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Authors: Scott Sigler

Pandemic (5 page)

BOOK: Pandemic
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“A location?”

The older man smiled, showing the space where his front right incisor once resided.

A location
. Five years of effort, millions of dollars spent — Steve didn’t know exactly how much, but it was a
lot
— the whole reason his family and the People’s Party had hidden him away in this inflamed hemorrhoid of a town, and now it was finally his moment to shine. He didn’t know what to think, how to feel. Afraid? Excited? After all this time, was it finally his turn?

“A location,” Steve repeated. “How did we get it?”

Bo Pan shrugged. “The American love of money knows no bounds.”

“No, I mean
how
did we, or they — or
whatever
— get the location? Satellite? Did someone properly model the entry angle? Did someone find …” His voice trailed off.

Did he dare to hope?

Gutierrez’s green men. The story of the century. Steve’s task: build a machine that could dive, undetected, to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Could there be actual
pieces
of an alien spacecraft?

“Wreckage,” he said. “Did someone find
wreckage
?”

Bo Pan shook his head. “You don’t need that information.”

Steve nodded automatically, acquiescing to Bo Pan as if the man was something more than a simple go-between.

Wreckage. It had to be. Steve had finished work on the
Platypus
three months earlier. His baby was more a piece of art than a cutting-edge unmanned underwater vehicle. It sat in a crate like a caged animal, unable to move, unable to fulfill its purpose. Other than midnight test runs, there had been no point in putting the UUV to work. Unless Steve knew where to look, he couldn’t have the machine go out and explore 22,400 square miles of Lake Michigan.

But now, they had a location.

The old man cleared his throat, dug his left pointer finger into the folds of flesh below his left eye, rubbed there. “When I last spoke with you, you said you had researched a local vessel that could take your machine far out on the water?”

Steve nodded. “JBS Salvage.”

“A small operation, as I asked? Not a big fleet of ships?”

“Just two men,” Steve said. “Only one boat.”

“Good. And you check on them frequently?”

“Every week.” A lie; a lie fueled by a stab of fear that maybe JBS had finally landed a job, that they wouldn’t be available. It had been three weeks since he’d even bothered to see if their boat was still in port.

Bo Pan cleared his throat again. This time, he spit phlegm onto the dirt. “Can you talk to them right now?”

“Of course,” Steve said, that feeling of foolishness growing. Why hadn’t he checked every week? Bo Pan was right — Steve
had
been lazy. If they had to
find another company to carry the
Platypus
to the target area, how long would that take? Days? Weeks?

Bo Pan’s eyes narrowed. “You seem unsure.”

“It’s fine,” Steve said. “I got this.”

“And your strange machine … it
is
ready? There is nothing you need to tell me?”

Steve smiled: that was something he didn’t have to lie about.

“My gear is ready to rock, playa.”

Bo Pan nodded. “Good, good. They will be happy to hear that. If you hire the boat company today, how soon do you think we can leave?”

Steve felt a small burning in his chest. “We?”

Bo Pan looked away, embarrassed. “They want me to go with you.”

Of course. There had to be something to diminish the moment. Steve would be stuck on a boat with this old man for days, maybe even weeks. Well, that was a small price to pay to finally put the
Platypus
to work.

And, at the very least, it was better than rolling up forks and knives in napkins.

“I’ll go see JBS right now,” Steve said. “Maybe we can leave in a day or two.”

Bo Pan slid both of his hands into his sweatshirt’s front pocket. He pulled out a thick envelope and a cell phone.

He handed the envelope over. “Tonight,” he said. “Make them leave
tonight
.”

Steve took the envelope. It felt solid, heavy, a brick of money.

Bo Pan then handed Steve the cell.

“Call me when you know,” Bo Pan said. “Use this phone only. I am already prepared for the trip.”

The old man turned and walked across the park grass, headed for his rust-spotted, ten-year-old Chevy pickup.

Steve turned back to face the water. The girls were gone. The wind was already growing from a stiff breeze into shirt-pulling gusts. November was supposed to be the worst time to be out on Lake Michigan.

Five years preparing for this day. No, more like
nine
considering that they’d recognized his intelligence early and sent him to Berkeley, readying him for a project that would require a brilliant, deeply embedded engineer. Embedded? That wasn’t even the right word. Steve had been born right here,
in Benton Harbor. He was as American as those girls, and yet he longed to serve a country he had never seen.

A lifetime of waiting for a chance to serve his people, his heritage, and now — perhaps — his moment had finally come.

He just hoped no one would get hurt.

DUTY

Sitting on the couch in her living room, Margaret felt newly aware of how much she had fallen apart.

Clarence sat on her left, as he if were really still by her side. That made him a liar. She wanted to hate him. He’d tightened the tie, dabbed the forehead, and once again looked like he’d just stepped out of the pages of
Government Agent Quarterly
.

In a chair across from them sat Murray Longworth, director of the Department of Special Threats. Or, as people in the know tended to call it,
the second-most-powerful agency you’ve never heard of
.

A black cane lay across Murray’s lap, the handle atop it a twisted, brass double helix shape of DNA. Murray Longworth hadn’t aged well. He looked frail, as if somehow he’d bathed in Detroit’s nuclear glow and was slowly melting like a candle left sitting on a heater. His dark-gray suit was a little too big; Margaret guessed it had been tailored for him several years ago, several
pounds
ago.

A thick man in a black suit — a suit so indiscernible from Clarence’s the two men might as well have been wearing matching uniforms — stood behind Murray’s chair. A flesh-colored coil ran from a tiny, hidden earpiece to somewhere behind his neck. The man stared straight ahead, seeing everything and looking at nothing.

Three men in suits. She hadn’t bothered changing. Her sweatpants had two small holes in the left knee and an avocado stain on the right thigh. She hadn’t showered in three days. Margaret wondered if she smelled.

Murray forced a smile, his old, wrinkled face cracking like a windshield hit by a brick.

“Hello, Margaret,” he said. “You look like a bag of assholes.”

The man’s penchant for pleasantries hadn’t changed.

“And you look like an ad for a convalescent home,” Margaret said. “Isn’t there a mandatory retirement age in government work?”

Another smile, this one genuine. “I wish I
could
retire. My wrinkled old
ass should be in a fishing boat in Florida, catching redfish and croakers.” The smile faded. “Not everybody gets that choice.”

Margaret felt a wave of guilt. Murray Longworth was over seventy, possibly even seventy-five. He worked ridiculous hours for a department that barely existed on paper, a department tasked with anticipating and defeating the country’s next biological nightmare. He was right: he
should
be retired, and yet he served every day while she sat on her behind and hid from the world.

She crossed her left leg over her right, a move that would have looked professional had she been wearing a dress.

“Murray, what do you want?”

He pulled a page-sized, brown envelope from inside his jacket.

“Nothing I’m about to tell you leaves this room,” he said. “Yesterday, there was an incident involving the
Los Angeles
, a nuclear attack submarine that was part of Operation Wolf Head.”

Operation Wolf Head
. The task force assigned the duty of finding and recovering any wreckage from the alien construct that had crashed into Lake Michigan five years earlier. That construct had come to be known as “the Orbital” because, when discovered, it had been in a low, geostationary orbit that defied the accepted laws of physics.

Margaret had known about the task force, as did most of the public. The government couldn’t hide the fact that they’d moved warships onto the Great Lakes. But she hadn’t known a nuclear sub was involved.

Neither, apparently, had Clarence.

“I thought the
Los Angeles
had been scrapped,” he said. “And how could you get it through the Saint Lawrence Seaway without being seen?” He sounded annoyed, maybe even a little humiliated at being left out of the big-boy loop: Mister Super-Agent wasn’t privy to all the secrets, it seemed, and that fact burned.

Murray tapped the edge of the envelope against his cane. “We converted her into a search vehicle assigned with scouring the bottom. Slipped her through the Saint Lawrence with a fake superstructure that hid the sail and outline. Looked like just another tanker. What matters is that for five years, the crew of the
Los Angeles
found nothing of note. Six days ago the sub’s commander reported a significant discovery. Two days ago, the flotilla lost contact with the sub. Last night, the
Los Angeles
fired torpedoes at — and
sank — the guided missile destroyer
Forrest Sherman
and the Coast Guard cutter
Stratton
.”

Clarence sat forward. “
Sank
? Heavy casualties?”

Murray nodded. “Two hundred and forty-four crew from the
Sherman
are dead. Fifty-seven from the
Stratton
. Seven more from the
Truxtun
, another destroyer, which was hit but remains afloat. We’re assuming the entire crew of the
Los Angeles
perished — that’s another hundred and twenty. In total, four hundred and twenty-eight dead or lost and presumed dead. Considering the number of wounded, we’re still adding to the list.”

Clarence sagged back into the couch.

Margaret suddenly wanted to go back upstairs and sit down at her computer. She could look at the blogs and read the comments, see if people were still talking about her — anything was better than hearing this.

Murray kept tapping the envelope against his cane, a
rat-tat-tat
beat that paced his words. “A third destroyer, the
Pinckney
, took out the
Los Angeles
. The
Truxtun
remains afloat, although it can’t do much. Right now the survivors of the sunken ships are all on board the
Pinckney
and on the
Carl Brashear
, a naval cargo ship converted for Orbital-related research.”

Clarence’s face wrinkled in indignation. “You didn’t evac the wounded to mainland hospitals? That’s not—”

Margaret’s left hand found Clarence’s knee. An automatic gesture, a way for her to tell her man
relax
, even though he apparently wasn’t her man anymore.

“The wounded can’t leave,” she told him. “No one there can.”

Clarence blinked, then he got it. Any of those survivors — wounded or not — could be infected. He turned back to Murray.

“The media,” Clarence said. “What’s the cover story? How do you explain the battle?”

“We don’t,” Murray said. “The flotilla was in the upper middle part of Lake Michigan. The shore was twenty-five miles away to both the east and west, a hundred to the north and two hundred to the south. Nobody on land saw a thing. The battle occurred in a no-fly zone, so there was zero civilian air traffic. The sailors themselves won’t be leaking the story, because right now no one leaves the task force — for the rather obvious reason that somehow escaped you.”

Hundreds dead, just like that. A U.S. ship sinking other U.S. ships;
Margaret knew the infection could make that happen, could take over a host’s brain and make him do horrible things.

“Cellulose tests,” she said. “Any positives?”

She had to ask, even though she didn’t want to know the answer. Inside a host’s body, the infection built organic scaffolding and structures from cellulose, a substance produced by plants that was not found in the human body anywhere outside of the digestive tract. She and Amos had invented a cellulose test so accurate it left almost no doubt: if victims produced a positive result, it was already too late to save them.

“Two,” Murray said. “Both from corpses.”

Positive tests
. Just the thought of it made Margaret sick.

The infection was back.

Murray offered Margaret the envelope.

She reached for it, an automatic movement, then she pulled her hand back.

“You don’t want me,” she said, her voice small and weak. “I … this is all horrible, but I put in my time. I can’t go through this again.”

Murray’s lip curled up ever so slightly, a snarling old man who wasn’t used to hearing the word
no
.

“Worst loss of life in a naval engagement since Vietnam, and it happened right here at home,” he said. “Three ships destroyed, one damaged, about three billion dollars’ worth of military assets gone, and we have no idea what really happened. So pardon my indelicate way of speaking my mind, Montoya, but
look
at the
motherfucking
pictures!”

He was going to
yell
at her? Like she was some intern who would jump at his every word?

“Get Frank Cheng to look at them,” she snapped. “He’s your fair-haired boy.”

Murray nodded. “So you know Cheng’s the lead scientist. I see you haven’t completely tuned out.”

She huffed. “It’s not like Cheng makes it hard. He probably has reporters on speed dial so he can make sure his name gets out there. Send him to your task force. He might even bring along a camera crew.”

Murray’s eyes closed in exasperation. Cheng’s desire to be recognized as a genius clearly rubbed the director the wrong way.

Clarence reached out and took the envelope. Murray slowly sat back — even
that minor motion seemed to cause him pain — and stared at Margaret. His fingertips played with the brass double helix atop his cane.

BOOK: Pandemic
7.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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