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Authors: Scott Sigler

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BOOK: Pandemic
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“Let me guess,” Jeff said. “That’s a
mad stack
?”

Steve laughed his too-loud laugh. “This one isn’t even a little ticked off, man. What will it cost to hire you?”

Before Cooper could speak, Jeff gave a number that was triple their normal rate. Cooper froze — Stanton could turn around and hire a boat from one of the big companies for half that. Jeff was actually
trying
to price JBS out of the job.

Steve Stanton swallowed, licked his lips. He looked nervous. Maybe he wasn’t authorized to pay that much?

“Okay,” he said. “If we can leave tonight, you’re hired. I’ll pay for the first week in advance.”

Cooper Mitchell was a shitty poker player, and he knew it. Always had been. He tried to stay perfectly still, wondered if any tells showed how bad he wanted this job.

Jeff, however, was an amazing poker player. Probably because he didn’t know how truly full of shit he was, and he believed whatever story poured from his mouth at that given moment.

“Tonight,” he said, shaking his head. “There’s a storm coming in right now. Tonight’s not a good idea. Listen, I appreciate you wanting to hire us, but I have to be honest with you, you’re better off—”

“I’ll double your rate,” Steve said. He looked like he might start hyperventilating. “But only if we leave tonight.”

Six times
their normal day rate? And he’d pay a full
week
in advance? This was it, this was the job that could turn everything around.

Cooper looked at Jeff, waited for his partner to accept the job.

But instead, Jeff shook his head.

“I think you might want someone else,” he said.

Cooper reached out, grabbed his best friend’s elbow.

“Jeff, can I talk to you in the office for a moment?” The words came out cold. Jeff looked down at Cooper’s hand.

Cooper let go, tilted his head toward the office. “
Now
, please.”

Jeff sighed, smiled at Steve. “Would you excuse us a moment?”

The two partners walked into the cinder-block building within a building. Cooper shut the door.

“Brockman, what the fuck, bro?”

Jeff shook his head. “Dude, the job is bullshit.”

“What do you mean
it’s bullshit
?”

“I quoted him a metric fuck-ton of money, he didn’t blink,” Jeff said. “For that kind of scratch, he could hire the bigger companies all up and down the coast. And
cash
? And
Flight 2501
? Come on, man, that’s never been found and it’s never gonna be found. It’s like he’s trying to entice us with, I don’t know, the thing that has the most
glory
attached just in case the cash isn’t enough.”

“Who cares? Glory or no glory, someone wants this computer nerd’s little toy out on the water. Maybe Mister Stanton doesn’t know what a normal rate is.”

Jeff let out a half-huff, half-laugh. “
Mister Stanton
? He’s half our age, man.”

“Is that what this is about? That a twenty-five-year-old kid can come in here with enough cash to make us jump?”

Jeff looked away, scratched at his stubble. Yeah, that was the problem. Part of it, anyway. Both Cooper and Jeff were pushing forty. Every day, they grew more and more aware that they had no money in the bank. No wives. No children. They’d been in business together for two decades. They’d passed up
going to college to be the captains of their own ship, literally, and they were one letter from the bank away from having nothing to show for it. Their big plans for a fleet had never materialized.

Cooper had changed his ways: partied less, paid more attention to the books, the business, changed his diet … whatever it took to grow up, to accept that his youth had passed him by. Jeff refused to let go of his. Cooper wasn’t even sure the man
could
let go.

Jeff begrudgingly nodded. “Okay, that bugs me. But that’s not why we need to pass, bro. This is too good to be true. It’s skunky.”

Skunky:
Jeff’s word for a superstitious belief that if something didn’t feel right, it was bound to go wrong.

“You don’t do the books,” Cooper said. “We’re in a lot of trouble, dude. We need this gig.”

Jeff bit at his lower lip. “I’m telling you, we should take another job.”

“You want another job? How does busing tables at Big Boy sound? Because that’s where we’ll be if we pass this up.”

Jeff looked down, stared at his work-booted toe scraping a circle against the concrete floor.

“It’s skunky,” he said. “I’m telling you.”

For as long as he could remember, Cooper had trusted his friend’s instincts. Although they were partners, Jeff was the de facto leader — but where had that gotten them?

Cooper put his hand on Jeff’s shoulder. “Dude, I’m begging you. Just this once, will
you
trust
me
?”

Jeff inhaled a long, slow breath that seemed too big for his lungs. He let it all out in a whoosh.

“Okay, I’m in,” he said. “We’re going to need a third guy. With this kind of money we could stop hiring under the table.”

Cooper shook his head. “Let’s use José. We still haven’t paid him for the last two jobs. We owe him.”

Jeff tilted his head back. “Damn, I forgot we haven’t paid him.”

Of course Jeff had forgotten. Cooper had what he wanted, so there was no point in digging on Jeff for that.

Jeff smiled, clapped his hands together, rubbed them vigorously.

“José it is,” he said. “Let’s go tell Mister Stanton he’s hired himself a boat.”

INFLUENCE OF THE SONOFABITCH

Choices had been made.

The Orbital had never possessed true sentience. That didn’t mean, however, that it didn’t have a logic process. It still had to
think
. It had to create questions, evaluate those questions, form hypothetical strategies and use the data it possessed to evaluate probable results.

The Orbital had limited resources. Some of those resources needed to be used in an attempt to create new weapons, new strategies. Logic also dictated, however, that some resources needed to be used on three existing, proven designs:
hatchlings, crawlers
, and
mommies
.

Hatchlings moved fast. They could build up or tear down defenses. They could swarm, they could attack. They could
kill
.

Crawlers turned humans into murderers that slaughtered their own kind. Crawler-infected humans could still use weapons, vehicles and tools. They could work together, take and give orders, function as an organized force. And perhaps far more important, a crawler-infected human could infect others.

Mommies had been created by Chelsea —
not
by the Orbital, but that didn’t matter. The design turned humans into spore-filled gasbags. Mommies couldn’t fight or build, but they were an extremely efficient vector for mass infection.

Those designs filled specific roles. All three were included in the Orbital’s last salvo.

But they weren’t enough.

The Orbital needed new troops, new weapons. It had to create something … 
better
.

The pure, brute force of the “sonofabitch” had defeated the Orbital’s early attempts. The Orbital had learned from that and would use similar tactics in one of its final designs. This fourth design wouldn’t just affect the host’s brain; it would overwhelm the host’s entire body,
transform
it, providing strength, rage, aggression, toughness, brutality … a fitting monument to the only human who had dug hatchlings out of his own body. Were the Orbital
capable of emotion, that fourth design might have been the product of spite. Or, possibly, of
hatred
.

Brute force had stopped the Orbital’s attempts, but so, too, had intelligence. The fifth design would harness the human intellect, shape it, turn it into a weapon. The most brilliant humans would be transformed into
leaders
, generals that could manage the war long after the Orbital had perished.

To protect such a vital strategical asset, the Orbital had spent much of its remaining days finding a way to hide these leaders — not only could they direct a growing army, they could also function in a covert role, hiding among the humans until the right time to strike.

Three proven designs. Two designs as-yet untested when the Orbital crashed into Lake Michigan.

The Orbital would never know just how successful those last two designs turned out to be.

THE SITUATION ROOM

Murray Longworth had a dream.

That dream consisted of a giant bonfire, a bonfire made from the long, heavy, wooden table that sat in the White House’s Situation Room. Throw in the wood paneling as well; that would burn up real nice. Not the video monitors that lined those walls, though — he would set those up around the bonfire and play some shit on them that had nothing to do with saving the world: a Zeppelin concert, maybe some playoffs for whatever sport was in season, a few cartoons, perhaps, and — for sure — at least three screens playing constitutionally protected good old-fashioned American porn. He’d have a keg. He’d hire some strippers a third his age to sit around in bikinis and laugh at his jokes. He’d warm his old bones in the heat of that bonfire, get crocked, and celebrate the death of the room he hated so much.

“Murray?”

He blinked, came back to the moment. He was in that very Situation Room of his brief daydream, but there was no bonfire, no keg, and no porn. Images of Lake Michigan played across the screens. Instead of strippers, he was looking at some of the only people who knew the entire history of the situation, from Perry Dawsey’s naked run for freedom right up to the sinking of the
Los Angeles
.


Murray
?”

The president of the United States of America had called his name. Twice. Sandra Blackmon stared at him. She wore a red business suit. She always wore red. She did not look happy with him. In his defense, the only time she
did
look happy was when the news cameras were on her. There were no news cameras in the Situation Room.

Murray sat up straighter. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, waiting for his mental playback loop to retrieve the question his conscious mind had missed. Forty years of marriage had developed that skill, the ability to make part of his brain record words even when he wasn’t paying attention at all. His wife would ask,
Are you listening to me
?, and Murray could regurgitate the last ten or fifteen
seconds of what she’d said. The same skill came in handy during these meetings.

His playback loop brought up her question:
Did you get Montoya
?

“Yes, Madam President,” he said. “Doctor Montoya is on her way to the task force. She’ll report to the
Carl Brashear
, where we have the remains of Lieutenant Walker and Petty Officer Petrovsky.”

President Blackmon nodded, just once. Murray thought the motion made her look like a parrot.

“Excellent,” she said. “Lord willing, maybe Montoya can find something that other person you have running the show could not. What’s that man’s name again?”

“Cheng,” Murray said. “Doctor Frank Cheng.”

Blackmon nodded once. “Yes, Doctor Cheng. Why isn’t he on the
Brashear
already?”

Murray’s teeth clenched. “Doctor Cheng is at Black Manitou Island, overseeing preparation for the delivery of any samples that Montoya sends out for more detailed analysis.”

Blackmon’s mouth twisted to the left, a tell that she wasn’t buying it. Most people bought into Cheng’s grandstanding bullshit. Murray did not. Neither, apparently, did President Blackmon.

“Fine,” she said. “He can stay there and
prep
. I wanted Montoya on the case, and she is, so we’ll put our full trust in her.”

If Murray could have lived out his bonfire fantasy, he knew some of the people in this room would eagerly join him. Others, no. These were among the most powerful people in the country: the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security advisor, the secretary of defense, the director of homeland security, the secretary of state … the nation’s decision makers, gathered together to help President Blackmon chart a path in this dangerous time.

She turned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Samuel Porter.

“Admiral, you’re absolutely certain the
Los Angeles
didn’t succumb to enemy actions? Our regular enemies, I mean. I want the world to know that we are ready to strike back against
anyone
who thinks we are weak.”

Sam Porter took in a deep breath. He looked down. No matter what the situation, he took his time answering a serious question. His pale skin made Murray think the man had been a submariner himself, an extended absence
from sunlight causing his body to jettison any color as unnecessary baggage. Maybe Porter had even spent time on the
Los Angeles
as he moved up the ranks.

“Madam President,” the admiral said, “we have no indication of any terrestrial forces in the Great Lakes area, or anywhere on the American theater. We have firsthand accounts from the
Pinckney
. There is no question here — American forces attacked American forces. This is, officially, the worst friendly-fire incident in U.S. history.”

Blackmon pursed her lips, held them there as she thought. Fifteen years ago that same expression might have looked alluring. Now it showed the lines around her mouth, at the corners of her eyes.

Like Porter, Blackmon took her time to think things through. She didn’t rush. That made the two of them get along quite well. For the bystanders, however, watching them converse was like watching paint dry.

Blackmon had swept to power amid anti-Democratic fervor aimed at President Gutierrez, who had made the fatal mistake of trusting in the intelligence of the American people. An alien pathogen had turned regular Joes and Janes into psychopaths, had spawned a nightmarish version of little green men, and Gutierrez told the people the truth.

What an idiot.

Half the country hadn’t believed him then. Even less believed him now. Blackmon had been merciless in her campaign, citing Gutierrez’s inability to keep the country safe, hammering on the fact that, as president, he’d “allowed” the worst disaster in American history. Those things alone should have been enough, but she’d gone one step further. Without coming out and actually saying it, her allusions and insinuations made her stance clear: since God created everything, and the Bible was the immutable word of God, and the Bible didn’t talk about aliens, well, then there couldn’t
be
aliens — therefore Gutierrez was lying.

BOOK: Pandemic
10.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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