. Evelyn. Can you answer a quick question? Please answer some questions. Miss Jones."

Her progress to the limo, which seemed impossibly far away to begin with, slowed.

"Is it true? How does it feel to save humanity? Are you truly MAPIX-negative? What will you name your first son? Evelyn, where have you been hiding? Are you a fraud?"

A microphone slammed into her nose, making her eyes water.

"When did you get your first period?"

Evelyn turned, furious. "How dare you--"

John yanked her back in the direction of the car and encircled her in his arms, leading her closer and closer and closer to the limousine. He whispered in her ear, "Keep walking."

The press continued, "How old are you? Is that your husband? Miss Jones, are you a lesbian?"

John pushed Evelyn forward. She couldn't tell through her watering eyes, but their progress seemed to speed up.

"How did you feel when you found out? Do you have any siblings? How did you manage this?"

The opened limousine door appeared and John pushed her inside and onto the leather bench seat. He followed her in and slammed the door behind them. The noise of reporters quieted immediately.

John told the driver, "Go." The limousine crept past the media that had surrounded them. Reporters banged on the windows and shouted more questions.

As the limousine gained speed, Evelyn stared out the back window. The swarm of reporters continued to chase after them. As they fell behind, she leaned back in her seat and sighed.

"How are you doing?" John asked her.

"I'm fine." She rubbed her nose. It was sore, but fortunately it wasn't bleeding. Hopefully, she wouldn't get a bruise. "Thanks for getting me through that."

"All part of the job. You'd better put on your seatbelt. When they start following, this ride could get interesting."

Evelyn buckled in as they turned onto the main road. That's all she needed was more interesting today.

John said, "You did very well back there."

"Thanks. I didn't think it would be that bad."

"Nobody does. Most of the time my Eves want to stop and talk to the press. They want their fifteen minutes of fame. It's always a mistake. You're smarter, and that's a pleasant exception."

"Thank you." A surge of warmth flooded her cheeks, and she chided herself. She'd traveled the world and done a lot of important work. Yet, whenever John gave her a complement, her reactions were just like a schoolgirl's.

John checked the rear window again. "I'm usually escorting teenagers. They're sixteen and act like princesses. You're older--I mean, more mature."

Evelyn smiled her best smile. "I am a bit older." She held up three fingers. "Scout's honor."

"You were a Girl Scout?"

"No. Too many girls."

They laughed together, a warm, comfortable moment in a turbulent day.

Did John have any marriage shares left? Perhaps he could . . . Her heart sank. What if she was MAPIX-negative but John's family couldn't afford her? Regular women purchased marriage shares for anywhere from fifty- to eighty-thousand dollars, depending on the desirability of the man. But families paid millions of dollars for a MAPIX-negative wife. John didn't look like a millionaire.

He must have caught her staring because he stared back. His gray eyes seemed to reach right into her private thoughts. She looked away, blushing.

He finally asked, "Why weren't you tested at sixteen? Have you been living in the woods as a hermit?"

"I did get tested. I was positive."

"And now you're negative? That's not right."

Evelyn shrugged. "I know. I went in for my post-mission physical and . . . here I am."


"I work for Repop. I just got back from a twenty-eight-month recruiting mission in Brazil, down around Manaus, about nine hundred miles up the Amazon from the Atlantic."

John leaned back into his seat. "You were working for Repop down in South America?"

"Yeah. There are still some out-of-the-way communities down there. It's our best chance to find new MAPIX-negative people."

"I wish my Repop duties included a two-year vacation in Brazil."

Evelyn frowned. "It wasn't a vacation. I was doing important work. I almost died down there!"

"I didn't mean . . . I'm sorry."

A silence grew between them. Brazil still held agonizing memories--Sandra's death, her six-month coma, and months of painful rehabilitation. It'd been her toughest assignment so far. But to get defensive over it, with a man, was stupid. What if she'd offended him? Great.

She'd never spent much time alone with men. They weren't around while she was growing up. There were a few in her church, and twenty-nine of the people she'd recruited were men, but those were in group settings. Now, she was sitting right next to John in the back of a limousine. Just the two of them.

He asked, "You almost died? What happened?"

"It's a long story."

"This is a long trip. Come on, I'm interested." His eyes scrunched up again. "Scout's honor."

The warmth that spread through Evelyn broadened her smile. She told him her story.


Evelyn had arrived in Manus, Brazil in September of 2063. After an orientation with her Mission Leader, she met Sandra Tanner, a headstrong woman from Splintered Rock, Iowa. Sandra was about Evelyn's age, slightly on the heavy side, with short-cropped blonde hair and a huge smile that showed teeth that seemed too big for her.

Within two days, Evelyn had realized the Brazil mission, with this new companion, was going to be harder than her others. Sandra had a simple motto that she quoted often--bring it on. After two months in Brazil, she still had an unlimited amount of energy. She attacked every challenge with a zeal that Evelyn struggled to duplicate. Trying to keep up was exhausting.

Ten months into their partnership, just before Sandra was preparing to finish her mission, the two of them met the Reyes family. The patriarch, Señor Reyes, was a stocky man with bushy eyebrows and a matching moustache that accented his leathery face. Señora Reyes wasn't much thinner, and her smooth, round face contrasted with her straight, black hair. Their eight-year-old stick-thin twins, Julia and Senna, were always ready with hugs for the two Americans. The only child who did not welcome them was their fourteen-year old daughter, Maria.

When Evelyn and Sandra first visited, Maria was polite enough. A week later, after the entire Reyes family tested MAPIX-negative, the family was excited about moving to the United States. Except for Maria.

As the days passed and Evelyn and Sandra shared more details about immigrating to America, Maria grew more antagonistic. Evelyn was concerned, but Sandra dismissed it. Sandra said Maria needed time to adjust to the idea of moving from their home.

The day the Reyes family was to sign the recruitment papers, they invited Evelyn and Sandra to their home for dinner. Maria also helped, cheerfully, and Evelyn had decided that maybe Sandra was right about Maria. She simply needed time to accept her family's unique role. All of the women helped prepare the meal, and Evelyn's heart embraced the warmth of their cooperativeness. She remembered sitting with the Reyes family. She remembered listening to Señor Reyes say a prayer. She remembered laughing with everyone while they ate.

The next thing she remembered was waking up in the hospital.


The limo drove past Evelyn's exit on the 91 freeway and she asked, "Aren't we going to my house?"

John said, "No. We're taking you straight to the testing facility, away from the press."

She'd seen dozens of people conscripted into Repop, forced to leave their lives behind and serve as strongholds against the MAPIX pandemic. Sixteen-year-olds had it easiest; they had two months to say goodbye to their families, friends, and schoolmates before the government resettled them. Older people and whole families, like the ones she'd recruited, only had a few weeks before relocation. She certainly qualified as an older recruit--if she was MAPIX-negative.

Her heart sank when she thought of her blue stucco home with the white trim on the tree-lined street in Anaheim where she'd grown up. She'd started to remodel it after her mother died and, during her off time from work, and filled it with country-chic furnishings and decorations. If today's test results were correct, she'd never finish it. She might never see it again.

She forced herself to relax. She was MAPIX-positive. To distract herself, she asked John, "So, we're headed downtown, to Repop?"

"No, the V.A. hospital, in West L.A."

Evelyn had passed by the V.A. complex every day when she attended UCLA, but the Repopulation Project inductees from the Los Angeles area received their indoctrination at the main office downtown. Perhaps it had to do with the third test John had mentioned. Her worries swelled.

The sound of sirens made Evelyn look out the back window. Eight Los Angeles Sheriff cars passed the media vans and converging on the limo.

John said, "Good, our escort's finally caught up with us. Finish your story."


"The police will keep the press in check. You woke up in the hospital?"


When Evelyn woke up, she felt disoriented. The room she was in was unfamiliar and seemed too bright. As her head cleared, the beep of electronic equipment and the smell of antiseptic flooded her senses. An uneasy foreboding gripped her heart and squeezed unmercifully.

She saw a silhouette, backlit by a window, and asked, "Where am I?" Her throat felt parched and the words came out as a raspy whisper.

When the figure turned, Evelyn vaguely recognized it was female dressed entirely in white. The woman didn't answer Evelyn. Instead, she ran for the door, and shouted something incomprehensible. When she returned, she said, "Bom dia, menina Jones."

Evelyn tried to swallow but her mouth felt raw. Her tongue was a dehydrated lump packed in cotton. She raised her hand to her throat, surprised by how much the muscles in her arm ached. Wires and tubes dangled from it. What had happened?

"Quer algum água?" the woman asked.

Would you like some water? Evelyn nodded the best she could. Her neck was stiff.

Another woman--Evelyn recognized the nurse's uniform--came in and began writing in a chart. Evelyn's surroundings finally made sense. She was in a hospital. Her foreboding tightened into a full panic and the electronic beeping raced in her ears.

She tried to get up but couldn't raise herself off the mattress. Her body felt so frail.

Her panic ebbed a notch when one of the nurses started pouring a glass of water. Evelyn stared at the plastic glass, mesmerized by the liquid--rising higher, up, up, up, singing its sweet-flowing-siren-song that only ended when it was full. The nurse placed a straw into the glass, then set it on the side table maddeningly out of Evelyn's reach.

Evelyn croaked, "Water."

"Um momento. One moment." The head of Evelyn's bed rose. She ignored her complaining muscles as the bed contorted her body into a sitting position with tortuous slowness. Getting that precious glass of water was the only thing Evelyn cared about. Slowly, she become more upright and, unbearable moments later after Evelyn was mostly vertical, the nurse finally held the straw to Evelyn's lips. She sucked at it greedily, and wonderful, cool water flooded into her mouth. She coughed when she tried to swallow, and the relief-giving liquid sprayed across her bedding and down her chin. Her body screamed in agony.

"Small sips. You have to go slow," the nurse said. She dabbed the water off Evelyn's chin and then held the straw for her again. The instinct to consume every single drop was strong, but Evelyn fought it. She sipped and swallowed, and the sweet water soothed her irritated throat like butter on a burn. She moaned when the nurse pulled the glass away.

"You need to take it a little at a time or you will vomit."

"Do you know your name?" the other nurse asked.


"Evelyn, do you know where you are?"


"Good. Do you know what city?"

Evelyn's mind crawled through grogginess. She fought for some answer that made sense. Anaheim? No. The first nurse had spoken Portuguese and these nurses both had heavy accents. Where do they speak Portuguese? Portugal. And Brazil.

Evelyn asked, "Brazil?"

"Excelente! You are in Manaus." The second nurse wrote in the chart. "How do you feel?"


The first nurse offered Evelyn the straw again and she drank, longer and more wonderfully.

"Evelyn, do you remember anything else?"

Evelyn forced her mind past the confusion slowing her brain. Is was as though her memories had been doused in sticky honey. She was in a hospital in Manaus, Brazil. Why? Memories bubbled to the surface and a key piece of information popped. "Repopulation Project."

"Good, good? What is the last thing you remember?"

Evelyn gathered her memories, and as each appeared, she arranged it in relation to the others. After a time, she said, "Me and Sandra. Recruiting mission."

"Anything else?"

Evelyn had fleeting visions of grayness where she floated weightless and everything echoed in deep reverberations. She couldn't remember anything specific, nor could she place these memories in time. In the end, she couldn't make any sense of them. "No," she finally said, exhausted.

The first nurse said,  "That is okay. You did very well. Are you hungry? It is after breakfast now, but I can find you something."

"Thank you," Evelyn whispered. She raised her hand to brush hair out of her face. The effort was painful. "Why does my arm hurt?"

"You've been in a coma for three months."


John asked, "Three months?"

"Maria poisoned both of us."

"My God. What about your friend, Sandra?"

Evelyn closed her eyes. Her locket felt heavy upon her chest and the limo suddenly seemed smaller. "She didn't make it," she whispered.

John's warm hand touched hers. "I'm sorry."

She wiped away a tear. All she could do was nod; words wouldn't come.

They sat in silence for several minutes before John said, "We're here."

The limousine veered off the freeway, turned past the security gates, and onto the grounds of the V.A. Healthcare Center complex.



Chapter 4

By the time Dr. Michael Fischer's private limo arrived at the Repopulation Compound airstrip, his team had already loaded everything, and the Citation jet was ready. He boarded the plane and sat at the meeting table opposite his assistant, Barbara Christensen.

Barbara's hair was pulled back in a bun so impossibly tight it looked like it was painted on. She looked impeccable in a creased, navy-blue pantsuit but wore little makeup, unlike most forty-eight-year-old women. Her upright posture and her tablet computer, perfectly square to the table's edge, reminded him of the woman's twenty-four years of military service. He respected that background. She was the most competent person he had working under him--loyal, smart, and zealous.

He'd charged Barbara with proving that Evelyn Jones was trying to defraud the Repopulation Project. If anything were amiss, Barbara would find it.

"Okay. Talk to me," he said.

"Evelyn Jones is a twenty-seven-year-old, white female. She's never been married and has no children. No pets, either. Her sixth-generation heritage as a Californian is unremarkable. Henry Jones, her father, died of prostate cancer in 2025. Her mother, Naomi Jones, died in 2042 of heart failure. She, her parents, and her grandparents were all born and raised in Orange County. Her only living relative is an older sister, Carmen Jones, who teaches law classes at the University of Texas. Carmen is married to a woman named Edith Stanton. Neither partner has any children."

Dr. Fischer tapped his index finger on the black with gold flecked table. "I want them checked out as well."

"Already done, sir. Nothing suspicious. Her family is Mormon. She was baptized on her eighth birthday."

"Mormons?" Dr. Fischer asked.

"Yes, sir. Neither she nor her sister attends services. Evelyn's not registered to vote and supports no specific political party. She's a Repopulation Project recruiter, hired straight out of college, and has spent the last six years seeking out MAPIX-negative emigrants. She's good at her job; recruited seventy-two people to date; thirty-one from Puerto Rico in 2060, sixteen from Haiti, and twenty-five in Brazil.

"Only sixteen?"

"She only did one year. She was recalled after her mother died."

Dr. Fischer rubbed his gray goatee. "I see. Continue."

"Her Brazil mission started in 2063, but she ended up in the hospital after her first ten months. She was in a coma for six months, spent six months in rehabilitation. After she recovered, Repop wanted to send her home, but she insisted she finished her mission."

The jet's engines roared and the Santa Ynez Mountains rushed past, then fell below them. Dr. Fischer leaned forward in his chair. Financial troubles were a strong motivation to break the law. "Medical bills? How much in debt is she?"

Barbara continued, just loud enough to be heard over the engines. "She's not. The Repopulation Project paid all of her medical expenses."

Dr. Fischer steepled his fingers under his chin. "What about her other financials?"

Barbara tapped her tablet computer and read from her notes. "Her credit score is eight-sixteen. She owns her own home, a fourteen-hundred-square-foot house in Anaheim, California. No mortgage; the inheritance she received from her mother's estate paid it off. Her only other tangible asset is a 2062 Ford Hydroglide, and it's paid off as well.

"She has three active credit cards. When she's not on assignment, she charges an average of seventeen hundred dollars a month on her Visa. She has minimal recurring charges. Her accountant, Lori Chang, pays the invoices in full every month."

"Maybe the accountant is skimming."

"That's possible."

Dr. Fischer tapped on the table again. "Investigate her as well."

"Yes sir." Barbara made a note in her tablet. "Her MasterCard has three recurring charges of exactly seventy-six dollars each. All three are to orphan relief funds, one in Puerto Rico, one in Haiti, and one in Brazil. All places where she's served Repop missions."

"Check those orphanages for legitimacy." Dr. Fischer didn't know how a false orphanage worked into Evelyn's fraud, but it was best to have Barbara check them. If they were false, she could figure out the why and how later.

Barbara nodded and made a note in her tablet. "Evelyn hasn’t used her Discover card in over six years. She has eighty-six thousand, three hundred twenty-eight dollars in her savings account, two thousand fifty-six dollars in her checking account, and over half of a million in various retirement accounts."

Dr. Fischer drummed his fingers on the table. Evelyn Jones seemed to be financial stable. That didn't prove she wasn't trying to defraud Repop. Everyone had a motivation, and he just had to find Evelyn's. "What about her MAPIX test?"

"The first blood test today was performed by Reed Labs and was a single-sample test, part of a standard screening related to her post-mission physical. That's how we initially found out about her. Unfortunately, it wasn't a MAPIX-specific test, so there was no backup sample taken."


"They collected more of her blood when that test came up negative and ran additional tests. Both also came up negative. No problems have been documented for these lots."

The jet made a slow banking turn, then the engines quieted. They were gaining altitude, headed toward Los Angeles International. Barbara tugged on her suit jacket sleeve and resituated herself on the seat.

Dr. Fischer said, "First on the agenda is to validate Evelyn Jones's genetic signature to those two retests. If that passes, Retest her using a centrifugal RNR four-tier test."

"We have a proven lot number all set up."

"Good. Now tell me about the test when she was sixteen."

Barbara tapped the tablet again. "That test was positive. It was from a second-generation testing procedure. No specific problems with the serial number or lot number, but the manufacturing plant in Tucson lost their government contract four years later because of quality control issues. Since it was a positive test, no genetic data was recorded then, either."

Dr. Fischer stroked his goatee. "Damn. Has anyone ever tested negative with the Tucson lot number?"

"We don't have that information yet."

Dr. Fischer slammed his palm on the table. He'd spent years developing the first tests for MAPIX and had finally perfected the testing method. Manufactures hungry for profits, specifically the defunct Tucson facility, had always taken dangerous shortcuts. Even if Evelyn's negative test were due to the error-prone Tucson plant, other tests would've long discovered the error. Evelyn was definitely dirty. She was motivated somehow, and he'd find it.

"Okay, get on that," Dr. Fischer said. "High priority, after we deal with Evelyn Jones. Just in case, I want everyone who tested with that Tucson lot number retested. Washington has to approve the cost."

"Yes, sir." Barbara made another note in her tablet.

"So, she tested positive eleven years ago and every time since then. Now, she tests negative. She's playing us." Dr. Fischer thrust an angry finger at Barbara. "I want a positive test, ASAP."

"I'll walk everything through personally, sir," Barbara said.


Dr. Michael Fischer's phone chirped as the jet taxied at Los Angeles International Airport. It was a text message from Debra. Media's leak RE: Evelyn Jones. Came from Reed Labs. Contact Department of Health and Human Services. Marvelous, more demeaning demands from Debra.

Outside the jet center, an electric-powered limousine and an electric SUV waited. His impatience needled further inside him. Why wouldn't the Repopulation Project reserve a gasoline-powered limo for someone of his importance? While the rest of his team loaded the equipment into the SUV, he stepped inside the limo and called Reed Labs.

Instead of a live video image, the phone displayed the logo for the company. Impatience swapped itself for anger, but he swallowed the insult. There was no advantage in showing his emotion.

A chipper voice said, "Reed Labs, how can I help you?"

"Hello, this is Dr. Michael Fischer. I'm the Director for the Western Region of the Repopulation Project. I need to speak with your supervisor."

"One moment."

Moments later, a woman answered, "This is Dr. Brookhurst."

The phone still showed the logo for Reed Labs. Dr. Fischer bit back bile and introduced himself. "I believe you ran some tests for a patient named Evelyn Jones."

"Yes, we did."

"There's been an unauthorized access of her records. I need you to forward me the log of everyone who's accessed her MAPIX test results."

"I've already told your office I won't release that information."

Dr. Fischer's anger multiplied. "So, your organization will allow whomever to access private medical information, but refuses to cooperate with an authorized government investigation regarding that lapse of patient confidentiality? Do I understand you correctly, Dr. Brookhurst?"

"Not without a warrant."

Dr. Fischer changed his own outgoing display to the official Repopulation Project seal. "Dr. Brookhurst, your patient's MAPIX-negative results were illegally accessed. That's a violation of her HIPAA and RPIAA rights. Now, the government's spending tens of thousands of dollars in security because of illegal activity originating inside your office.

"Further, you're hindering my office's discovery of who is responsible. That sounds incriminating. I'm sure you're aware of the severe criminal penalties for interfering in official Repopulation Project affairs."

Dr. Brookhurst said nothing.

Dr. Fischer mentally counted to ten, hoping to alleviate his growing rage. He said, "A doctor could lose her license, and spend a considerable amount of time in prison."

There was a moment of silence, then Dr. Brookhurst said, "Just a moment."

It seemed like an eternity before she returned. When she did, the phone still displayed that damned Reed Labs logo. "I have the information you need."

A fully formed flood of fury swam over him. Nobody treated him with such disrespect. He downloaded the names of the people who'd accessed Evelyn Jones's medical records and said, "Someone will be in touch." He mashed the disconnect button and added another name to the list--Dr. Brookhurst--obstruction of official Repopulation Project Business. He made one final call and forwarded the information to the Department of Health and Human Services.


When Dr. Michael Fischer and Barbara arrived at the V.A. Healthcare Center, he found Evelyn Jones in the cafeteria. She looked much younger than twenty-seven, with wavy brown hair framing large, brown eyes. Her gray sweat suit overrode her fresh-faced looks and made her appear dumpy.

She sat with a man on same side of a table, which was odd, and she was slightly turned toward him, with her knee folded over her other leg and pointing toward him. It looked as if she were trying to entice him. Marriage might be her motivation. He told Barbara, who walked beside him, "She's definitely a fraud." Maybe Debra wasn't so stupid in sending him here to investigate. Evelyn Jones was already getting her first government-funded meal. He'd relish exposing her.

Dr. Fischer remembered Debra saying that John Solberg from the Los Angeles office would be bringing the woman here for testing. That must be who she was sitting with. All Dr. Fischer had heard about John Solberg was that he was a competent administrator.

He walked over and stood next to their table. "Good afternoon, I'm Dr. Michael Fischer, the Director for the Western Region of the Repopulation Project. President White personally selected me for the position when she started the program. I trust you're ready for this afternoon's round of tests."

He shook Evelyn's hand. They lacked softness--she'd actually worked for a living, not like most of the women at the compound. He couldn't determine if her firm grip was confidence or defiance.

Barbara nodded to them both, standing with her hands clasped behind her back.

Evelyn said, "Actually, I don't understand why I'm here. I just had a complete physical that included a MAPIX test."

So, she was afraid of getting caught. Maybe she was realizing that her deception was evaporating and she wouldn't escape.

Before he could answer, Barbara said, "The tests you had earlier were preliminary screenings. The ones we'll run here will be definitive."

Dr. Fischer said, "Yes, definitive. The privileges of being in the Repopulation Project are substantial." He motioned to her almost-empty lunch tray. "Food, for example, as well as housing, clothes, and medical needs. The government provides for everything for their MAPIX-negative people."

Evelyn said, "I know. I've worked for Repop for--."

Dr. Fischer held up his hand. The last thing he needed was some criminal explaining how the Repopulation Project worked. "Many people have tried to get in under fraudulent pretenses. Every one of them went to prison, Miss Jones. The MAPIX test this afternoon will tell us if you're attempting the same thing. If you are, you'll not escape." He looked at John. He might be aiding Evelyn, and it would be extra satisfying if this investigation yielded double rewards. It wouldn't be the first time a Repopulation Project employee assisted someone in defrauding the Government. "That goes for any accomplices as well."

John said, "Dr. Fischer, I--"

"Wait a minute!" Evelyn stood. Barbara positioned herself between Evelyn and Dr. Fischer in an instant.

Evelyn continued, "I just went in for a physical. Now you're accusing me of something illegal?"

Dr. Fischer said, "That's--"

Barbara held her arm out, and said, "We're not accusing you of anything, Miss Jones."

Dr. Fischer shouted at Barbara, "Silence!" He leaned toward Evelyn and said, "Today's test will tell us everything we need to know. I suggest you prepare for those consequences."

Dr. Fischer turned and headed toward his temporary office the V.A Administrator had set up for him. Barbara followed closely. When they were out of earshot of John and Evelyn, he said, "How dare you interrupt me!"

"I'm sorry, sir. But making her wary won't help in trapping her. We need to let her believe she's fooling us."

Dr. Fischer stopped. He wanted to crush Evelyn's fraudulent scheme, to crush her future, to crush her smug attitude. But, Barbara's military wisdom provided a better plan. He'd incubate her hopes; nurture them, feed them, and give them a healthy environment. Then, after her overconfidence was fed and bloated, he'd crush her.

A smile of gratitude for Barbara spread over his face. "Excellent thinking."

"She won't escape, sir. I'll put a security detail on them."



Chapter 5

Evelyn lay on the paper-clad table. The thin, paper gown she wore stuck uncomfortably to the sweat covering her body. Hospitals weren't her favorite places, and the anxiety she felt now was worse than ever before. Two circular light fixtures shone from above, whitewashing everything in her vision. When her eyes adjusted, she realized she was in an operating room. How did she get here?

A rack of X-ray films hung on a light box to her right and on her left, pieces of stark white equipment rhythmically beeped. Uncertain dread swept through her when she saw dozens of bags filled with pastel fluids hung from a stainless-steel rod above her head. That dread became sure and sharp when she imagined the tubes connected to the bags emptying into her body.

A sting in the crook of her arm made her yelp. A needle was stuck in her arm, and attached to it was a different tube, clear as glass. Evelyn's gaze followed a single pulse of blood that traveled from the needle, up the tube, and toward a piece of equipment that looked like an art-deco radio, complete with knobs and a glowing, neon display.

The pulse of blood entered the machine, and an alarm buzzed. The neon display flashed positive in letters that were blood-red. The lighting in the room also changed to a red eeriness.

Needle-like fingers of fear surged down her spine and back up. It was the result she was dreading. The tests before had been a mistake. She was MAPIX-positive, and now Dr. Fischer would send her to prison. She needed to get out of here, but she was strapped to the hospital bed with thick leather restraints. The alarm sounded again, and she watched, appalled, as red pulse after red pulse flowed from her arm and into the machine. The same positive display and alert buzzed over and over.

"Don't worry. I'll lend you some of my clothes," Barbara Christensen said. Evelyn hadn't noticed her standing next to the machine before. She held a royal-blue hospital gown the same color as the pantsuit she'd worn earlier that day.

The machine buzzed again. Evelyn held her hands to her ears, trying to cut of the obnoxious alarm

The straps seemed to have disappeared, but were replaced with a flimsy, blue-paper fabric that covered her to her chin. The blue fabric bulged where it covered her abdomen. Evelyn struggled, but still couldn't move. Her feet were in stirrups.

She screamed, "What's going on? I'm only supposed to have a blood test. What's going on?"

The soothing sound of John's voice said, "Congratulations!" He was holding a baby wrapped in a blue blanket.

"Congratulations!" John said again, coming around to Evelyn. As he got closer, his adorable gray eyes showed above his mask. He handed her the crying child. She absently hoped it had his grey eyes, too.

The child had Dr. Fischer's face, gray goatee, and paisley bow tie. "Fraud!" it bawled. "You're going to prison!"

Evelyn woke out of breath and soaked with sweat.

Venetian blinds sliced sunlight across her room. It was still daytime. It took her a moment to remember she was at the V.A. center and she'd had her MAPIX-test, again, before she laid down to rest.

She threw off the covers and walked down the hall to the community restroom. Several women who were washing their faces and brushing their hair stopped and stared when she came in. Great, Evelyn thought.

There was a row of stalls on one side of the room and Evelyn stepped into the first empty one. Afterwards, she concentrated on washing her hands, avoiding the women's gazes in the mirrors, ignoring their whispers, disregarding their accusative looks.

The nap hadn't refreshed her at all, and worse, the nightmare was still fresh in her thoughts. Perhaps a jog might help her relax. The sweat suit she'd put on this morning would have to do, since she hadn't been able to stop at her house and pack anything from home.

Two marine guards followed her as she left the building. She tried to ignore them and checked the facilities map nearby. There was an oval track, but she decided to jog along the golf course instead. It might offer more scenery and distractions. She'd welcome some distractions.

She was glad that only a few people were playing on the course, and unlike the women in the restroom, they seemed less interested in her and more interested in their game. After stretching for a couple of minutes, she started off at a slow jog. She checked the marines and saw that they still followed her, keeping pace with her, neither advancing nor retreating on her. Good. Let them get their heartbeats going as well.

When she finished her first circuit, she increased to a more comfortable speed. The marines peeled off and watched her from the entrance gate. Halfway through her second circle, she recognized John's voice behind her. "Congratulations!"

Her mind instantly flashed back to her nightmare and the screaming baby. When she turned, her foot caught a raised portion of the path, and she tumbled to the ground.

"I'm sorry!" John said. "Are you all right? I didn't mean to startle you."

His jogging shorts and tank top revealed well-defined muscles that his previous clothing hid. He was tanned and toned and even more handsome that she'd remembered.

Evelyn blushed at her clumsiness, then realized she probably looked awful after her nap. "No. I mean yes. I'm okay. You just--I'm okay."

"I'm sorry about that." His expression showed concern, and for some reason, that made her laugh. He joined in.

Evelyn pulled her sweat pants above her knee. The scrape there oozed a little blood. She wiped it clean with the heel of her hand. John probably thought she was a klutz.

"I'd better get you to the clinic," John said, holding out his hand. She grabbed it, and his strength pulled her off the ground. "Can you walk?"

She put some weight on it, but there was a minor twinge of pain. "I'm okay. I've had worse." Her joy at seeing John soured because of her stupid stumble. How could she alleviate this awkwardness? She raised three fingers. "Scout's honor." He laughed and she joined in, relieved.

The nightmare intruded on her thoughts again, and she asked, "What did you mean, congratulations? Did my test results come back?"

"No." He handed her a NewsZine tablet. "You made today's download."

Evelyn grabbed the device from him. "You're kidding." Excitement turned to disgust when she saw her college ID picture staring back. "How did they get that horrid picture?"

"It's not that bad," he said and reached for the tablet. His hand touched hers, and chills ran up her arm. She stared at him, good and long. He was turning out to be the most handsome man she'd ever seen.

Before she could form a cogent word, he said, "Come on, we better get that knee looked at."

The two marines who were at the main entrance to the course jogged up to them. One asked, "Ma'am, do you need assistance?"

"No," she said.

She and John walked together back to the clinic, with the two marines following them, ruining any additional chance at that she and John could talk and be alone.



Chapter 6

Barbara had orders not to disturb Dr. Fischer, and it was always a good idea not to disturb him when he didn't want to. Those orders were common at the compound when he was in his lab, and when he was with a young mother over at his house. This time was different. One of his wives had driven to the V.A. compound and the two of them had retired to his hotel room.

When Barbara heard moaning coming from behind Dr. Fischer's door, a pang of jealousy overtook her. Barbara pushed aside her image of what they might be doing. She'd hoped she would be the woman writhing underneath him after he told her he was going to Los Angeles with her team. That was before Angela had showed up and ruined it.

The emerald-eyed beast of jealousy crawled out of Barbara's closet almost every night at the compound and threatened to envelop her. Now, it'd followed her here. She knew if she were going to be his latest wife, she'd have to learn to keep her envy in check. Having him every now and again was magnificent, but she wanted him solely to herself. Mentally, she understood the concept of polygamy, understood that a man's role in this post-MAPIX world was radically different from what she grew up with, and understood she'd have to make sacrifices to be with him. But those damned concepts eluded that monster.

Tentatively, she knocked. Dr. Fischer's irritated voice came from behind the door. "Come back later."

She leaned closer to the door. "It's Barbara, sir. It's important."

"One second." There was a pause and then the door opened. Dr. Fischer, obviously annoyed, poked his head out. "Now's not a good time."

His green eyes and bare-chest stirred Barbara and reminded her of the nights her and Dr. Fischer were together. Damn his wife for showing up. She swallowed. "You wanted to know when the tests on Evelyn Jones came back. She's negative MAPIX, negative STD, and negative OOP."

Confusion flashed behind his eyes. "What?"

Barbara's mouth turned arid and she tried to swallow again. "No doubt about it, sir."

"How? She's tested positive for years and now she's negative. Could John have anything to do with this?"

"No, sir. I observed everything. It's valid."

She watched Dr. Fischer assembling the Evelyn Jones puzzle in his mind. His magnificent mind was the thing she loved about him most. He could take any problem and turn it, manipulate it, rearrange it until he discovered a logical solution that most men couldn't begin to guess at. But, his anger was considerable if he didn't immediately find an answer, and that was the scenario that had ignited her worry.

"Process her conscription. We'll leave for the Compound tomorrow morning."

Relief washed over Barbara. He'd found an answer, even if he didn't share it with her. "First thing. Yes, sir."

"And set up a retest for everyone tested with that original Tucson lot eleven years ago. Then investigate every other positive test she's had. Set up retests for those lots as well."

Dr. Fischer started to close the door, but Barbara held her hand against it. "We need to talk to Evelyn, sir."

"You handle that."

"First thing in the morn--"

He shut the door. Barbara lingered a moment until she heard feminine laughter come from behind the door. She headed to her own room to do battle again.


Evelyn's stomach turned over when Barbara offered her hand across the desk and announced, "You've been enlisted into the Repopulation Project program. Welcome aboard."

The sinking feeling was worse than she'd imagined when she'd first heard of her test results yesterday. It felt as if her own private earthquake was tearing her apart. "I can't. I-I--"

Barbara stared straight through her. "You don't have a choice."

"I've never tested MAPIX-negative in my life. This makes no sense."

Barbara said, "We're investigating that, believe me."

"But . . . . How?"

"We'll find out, eventually. Right now, you're being conscripted."

Evelyn shook her head. This was another nightmare and she's wake up any minute now. Come on, Evelyn, wakey wakey.

"Evelyn, you work for the Repopulation Program. You know how it works."

She did know how it worked. But it had seemed different when she was on the recruiting side of the conversation. Not everyone accepted their draft willingly. Two years ago, she'd heard of a recruit from Alaska who was forcibly removed from her family because she wouldn’t leave willingly. At the time, Evelyn imagined she'd known how that woman felt. Now, she realized she hadn't understood at all.

The office, probably ten-feet square now seemed a fraction of its size when Evelyn first came in and sat down. The beige walls seemed to swell, smothering all the air out of the room. "It's just . . . . So, I only have a couple of weeks." It was more of a statement of resignation, than a question.

"No. We leave for the Compound in a few hours."

Tendrils of fear wrapped around Evelyn's spine, sapping her strength. If she weren't sitting, she was sure she'd collapse. Hours; that didn't leave time for anything. Her life was dissolving away.

She wasn't sixteen, anymore. She wasn't married. She didn't have kids. The government would seize her property--including her parents' house, where she'd grown up. They'd sell it some stranger to cover the expense of housing her at the compound. If only her sister Carmen hadn't sold her half of the estate to Evelyn, it would've stayed in the family.

They'd also sell all of her furniture and the knickknacks that she'd collected over the years. Her grandmother's cedar chest would be gone. Inside it was her grandfather's compass that she always took on camping trips, the Für Elise music box her father presented to her on her sixth birthday, and her mother's wedding dress. She'd never see those cherished things again.

Her car, still parked at the clinic from yesterday--was it only that long ago--would be impounded and sold off as well. She'd had that car for five years now. She loved that car.

Evelyn fought back tears, but pulled a tissue from the box on the desk, just in case. This would've been a whole lot less painful if she was still sixteen and hadn't already created her life.

Barbara smiled--an insincere, cruel thing. "As a Repopulation Project missionary, you know how important this is."

Evelyn repeated the words she'd heard hundreds of times. "A matter of national security."

"Exactly. The government needs people like you. Otherwise, our civilization would die. We have to nurture you, protect you. The best way to do that is to move you to a centralized location. Our country's future depends upon male children, and only women and men like you can provide them."

Evelyn had heard this all before. She'd even said the same thing, almost verbatim, to dozens and dozens of people. The words hadn't felt this hollow when she'd spoke them, though.

Barbara said, "I can answer any questions you have."

Evelyn shook her head again. She knew all the answers. The entire pat answers, anyway. She could recite them from memory, and had, in three different languages.

The remains of the white Kleenex lay strewn over the wooden desk like broken pieces of eggshell in a dilapidated nest. Evelyn pushed them away.

So much of her life had been spent recruiting members for the Repopulation Project, she hadn't thought much about the details of those lives once they were inducted. Once a prospect had signed the papers, a U.S. Government plane picked them up, and Evelyn moved on to the next lead. San Antonio, the internment facility where out-of-country immigrants lived, always seemed too far and too inconvenient to visit.

Occasionally a letter arrived from one of her recruits, but the letters lacked details of their new situation at Repop. They were mostly generic thank-yous that sometimes included a selfie or a family portrait. She knew everything about those seventy-two lives before she'd recruited them, but almost nothing after they'd moved to the United States. It was embarrassing.

Evelyn traced the locket under her sweatshirt. She was a draftee of the Repopulation Project of the United States of America now. She closed her eyes and focused on the image of Sandra Turner. Sandra offered the same advice she always had. "Bring it on."

Evelyn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She'd help humanity survive the MAPIX pandemic. She'd abandon her current life. She'd live the impossible life she'd given up on eleven years ago.

And, she'd have sons.


Evelyn's heart felt as though her chest were squeezing it with unreal tightness. John wouldn't be joining her at the Repopulation Project Compound. "I-I thought you worked at the Santa Barbara Compound," she said.

"No," he said with a hitch in his voice.

Evelyn desperately needed to know if the inflection in his voice was because he felt the same way she did.

Instead, he said, "I work here, in L.A."

Her breath fled her body. She looked away. All her heartache of leaving her life in Anaheim, of losing her home, her car, and her personal belongs seemed like trivial nuances, compared to this tragedy. The man she'd met, and with whom she'd gotten along so well with for the past two days, was slipping away.

"But, I'm MAPIX-negative. I thought . . ." The constriction in her throat wouldn't let her finish. Wouldn't let her tell him she's already fallen in love with him. Wouldn't let her tell him how much she wanted to be his wife. Wouldn't let her tell him anything she wanted to--needed to.

The possibility of getting married was the one thing of her future MAPIX-negative life she'd looked forward to. A man would finally want to marry her. When she met John, she thought he was that man. She gazed at his face, at his perfect smile, at his wonderful crows-feet. Please, tell me that you're that man.

"We can still see each other. I travel out to the compound every now and again," he said.

"Yeah?" Perhaps there was hope.

"Once, maybe twice a year." His smile trembled a moment.

Her throat closed off again and she turned from him, hiding the dejection she knew showed on her face. Twice a year might as well be never. "Yeah," she whispered.

He rested his warm, masculine hand on her shoulder--the same hand that had felt so magical when she shook it in the clinic yesterday, the same hand that had comforted her in the limo, the same hand she'd probably never feel again. A sob pushed through her throat.

John pulled her around and hugged her gently. "Evelyn, I'm so sorry."

In that perfect moment, Evelyn understood true intimacy. It was comforting another human being who had fallen into despair, offering a loving touch to alleviate another's pain, holding up another who could barely stand because they'd just lost everything.

She loved John deeper than she had just moments before. But he'd never be there to offer that intimacy again.

She pulled away and whispered, "No." She ran, barely conscious of his calls after her.

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