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the long way round

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Rachel Gupta, Researcher. Field-- outside Kolkata, India

The coordinates and time had come via courier, which was unusual but not unheard of: a piece of paper written in code.

Rachel looked at it, and sighed. Her work was primarily in gathering data and synthesizing it – she could, frankly, do it anywhere. But Kolkata had been a good base of operations the past few months – the whole western spread of the Black infection could be controlled from here.

The message had to be important to risk an illegal flight. The GCDC pilots' work was necessary now that flights and visas were so difficult to acquire.

So she packed her duffle bag and her backpack, leaving a copy of her work on file with her colleagues at the university, and secreted samples into her bag. Illegal was illegal, and knowledge was necessary.

The driver left her in a field, hair sticking to her neck from the humidity, and she pinned her braid up under her cap. She took her watch out of her pocket, its latch long since broke, and waited for the tell-tale sound of engines thrumming in the air as Maya Reyes came to get her.

Reyes and her carefully-maintained plane from the 1980s didn't come. Instead, with a hum that sounded closer to modern, a plane she hadn't seen in years landed vertically into the field.

She picked up her duffle bag, throwing it over her shoulder as she walked towards Wilkins's ex-military plane. "Patrick," she said, between concerned and curious as she pulled open the passenger door. He'd taken off his headphones, and was smiling at her. "I thought you were covering the Yellow region?"

Her duffle bag was handed in, and he set it behind him.

As she shrugged off her backpack he replied. "Well, doc, I was – until Maya got nabbed last month with Red samples in Riyadh. The officials there didn't exactly appreciate it, and dispatch sent me out here to pick up some slack. South America's pretty well contained, with Gracie Moore handling things in Bogotá."

Her mouth thinned, as she grabbed a handle and pulled herself up into the cockpit, shutting the passenger door behind her. Riyadh wasn't as bad a place to get caught as – well, Essen, for the obvious example. But it'd be months before Maya was back in the field, and her beloved plane was likely gone for good.

She fastened herself in. "Where are we headed?"

"Baghdad research station," Patrick said, starting to flick switches. "'Go get Gupta,' Dispatch told me, 'none of these idiots know how to make connections.' They're stopped up two steps short of a cure."

Rachel smiled, hand going to her inside jacket pocket with her book of contacts – government officials and universities that had offered their help despite the suspicion and fear infecting the world more virulently than any disease.

"Well," she said. "That's my job."

--

Deb Martinez, Dispatch. Global Center for Disease Control headquarters – Atlanta, Georgia

Dispatch muted her microphone for a moment to sigh heavily into her coffee before turning it back on. "Yes, I'm aware of the situation in Montreal. We're just going to have to risk a cascading outbreak. We don't have the funding to clean out a sector or two there while working on the cure. and if we're going to take advantage of the research breakthrough the Black team made when they developed the cure last week, we're going to need to act fast. We're well-implemented to introduce a cure into the affected regions afterwards."

She paused, listening to the reply. "Yes. I'll see you tomorrow. 0700, sharp. Thank you."

The phone clicked off. Thankfully – from the perspective of Atlanta, Georgia – much of the Americas and Europe were fairly well situated for intra-country communications with their ancient land lines and somewhat newer fiber optics systems, but the countries that had leap-frogged past them straight into portable satellite technology and other modern tools had been wrecked by the mass orbital collapse in the '30s.

She stood up and walked to the kitchen. She needed to reheat her coffee and find some granola and consider the reports coming from the Yellow team's research station in Bogotá. They, at least, still had a working high-range radio relay.

--

Gracie Moore, Generalist. Yellow research center— Bogotá, Colombia

Gracie Moore was not exactly a medic or a researcher, not a scientist and especially not an epidemiologist. But she knew how to utilize her team so that, underfunded and out of focus, they still remained at least one step ahead of the Yellow outbreaks.

At 19:40 the radioman sent for her, and she brought dinner for them both from the mess.

"She had to hang up," said Javier, "but Dr. Martinez from dispatch said to expect Wilkins back sometime tonight."

Gracie sat down in the chair across from him, leaned back and propped up her feet as she popped open her Styrofoam box of mashed potatoes. "He bringing anyone with him?"

"A Dr. Rachel Gupta. Do you know her?" Javier picked up the fresh mug of black tea she'd brought him.

"No. I've heard of her, though." Gracie smiled. "It means Dispatch found us contacts."

--

Patrick Wilkins, Pilot. International airspace between Manila and Los Angeles— Pacific Ocean

Patrick checked his readouts, again, and glanced over at Rachel. Her hair was tucked up under a knit cap, and she had her feet pulled up on the chair so she could rest the pad of stationery she was writing on against her knees. The glasses she'd put on after nightfall had begun to fog slightly, but otherwise she seemed to be holding up all right for a civilian.

"You preparing your script for tomorrow?"

The doc laughed, and Patrick smiled slightly as her laughter turned into a suppressed yawn. "My mother and he have been friends since she was an Ambassador in Chile, and they've kept in touch now that they're both university presidents, so – it shouldn't be that grueling."

Patrick shrugged. "It pays to be prepared. And well-rested."

"You're not wrong."

Three hours later, he skirted the patrolled airspace near Mexico City, a researcher asleep in his copilot's chair and a research station ahead of him. This high up, in the middle of the night, the world almost seemed to be at peace. He knew by now that that was a lie, that the light of mortars was not the only indicator of death below. At least you could sign a peace treaty with an opposing force; diseases didn't have diplomats.

He couldn't think about that right now. Right now, all he needed was safe passage.

--

Rachel Gupta, Researcher. Yellow research center— Bogotá, Colombia

The phone call came through soon after silence had fallen between Moore and Gupta, their mugs of coffee cooling. Moore's was full, the only sign of anxiety Rachel saw in her.

Rachel's was full, too, for all of her miniscule sips – but Rachel could feel her own anxiety pulsing beneath her skin. Dr. Soto was an old family friend, but university presidents only had so much pull. And while he had seemed sympathetic before, she had never had to call on him like this.

"Ah, Dr. Soto," she said, cheerfully, once his assistant had transferred them. "You're on speaker phone with myself and Grace Moore, the woman in charge of our research station in Bogotá."

"Hello," Moore put in, quiet but with the small smile visible in her voice. Rachel was glad – she knew Moore could schmooze; she had to be able to in order to be as effective at leading a research station as she was. But knowing it must be true and knowing it is were two very different things.

"Rachel, Ms. Moore, it's wonderful to hear from you. How's the weather in Bogotá?"

Forty-five minutes later (forty-five minutes Rachel had mostly spent sitting back and admiring Gracie Moore's capacity to delineate her research station's goals and needs without crossing either into begging or into demanding), the call finished.

Moore picked up her cold coffee, and took a long drink. And smiled. "A team of graduate students, and more samples from Santiago?"

"We might just win this one," Rachel said. Her tone was dry, but she was already smiling. The Blue team in Atlanta was close to a cure, and she had been in the labs while the Black team synthesized its cure last month. Red still lagged behind, well-contained by quarantine specialists but research hurting from fragile specimens and refusal of the countries to cooperate with each other as long as the situation was contained. The combined focus of the GCDC would shift there, next.

"My team was always going to win this one," Moore said, smirking, "but… yeah. We're a lot closer, now."

Rachel raised her mug in salute, and went to make a fresh pot.