Shift:A Virals Adventure
Author:Kathy Reichs
    That Sunday started like any other on Morris Island.

    Moms.

    Yelling up the stairs.

    “Shelton Devers!” Her voice arrowed through my door like it wasn’t even there. “Get out of bed, lazy bones! It’s almost eight thirty.”

    “I’m up!” I lied, burrowing deeper into my blankets.

    Need my beauty rest.

    But I knew a personal visit came next. My mother does not tolerate slacking.

    Groaning, I rolled from bed and stumbled to the bathroom, slapping my Avatar poster for luck along the way.

    Toilet. Shower. Toothbrush. My brain slowly churned awake.

    I was halfway through a second round of flossing—you’ve got to protect your gums—when One Direction blasted from my iMac’s speakers.

    New message.

    “That’s what makes you beautiful.” Mumbled, as I dropped into my desk chair.

    Hey, I don’t care. Haters gonna hate, but them dudes can sing.

    I located my glasses—black, box-framed, with inch-thick lenses—and slid them onto my nose. Necessary evil. I’ve tried contacts a thousand times, but can’t pop the little buggers into place. Something about touching my eyeball—I break into shivers just thinking about it.

    The world snapped into focus.

    An image of the Most Interesting Man in the World filled my screen.

    Hiram. Wanting to chat.

    “What’s he doing up?” I said aloud.

    Mouse click. My new avatar—Donkey Kong preparing to Space Jump—appeared as I typed a response.

    Donkey Kong: Takeout or delivery?

    TMIMITW: Hilarious.

    TMIMITW: Searched level four, but can’t find World Breaker mace. Near Coilfang? Need to increase my critical strike rating!!!

    “Rookie,” I muttered, punching in a response.

    Donkey Kong: Defeat Fathom-Lord Karathress in the Serpentshrine Cavern. He’ll drop it. Can you handle that? Or is this your first day?

    Two cursor blinks, followed by:

    TMIMITW: You’re a first day.

    TMIMITW: Thanks.

    “Any time, noob.” I logged off and hurried downstairs. Drag your feet in my house, you end up cooking your own breakfast.

    Luckily, Mom and Dad were just sitting down.

    “Don’t mind if I do.” I snagged three silver dollar pancakes. My favorite.

    “Big plans today, honey?” my mother asked between bites. Born in Japan, she had a round face and soft, delicate features. That morning, her long black hair was tied in a thick braid. “The weather’s supposed to be gorgeous.”

    “None yet.” Words I immediately regretted.

    My mother abhorred idleness. A veterinary technician at the Loggerhead Island Research Institute, she viewed work and fun as synonymous, and was frequently surprised when others didn’t. She could strike quickly to fill a hole in my schedule.

    And did.

    “Well, there’s a speaker on primordial lipoproteins at Charleston University this afternoon.” She sipped orange juice straight from the bottle. Mom didn’t stand on ceremony. “Or you could help me collect sea kelp down at Folly Beach. I’m running toxicity tests, hoping to figure out what’s been causing the bird population—”

    “Let the boy alone, Lorelei,” Dad interrupted. Mildly. Nelson Devers was no fool. “It’s the weekend. Shelton probably wants to spend time with his friends.”

    “That’s right,” I agreed hastily. “Tory asked me to help train Cooper.”

    Dad is ten years older than Mom, a former dockworker from the Bronx who’d joined the Navy and been stationed in Okinawa. They’d met at a Japanese community college where he’d been teaching computer science.

    Nelson was the first black man Lorelei ever met. Crazy. When his enlistment was up, they’d married, then moved to Charleston for the weather. I’m the end result.

    Dad also worked at LIRI and had just been named IT director. A position that made him Mom’s superior at work. Not that he’d ever point that out.

    “Fine.” My mother aimed her fork at me. “But don’t spend your Sunday playing Call of Warfare with Hi and Ben. You need fresh air.”

    “Call of Duty,” I corrected. “And I won’t. Promise.”

    At that moment, the phone rang. My father scooped up the handset. “Hello?”

    As he listened, a frown creased his forehead.

    “Who is it?” Mom mouthed.

    Dad covered the receiver with his hand. “It’s Kit Howard. There’s been a break-in on Loggerhead—huge headache for him.”

    That caught my attention. LIRI was the only thing out there.

    Dad listened a few more seconds before agreeing to something and hanging up. Then he rose and carried his plate to the kitchen.

    “I have to meet with Kit for a minute.” Rinsing his utensils. “A whole mess of computer equipment was stolen, which makes it my headache, too.”

    Buzz buzz.

    My iPhone shimmied on the table.

    Unlocking the home screen revealed a text from Kit’s daughter, Tory Brennan. One of my closest friends. And my chief tormentor.

    Don’t get me wrong, Tory’s cool. Straight-up brilliant, too. But she’s impossibly headstrong, always getting me into trouble.

    I stared at the message. Got that sinking feeling in my gut.

    This is how it starts. Always always always.

    Her “request” was short and sweet: Virals. Outside. Now.

    I checked the recipient list, knowing what I’d find. Me. Hiram. Ben.

    There are only four Virals in the world.

    My pack. Three people with whom I share a special bond. Or a dark secret, depending on your take. Tory’s wolfdog is one of us, too, but that part’s just weird. I try not to think about it. Bad for my digestion.

    “Something wrong?”

    I glanced up to find my mother studying me.

    “No.” Thinking fast. “It’s Tory. She wants to get started with Coop. Stay. Sit. All that stuff. I’d better get going.”

    I bused my dishes, then hurried out the door on my father’s heels. Waste too much time and I’d be hauling sea kelp, no matter what Dad said.

    Kit was standing on the grassy common that stretched from our town houses to the Atlantic. He’s a bit on the short side, with a close-cut mop of curly brown hair and hazel eyes. That day he wore khaki pants, a blue button-down shirt, and worn loafers. And a grim expression.

    Kit had been named director just a few weeks earlier.

    LIRI was his responsibility.

    A word about the neighborhood.

    My friends and I live on Morris Island, a four-mile run of sand hills perched at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. We’re light-years from downtown, with only a single strip of blacktop connecting us to Folly Island and the rest of the world.

    No buildings. No people. Nothing but cattails, dunes, and rabbits.

    As close to complete wilderness as you can get.

    With one exception: our digs.

    Built on the ruins of Fort Wagner, an old Civil War fort, our block consists of ten identical town houses owned by the Loggerhead Trust, which also owns LIRI and Loggerhead Island. The Morris units are leased exclusively to LIRI employees working out at the institute.

    Ben, Hi, Tory, and I are the only teens living on Morris, making us perhaps the most isolated crew on earth. It’s part of what connects us. That and our super-high, slap-you-silly intelligence. True story.

    Here’s the thing: We like books, learning, and—gasp—science, and aren’t afraid to admit it. If other kids think we’re uncool because of that, so what?

    I don’t need more friends. I got my pack.

    Okay, our main bond is the designer supervirus that scrambled our DNA.

    A nasty little pathogen that rewrote our genetic code. Opened evolution’s doors.

    Made us Viral, to the core.

    The transformation welded us into a unit, but for me the connection started before that, when luck brought four kindred spirits together.

    It all tied back to living out here, together, alone in the wild.

    Morris Island, represent.

    Kit was talking with a woman I didn’t recognize. Definitely not his dingbat girlfriend, Whitney. That ditz traveled in a cloud of perfume you could smell a football field away.

    Spotting my dad, Kit waved him over. The adults began speaking in hushed tones.

    I snuck past them to greet Tory, who was hustling down her steps with Coop.

    “What’s the word, Brennan?”

    She held up a hand. “Let’s wait for the others.”

    Don’t like the sound of that.

    Tory is tall and thin, with red hair that hangs midway down her back. Pretty. Maybe more than pretty when she smiles. Piercing green eyes. Pale skin. A healthy dose of freckles. Definitely maybe, though she’s like a sister to me.

    Tory moved to Morris last year, after her mom was killed by a drunk driver. Must’ve been terrible. She doesn’t talk about it, and I don’t pry. I’m just glad she’s here.

    The whole thing was like something out of a movie—before Tory came to live with Kit, they’d never even met! Her biological dad, but a complete stranger. She still calls him by first name.

    Those two make a strange pair. Neither seems to know what to do with the other, though they get along pretty well.

    Nuts, huh? But that’s life, I guess.

    I squatted to scratch Coop’s gray-brown ears.

    He turned deep blue eyes on me, then nuzzled my hand, relishing the attention.

    The love child of a gray wolf and stray German shepherd, Coop had grown to nearly seventy pounds. Not a beast you wanna mess with.

    Everything Viral started with the wolfdog.

    Patient Zero.

    We were infected by the superbug while rescuing Coop, who was being used as a medical test subject. Unfortunately for us, the germ was contagious to humans. The newborn invader unzipped our human chromosomes and jammed canine genes inside.

    We’d gotten sick. Really sick. Headaches. Sweats. Chills. Even blackouts.

    And worse. Animal urges. Canine impulses.

    A total nightmare, but the madness eventually passed.

    That’s when we discovered our powers. When we learned how to flare.

    We developed abilities no one else on the planet possesses. Or can even fathom.

    Physical strength. Sensory acuity. A host of other skills we’re still figuring out.

    So I guess I shouldn’t complain. No virus? No flare power. No pack.

    Our minds wouldn’t have connected. Would never have melded.

    I suppressed a shiver. I didn’t understand the mental stuff, left that to Tory. But the four of us shared some weird telepathic bond. Coop, too. Maybe it sprang from the canine DNA. Maybe it’s something all wolves possess.

    I didn’t know. Didn’t like to dwell on it. We couldn’t control it anyway.

    Coop lived with Tory, but spent most of his days roaming Morris, terrorizing the local rodents. I’m just glad the mutt’s on our side.

    I rose, jabbed a thumb over my shoulder. “Who’s the chick with Kit?”

    “My aunt Tempe. She’s visiting for the weekend.”

    “Oh my.” I spun for a better look.

    I’d heard all about Dr. Temperance Brennan, World-Famous Forensic Anthropologist.

    She’s Tory’s idol. The girl never stops talking about her.

    Dr. Brennan seemed in good shape for an older lady. Late forties. Dark blond hair, hazel eyes. She wore jeans and a Northwestern tee as she huddled with Kit and Dad.

    “Here comes Hi.” Tory was looking over my shoulder. “Finally.”

    I could feel her impatience. Tory with an idea surges forward like a tidal wave.

    And I get dragged by the undertow.

    Hiram closed his front door, yawned, and lumbered down the steps. He isn’t the rushing type. Rosy-cheeked, portly, with a quick wit and razor-sharp tongue, Hi’s the most sarcastic kid I know. It can be hard getting him to take something seriously.

    Hi scratched his wavy brown hair, then stretched. “A little early for booty calls, Tory.” He wore yellow pajama pants paired with a brown FOMO T-shirt.

    “Funny.”

    Tory crossed her arms. Glanced at her watch. She practically oozed impatience.

    Hi reached down and patted Coop’s back. “Hey, killer. Eat any squirrels today?”

    Finally, Ben Blue strolled up in his usual black tee and shorts.

    At sixteen, Ben was the oldest member of our pack. He’s five foot ten and rock solid, with dark eyes and shoulder-length black hair, a by- product of Native American roots. Ben sported a deep tan, earned by countless hours spent aboard Sewee, his prized Boston Whaler runabout.

    Ben lived in the end unit with his father, Tom Blue, who operated LIRI’s shuttle service between Morris, Loggerhead, and downtown Charleston. Ben’s mother, Myra, lived in a Mount Pleasant condo just across the bay.

    Ben cocked his head toward the adults. “That about the break-in?”

    Tory nodded. “Kit’s pretty worked up. Last night, somebody stole a bunch of equipment from Lab Three. Kit needs to figure out exactly what’s missing.”

    As Tory spoke, my dad turned and headed back toward our unit. Kit and Tempe walked over to join us.

    Tory ordered Coop to sit. Stay. She really was training him, with mixed results. That wolfdog could be as obstinate as his owner.

    “Nothing to worry about,” Kit said brightly, though his expression suggested otherwise. “Just some funny business out at LIRI. Nelson is going to check our inventory and we’ll get it sorted.”

    “What was taken?” Tory’s scowl mirrored Ben’s.

    “More like what wasn’t.” Kit shook his head. “Lab Three was ransacked. Laptops, three blade servers, the moisture/solid analyzer, a centrifuge, the nanoparticle tracking system, a pair of microscopes, some other items.” He nearly sighed. “Pricey things, all of them. Whoever broke in knew what he was doing.”

    “Or she,” Tempe corrected. “Or they.”

    “What about the security tapes?” Tory was laser-focused. “Or the live video feed? Where was security?”

    “Electronic surveillance was down last night.” Kit waved a hand in frustration. “Maintenance. At midnight, the whole system went offline for program upgrades. Like I said, this—” a glance at Tempe, “—person or persons knew the score. They broke into Lab Three, cleaned house, and then slipped out with the equipment undetected. What I’ve got to figure out is how.”

    “The service elevator,” Tory said without hesitation. “With the cameras off, the guards would be blind to its movement. And what about the dock? They must’ve gotten the stuff out by boat.”

    Kit half smiled. “My thoughts as well. But don’t you worry about this, kiddo. Hudson has his security crew investigating, and we’ll file a police report. Plus, LIRI has insurance for this very reason.”

    “I know a few detectives at CPD,” Tempe said. “They’re good. And CSU will turn that lab upside down and inside out. If there’s a speck of evidence, they’ll find it. Take that to the bank.”

    Tempe’s effect on Tory was comic.

    She straightened like a soldier under inspection. “Of course, Aunt Tempe.”

    But I knew that look. Recognized wheels turning behind Tory’s eyes.

    Butterflies took wing in my stomach. It didn’t take a mind reader to see that Tory wanted to impress her aunt.

    “I’m heading out there to assess the damage.” Kit cast a hopeful look at Tempe. “I wouldn’t mind if you came along. A forensics expert might come in handy this morning.”

    “At your service.”

    With that, the pair excused themselves and headed inside.

    Tory watched them go.

    She got that stubborn set to her jaw, as if a challenge had been made.

    The butterflies became hummingbirds.

    She’ll jump in. And drag us all along, like always.

    Hi sensed it, too. “Should I go change clothes?” The fool sounded eager.

    “Meet by the dock in five.” Tory was already moving. “We need to get to Loggerhead first.”

    Ben smirked but shrugged his agreement. Hi gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

    I sighed. There was no point arguing.

    “Fine. But let’s at least try not to get into trouble?”

    I’m not sure Tory heard me. She was halfway up her stairs, Coop at her side.

    I pushed my glasses back up the bridge of my nose.

    Gonna be one of those days.

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