The Cerulean Strain
Some bites can be a real itch
“Maldita sea la madre—”
“Hey.” I tugged up my dangling chum, averting a drop that would’ve sated every sense of his title with the circling sharks. “Leave my dead mom outa this.”
Kelvin’s eyes glinted blue as he peered into the lab. “Shoulda left me outa this too.”
Me three. A hot summer night, the waves of the Gulf purred against the banks, but I couldn’t shake the chill. Wisteria Island was remote, federally-reclaimed, and supposedly uninhabited, yet the research center crept out of the pines like a scheming spider. What if we got caught?
“Don’t wanna be here, G. Feel like we’re trapped inside a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.”
“More like nightmare.”
A door slammed, and we crouched on the window ledge. Two figures in lab coats sauntered through the shadows. The taller one pushed a button on the wall, and the stone vibrated beneath our feet. A maelstrom of blue specks funneled through a cylinder at the room’s center. Kelvin gasped, and I elbowed him.
“They couldn’t get us the memo before the blood-suckers hatched?” he hissed.
“Complications,” I snapped, more at myself than him. Why was I defending them? A week ago, I was just a bartender at a greasy burger joint in Key West. The most excitement I ever had was Kelvin storming out of the kitchen to yell at some poor tourist for complaining about a dry patty. The delivery of a seemingly innocent brown paper package had flushed away that simplicity.
“Your future self is a realllllllllllllll pendejo.”
“As is your current self,” I muttered.
“Couldn’t agree more.”
The roof, an imposing pyramid of tinted glass and steel, zizzed like a kicked wasp nest. Its sides clicked, began sliding, and a needle of light pricked the starless sky, stitching my lungs to my chest.
“Think the net will hold?” Kelvin asked, knee bouncing.
He shot me a look reserved for customers who ordered burgers ‘sans mooing.’
“You saw the same letter. They…I…Future Me has been right about everything so far.” Still felt weird saying that. Only took an apocalypse to make something of myself. Leader of a resistance, though? A bit ambitious. Would’ve settled for something like head distiller. Just as important. Maybe more. What whisky won’t cure, there’s no cure for. So say the Irish, anyway.
Blue pulsated through the pyramid’s apex, billowing into a humming cloud as the net we’d just attached caught the mosquitoes. I would’ve sighed in relief were it not for Kelvin’s knee panting against my leg like a dog in heat.
“Would you cut that—”
“Who you calling the dumbass you—”
Kelvin jerked my chin towards the lab, smudging my nose against the window.
The scientists, mellow as my sedated regulars moments before, grappled against a stainless steel table and knocked it over. Both thudded to the floor, followed by the clang of scissors, a saw, and what looked like one of those duckbill-shaped devices my gyno used to inflict torture.
“Your future self say anything about this?”
“No.” But the closer their fighting got to the tube of whirling fluorescence, the faster my pulse raced. “Gotta stop them.”
“Do I look like Tom Cruise?”
I feigned a once over. “A taller, tanner version. Longer hair. Fouler mouth—”
“Was a rhetorical question.” Kelvin’s voice quavered, and he clenched his jaw to conceal it. “If you're ’spectin’ me to Mission Impossible my ass down there with the murder mosquitoes...”
“We.” I slipped on my veiled hat, my gloves, and zipped up my jumpsuit. “And they’re contained. For now.”
He grumbled but followed suit, then tugged at his harness. “Ready?”
My intestines knotted. “No.” Never loved heights, nor anything remotely adventurous. But Future Me had eclipsed that in the span of a night. “Don’t have a choice, though.” I slid the window back, sterile air washing over me, and stepped into the void.
“The letter said we had to contain the Strain incognito. If the government knew someone was trapping them, they’d just engineer more.”
“It also said under no circumstance were we to let them out.”
“If we don’t stop the dillweeds down there from shattering that tube, what comes after won’t matter anyway.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed and, taking that as a concession, I jumped through the opening before he came up with another excuse. Cool air whooshed through my veil. Yellow barrels lined one wall; water trays glowing with wrigglers skirted the others. More? When my boots pounded the floor, panic pounded my sternum. Future Me hadn’t said anything about additional scourges.
Kelvin landed beside me, nostrils flaring. “I’ll take the stocky one.”
“Thanks.” And I meant it. No way I could’ve pulled the guy with ham-sized biceps off the other.
Kelvin threw an arm over Ham’s neck and squeezed, yanking him off. The tall, flattened one’s stare never left his partner, whose eyelids fluttered as my friend choked him out.
I offered a hand. Tall accepted without looking. “You alright?”
He nodded at Ham. “His eyes.”
Buzzing chuffed the net at my ear, and I leapt back, heart in my throat. A blue dot flitted by.
Eyes wild, Kelvin dropped Ham and grabbed the saw. “One’s loose!”
He’d been right. I was a cabrón. Should’ve caught on sooner.
As my friend leapt about, swatting at the blood-sucker, newspaper clippings from Future Me razored my awareness. Originally modified to decrease the mosquito population, the Cerulean Strain’s bites caused heightened aggression in humans. The inability to communicate, to problem solve. Small tiffs led to grisly murders. Nations fell. Survivors flocked to the Poles. The only indicator—
Ham’s eyes popped open, glowing that tell-tale, cerulean blue.
“Son of a—”
He snarled, swiveled his head like he was possessed, and sprang for me. I shoved Tall out of the way and dove for the toppled table, grabbing the scissors. The handles slipped from my gloves. Boots pounded seconds behind me. I yanked again. Still wouldn’t budge. The scuffle must’ve wedged them beneath the table. Hot breath steamed the net on my neck. I whipped around, seizing the duckbill-shaped bastard and, just as I cursed myself—what the hell could I possibly do with it?—Ham lunged, mouth ajar. I shoved the speculum in, envying my gyno for the first time ever. His teeth grated against the metal. I cringed, elbows wobbling as I forced it to expand. He screeched like a snared coyote, jerking his blocky head back and forth. Loosening my hold.
Only the scrape of boots and shrieks answered.
Ham, hands clamped around the speculum, was inching closer, forcing my back into the table. Senses slowed. Time blurred. I didn’t die like this. Did I? No. Future Me would’ve warned me.
“Kelvin!” I choked.
A flash of metal, followed by a heavy thunk, and Ham flopped to the floor. Blood oozed from his ear. A calloused hand wrapped around mine and pulled me up.
“About damned time,” I tried to tease, but the tremors rattling my legs called my bluff. “You get it?”
He tilted the saw. Fluorescent slime slicked the top notch. “Wonder how it escaped in the first place?”
Back to us, Tall swayed against the cylinder thrumming with mosquitoes. Sweat trickled down his neck. Kelvin scowled. I kicked the table back and grabbed the scissors.
“Hey,” Kelvin called.
We circled the tube, giving him plenty of space. Tall’s hand cupped the glass. A crack dissected his fingers, running to the base of his palm, where blue swarmed thick as moss. The moisture fled my mouth.
“Go,” he said weakly, hair matted to his temples. “Don’t have much time.”
Kelvin’s saw clattered to the floor. “What now?”
I sprinted to the wall and pressed the button. As the Strain funneled back inside, long shadows latticed Tall and Kelvin, and the roof sealed with a click.
“I’m sorry,” I told Tall, “And thank you.”
Eyes glossy, he nodded, and my throat clenched.
At all costs, Future me had warned.
“Hello?” Kelvin thudded after me. “Oh, fearless leader. Plan?”
I pointed at the far wall where yellow barrels with HAZMAT placards were lined up.
“If we can’t take the mosquitoes to the incinerator, we’ll take the incinerator to them.”
It would be super cool if, when we blew up the lab, we flew out right before it exploded like some mega Blockbuster flick. But it was actually a bit anticlimactic watching the once, sleek legs of the research center melt beneath the pines. By the time we got back to Key West, dawn splashed the palm trees in orange and pink. We were beat but in high spirits. Not only had we faced our fears, but we’d saved the world.
Or so we thought.
Another brown box sat on my welcome mat. Kelvin scoffed. Yeah. It certainly wasn’t welcome. Inside sat two tickets to Iceland and a letter, in yours truly standard scrawl:
Nice improvisation. The fireworks were pretty, but no dice. Some escaped. Now we have another issue to contend with. Thanks for that. Your flight leaves tomorrow. Don’t be late.
P.S. Await further instructions
P.P.S. Please don’t blow anything else up.
Kelvin glared at me.
I threw up my hands. “I know. I know. I’m a realllllllllllllll pendejo.”
Six months later, Hveravellir, Iceland
Whisky in hand, Kelvin leaned against the rim. Teal lapped at his chin. “Kinda hot for Iceland, no?”
“It’s a hot spring.” I wriggled my toes in the warm water. Wisps of steam curled up from the span of glittering blue and marbled the night sky. A Florida native, I never thought I’d acclimate. But the sweeping landscapes and hots springs, paired with the tiny fact that the only mosquito here was in a jar of alcohol at the Icelandic Natural History Museum—had warded off the chill. Until now. I would miss it.
“I mean,” he whispered into his glass, “the temperatures. Another glacier melted yesterday.”
“I know.” I gulped my whisky as though it could wash away our fate. Warm vanilla and pepper coated my tongue. Not bad for my first, and likely, last batch.
“Haven’t you heard anything from…you know?”
I dropped my chin. “They’re gone.”
“Along with everyone else.”
Eyes misty, Kelvin raised his glass, and I raised mine right back in a silent toast to honor the fallen. Future Me had called it. The few survivors were at the Poles. Mosquitoes and the mindless now ruled what was left.
“That lab we exploded,” I started. “Turns out we released some pretty bad shit into the air.”
“How do you—”
“Their final letter.”
“Oh. It’s our fault the glaciers are melting, isn’t it?”
I nodded. Took another sip. “Gets worse.”
He downed his glass and poured more.
He arched a brow. “Don’t really have a choice.”
A faint buzz resonated on the horizon. I had to hurry.
“I brought you here, to this exact spring because it’s our last chance.”
“To go back. Fix things.”
“Drink too much whisky, G?”
“No.” The whirring closed in. Adrenaline slashed my chest, my neck. “There’s a wormhole at the bottom of this hot spring. We can go back. Make this right again.”
The water rippled as the humming amplified to a drowning thunder, and the once, soulless black night flashed a vibrant blue.
I gave him a pleading look.
“Chingao!” He shook his head and sighed. “I’ll cuss you out properly, later.”
Before the fluorescence spilled over the spring, we were yards deep beneath, diving towards a new beginning and, if we were fruitful, a better end.