By Jonathan Maberry
Illustration By A.L. Sirois
NOTE: This story features Joe Ledger, the hero of the novels PATIENT ZERO, THE DRAGON FACTORY, THE KING OF PLAGUES and ASSASSIN’S CODE, all from St. Martin’s Griffin. This story takes place between the first two books, however you don’t need to have read any of the books to enjoy this adventure.
Ultra High Security Biological Research Facility
The Poconos, Pennsylvania
Twenty Minutes Ago
It was the dirty end of a dirty job.
Three of us — Bunny, Top and I — were hunting horrors in the dark, seven thousand feet below Camelback Mountain. Even with Night vision, body armor, and weapons, we were lost in an infinity of shadows. If we blew this, if we couldn’t wrap this before the clock ticked down, then the whole place would go into hard lockdown. Steel doors would drop, and explosive bolts would fire, triggering thermite charges that would seal the doors permanently in place. Federal and international biohazard protocols forbade anyone from digging us out if the fail-safes went active.
The Vault would become our tomb.
The government would disown us, our own people would have to write us off.
But the things we hunted wouldn’t care. When our lights and weapons and food ran out, they’d hunt us.
And, very likely, they would get us…and then get out.
Pocono Plateau, Elevation 2,133 Feet
Two Hours Ago
We touched down on a State Forestry helipad at the top of Camelback. Morning mist still clung to the off-season ski slopes. The sun was a weak promise behind a ceiling of white clouds that stretched off into the dim forever. A bookish-looking man in a white anorak and thick glasses met us as we ducked out through the rotor wash. He was flanked by a State Cop who looked confused, and a security officer from the Vault who looked bug-eyed scared. Nobody shook hands.
We piled into an Expedition. The State Cop looked at the equipment bags we carried and it was clear he wanted to ask, but he’d been told that questions were off limits. All he knew was that we were ‘specialists’ on the Federal dime who came here to help solve a security problem. Which is another way of telling him to shut the hell up and just drive the car.
The geek with the glasses turned to me and started to speak, but I shook my head.
We drove in silence down the zigzag road that should have been packed with tourists here for the water-park and other summer sports. We passed three police roadblocks and turned onto an access road before a fourth. A phalanx of Troopers were bellowing at the families and tour busses, waving them into U-turns and turning deaf ears to the abuse heaped on them by people who had driven since before dawn to get here. Top caught my eye and shook his head. I nodded. Inconvenience was a hell of a lot better than dying out here in the cold.
A smaller road split off from the access road and led into a big equipment barn, but the barn was just a cover for the entrance to the vault. Four nervous-looking guards manned the entrance, and their supervisor came over to us in an electric golf cart. He cut a look at the bookworm.
“These the pros from Dover?” He tried for the joke, but his voice cracked, spoiling it. I gave him a hard grin anyway. It was a nice try.
I turned to our driver as we climbed out. “Thanks, Troop…we’re good from here.”
He gave me a gruff nod, backed up, turned and left, throwing suspicious looks at us through the side view mirror. The three of us unzipped the light windbreakers we’d worn on the flight, and checked our weapons. We all wore Heckler & Koch Mark 23 .45 ACP pistols in nylon shoulder rigs. We each carried six magazines, and we had other toys in the equipment bags. Bookworm stared at the guns, and flicked his tongue over his lips like a nervous gecko.
“Okay, run it down for us,” I said to him.
“We’ll talk on the way down,” he said, and we piled into the golf cart. The security guy drove it into an elevator that began a descent of over a mile.
“I’m Dr. Goldman,” said the guy with glasses. “I’m the deputy director of this facility. This is Lars Halverson, our head of security.”
I shook hands with Halverson. His hand was firm but clammy, and his face and throat glistened with nervous sweat.
“You’re Captain Ledger?” Goldman asked.
I nodded and jerked a thumb over my shoulder. “The old man behind me is Top Sims and the kid in diapers is Bunny.” In my peripheral vision, I saw Top scratch his cheek with a middle finger.
First Sergeant Bradley Sims was hardly old — but at forty-one he was the oldest field operative in the DMS. He was nearly as tall as me, a little heavier in the shoulders, and though he was a calm man by nature, he could turn mean as a snake when it mattered.
The big kid next to him was Staff Sergeant Harvey Rabbit. Real name, so no surprise that everyone called him Bunny. He was just a smidge smaller than the Colossus of Rhodes, and somehow despite everything we’ve been through together while running black ops for the Department of Military Sciences, Bunny still managed to keep his idealism bolted in place. My own was wearing pretty damn thin, and my optimism for rational behavior in people who should know better was taking one hell of a beating.
“What were you told?” asked Goldman.
“Not enough,” I said. “You believe there’s one or more infiltrators operating in your facility. You have one casualty, is that right?”
I caught the quick look that passed between Goldman and Halverson. It was furtive as all get-out, and at that moment I wouldn’t have bought water from either of them if my ass was on fire.
“Actually,” Goldman said slowly, “we have four casualties.”
The engine of the elevator car was the only sound for a while. I heard Top clear his throat ever so slightly behind me.
“Who’s dead?” I said sharply.
“Two of my people,” said Halverson. “And another of the research staff.”
“How and when?”
“We found the second guard half an hour ago,” Goldman said. “The others were killed sometime last night. They didn’t report for the breakfast meeting, and when the security teams did a search they found them dead in their rooms.”
“How were they killed?”
Goldman chewed his lip. “The same as the first one.”
“That’s not an answer. I asked ‘how’.”
He turned to Halverson, but I snapped my fingers. Loud as a firecracker in the confines of the elevator car. “Hey! Don’t look at him. I asked you a question. Look at me and give me a straight answer.”
He blinked in surprise, obviously unused to being ordered about. Probably thought his rank here at the facility put him above such things. Life’s full of disappointments.
“Bitten? By what? An animal? An insect?”
Halverson snorted and then hid it with a cough.
Goldman shook his head. “No…they were bitten to death by the…um…terrorists.”
I stared at him, mouth open, not knowing how to respond. The elevator reached the bottom with a clang, and Halverson drove us out into the complex. We passed through a massive airlock that would have put a dent in NASA’s budget. None of us said anything, because all around us klaxons screamed and red emergency lights pulsed.
Halverson stamped on the brakes.
“Christ!” Goldman yelled.
“OUT!” I growled, but Top and Bunny were already out of the cart, their guns appearing in their hands as if by magic. I was right with them. The floor, the walls, even the ceiling of the steel tunnel were splashed with bright red blood. Five bodies lay sprawled in ragdoll heaps. Arms and legs twisted into grotesque shapes, eyes wide with profound shock and everlasting terror.
The corridor ran a hundred yards straight forward, angling down deeper into the bowels of the mountain. Behind us, the hall ran twenty yards and jagged left into a side hall. Bunny put his laser sight on the far wall near the turn. Top had his pointed ahead. I swept in a full circle.
“Clear!” Bunny said.
“Clear,” said Top.
“Jesus Christ!” said Goldman.
Halverson was saying something to himself. Maybe a prayer, but we couldn’t hear it beneath the noise of the klaxons.
Then the alarms died. Just like that.
So did the lights.
The silence was immediate and dreadful.
The darkness was absolute.
But it was not an empty darkness. There were sounds in it, and I knew that we were far from alone down there.
“Night vision,” I barked.
“On it,” Bunny said. He was the closest to the golf-cart, and I heard him rummaging in the bags. A moment later he said, “Green and go. Coming to you on your six.”
He moved through the darkness behind me and touched my shoulder, then pressed a helmet into my hands. I put on the tin pot, flipped down the night vision, and flicked it on. The world went from absolute darkness to a surreal landscape of green, white, and black.
“Top,” Bunny said, “coming to you.”
I held my ground and studied the hall. Nothing moved. Goldman cowered beside me. He folded himself into the smallest possible package, tucked against the right front fender of the cart. Halverson was still behind the wheel. He had a Glock in his hand and the barrel was pointed at Top.
“Halverson,” I said evenly, not wanting to startle him. “Raise your barrel. Do it now.”
He did it, but there was a long moment of nervous indecision before he complied, so I swarmed up and took the gun away from him.
“Hey!” he complained. “Don’t — I need that!”
“You can’t see to shoot. Do you have night vision?”
“I have a flashlight.” He began fumbling at his belt, but I batted his hand aside. “No. Stay here and be still. I’m going to place your weapon on the seat next to you. Do not pick it up until the lights come on.”
“You’re a danger to me and mine,” I said, bending close. “Point a gun in the dark around me again, and I’ll put a bullet in you. Do you believe me?”
I patted his shoulder — to which he flinched — and moved away.
“What are you seeing, Top?”
He knelt by the wall, his pistol aimed wherever he looked. “Nothing, seeing nothing, Cap’n.”
He was guarding our backs. “Dead people and shadows, Boss. Look at the walls. Someone busted out the emergency lights.”
“Captain Ledger,” began Goldman, “what—?”
“Be quiet and be still,” I said.
We squatted in the dark and listened.
Thin and scratchy, like fingernails on cardboard. Then a grunt of effort.
Top and I looked up at the same time, putting the red dots of our laser sights on the same part of the upper wall. There was a metal grille over an access port. The grille hung by a single screw, and one corner of it was twisted and bent out of shape, the spikes of two screws hanging from the edges. The grille hadn’t been opened with a screwdriver; it had been torn out.
The scratching sound was coming from there, but as we listened, it faded and was gone.
“It’s gone,” whispered Goldman.
I noticed that he said ‘it’, not ‘him’ or ‘them.’ I could tell from the way he stiffened that Top caught it, too.
But Bunny asked, “What’s gone? I mean…what the hell was that?”
The scientist turned toward Bunny’s voice. His green-hued face was a study in inner conflict. His eyes were wide and blind, but they were windows into his soul. I doubt I’ve ever seen anyone as genuinely or deeply terrified.
“They…they’re soldiers,” he said.
“Whose soldiers? We were told this was a potential terrorist infiltration.”
“God,” he said hollowly. “There are a dozen of them.”
I moved up to him and grabbed a fistful of his shirt.
“Stop screwing around, Doc, or so help me God—.”
“Please,” he begged. “Please… We were trying to help. We were doing good work,important work. We were just trying to help the men in the field. But…but…”
And he began to cry.
We were screwed. Deeply, comprehensively, and perhaps terminally screwed.
Something moved in the green gloom down the hall. It was big and it kept to the shadows behind a stack of packing crates. It made a weird chittering sound.
“Is that a radio?” Bunny whispered.
I shook my head, but I really didn’t know what it was.
“It’s them!” Goldman said, and he loaded those two words with so much dread that I felt my flesh crawl.
“I got nothing down here,” said Bunny, who was still guarding behind us. “What are you seeing, Boss?”
“Unknown. Top, watch the ceilings. I don’t like this worth a damn.”
The chittering sound came again, but this time it was behind us.
“What’ve you got, Bunny?” I called.
“I don’t know, Boss, but it’s weird and it’s big. Staying out of range, just around the bend.”
“This is the U.S. Army. Lay down your weapons and step out into the hall with your hands raised.”
My voice echoed back to me through the darkness, but whoever was around the bend did not step out.
The chittering sound was constant.
I repeated the challenge.
The sound changed, fading as the figure retreated. It was gone in seconds. I turned again, and the one ahead of us was gone as well.
“Cover me,” I said, and Top shifted to keep his laser sight next to me as I crept over to the wall below the grille. I stood on tiptoes and strained to hear.
The chittering sound was there, but it was very faint, and as I listened, it faded to silence. Whatever was making that sound was too far away to be heard, but I knew that didn’t mean it was gone.
I turned to the others. Doctor Goldman sat with his face in his hands, weeping.
“We’re all going to Hell for this,” he sobbed. “Oh, God…I’m going to Hell.”
Forty-six Minutes Ago
When I finally got Goldman to stop blubbering and tell me what the hell was happening I was almost sorry he did.
Halverson was able to lead us to the breakers, and we got the main lights back on. The rest of the research team huddled in the staff lounge, a few of them with improvised weapons — a fire axe, hammers, that sort of thing. The lounge had a single door, and the filtration system vent in that room was the size of a baseball. We locked ourselves in and had a powwow.
Goldman said: “This facility was originally built as a secure bunker to house the Governor and other officials during a nuclear war. After the Cold War, it was repurposed for genetics and biological research.”
“What kind of research?” I asked.
I put my pistol barrel against his forehead. “Declassify it,” I suggested.
“Listen to the man,” murmured Top in a fatherly voice — if your father was Hannibal Lecter.
Everyone gasped, and Halverson’s hand almost strayed toward his sidearm. Goldman licked his lips. “We…we’ve been tasked with exploring the feasibility of using gene therapy for military asset enhancement.”
“What kind of gene therapy?”
I tapped him with the barrel. “You’re stalling, and I’m disliking you more and more each second, Doc.”
He winced. “Please…I can’t think with that—.” He gestured vaguely toward the gun, and I moved it six inches away.
“We…I mean the government, the military, see the way things are going. The biosphere is critically wounded. Global warming is only the beginning. That’s the pop culture talking point, but it’s a lot worse than that. Seas are dying because pollution has interrupted or eliminated key links in the food chain. Plankton and krill are dying off while sea-borne bacteria proliferate. Coral reefs are dying, the sea floor is a garbage pit, and even third world countries are building centrifuges by the score to refine uranium.”
“Yeah, I watch CNN. Life sucks. Get to the point.”
“Some key people in government want to insure that no matter what happens we’ll still be able to maintain an effective military presence capable of response under all conditions.”
“What kinds of conditions?”
“Extreme. Deep pollution, blight, even post-conflict radiation environments.”
Goldman’s face was bleak. “Meaning, that if you can’t fix the world, then alter the inhabitants to adapt to the ambient circumstances.”
I sat back and laid the pistol on my lap, my finger outside of the trigger guard.
“How?” asked Bunny. “How do you make people adapt?”
“Transgenics. Gene therapy. And some other methods. We explored some surgical options, but that’s problematic. There’s recovery time, tissue rejection issues, and other problems. Genetic modification is less traumatic.”
“Let me see if I get this,” I said. “You and your bunch of mad scientists down here alter the genes of test subjects to see if you can make them more adaptable to polluted and devastated environments.”
“What kinds of genes?”
“Insect,” he said. “Insects are among the most successful life forms. Not as durable as viruses, or as hardy as some forms of bacteria, of course, but otherwise, they’re remarkable. Many can live on very little food, they can endure great injury, and there are some who are highly resistant to radiation.”
“You mean cockroaches?” Bunny asked.
Goldman shot him a quick look. “Yes and no. The idea that cockroaches would survive a nuclear war…that’s a distortion based on urban myths. Cockroaches are only a little more resistant to radiation than humans. Four hundred to one thousand rads will usually kill a human. A thousand rads will cause infertility in cockroaches. Sixty-four hundred rads will kill over ninety percent of the Blattella germanica cockroaches. No…for increased resistance to radiation we explored genes from wood-boring insects and the fruit fly. Some species of wood-borers can withstand forty-eight to sixty-eight thousand rads without measurable harm. It takes sixty-four thousand rads to kill a fruit fly; and if you’re talking real endurance, the Habrobracon, a parasitoid wasp, can withstand one-hundred and eighty thousand rads.”
“Hooray for garden pests,” Top muttered.
“We experimented with various gene combinations and got mixed results. Many of those lines of research were terminated. We did come back to the cockroach, though,” he said, and again he licked his lips with a nervous tongue. “Not for radiation resistance, but for other qualities.”
“They can run at incredible speeds. Even ordinary cockroaches can run at a speed of one meter per second. That’s like an ordinary man running at one-hundred and forty miles an hour. And they can change direction twenty-five times per second! Nothing else in nature can do that. Their elusiveness is one of the things that explains how they’ve survived in so many situations in which other animals were destroyed. They can also climb walls because the tiny pillus on their feet allow them to adhere to surfaces as if they’re covered in suction cups. It’s like Velcro. They have light receptors in the ultraviolet range. And the list goes on and on.” He took a breath, clearly caught up in the excitement of his life’s work. “As we mapped the genome from the desired source animals, we began to see the potential emerge. A true super soldier. I—”
“Soldier?” Bunny interrupted.
Goldman turned to him, momentarily flummoxed. “Yes, of course…didn’t I make that clear? All of our test subjects are soldiers.”
“Whose soldiers?” asked Top.
“Why…ours, of course.”
I leaned toward him. “Did they know?”
Goldman recoiled, but his voice was firm. “Of course! They all knew that they were volunteering for genetic experiments designed to make them better fighters. We had to tell them. There were letters of agreement, and every man signed.” He looked at me accusingly. “You think we’d do this without telling them? God, what kind of monster do you think I am?”
I wanted to hit him. I wanted to drag him and his whole team into a quiet room and work them over.
“What went wrong?” I said, keeping my voice even.
He was a long time answering. He and the other scientists exchanged looks, and Halverson studied the floor between his shoes.
“They were all screened,” Goldman said softly. “They knew the risks. But…gene therapy isn’t yet an exact science. Mapping the genome isn’t the same as truly indexing and annotating it.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “What happened to them? Did they get sick?”
“Sick? No. No…they’re very healthy. It’s just that they…changed.”
“Use the word, dammit,” said Halverson in a fierce whisper. Apparently he wasn’t as fully on board with all this as the science staff.
“Some of the insect genes coded differently than we expected. Most of the changes were mild and mostly irrelevant. Some skin changes. Thickening of the dermis, some color changes, follicular alterations. We tried to correct the problems with more gene therapy, but…we couldn’t control the mutations.” Goldman sighed, and said: “Theymutated.”
“Oh man,” said Bunny. “My Daddy wanted me to stay in Force Recon. Worst that could happen there is I get shot.”
Top gave Goldman a hard look. “Why are they attacking your people? If they’re volunteers…”
Goldman shook his head, and nothing that I said could make him say it out loud. The rest of the science team looked ashamed and frightened. A few were openly weeping. None of them could look at us except Halverson. I saw the muscles at the corners of his jaw bunch and flex.
“Tell me,” I said. We were past the point of threats now.
Halverson wiped sweat from his eyes. “These…scientists…had a protocol for incidents involving extreme aberrations. The entire project was to be terminated, along with any potentially dangerous aberrant forms.”
“‘Aberrant forms’?” I echoed. “God. You idiots were going to terminate a dozen U.S. soldiers? Citizens?”
“No,” said Goldman. “They signed the papers! That officially made them property of the United States Army. And, besides…they were no longer soldiers.”
“You mean that they were no longer people?”
He didn’t answer, which was answer enough.
“You’re a real piece of work, doc.”
“Look,” he snapped, “we’re at war! I did what I had to do to protect the best interests of the American people.”
Suddenly there was a low rumble that shuddered its way heavily through the walls. The cement floor beneath our feet buckled and cracked. Dust puffed down from the ceiling, pictures fell from the walls. The scientists screamed and started from their chairs, but there was nowhere to run. Top and Bunny yelled at them to shut up, and they cowered back from the two big men with guns.
Halverson and I hurried to the door and peered out. There was a faint flickering red glow from down the hall. I could smell smoke. “Christ!” Halverson said. “I think that was the generator room.”
There was a high whine from distressed engines, and then the lights dimmed again and went out. The staff room emergency lights kicked in after a few seconds, weak and yellow, giving each face a sallow and guilty cast.
“The generator can’t be out,” Goldman protested.
Halverson said nothing, but he looked stricken.
“What—?” Bunny asked.
The alarm took on a new tone as a pre-recorded voice shouted from all the speakers. It told us why everyone in the room was looking even more terrified than they had been only a minute ago.
“This facility has been compromised. Level One containment is in effect.”
The message looped and repeated. I turned to Goldman. “What does that mean?”
“It means that the generator is no longer feeding power to the airlocks or security systems. If the backup doesn’t come on, then the system will move to Level Two.”
“What happens then?”
“The whole place goes into lockdown,” said Halverson. “This is a biological research facility, Captain. If containment is in danger of total failure, then the whole system shuts down. The doors will seal permanently.”
“Did your test subjects know this?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Goldman. “Probably. I know the first subject, James Collins, knew it. He made a joke about it once. But…really, everyone knows, and it’s posted on signs all over the facility.”
I went to the door and opened it. Halverson joined me. “Looks like the backup generators are still on line. See — they are pulling the smoke out of the hall. The flames from the burning generator are dying down, too.”
“I take it the backup generators aren’t in the same room as the mains?”
“No, of course not. They’re at the other end of the complex.”
I pointed to the damaged access panel high on the wall. “That’s the air duct system?”
“Does it go all the way into the chamber with the backup generators?”
He thought about it. “No. It terminates outside. The backups are on a totally separate system. Different venting, too. Smaller. No way they could use them to get into the chamber.”
“How secure is it?”
“If you didn’t have a key, then you’d need tools. Heavy pry bars and a lot of time. They were intended to protect against all forms of intrusion. The generator room is even hardened against an EMP.”
I pulled Halverson out into the hall for a moment. “Tell me about James Collins.”
Halverson paled. “He…he’s a good kid. Young, in his twenties. No family, no one at home. No sweetheart or anything like that. It was one of the conditions. The men couldn’t have families waiting at home. Better that way.”
“Better for whom?” I asked, but he didn’t answer.
“Collins was smart. He did a couple of tours with Force Recon. One in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. Took some shrapnel last time out. Lost a couple of fingers. It was while he was recovering at the evac hospital that he was approached about this project. He’s been here almost seventeen months.”
I stared at him. It was horrible. Some kid joins the Marines. Maybe he thinks he’s helping to save the world from terrorists, or maybe he thinks he’s saving his country. Or, maybe he’s just lonely. Someone with no one at home and nowhere to be, so he makes the Marine Corps into his family, and it’s a war so they’re happy as hell to have him. They throw him into one meat grinder, and when he survives that they feed him into another. Then, when he’s battle-shocked and mutilated, they make him an offer. Maybe money, maybe promotion. Or maybe they play off his sense of duty. God and country. That kind of pitch. They bring him to this place, hide him down in the dark, and when he’s totally off the radar, they play God with him. If he lives, he’s the prize hog at the fair. Someone to trot out to appropriations committees. If he dies, who’s going to miss him?
But they never planned around a third option. What if they made him into a monster?
Hell, they wouldn’t think that way. They’re too limited, too conventional. They can make a monster, but to them it’s just science. Pure science, divorced from conscience, separated from ethical concerns because no one is watching. People like Goldman and his masters in the military always think they have everything under control.
I know firsthand that, too often, they don’t. I know because I’m the guy they send in to clean up their messes.
I don’t know who I hated more in that moment: Goldman, because he made a monster; or me, because I knew that I had to kill it.
In the air vents I could hear a faint scuttling sound. Like fingernails on paper. I stepped closer to the vent, straining to hear it in the gaps between the bleats of the warning bells. It was there. Faint, and growing fainter.
They were moving away from us. Toward the other end of the complex.
Twenty-two Minutes Ago
We left the others behind in a locked room. The emergency lights were smashed out along most of the hallway, so we flipped down our night vision. We had M4s from our equipment bags, and each of us wore light body armor. The stuff would stop most bullets, but I didn’t think that was the kind of fight we were likely to have. Would it stop Collins?
Only one way to find out, and I didn’t want to. Not one damn bit.
As he ran, Top whispered, “That door back at the staff room.”
“You saw the way those things tore at that vent grille. No way that chicken-ass door would keep them out.”
“You don’t seem too broken up about the thought of those things getting in there.”
We ran for a dozen yards. Bunny said, “They’re still civilians, Boss.”
“Farm boy’s right,” agreed Top.
“Yep. So, if you want to go back and babysit them, you have my permission, First Sergeant.”
Bunny cursed under his breath. We kept running down the hall.
We ran low and fast along the wall, guns out, moving heads and gun barrels in unison, the red eyes of the laser sights peering into every shadow. The Vault was enormous. It was all on one level, built into a series of interlocking limestone caves, but it spread out like an anemone, with side corridors and disused rooms and staff quarters and labs. There were three of us and thirty wouldn’t have been enough. Not without lights. Not with an enemy that could move as fast as these things could.
We looked for an ambush everywhere we went, and even then the monsters caught us off guard.
We were looking forward, we were looking side to side, we were covering our asses. Anything came at us in any normal direction, we’d have sent it home to Jesus in a heartbeat.
They tore open the damn ceiling and dropped on us.
There was a puff of dust, and then a screeching tear as the whole belly of the air duct tore open and they dropped out.
The first one slammed down on Bunny. Two hundred pounds of it struck him between the shoulder blades, and the big man went down hard, knees cracking against the concrete, the air leaving his body in a surprised and terrified whuf!
Top screamed and spun, sweeping his gun up, firing as the second one fell, and the third. The rounds tore into them, punching through the dark, mottled skin, splattering the walls and ceiling with black blood. The creatures twisted in midair, trying to dodge the spray of lead, but instead soaking up the bullets.
The air was filled with a high-pitched keening and screeching as the things climbed through the torn duct and dropped into the hall.
Bunny was screaming as the creature on his back tore at him with fingers that had grown strangely thick and dark, the fingernails and the flesh beneath fused into chitinous hooks. Its back was to me, and I fired as I backpedaled, angling to shoot it and not Bunny. The creature threw back its head and screamed. Not like an insect, but like a man.
Bunny twisted under it, and slammed an elbow into the monster’s side, and squirmed out from under. He was drenched with blood. I didn’t know how much of it was his own.
I turned at the yell and saw Top being driven backward against the wall. He had his M4 jammed sideways and pressed against the chest of a creature whose face was something out of nightmare. The eyes were human, but that was all. Its face was covered with thick scablike plates, some of them overlaid like dragon scales, others standing alone on otherwise human skin. The nose was nearly gone, flattened against the armored face, and the mouth was a lipless slash surrounded by wriggling antennae. The creature was naked to the waist, the rags of fatigue pants hanging from its spindly legs.
Before I could close on him and offer help, Top pivoted and chopped out with a low, short side-thrust kick that shattered the creature’s knee. As it reeled back, he came off the wall and swung the M4 in a tight upward arc, crushing its chin with the stock of the rifle. The blow was so powerful that the telescoping stock cracked and bent, but the thing that had once been a soldier flipped over backward and crashed down on the ground. Top stamped a foot onto its chest, and put two rounds into the misshapen skull.
I had my own troubles. Three of them swarmed at me in a three-point close. They tried to run me back against the wall, and if they had, I’d have been trapped and torn apart. They were so close that I only had enough room to bring my M4 up and hit the closest one with a burst to the chest. The impact flung him back, but the creature to his right lashed out and swatted the rifle out of my hands. It was a hugely powerful blow, way too strong for a man of his size. Whatever the doctors had done had amped up his strength. Or maybe he was mad with horror and rage and was pumping adrenaline. The rifle sling kept the weapon from flying away, but I lost my hold on it, and the creature reached for my throat with gnarled black fingers.
I parried and ducked and came up on the far side of his arms, then shoved him hard into the other attacker. They crashed into the wall, which gave me a short second of breathing space, so I grabbed at the Rapid Release folding knife clipped to the edge of my pocket. It was positioned to release right into my hand, and I gave it a flick and felt the blade lock into place even while my hand was moving. There was a flash of green fire, and then the second of the monsters was spinning away, trying to staunch the flow of black blood from his throat.
The third one growled at me, his voice filled with clicks and hisses, and he slashed at my face. I ducked, and felt his iron-hard nails tear through the fabric cover over my helmet. I didn’t wait. I drove in low and hard and put my shoulder into his chest, driving him back against the wall. He hit with a crunch that tore a howl from his throat. I used a flat palm to knock his head against the wall, and then moved in to let the knife do its work.
He fell, and I pivoted, switching the knife to my left hand, drawing my pistol with my right.
There was James Collins right in front of me. I knew immediately that it was him. Three of the fingers were missing from his left hand. He crouched ten feet away, legs wide to straddle the body on the ground.
Collins bent low so that he could touch Bunny’s throat with the fingers of his right hand. The fingers were long, the nails thickened into talons, and from where each tip dented Bunny’s throat, thin lines of blood leaked down the side of the big Marine’s neck. Around us, the alarms rang and the lights flashed, but nothing and no one moved. Collins raised his horror-show face and I could tell, even with those dark and alien eyes, that he knew as well as I did that we were all sliding down a steep slope into hell.
I raised my pistol and put the laser sight on Collins, right over the heart. He looked down at it for a moment, and his fingers pressed more deeply into Bunny’s flesh.
“Cap’n,” murmured Top from a few yards away, but I ignored him.
Even though Goldman and Halverson had told us what to expect, I could feel a scream bubbling in my gut. This was wrong, and it was ugly, and it was scaring the living shit out of me. Sweat ran down inside my clothes and my mouth was as dry as mummy dust. If I could have run, I would have.
I said, “Collins.”
The creature’s head jerked up, and his slit of a mouth worked for a moment. All I could hear were clicks. His face was covered with the same platelike scabs as the others. It wasn’t precisely an insect face, but it was too far away from human. There were tiny fibers or antennae around his mouth, and they twitched like stubby fingers. God only knows what sensory information those appendages fed that tortured mind.
“Listen to me,” I said, and my voice cracked a little. I cleared my throat, and tried it again. “Collins…listen.”
In the shadows, the other creatures clicked and hissed at the sound of my voice.
“I know you’re in there. I know Corporal James Collins is still in there.”
His mouth and throat muscles worked. Rasps and clicks, a stilted flow that was so alien and unnatural that it was painful to hear.
I kept the red dot steady, my finger inside the trigger guard. I had my trigger adjusted to a five and a half pound pull, and I had about four pounds on it. Bunny was trying not to breathe, trying to sink into the floor, and he looked every bit as terrified as I felt.
“J-J-J-Jimm…J-J-Jimmy,” said Collins.
My breath caught in my throat.
“Holy mother of God,” Top whispered behind me.
“Jimmy?” I asked.
The misshapen head bobbed.
“You’re Jimmy Collins, is that right? Jimmy, not James?”
Another nod. There was a light in his eyes. Fear. Anger. Maybe — relief?
“The docs,” I said. “Jimmy — the docs said that you signed up for this.”
His eyes hardened. The others hissed.
“They said that you knew the risks.”
“Risks,” he snarled and I knew that just framing the word had to hurt his throat. He used his maimed hand to touch his face. “Not…this.”
“No,” I said emphatically. Almost a shout. “Not this. There’s no way they told you that this would happen. But did they tell you what might happen?”
He tried to answer, but emotion — or whatever was left for him to feel — stole what little voice he had. Eventually he managed to get it out. Two words.
“Yeah, brother, I pretty much figured that. That sucks more than I can describe, but listen to me, Jimmy…. I can’t let you hurt my man there. He’s a good man. A friend.”
“A—Army?” Collins said.
“No. He’s Gyrene like you are. End of the day, though, he’s another pair of boots on the ground in someone else’s war.” I eased off of the trigger and slipped my finger outside the guard. He watched me do it. I didn’t lower the gun, though; and he saw that, too. “I know you never signed up for this, Jimmy. Who would? They think that because you enlisted and because you signed a piece of paper that they own you, that you’re just a lab rat to them. If that’s the case, if that’s what we’ve all been fighting for, then God help the United States. Or maybe God help us all, because someone’s missing the whole damn point. You with me on this, Jimmy?”
He paused, then nodded. It was impossible to read his face, hard to know if he was agreeing with me or giving me permission to keep talking.
“You want to know why I’m here? Why me and my team are here? The docs who did this to you called Homeland and said that this facility was being overrun by terrorists.”
“T-T-T-T—.” He couldn’t even get the word out. The stubby antennae around his mouth twitched with wild agitation.
“Yes, sir, Jimmy. Terrorists. How’s that for a thank-you from Uncle Sam? They rang the alarm, and we were sent in to drop the hammer on the bad guys. But…here’s my problem, Jimmy, and maybe you can help me out with it.”
His black eyes glittered like jewels.
“I’m not sure who the bad guys are. I mean…you’re killing folks, and you know that I can’t let that happen. I can’t let it continue. But at the same time, I don’t think you’re doing these kills because you’re a terrorist.”
He said nothing. They all waited.
“I think you’re doing it because you’re scared. More scared than I am now, and that’s saying something. But you know I can’t let you go on killing these people. Even if I agree with why you’re doing it, I got a job to do, and I know you understand that.”
His antennae twitched.
“Now…’terror’ is a funny word,” I said. “We use it all the time, but we don’t think about what it really means. Right now…I think my man on the floor there is feeling some genuine terror.”
Collins looked down at Bunny and then up at me.
“And you’ve got to be feeling it. All of you.”
The others clicked and hissed.
“And everyone else down here is feeling it because of you. There may not be any terrorists down here, Jimmy, but I have to stop the terror. That’s my job. That’s what I’m really here to do.”
Jimmy Collins’s eyes were wide, and dark, and wet.
“Can you help me with that, marine? Can you give me an out here?”
Collins looked at me, and raised his eyes slowly toward my helmet. Not at the Night vision unit, but at the small cylinder mounted on the left side of my tin pot. He nodded at me. At it.
“That’s right, Jimmy,” I said with a smile. “That’s a video camera. We’re on mission time here, everything’s being recorded. Everything we’ve seen, and everything we’veheard since we came down here is saved to memory in our helmet cams. Now how about that?”
Collins bent low until his deformed face was inches from Bunny’s. He whispered something that I couldn’t hear over the alarms.
And then he straightened and pulled his hand away from Bunny. The five little pinpricks still leaked blood, but there was no real damage. Collins took a step back, and another. Bunny scrabbled sideways and scuttled back toward me. He made a grab for his fallen M4.
“No,” I said.
Bunny looked at me in surprise, then at Top, who nodded, and then at Collins.
The hulking figure stepped farther back. His companions clustered around him. They made chittering noises, and God only knows if it was some kind of speech or the screams of the damned. Behind them was the door to the secondary generator. Collins turned, looked at the door and then back at me. His eyes were intense, pleading.
I swallowed a lump the size of a fist.
“Boss,” said Bunny, “if we get them out…maybe something can be done. Maybe there’s some way of reversing this…”
His voice trailed off as the huddled monsters chittered and clicked. It wasn’t words, but it was eloquent enough.
I shook my head.
“But…you know what they want to do,” he pleaded.
Top put his hand on Bunny’s shoulder. “If it was you, farm boy, what would you do?”
I raised my pistol. “Stand aside,” I said to Collins.
After a moment, he and the others moved away.
It took six rounds to blow the lock open.
Smoke hung thick in the air. The klaxons continued to bleat.
“Give us ten minutes,” I said.
Collins stared at me, his eyes unreadable in the green gloom of my Night vision. Did he nod? Or was it simply the way his body trembled as he turned and slipped into the generator room? The others followed.
I holstered my gun and looked at Bunny and Top.
We ran likes sons of bitches.
The voice said: “Fail-safe is active. Hard lockdown commencing.”
It was a female voice, very calm. She began counting down from one hundred.
“Top, Bunny…get everyone into the elevators.”
“The generator—,” Top said.
“…Eighty-nine, eighty-eight, eighty-seven…”
Halverson said, “The elevator has a separate power source. It’s topside. As long as we get above the three thousand foot line we’ll be fine. Below that charges in the wall will collapse the elevator into the shaft.”
“Get moving!” I ordered, and my men began herding the remaining scientists, support staff, and security personnel into the elevator.
I lingered in the staff room, watching as Doctor Goldman finished downloading his research files onto a one-terabyte portable drive.
“Is that everything?” I said as he pulled it out of the socket.
“Yes, thank God. Everything was in packets for quick hard-dump. We have everything we need to start over.” He moved to the door, but I shifted to block his way.
“Give me the drive,” I said.
“What the hell are you doing? This is no time for—?”
I kicked him in the nuts and snatched the drive out of his hand. Yeah, it was a sneak shot, but who cares? He uttered a thin whistling shriek and grabbed his groin, sinking to his knees in shock and agony.
I set the drive on a counter top.
I drew my sidearm and used the butt to smash the drive to silicon junk. Goldman screamed louder than when I’d kicked him. He made a grab for it, but I batted his hand away.
“What are you doing?” he croaked.
I moved to the doorway. The elevator was a hundred yards down the hall. I could make it at a dead run.
I said, “I’m doing what I believe is in the best interests of the American people.”
He stared at me and opened his mouth to say something, but a sound cut him off. Not the relentless female voice counting down. This was a thin, chittering noise that echoed out of the darkness at the far end of the corridor.
I holstered my gun, turned and ran like hell.
“…thirteen, twelve, eleven…”
“Where’s the doc?” Halverson demanded as I skidded into the elevator car.
“They ambushed us,” I lied. “Came out of nowhere. Now come on, get this damn thing moving!”
Halverson met my eyes for the briefest of moments, and I could see the realization in his eyes. He flicked a look out into the darkness. Maybe he could hear the skittering sounds. Probably not. The alarms were so loud that they even drowned out the sound of the screams.
He slammed the door shut and the car began to rise.
Three seconds later, we heard the bang-bang-bang as the steel doors dropped down and the thermite charges blew, fusing them shut. A moment later, the explosives in the elevator shaft blasted half a million tons of rock into the well of darkness below us. Dust clouds chased us all the way up into the light.
As the car slowed to a stop, I removed my helmet. The helmet cam was gone. I’d taken it off after we’d left Collins and the others outside of the generator room. The video file ended there.
Top, Bunny and I stepped out into the gloom of the building. State Troopers were everywhere, and soon there would be FBI, Marine Corps, and DMS choppers in the air. We didn’t care. The three of us stood there in the darkness and said nothing. I reached into my pocket to touch the helmet cam, and closed my fist around it.
In silence, we left the shadows and walked out into the light.