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Occupational Hazards

Occupational Hazards


Juanita sealed her last piece of luggage with one hand and juggled her phone to her ear with the other. “Please continue, Derek,” she told the researcher.

“What we’ve discovered, Dr. Perez,” Derek went on from the other line, “is that the virus lies dormant during the patients’ asymptomatic periods. That’s why the tests aren’t working in the quarantined areas. The virus is spreading throughout the population, but we’re not able to trace it.”

“So you are saying that we can’t tell if a person’s infected or not?”

“No. Not unless he or she is in the active state of psychosis.”

Juanita’s eyes shuttered close. This was bad. Aside from the growing episodes occurring in the U.S., there had been new reports of attacks in Paris and Milan, not to mention a possible outbreak in Frankfurt. Without a proper way to test for infection, there would be no way to stop the spread of this disease.

As a recently retired epidemiologist, Juanita had hoped to spend her newfound free time with her family, maybe help take care of her grandson Carlos. She’d envisioned trips to the zoo, drippy ice cream cones at the park, and swimming lessons at the community pool.

But now she was being called back into active duty, and for a particularly nasty pandemic.

“The researchers at Seattle BioMed are receiving some intense backlash,” Derek was saying. Juanita’s eyelids snapped open, and she pulled her focus to the phone call. “They have some preliminary findings that might prove beneficial for treatment purposes in those who’ve been infected, but there’s a rumor growing that’s got people in an uproar.”

“Oh? And what’s that?”

“Accusations are being thrown around that this virus was actually bioengineered at the institute by our scientists. Things are getting hostile in Seattle.”

“Are you trying to talk me out of this trip?” She rested her hand on her luggage. While the temptation to remain in Arizona with her family was strong, the scientist inside of her itched to investigate this mysterious plague on humanity.

“No, no. We need you, Dr. Perez. I just want you to be prepared for the environment you’ll be entering.”

Juanita glanced down at her watch. Her flight would be leaving in five hours, but in order to get through security she needed to leave for the airport now. Of course, all of the extra screenings and precautions that the CDC and TSA were implementing seemed useless in light of this new revelation. An undetectable virus? Anyone could be infected! “All right. Are you still picking me up at Sea-Tac?”

“I’m going to stop by the institute for a few hours, but I should be at the airport when you arrive.”

Bueno. I’ll see you tonight.”

A blur of arms and legs in motion caught the corner of her vision as she set down her phone.

Abuela, don’t go!” Carlos tackled her around the waist. Black eyes peered up at her from beneath a thatch of dark, messy hair. His arms squeezed tighter until she was gasping for air. “You can’t go! You have to take me to the movies tomorrow!”

Ay, mi cariño, I cannot breathe when you crush the air from my lungs.” She pried his sticky fingers from her waist, then stooped so that she was eye level to her precious nieto. “You are growing so strong; it’s too much for an old woman to handle! It must be all that kale your mother makes you eat.”

Carlos refused to be distracted. “Don’t go! You have to stay here with me.” His eyes filled with those giant crocodile tears that normally had her caving to his every whim.

“But, Carlos, there are many people who are getting sick. Don’t you want your abuela to help?”

“You’ll come right back, though? You won’t stay away again?”

Sí, claro que sí.” Yes, of course she’d return as soon as possible. Pobrecito, he was probably thinking of the time she’d flown to Uganda to investigate an Ebola outbreak. There had been a frightening period where she thought she’d been exposed, and she’d remained in quarantine for a month.

But those were the risks of the job, and if it meant that more lives would be saved in the long run, then she could accept the occupational hazards.

“Mama.” Juanita’s daughter Carmen appeared at the doorway, her eyes wide with fear.

“What is it, mija?”

Carmen motioned silently for Juanita come with her. Her eyes fell to Carlos. “You stay here.” His lip pushed out in a pout, but he plopped down on the bed.

Juanita trailed Carmen to the living room, where the giant TV flashed with a BREAKING NEWS caption. A reporter was live on the scene, narrating the action. “…The riot began early this afternoon when an angry mob descended on Seattle BioMed. According to bystanders, the group of protesters began chanting threats of ‘Death to terrorists’ as they stormed the facility. One eyewitness claims that he overheard several in the mob making accusations that the staff members at Seattle BioMed are responsible for the creation of the HT virus, which, as we know, is spreading at an alarming rate…”

“What are you watching?” a peppy voice questioned.

Juanita and Carmen spun toward the voice. “Carlos! I told you to stay in the bedroom!”

But Carlos was fixated on the TV, and Juanita couldn’t help but return her gaze to the chilling scene. The ticker at the bottom of the screen reported nine unconfirmed deaths from within Seattle BioMed, the mob evidently having beaten and stabbed several scientists.

The reporter stood by the shore of a lake, among a frenzied swarm of people. “I’m here at Lake Union Park, where the mob has chased a number of researchers from the institute. As you can see, tension is running high as police attempt to –“

A sharp cry from the cameraman cut the reporter off mid-sentence.

The camera swung to the right, and Juanita lurched forward to cover Carlos’ eyes from the grisly image. Next to her, Carmen let out a horrified moan.

Carlos wriggled in Juanita’s hold, but she kept her hands clamped over his eyes. Her own eyes began to water as she gawked in growing disbelief at the screen.

A body swung from one of the trees that overlooked the lake, a rough-hewn noose looped around the victim’s neck.

Madre de Dios,” Juanita whispered. What had the world come to?

In the corner of the screen, she could see a young woman struggling while her enraged accusers grabbed her flailing limbs and dragged her to a different tree, to another awaiting noose.

The reporter, who had been darting deer-in-the-headlight glances at the camera, was shoved down by a stampede of lynchers. The view from the camera jerked several times before cutting to black.

Juanita and Carmen stood in grave silence, their faces mirror images of denial and shock.

From beneath her hands, Carlos squirmed. “Don’t go!” he cried. “Don’t go to Seattle!”

No, she wasn’t going anywhere now.


Did you enjoy this story? To read more download Unbound Origins, our free online book, here.

Photo credit: Fraser Mummery

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  1. Jeffrey Goff says:

    In the midst of mod rule and burgeoning chaos it is refreshing to have a character make a prudent decision. I like this Juanita character. Another excellent installment! Well done! And keep that spine and neck in-line 🙂

  2. This is an Awesome begining I’m already intrigued! Well done Byna!

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