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Authors: Scott Sigler

Pandemic (43 page)

BOOK: Pandemic
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The man shrugged. “I dunno. That’s how it’s done, I guess. I’m just supposed to watch and make sure they’re safe.”

“Safe from what?”

The man’s eyes narrowed. He sniffed again. Twice, like a dog checking something out. “Safe from people who are not our friends.”

Friends
. Out of the bald man’s mouth, the word sounded heavy, important. It sounded … 
religious
.

Cooper squatted in front of Jeff, forced himself to reach for his friend — then he pulled his hand back. What if that brown shit was some kind of disease? What if it was contagious? Could it be part of what Blackmon had been babbling about on TV? He had to call an ambulance. But if he did, would one come? The world outside had melted down. Cooper couldn’t count on help from anyone; Jeff needed him, and needed him right now.

Cooper reached out with his index finger, pointed it, poked the tip into the brown material. It felt like a crunchy sponge.

“Hey,” said the man behind him. “You’re not supposed to touch that.
Never
supposed to touch that!”

Cooper stood and turned. “You said you didn’t know what this crap is.”

The man’s smile faded. “Maybe I was wrong.”

The hair stood up on Cooper’s neck. To his left, the bulky, hot boiler. To his right, heavy shadows that hid the rest of the basement. This crazy fuck blocked his path to the door.

“Uh, wrong about what?”

“About you being my friend.”

The man’s hands shot out, reaching for Cooper’s neck. Cooper flinched away — his heels hit Jeff. Cooper fell backward against the cinder-block wall, slid down it until his ass landed on the pile of bodies. He tried to scramble up, but the bald man’s hands slammed into his throat, wrapped around his neck.

Strong thumbs pushed hard into Cooper’s windpipe. He couldn’t breathe. The man leaned in hard, his weight keeping Cooper pressed down on Jeff, the other bodies and the crunchy material that covered them.

“Just give us a smooch,” the man said. “It’ll be okay.”

He opened his mouth and bent closer.

The overhead lights cast the man’s face in shadow, but not so much that Cooper couldn’t see the wide eyes, pupils so big they looked like dimes, the strand of spit stringing from the upper lip to the lower, and the man’s tongue — pink, dotted with tiny, blue triangles.

What the fuck oh God oh God!

Cooper’s hands shot up and grabbed the man’s face. Thumb tips drove deep into the man’s eyes with a
pop
and a
squelch
and a burst of hot wetness.

The man released Cooper’s throat, flailed at Cooper’s hands. Cooper shoved him away. The man fell back into the aisle, his ass landing on concrete, his hands covering ruined eyes that spilled blood onto his white shirt. The sound he made … it was like an obese cat crying for food.

Cooper coughed, drew in air, pushed himself to his feet. His wet thumbs were already cooling in the basement air. He quickly wiped them off against his pants legs, horrified at what was on his skin.

He had to get out of there.

Cooper turned to face his friend. Jeff hadn’t moved a muscle. Neither had the other two people hidden beneath the brown material.


Jeff!
Dude,
wake the fuck up
!”

Cooper went to grab Jeff’s shirt to shake him, actually touched the brown stuff before his hands retreated on their own as if they’d touched a man-size spider.

Gloves
, he needed gloves, something to cover his hands. No, too late for that — he already had flecks and chunks of the brown stuff on his fingers, and he could feel pieces of it on his neck and face.

Cooper fought back revulsion as he grabbed at the brown material and
tried to pull it off his friend. It was some kind of membrane, a thick sheet that didn’t want to be ripped free. Little tendrils were anchored tight to the cinder block like roots of crawling ivy. It felt like touching wet wood, so black and rotted that it
squished
more than
crunched
. Cooper pushed his fingers through it, down around Jeff’s shoulder, and
yanked —
Jeff remained covered in the membrane, but at least Cooper had pulled him free of the wall.

Cooper felt two strong hands lock down on his right ankle. He started to turn, to kick out, but before he could, he felt the hard sting of something biting his calf through his jeans.

He looked down to see the bald man: hollow holes for eyes, white teeth locked on dark denim that was already growing darker with spreading blood.

Cooper raised his right fist high, twisted as he brought it down on top of the man’s head. The man quivered, but didn’t let go. Cooper reached down with both hands and gripped hard on the back of the man’s neck. He
yanked
, felt a deeper pain as the man’s teeth tore free.

Cooper flung the man onto his back, straddled him, then wrapped his hands around the man’s throat and
squeezed
and how do
you
like it motherfucker squeeze just
keep squeezing
and never stop and never stop until you
die motherfucker until you
DIE
!

The man’s blue-dotted tongue stuck out. He made noises that might have been a desperate effort to draw air. The bloody mess of two ruptured eyes still managed to squint in agony, eyelids sagging in against the negative space.

Cooper felt the man’s life slip away.

So he squeezed some more.

He didn’t know how long it was until he felt his hands weaken, the muscles exhausted, until they could no longer keep up the crushing pressure. Cooper stood, chest heaving. He heard the sound of his own ragged breaths.

Had he just
killed
someone?

No-no-no, the man couldn’t be dead, this couldn’t be happening, it wasn’t real
it wasn’t real
.

What was going on? The craziness out in the streets, in the hotel, and now this? And Jeff …

Cooper stumbled back to his friend. Jeff still hadn’t moved. He lay there, covered in that blasphemous rot.

The sounds of metal doors slamming open echoed through the room. The
boiler blocked a view of the door, but the sound of shoe soles slapping against concrete told Cooper people were coming, fast.

He had to hide. There was only one place
to
hide. Cooper quickly and quietly slid between Jeff Brockman and the wall.

Jeff’s body felt
hot
, as if his fever had magnified a hundred times. Cooper slid down on his right side, pulled on Jeff so his friend’s back once again rested against the cinder-block wall.

Cooper tried not to think about the other two people under the membrane …

Rushing footsteps coming closer.

It was a shit hiding place it wouldn’t work they were going to
kill him
and
strangle him
but it was all he had.

Through a small rip in the membrane, he could see part of the concrete floor, could see the foot and leg of the dead bald man.

Maybe it’s dark enough, maybe they won’t touch Jeff because they’re not supposed to touch
NEVER
supposed to touch, maybe—

Three sets of feet stepped into view: red sneakers; a pair of shiny, polished shoes; a pair of brown loafers. The heels of the polished shoes rose up — someone was kneeling over the bald man’s body.

“He’s dead,” a voice said.

“Where’s the killer?” said another.

The feet moved. Shoes pointed in new directions as people looked around the boiler room

“I don’t see anyone,” the first man said.

“Should we check the cocoons?” said another.

“Check them for what? We don’t even know what’s happening in there. We’re not supposed to touch.”


Never
supposed to touch,” a woman said.

The first voice spoke again. “Someone who is not a friend is around here somewhere. Let’s go tell Stanton.”

Stanton
? Had Cooper heard that right?

The shoes moved away, slowly, but it only took a couple of steps before they were gone from Cooper’s view.

He lay there, under his best friend and the two people packed in with his best friend, all of them covered in God knew what, trying not to make the
slightest noise that would bring men who wanted to kill him, kill him because he wasn’t a
friend
.

Cocoon
.

That’s what they called the membrane, a fucking
cocoon
? What did that mean?

A cocoon … a caterpillar turning into a butterfly … was Jeff changing into something else?

Cooper closed his eyes, tried to breathe as quietly as he could. If Jeff
was
changing, what would he become?

And how long did Cooper have before it happened?

THE INTERNET

Murray bit into a chicken sandwich, his mouth filling with the punchy taste of aioli and Gouda. Things were going to hell in a handbasket, but he could say one thing for the White House — someone here sure knew how to cook.

They all ate. The chief of staff had insisted, making sure everyone got what they wanted, making doubly sure that Blackmon didn’t skip her meal of a BLT and fries.

As Murray chewed, he watched the big monitor at the end of the Situation Room, the one mounted opposite the president’s seat at the head of the table. The left half of the monitor condensed the developing situation into a handful of ever-changing estimates:

IMMUNIZED: 26%

NOT IMMUNIZED: 66%

UNKNOWN: 8%

FINISHED DOSES EN ROUTE: 62,000,000

DOSES IN PRODUCTION: 71,300,000

The right half of the monitor showed a map of the United States. Each state was a shade of gray. The more doses delivered, the darker the state became.

The same map used colors to denote outbreaks. Philadelphia, Boston and several other cities glowed yellow, indicating high numbers of early-stage cases. That meant people were infected but had not yet turned violent.

Other cities glowed orange, showing areas with spiking cases of assault, murder, property damage, et cetera. Those cities — Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Columbus — were just beginning to tip over to the worst color of all: red.

Four red areas glowed ominously: Grand Rapids, Minneapolis, New York City and Chicago.

And at the bottom of the monitor, white letters on a black bar that stretched across the bottom of the display:

INFECTED: 530,000

CONVERTED: 78,500

DEATHS: 1,282

Those numbers were estimates, a best guess compiled from city reports, the CDC, FEMA and other organizations responsible for tracking the disaster.

Things were bad. Things would get much worse, but the important numbers were on top:
26% immunized, 133 million doses en route or in production
. America was rallying to the cause. When it was said and done, this would rate as the worst disaster in American history, by far, but the tide was already turning.

Murray actually let himself believe that, right up until André Vogel rushed into the room. The normally calm, cool and collected Vogel looked anything but. He had a cell phone held against his left shoulder, using his suit jacket to mute it.

Murray put down the sandwich.

“Madam President, I have bad news,” Vogel said. “Our embassy in China was just attacked. Ambassador Jane Locker is reported dead, along with seven other staffers.”

Blackmon’s mouth pressed into a tight circle. “What happened?”

“We’re not sure,” Vogel said. “A staffer got a call out that they were under attack and that the ambassador was dead, then the signal cut off. We’re unable to reach anyone at the embassy.”

Blackmon stood. “Attacked by
who
?”

“A mob of civilians,” Vogel said. “Enough to overpower the Chinese guards and our embassy security forces. That’s all the intel we have at the moment.”

Blackmon spread her hands, palms up:
are you kidding me
?

“Then get me
more intel
, Director Vogel,” she said. “I have to know what happened.”

Vogel took the cell phone off his shoulder, pressed it to his ear. He held up a finger to Blackmon —
one moment —
then spoke quietly. He nodded, put the cell phone in his pocket.

“I wanted to confirm it before I told you,” he said. “We can’t reach
representatives of the Chinese government. And I mean we can’t reach
anyone
. China’s communications grid is offline. Broadcast, telecom, satellite — nothing is going in or coming out. They’ve even shut down their part of the Internet.”

Murray had lost his appetite. The world’s only other nuclear-armed superpower had just gone dark. He waited for the president’s response.

“There has to be something,” Blackmon said. “I need to speak with them.”

Vogel nodded. “Of course, Madam President. The NSA is working on it, highest priority, but as of this moment, we have no way of communicating with the Chinese government.”

Blackmon sat back down. She picked up a french fry, stared at it. She took a bite. Everyone waited as she chewed and thought.

“Director Longworth,” she said, “tell me again where you think our patient zero traveled to when he left Chicago.”

Murray pushed his sandwich away. “Analysis shows the carrier was likely in O’Hare four days ago. London is reporting an outbreak, which means the carrier probably stopped there. The itinerary that best fits the outbreak pattern is Delta Flight 305, which flew from O’Hare to LaGuardia, then to Heathrow, then to Beijing.”

Blackmon turned in her chair, stared at Vogel.

“You said no foreign power could get to the
Los Angeles
, Director. Yet here we are with an infection pattern that points straight to Beijing, and that government has just shut off all communication. If an operative got the artifact and took it back to China, and if he showed his new prize to high-level officials, then we could be looking at infected government leaders.”

Vogel started to sweat.

“Madam President, as I said, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to reach that artifact, let alone take it out of the country. A more likely scenario is that Chinese leadership sees a spreading, global infection and they’re nailing their windows shut. They want to stop any other carriers from getting in, or make sure the world can’t watch how they choose to handle any localized infection. Probably both.”

BOOK: Pandemic
2.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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