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Authors: Scott Sigler

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BOOK: Pandemic
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“Operation Wolf Head’s primary research facility is on Black Manitou Island, in Lake Superior,” he said. “That’s where Cheng is. He made the case that he should stay there to provide continuity for the entire process, as opposed to being the first person to examine the bodies.”

Margaret couldn’t hold back a smirk. She should have known Cheng’s desire to be quoted stopped at the edge of any actual danger.

“What a surprise,” she said. “I guess you get what you pay for, Murray.”

The old man’s wrinkled hands tightened on the cane.

“I wanted to pay
you
,” he said. “You said no. But that doesn’t matter now, because I’m not the one asking this time — I’m here on direct orders from President Blackmon. She wants you on-site, immediately.”

That numb feeling returned. For the second time in Margaret’s life, a sitting president of the United States had asked for her. By name. She’d answered that call once, for Gutierrez; look where that had gotten her, gotten him, gotten
everyone
.

She heard a rattle of paper. She looked to her left: Clarence had taken the photos out of the slim envelope. He’d looked at them and was now offering them to her.

Margaret still didn’t take them. She knew what would happen if she did.

“Printed pictures, Murray?” she said. “With your black budget you can’t afford a fancy tablet or something?”

“Nothing electronic,” Murray said. “Not out here, anyway. It’s a lot harder to make paper go viral.”

She thought it odd to hear someone that old use a term like
go viral
. Most people Murray’s age barely understood what the Internet was.

Clarence put the pictures in her lap. She looked down, an instant reaction, saw the one on top, and couldn’t look away.

It was a photo of a drawing: a man sitting in a corner, covered in some kind of bulky blanket. No, not
one
man … two … maybe even three. There was only one head, but sticking out from the blanket she saw four hands.

The original drawing looked water stained. Whoever had drawn it had done so quickly, yet there was no mistaking the artist’s skill — the subject’s open eyes looked lifeless, stared out into nothing.

Why were the men hidden under the blanket? No, it wasn’t a blanket at
all … it was a membrane of some kind, wrapped around dead bodies, parts of it attached to the wall, to the floor. It wasn’t an impressionist’s take; the artist had
seen
this, or at least thought he’d seen it.

“Murray, what the hell is this?”

“One of the bodies we recovered from the
Los Angeles
had that on her person,” he said. “The artwork is good enough that we were able to confirm visual ID — the subject of the drawing is Ensign Paul Duchovny, who served onboard the sub. Obviously there are others in there with him, but since we can’t see their faces we can’t identify them.”

“Did you send divers into the sub?”

“No one has gone near it,” Murray said. “The sub is off-limits until we get our analysis team set up. It’s nine hundred feet deep, so people can’t go down without specialized equipment. On top of that, there’s a radiation leak. We don’t even know if it’s safe to enter the wreck. Right now all our intel is coming from UUVs.”

Margaret looked up. “UUVs?”

Clarence answered. “
Unmanned underwater vehicles
. Sometimes autonomous, like a robot, but most of the time they’re controlled from a person on a surface ship.”

Margaret again looked down at the picture. “Who drew this?”

“Lieutenant Candice Walker,” Murray said. “She escaped the sub, made it to the surface. Unfortunately, she died before divers could get her to medical attention. She was just as crazy as Dawsey — cut off her own arm with a reciprocal saw just below the right elbow. She used her belt for a tourniquet and cauterized the wound, but it wasn’t enough. She escaped the sub by wearing an SEIE suit, a bulky thing that lets submariners rise up without suffering pressure effects. We think her tourniquet came off when she was exiting the sub, or maybe while she ascended. Since she was in the suit, she had no way of tying the belt off again. Her picture is next.”

Margaret flipped to the next page, then hissed in a breath. A dead girl wearing battered, blood-streaked dark-blue coveralls. A lieutenant in the navy, based on her insignia — a highly trained adult, although her face looked all of eighteen. The girl’s right arm was a horrid sight: seared flesh and protruding, blackened bone. Extensive blood loss made her skin extremely pale. She had a bruise under her right eye and a long cut on her left temple.

Margaret thought of the first time she met Perry Dawsey.

He had been a walking nightmare. A massive, naked man, covered in third-degree burns from a fire that had also melted away his hair, leaving his scalp covered with fresh, swelling blisters. His own blood had baked flaky-dry on his skin. A softball-sized pustule on his left collarbone streamed black rot down his wide chest. His knee had been shredded by a bullet fired from the gun of Dew Phillips. And worst of all — even more disturbing than the fact that Perry clutched his own severed penis in a tight fist — the look on his face, those lips caught between a smile and a scream, curled back to show well-cared-for teeth that reflected the winter sun in a wet-white blaze.

Perry, mangled almost beyond recognition. This girl — correction, this
naval officer
— much the same.

Margaret shuddered, imagining a saw-toothed blade as a buzzing blur, jagged points scraping free a shred of skin or a curl of bone with each pass …

“Did the autopsy confirm she died from blood loss?”

Murray frowned. “You’ve been out of the game longer than I thought, Doc. We didn’t do an autopsy yet. The
Los Angeles
had a mission to recover pieces of the Orbital. You remember the Orbital, right? The thing that made the most infectious disease we’ve ever seen, a disease that turned people into psychopaths? The thing that made little monsters that tried to open a goddamn gate to another goddamn world? The thing that forced us to nuke the Motor City to stop that gate from opening?”

Margaret felt her own lip curl into a sneer. “Yes, Murray, I
so
need you to fucking remind me about the
fucking
Orbital.”

She felt a hand on her arm. Clarence, quietly telling her to ease down.

Murray leaned forward. He spoke quietly, trying to control his rage. “Apparently, you
do
need a reminder,” he said. “Before Lieutenant Walker died, she admitted to sabotaging the engine room of the
Los Angeles
. She also admitted to shooting and killing two men. Her corpse and the second body, that of Petty Officer Charles Petrovsky, are in a Biosafety Level Four facility inside the
Carl Brashear
. They are infected with the same goddamn disease that could have wiped us all out five years ago, that made the crew of the
Los Angeles
fire on U.S. ships. So no, genius, we haven’t done an autopsy yet. For that, we need the best. We need
you
.”

Margaret cleared her throat. She’d asked a stupid question and been properly slapped down for it. “You said the
Los Angeles
found something?”

“Look at the last photo.”

It was a photo of an object she didn’t recognize, some kind of beat-up cylinder sitting on the gray, lifeless lake bottom. The diver or photographer had rested a ruler close by: the cylinder was about five inches long, two and a half inches wide. It was
frayed
in places, as if it were woven from a synthetic material; like fiberglass, maybe. Detritus and some kind of mold had taken root within the fibers, making the object look fuzzy, almost
alive
.

“This is from the Orbital?”

“Maybe,” Murray said. “An unmanned probe discovered it six days ago. Five days ago, it was brought onboard the
Los Angeles
using the most rigorous decontamination and BSL-4 procedures known to man.”

Clarence took the photo. “Not rigorous enough, apparently.”

Murray nodded. “Three days ago, the
Los Angeles
’s commanding officer reported problematic behavior among the crew. We’re sure that was the beginning of the infection incident.”

Margaret could only imagine how horrible that must have been. A submarine, hundreds of feet below the surface … those people had been trapped in there, nowhere to run.

Clarence handed her back the photo. She stared at it, amazed that she was probably looking at an actual piece of alien hardware. The most significant discovery in human history — a discovery that had already delivered death and promised much more of the same.

“This object,” Margaret said, “is it now onboard the
Carl Brashear
?”

Murray shook his head. “It remains in the
Los Angeles
. The sub was struck amidships. The object was in the forward compartment, near the bow. That area appears to be flooded, but otherwise intact. We’re still dealing with fallout from the battle. Tomorrow or the next day, we’ll figure out how to go down and get it out.”

They were going to bring it up. Of course they were.

“Nuke it,” she said. It shocked her to hear those words come out of her mouth, but it was the only way to be sure. Massive ecological damage was a small price to pay for ending the threat. “Do it now.
Today
, Murray, before it gets out.”

Clarence cleared his throat, a tic of his when he was about to politely contradict her.

“Margo, that’s a big step,” he said. “The biggest. And it’s not like we have
a nuclear torpedo — they’d have to figure out how to deliver a nuke and put it right on the money.”

Her eyes never leaving Longworth’s.

“They don’t have to deliver it because it’s already there,” she said. “Right, Murray? There’s a nuke onboard the
Los Angeles
? Probably about five megatons, enough to completely sterilize everything in a hundred-yard radius?”

The corners of his mouth turned up in a small, wry grin; the master was proud of his pupil. He rubbed his jaw, looked off. Margaret sensed that he had already suggested nuking the site, maybe suggested it to the president herself, and he’d been overruled.

“Destroying it isn’t an option,” Murray said. “If we grab it now, at least we have a chance at containment.”

He was a puppet speaking the words of his controllers.

“This isn’t about
containment
,” Margaret said. “The military wants it. They want to see if we can get some genuine alien technology. Great choice on the risk-benefit analysis, Murray.”

He shifted in his seat. “Spare me a lecture, Doc. It’s not my choice. I’ve got my orders. We need to know how that object affected the crew — is this the same thing we saw before or a new phase in the disease’s development? Finding that answer could literally save the world.”

Margaret looked down at the pictures. She tidied them up, then slid them back into the envelope.

She held the envelope out to Murray.

“I already saved the world,” she said. “Twice. I can’t, Murray … I just
can’t
.”

He struggled to stand. He leaned on the cane, took a step closer to her. His eyes burned with fury. She could see his too-white dentures.

“You hide in this house like a coward,” he said. “You’ve seen horrible things? You’ve done your part? So have I. So has Clarence. So have thousands of other people, and they
keep on
doing their part. You have a knack for understanding this thing, Margaret. You are the only reason we stopped it last time.
You
. So how about you pull your head out of your ass, put your pity party to bed, pack a bag and come with me, because I don’t care if you saved the world once, twice, or fifty fucking times” — he shook the cane head at her, the ceiling light glinting dully off the brass helix — “
your job isn’t done
. You got the
short end of the stick, Margaret. Maybe you’re not a soldier, but you man the wall just like the rest of us.”

Not a soldier
. She looked at Clarence. For a moment, she wondered if he’d talked to Murray earlier, if they’d set that up together, but the look on his face said otherwise. Her husband was ashamed he’d said that to her.

She loved him. If this thing got out, he would die. So would she. So would everyone.

You got the short end of the stick, Margaret
.

Murray was right. She hated him for it.

“I’ll go,” she said.

Clarence stood. “We’ll be ready in thirty minutes.”


Hell
no,” Margaret said. “The area is possibly contagious. There’s no benefit to putting you at risk.”

I can’t take seeing you every day; I can barely even look at you right now
.

Clarence started to say something, but Murray
clonked
the bottom of his cane on the floor.

“Stop this,” he said. “You two handle your relationship issues on your own time. Otto is going with you.”

She turned on the old man. “Hold on just a damn second. If you want me there, then you —”


He’s coming
,” Murray snapped. “Doc, you are the only choice for this job, but forgive me for being an insensitive prick when I say that you might not be playing with a full deck. Otto has been taking care of you for years. He’s the best qualified to keep you focused.”

“Great,” Margaret said. “So you’re assigning a babysitter?”

“I’ll assign a midget with a whip if that’s what it takes to keep you from reading blog posts about yourself for fifteen hours a day.”

Margaret fell silent. Murray knew all about how far she’d fallen. Of course he knew. Clarence had probably told him.

Murray reached out and took the envelope from her.

“Get packed,” he said. “A car will be here for you in fifteen minutes.”

HIGHWAY TO HELL

Cooper Mitchell stared at the accounting program on his computer screen. He willed the numbers to change. The numbers didn’t cooperate.

The force is not strong with this one …

He looked at the company checkbook. Specifically, he looked at the check stub, frayed edges lonely for the check that should have been there.

BOOK: Pandemic
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