Instead, I rose. “Of course. Mike can stay in the room next to you. Let me get you some water...”

“No.” They said it together.

My concern deepened.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, we don’t need anything, thanks.” Joe seemed to have trouble concentrating. As if this was the first time he’d been there—it wasn’t—he looked around the living room. “Where are the rooms?”

Puzzled, I pointed to the winding tile stairway. “Upstairs, on the right. Remember?”

“Yes, on the right,” Joe echoed. He looked blankly down at his duffel bag, then reached for it. The two were definitely sick. I wondered for a brief moment whether they’d contracted some strange virus from overseas or something.

They moved slowly, methodically, toward the stairs.

“Sorry, bro.” Joe’s words were distant, soft.

I maintained my good-host demeanor. “No, no. You two could use a rest. Just go to bed. We’ll catch up in the morning.”

They were halfway up the stairs when I added, “I’ll bring you some aspirin and water, just in case.” They didn’t seem to hear me.

Anna came back into the living room. “Table’s set...” She looked around, then up at me. I could see the question mark in her mind.

“They’re sick, hon,” I said. “They went to bed.”

“Really? I guess Uncle Joe didn’t look that great. I thought he’d been partying, though.”

“Listen, Anna. I want you to stay away from them.”

“Dad, you know I never get sick.”

“I know. But this might be different.”

“What do you mean?”

I chose my words carefully, tried to hide the uncanny dread that I felt. “They might just have the flu. But they looked pretty sick to me. I don’t know how they even made it here.”

Anna knew me, though. We were kindred spirits, uniquely connected. “What is it?”

“I don’t know. But if they’re not better in the morning, I’ll take them to the doctor.”

Anna did a fairly good job of hiding her disappointment. “Okay.”

I smiled and ruffled her hair, which she hated but still tolerated. Barely.

“We can still have dinner,” I announced. “And how about a movie and some popcorn after?”

Anna rolled her eyes.

Chapter Six

While Lieutenant Commanders Joseph Carter and Michael Mendoza slept, and Anna and Jack watched movies, the Agent in Black stood at the top of the watchtower at the naval base in Seal Beach. The ocean view did little to calm him. He chain-smoked and berated himself for fucking up. Fucking up in a major way.

For the last twenty years, he’d prepared for a day like this. He could hardly believe that the day had finally come. In the aftermath of his decision, all of his training appeared to amount to nothing. What had happened to protocol? To sticking to the rules, no matter what? One decision to stray from the rules could amount to inconceivable repercussions. It was his fault. The blame lay on his shoulders, and his alone.

Not the other Incidents, though. The Agent in Black’s mind displayed the other Incidents on his imaginary whiteboard: a military base in Istanbul was on lockdown; there was minimal communication from the ill. Mexico City was under a quarantine. Incoming information was unclear and probably inaccurate. The Agent in Black was well aware that these were two extremely populated areas on the globe. He deduced that this was no coincidence.

Two more Incidents had been reported. China, for all its secrecy, had actually contacted Russia for information and possibly aid for “unknown extraterrestrial matter” that had been found. Nigeria had contacted the United States Secret Service in regard to a similar finding. They, in turn, handed the information over to him, the Agent in Black. They had followed protocol, he thought wistfully. He had not.

All of this was even above top-secret clearance. Only a handful of men were aware of the Incidents. Perhaps the Agent in Black was the only one who was thinking the unthinkable. An attack on the human race from space. Possible global pandemic illness. Probable global destruction of human life.

He stood atop the tower and watched the calm water shimmer under the peaceful moonlight and tried to think of a solution. All of these Incident sites must be contained. At any cost. He’d spoken with the Secretary of Defense this morning, requesting emergency troops to surround all known areas of contamination. He’d asked for authority to command those troops. The Secretary of Defense had a full plate, what with matters in the Middle East at the moment. The Secretary of Defense would get back to him as soon as possible.

As soon as possible?

The Agent in Black shook his head. He’d needed this authority yesterday. He glanced at his watch. He would call the President by midnight if he had to. Others didn’t understand the vast possibilities. The sheer number of unknown factors was staggering. What the Agent in Black did know was that people were getting sick. Apparently, only those in direct contact with the small spheres had become ill. For now. But that could change. Would change. He’d bet the farm on it. He had, after all, been preparing for a moment like this for twenty years.

But one step at a time, he told himself. The Agent in Black snubbed out a cigarette with his boot. Five hours and thirty-two minutes earlier, Carter and Mendoza had parked at a Mexican fast-food joint. Two of his CREW watched them enter. Did they report the Lieutenant Commanders took their duffel bags inside? No. Did his Crew report anything before waiting an hour to enter the place to search for them? No. The Agent in Black fumed, gripped the rail, knuckles white. A vein bulged, pulsing on his left temple. He knew very well the radius that one person could travel in five hours and now thirty-four minutes. And there were two of them. What if they split up? He was not pleased.

He didn’t respond to the sound of the tower door closing. He kept silent when his Clone appeared at the rail.

His Clone was uneasy. The Clone was one of the very few who understood his superior’s deadly temper. He hesitated. Should he speak up or wait to be addressed?

His boss lit another cigarette. “Well?”

“Agents are en route to talk with family members.”

“I was hoping for something new.”

“Yes, sir. They’ve spoken to Mendoza’s mother. They didn’t cause any alarm or suspicion. She said her son was on leave, but she didn’t expect him for a week. He was supposed to go to Vegas.”

“Send someone…shit. Send a team to scout Vegas. Assign an emergency team to scout the city.”

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