Chapter 3 - Meeting of the Minds

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The voices of over 200 men and women ricocheted around the wood-trimmed walls of the enormous Piedmont Auditorium, clashing and mixing into a symphony of general anxiety. Derick located the empty seat between Kara and Chad and settled in before studying the figures conversing on the elevated stage. On his way in he had already identified Dr. Julia Callow speaking with the Director, and now he was 89% sure that the figure standing to the left of the podium was Emmanuel Carter, Secretary of Health and Human Services. Something big was happening.

"I can't believe they made you come back," Kara said. She shook her head. "This place ..."

Chad squinted at the stage. "Is that Secretary Carter?"

Derick smiled to himself. He recalled the day Chad had interviewed for the position. His bald, six-foot-four, 275 pound football frame barely fit in the interview chair, and Derick remembered thinking he looked more like an MMA contestant than an analyst. Sixty minutes later, he discovered that he was brilliant and astute and insisted that Jonah put him on his team. Derick faced him.

"So did you check it out?"

"Yeah," Chad said, his brown scalp glistening from the heat of the packed auditorium. "It's just like you said. Birth stats, no instructions."

"How'd it go at the hospital, Daddy?" Kara asked smiling.

Derick turned. "They're much smaller than I imagined." He pulled out his phone to bring up his pictures, then hesitated as he caught his reflection in the empty screen. The grey hair that had begun taking over the bottom portion of his goatee and sideburns looked pronounced in contrast to his short jet-black hair. Steel eyes followed him as he inspected the face in front of him. He had seen this face before. It was his father's. He felt Chad pat him on the back.

"Everyone take your seats please," a voice boomed through the speakers surrounding the gathering. The owner of the voice was Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Paul Watkins. Derick had missed seeing him somehow, but what really concerned him was his expression. He looked like a man who was trying to look calm.

"Thank you all for coming. Let me first apologize for any inconvenience this meeting may have caused. I know it's late in the day and many of you have families, so we'll pass on what information we have as quickly as we can so you can get to work."

Derick scoffed at this. Get to work? Someone must have forgotten to tell him it was Friday.

"We're joined today by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Dr. Julia Callow, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I'll come right to the point. Recently there have been some statistical inconsistencies reported to NCHS through the National Vital Statistics System which require further investigation, and Dr. Callow has reached out to us for assistance in sorting through some of the data from this ... occurrence. I promised her our full cooperation, so whatever tasks your leadership assigns to you and your teams, I expect that they will be completed quickly and accurately with minimal complaining. I'll let Dr. Callow fill you in on the specifics." He turned to his left. "Dr. Callow ..."

On stage, a petite, middle-aged woman in a charcoal trouser suit and black-rimmed glasses quickly approached the podium. She looked over the audience for a moment before removing her glasses and rubbing her eyes. Derick doubted she had slept within the last 24 hours.

"What I'm about to tell you is to go no further than this room for the time being," she said. Her tone was calm and unwavering. "Over the last two months, the NVSS has shown a sizable decline in births across the country. Although steady at first, this decrease has accelerated significantly within the past week."

She grabbed a remote resting on the podium and clicked. Within seconds a color graph summarizing what she had just said appeared on the wall behind her. Derick peered at the slide. There had to be some mistake.

She clicked again. "These are the numbers as of this morning."

The crowd began to murmur as they read numbers superimposed on a map of the United States. However, most of them were focused on the circled number at the bottom: 37.

"Is that for the whole country?" someone several rows behind Derick asked.

"Yes," Dr. Callow said. "My people have been on the phone with state offices all day verifying these numbers. The range we'd normally expect to see is between ten and fifteen thousand. Of course it is impossible to track all births, but this assessment is about as accurate as it gets."

Derick glanced over at Kara who had the look of a woman who just had a UFO land on her house. He touched her shoulder and she returned. "This can't be right," she said.

Derick thought back to the room of empty baby beds then looked up at the slide. Faith would most likely be a Maryland dot in tomorrow's slide. The question was: how many dots would be up there with her?

"Needless to say," Dr. Callow continued, "The White House wants answers before the public figures this out and begins to panic. Stories have already begun sprouting up online, so it's only a matter of time." She lowered her glasses. "The President wants a preliminary report on his desk in less than 24 hours, so we have our work cut out for us. We've already enlisted the help of several government organizations-"

She paused and took a sip of water. The murmur had become increasingly loud and several members in attendance were starting to become emotional. Secretary Watkins looked like he was close to fainting.

"Keep it down!" Chad bellowed. His voice carried farther than even he had expected.

Secretary Carter strolled up to the podium and motioned for the crowd to settle. Dr. Callow stepped aside.

"NCHS has forwarded birth data from the past year to your offices," he said. "What we're looking for is a pattern; something that can tell us where this came from and where it is headed."

"I think it's pretty obvious where this is headed," Kara whispered. Her eyes were watering.

"Look at this from a Homeland Security perspective. Is it some sort of attack? What are our enemies talking about? Could it be environmental? These are the types of questions you should keep in mind. Cross reference births with deaths. We need some good working theories, and we need them now. This is your top priority for the next 24 hours."

Derick checked his phone again. Nothing. He took a couple of deep breaths to combat the anger and anxiety slowly bubbling within him. He figured he'd let her rest a little while longer before breaking the bad news to her. He raised his hand.

"Yes," Secretary Carter said, pointing to Derick.

"Sir, what about the rest of the world?"

Secretary Carter exchanged an uneasy look with Dr. Callow.

"Nothing has been substantiated yet, but we have received a few similar reports from our allies. This information will take some time to collect. In the meantime, I expect all agencies to cooperate with each other fully. I want everything on the table; no withholding info. I don't mean to state the obvious, but time is of the essence." He looked around the crowd. "I know you all must have a million questions, but Dr. Callow and I are on a tight schedule today as you can imagine. Your director will have your assignments. Good luck ladies and gentlemen."

As Secretary Carter stepped away from the podium, over half of the crowd whipped out their phones and began feverishly dialing. Derick leaned forward in his chair and glared at Jonah sitting at the end of the aisle. Jonah was already looking at him. He put his palms up in the air and mouthed the word 'sorry.' Derick ignored him. "Chad," he said.

"Coffee and legal pads," Chad said. "I'm on it."

Kara dabbed her eyes with a sheet of facial tissue. "I'll call Luigi's."

Derick nodded at them both. "Meet you upstairs in thirty."

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