Some people are not meant to be in this world very long. They know it, too, in the back of their minds. Maybe they’re uncertain, shaky in the way they live life. Maybe they’re fragile. Others are the opposite extreme, too reckless. Some, like Ray Burgess—
Who was only twenty-seven years old, that night, in a remote Nevada lab—
—Some are just prone to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Death seems to know who’s going to be the antelope that strays too far from the herd.
Right now, Burgess was crouched behind an overturned metal table in the break room, the table’s stainless steel legs projecting away from him toward the door. The lights of the lab were still burning, out there, but here he huddled in the dark next to a soft-drink machine that made him twitch every time it hummed and clicked inside itself. A little light came from the slightly opened door and from the softly suggestive glow of the vending machine.
His right-hand thumb was clamped between his teeth, and every time he heard any kind of metallic noise or the sound of something moving, from the next room, he bit down hard to keep from yelling. It was crumpled and torn, that thumbnail. Pretty soon blood would be seeping out.
He tried to see the luminous face of his watch, but he had his glasses on, thick glasses for his severe nearsightedness, and they made it harder to see things very close. He didn’t want to move enough to lift his glasses. He was afraid if he moved, he might bump the table, might make some kind of sharp noise. Did the watch say 9:10?
If it was 9:10 p.m., then he’d been crouching there for more than two hours.
He wondered if Ahmed had bled to death, in that time.
Chances were, Ahmed was pasted to the floor by a sticky puddle of his own blood by now.
He pictured a skin on the pool of Ahmed’s blood, like on cooled cocoa. He had always liked Ahmed; the little guy had a sense of humor that was balanced by a kind of trusting optimism. He might still be alive.
If I could get out, get someone to take care of Ahmed.
Probably not going to happen. The damn things had of course cut the phone lines, right out of the box. They might even have incorporated the phone lines—fused them with tissue, somehow.
He’d never make it to the phone down the hall. And thanks to the Dazzling Geniuses, as Ahmed called them, in Security, they weren’t allowed to have cell phones in Lab 23. It had never made sense, and now not being allowed to have cell phones made it more likely, it seemed to him, that he and Ahmed were going to die.
Ahmed is going to bleed to death, if he isn’t dead already, and I . . .
Ahmed’s death might be merciful, really, considering the way Kyu Kim had died. The things had picked Kyu because he was the one who opened the Development Box. He was the one who’d discovered that they had disengaged the lab’s safety circuits.
The breakouts had divided Kyu’s body into five parts, to use as many muscle groups as they could commandeer. Which meant Kyu’s legs had begun to thrash and work themselves free from his torso, like snakes being born from eggs. And then his limbs had started moving around the room on their own. The torso, with the head still attached, went humping off in another direction.
And Ahmed had fallen in front of Kyu’s reorganized body, and Kyu’s new jaws started that snap-snap-snapping like electric lawn clippers and ripped into Ahmed’s side—before Ahmed had pulled the sterilizer down, onto Kyu’s head . . . and smashed it. Smashed Kyu’s head broken and bloody.
But Kyu’s body wasn’t dead. Burgess could still hear it thrashing in the next room, now and then, under that big metal cabinet.
Ahmed lost blood fast, lost consciousness when the blood went, and Kyu’s eyeless limbs proved to be more or less useless to them. The breakouts were always experimenting, ironically—so they’d abandoned Kyu’s parts and started some other kind of “interconnected mutual e-construction.” Wasn’t that the term the Pentagon boys had come up with?
Something went click-click in the lab next door, and Burgess gnawed more deeply into his thumbnail, beginning to taste blood.
He told himself, again, that he had to sit still till morning. Dr. Sung will have his daybreak shift at the lab. He’ll put out the alert, and maybe the Secure Penetration Team will find a frequency, or set up a decoy or—something.
Or would they just abandon him? Ahmed had said something about how they might have to firebomb the Facility, under certain conditions—as if it was a bioweapons lab. It almost was a bioweapons lab. But then again, it wasn’t. They hadn’t developed a virus or bacterium; not one.
He had to pee and it was getting worse. Could he hold it? Could he pee on the floor without the breakouts hearing? How good was their sense of smell?
He had taken the wrong road in life, the fatally wrong road, signing on for the Facility. He knew that now. But there was no excuse for it: Everyone at the National Security Agency Advanced Research Facility knew that once you were in the Facility, you were committed.
You can’t just say, I’ve decided to go into something else. If you thought that Chinese scientist at Lawrence Livermore had it bad, just try walking out on the Facility. Suddenly you’d be “an enemy agent.”
Not like there hadn’t been warnings. There had been rumors. Things had been going wrong before he’d arrived. There’d been more than one infection. There’d been a Lab 21 and a Lab 22, dedicated to the same project, and they’d both been quarantined. But the new protocols were supposed to be more than enough. “Micro-womb integrity,” they liked to say. Burgess had shown just the gift for tunneling-electron manipulation; and they had offered the two-hundred-grand-a-year starting salary he’d needed. It had seemed right.
But he’d known. He’s always known that life had it in for him. He’d been pretty sure of it since his mother had joined that Christian end-times bunch. The cult had sucked her right in, like some kind of mutually incorporating program. He’d watched her drive away with those guys. Thin, underfed, faintly smiling guys in prim, cheap suits. And since Dad wouldn’t have anything to do with them, he knew then he’d never see her again.
Right now, he really, seriously had to pee.
He peered at his watch, squinting. Pretty sure it said 9:12. Time was . . . well, it was crawling. The breakouts were so methodical, it wouldn’t be long before they came in. They’d divided things up into sectors by now, probably, and made their assignments. They’d come when it was most efficient.
Come on, man, there’s hope. The Facility will get its SP Team together, and they’ll break in to save you. Any second now.
Was the break-room door swinging inward, just now, a little?
It did seem that the wedge of light spilling from the lab into the darkened room was wider. Was something peering in, looking for him?
The door opened just a centimeter or two more. Not like a person opening the door. Not like someone coming to save him.
Burgess prayed it wouldn’t turn on the light. He didn’t think he could see one without screaming. And if he screamed, they’d know for sure he was here.
I won’t go on drinking binges with Belinda anymore. I know it was wrong, I know she’s married and has a little child, and I won’t ever do that again.
I’ll go see my dad back home, I swear. I know he’s got maybe a year to live and I never go see him. But I will, I’ll go see my dad.
Just don’t let it turn on the light.
There was a muttering, clickety sound from the door.
And the light came on, and he couldn’t help looking over the edge of the table.
And Burgess gave a short scream, distantly aware that he was wetting his pants.
They had stripped all the skin off Ahmed’s skull, to be used in some other project, but they’d left the eyes, and there was no mistaking those big brown eyes. Ahmed’s eyes.
The skull ratcheted up on a shiny metal improvised spinal stalk, turning slowly, like a periscope, to look right at him.
Then the thing began to crawl his way.
The breakouts climbed into some people and reorganized them, like with Kyu. Others were just . . . parts.
Which was maybe why it pushed the overturned tabletop against him, and simply crushed him against the wall.
He was mostly dead before his head popped off his shoulders.
Which was proof, wasn’t it, that death is often merciful?
Major Henri Stanner, AF intelligence liaison to the NSA, was leaning out an open door, half hanging about eight hundred feet over the desert floor. He flicked a toggle on the binoculars to filter out the glare of the sun so the boulders and little trees and gullies were crisply outlined within a wash of blue tint. The wind brought the sharpness of sage, the mild perfume of cactus flowers. Maybe there was a faint rotten smell, too, underneath. Could be someone’s steer had wandered off and died. Could be a lot of things.
Looking over Lab 23 from the air, Major Stanner said, “If you use a compound that burns hot enough, something magnesium based, I think firebombing will do the trick. That’s what the Cleansing Protocol says.” He had to speak loud enough to be heard over the helicopter’s engine, the thwack of its blades. The Blackhawk tilted as it curved back over the Facility. He lowered his field glasses and shook his head. “It’s really not necessary to nuke it.”
“We were thinking just a tactical nuke.” Bentwaters scratched his nose and leaned back in the harness. He was a heavy, pale man with a blond crew cut and watery blue eyes. He looked queasy. He wasn’t used to choppers. He was used to making decisions into telephones. “Possibly . . . possibly a thermobaric bomb—or two. ‘Daisy cutters.’ ”
Bentwaters was NSA, technically a civilian, but he worked closely with military intelligence. The pale green of airsickness seemed to fit him more, at the moment, than the desert-cammie Special Forces jumpsuit he’d put on for the flight.
The copter came sharply around again, the desert rotating like a vast turntable below.
Leaning toward the open door, Bentwaters looked out, and down—and winced. He quickly drew back.
Stanner asked, “The lab is thoroughly sealed?” Bentwaters frowned and pointed at his ears. Stanner repeated the question more loudly.
Bentwaters nodded, overdoing it. “We went out of our way to do that. There are three walls between the lab and the outdoors. Earthquake-proof, the works. But there are places set up for introducing the bomb charges.”
“Okay. You think they’ll call this thing off now?”
“You mean, the Facility?” Bentwaters frowned, shook his head.
The chopper quivered again and sucked inertia through itself as it came about. The inertia jolted through both passengers, making Stanner grab a stanchion and Bentwaters grab his stomach. He seemed to blurt the next statement just to keep his mind on something else besides his airsickness. “There’s . . . a new plan . . . a way to let it evolve without any risk of infection.”
“No risk? No such thing exists!”
Bentwaters said, “They’re going to—”
But he wasn’t speaking loud enough, and the noise of the chopper drowned him out.
Bentwaters shrugged. “Actually, better you don’t know until you have to!” He wiped his mouth with the edge of his hand. “Let’s go back to base.”
Stanner nodded and leaned to catch the pilot’s eye, made the “return home” hand signal. The chopper veered again, out over the Nevada desert toward the AF base.
What is it about this side of the department? Stanner wondered. Why do they all make me feel kind of . . .
How do I feel, around them? Guys like Bentwaters.
Then he knew. Like his skin was crawling.
He had known guys all his life who gave him that feeling. Even as a kid. People who were always lying, even when they didn’t have to.
How’d he end up working for these guys?
He shrugged. He’d seen worse. Some stuff the CIA had pulled in Indonesia. All he’d done was give them some satellite imagery. But what they’d done with it . . .
But then, had it been worse, really?
Could it be worse than the things the Lab 23 cameras had shown them, or the fact they’d known that Burgess kid had been hunkered down in there alive—that they had deliberately waited till he died before they’d moved in? If he hadn’t been infected, he might anyway have been traumatized enough to talk to the media. So they’d let those things pop his head off like a champagne cork.
He seemed to hear his father’s voice again—as he always heard it, when he doubted his duty. “Stay on task, punk,” his career-marine father would repeat to him. “Just stay on task.”
Stanner closed the side door, got out of his harness, crossed over to Bentwaters, who was swaying like a drunk with the chopper’s motion. Stanner held on to a strap, leaned close—something he didn’t like having to do—so they could talk without shouting. Without the pilot catching any of it.
“After what we saw on the cameras,” Stanner said, “you guys are really going ahead? For sure?”
Bentwaters licked his lips. “People died testing every major jet fighter prototype,” he said, looking out the window, though there was nothing to see. “Astronauts died over at NASA. CIA guys die in the field, just to get a few more facts.
“This project could change everything. Give us an edge the Bad Guys’ll never catch up with. The Chinese have something approaching nuclear parity; the Arab Fundies’ll have it soon. We need another edge.”
Stanner went back to his seat. He didn’t say what he was thinking.
When does it end?
Excerpted from Crawlers by John Shirley. Copyright © 2003 by John Shirley. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.