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Authors: Alan Dean Foster

The Thing (8 page)

BOOK: The Thing
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"Maybe," Copper replied. He nodded to Macready, who took a small, battered tape deck from his pocket and handed it over to the doctor.

"Macready and I were listening to some of these cassettes on the flight back from the Norwegian camp. I'd like the rest of you gentlemen to hear this particular one." He gave the "play" switch a nudge.

A Scandinavian voice filled the room. It was flat, calm, methodical; the boredom apparent despite distance, time and even a different language.

Norris let out a bored sigh. "Sounds like the verbal equivalent of the tape we've been mooning over. Hours of notes and nonsense."

"What do you want from us?" Bennings wanted to know.

Macready gestured for them to be patient. "Just listen. We thought the same way you do . . . at first."

Copper played with the fast-forward control, eyeing the built-in tape counter as the machine squealed. At five-oh-one he stopped the racing cassette and depressed "play" a second time. The calm voice was heard again.

Then something sounded dull, loud, and ugly, as though a distant explosion had taken place. The little machine's omnidirectional internal microphone wasn't large, but there was no mistaking that sharp
cruuumppp
from the speaker.

A pounding noise followed the explosion. There were shouts, some near, some faraway. Then echoes of confusion, of equipment being tipped over, of glass shattering. Running feet grew loud, fading as their owners moved away from the recorder.

Something went
thunk
and the volume intensified, as if the recorder had been hit or thrown against something hard. Feet sounded close by, banging wooden planks.

A violent gurgling rose above the general cacophony, then a loud hiss like a steam boiler shutting down. Men screamed and raged in Norwegian.

Then a piercing screech that made the hair on Norris's neck stand erect. Several explosions next, like cannon firing in the distance. The execrable screeching again, louder now, mixed with the howls of distraught, panicky men.

Copper noted the grim expressions on the faces of those gathered around him. He derived no satisfaction from the effect the tape had on them. Soon all sound stopped. The tape had come to its end. He switched the machine off and regarded his companions in silence.

"That's it?" Fuchs asked softly.

Copper shook his head. "No. It's a split tape with automatic rewind. It goes on like that from the beginning of the second half for quite a while." He let that sink in before asking, "What do you gentlemen make of it? Neither Macready nor I could make any sense out of it."

"Could be anything," Garry suggested. "Men in isolation are subject to pressures the psych boys don't always plan for. Could be the result of some beef that snowballed, got out of hand. Some little thing; an argument over a soccer score, ownership of a magazine . . . we've no way of knowing.

"Something else, too," he added speculatively. "These guys weren't here very long. Usually serious psychological differences among crews show up in the first couple of months or wait until the end of a year's stay."

"Yeah," agreed Copper, "but the differences usually don't end in homicide."

"Maybe it wasn't just mental," Norris ventured. "Maybe their whole camp got bent out of shape from some other cause. Something they ate, maybe." He looked over at Copper. "What about it, Doc? Could some kind of food poisoning make 'em go crazy like that?"

The physician mulled over Norris's theory. "It's not impossible." His eyes went back to the now quiescent tape deck. He recalled the screams, the sense of panic it had recorded. "Many men play around with mild hallucinogens during their duty tours. It's a good time to experiment. There's not really anyone around to arrest them. We do it ourselves. Take Palmer, for example."

Fuchs defended the absent pilot. "Palmer's still flaky from all the acid he dropped back in the sixties. These days he doesn't touch anything stronger than sensimilla. At least, as far as I know he doesn't."

"I know he doesn't," said the doctor soothingly. "His monthly checkups show that. None of us fiddle with dangerous stuff. But just because we don't doesn't mean these Norwegians didn't get into something heavy. If you've the time and inclination and a little chemical know-how you can whip up all kinds of cute goodies in the simplest of labs."

"Yeah, like what?" asked Norris, with mock enthusiasm. It drew forth a few long-absent chuckles from his neighbors.

Copper smiled with them, but only for a moment. His mien quickly turned somber again. "There's something else we want you to see." He exited Garry's quarters, the others trailing curiously behind him.

The portable surgical table gleamed in the middle of the infirmary. Macready and Copper went to a corner and lifted a heavy-duty plastic sack between them. The contents were dumped unceremoniously onto the table.

"Besides the papers, the videotapes, and the cassettes, we also found this," Copper told them.

The mess on the table had once been a man. It was badly charred and broken, but that wasn't what drew the instant attention of the onlookers.

What remained of the trousers and shoes were ripped lengthwise and split into long shreds, as though the legs and feet they normally concealed had suddenly grown five sizes too large for them and had burst the seams from within. The upper torso was an almost unrecognizable gnarly mass of indistinctly formed protoplasmic mush.

There were no visible arms; just lumps of dark goo and flesh flanking the chest region. The head was oddly disfigured and looked larger than normal. Its location was far more disconcerting than its appearance. It seemed to be growing out of the stomach. There was nothing atop the shoulders, or where the shoulders ought to have been.

Peculiar appendages that resembled loose tendons were wrapped around the carcass like white rope. The ends stuck out to the sides at odd angles, stiff and hard as plastic. They'd reminded Copper of vines climbing the walls of a hothouse, save for their color. One circled repeatedly around the body's left leg like the striping on a barber pole. Another was wrapped securely around the misplaced skull.

Scattered colorfully amid the goo-like morass of the chest area were torn fragments of a shirt, like feathers protruding from tar.

Fuchs turned away for a moment, but no one threw up. None of them, not even the usually unflappable Garry, was unaffected by the viscous grotesquerie, but the corpse was too far removed from humankind to affect them intimately. It was a specimen, like Norris's rock samples or Blair's tubes full of aerial bacteria. It was too bizarre, too distorted to connect with any of the grinning, beer-guzzling figures they'd seen in the salvaged photographs from the Norweigian camp.

"I know it's pretty badly burned," Copper finally muttered into the aghast silence, "but could a fire have done all this? At high temperatures human bodies burn. They don't . . . melt."

Sickened but fascinated, Blair poked at the tendonlike growths and the asphaltic goo. Some of the liquid came away on his fingers and he hastily wiped it off on his pants leg.

"Curious, isn't it?" Copper asked him.

Blair grimaced. "I don't know what to say. Never seen anything like it, Hope I never do again."

"I'd like for you and Fuchs to help me with the autopsies on this one and the man Garry had to shoot this morning."

"If you insist, Doe." The senior biologist looked unhappy. "But I'm not volunteering."

"You don't have to volunteer," Garry informed him curtly. "I'll make it official." He nodded toward the carcass. "This is your department."

"I'm not sure this is anybody's department," the biologist replied, still wiping his fingers on his trousers. The damn stuff had the tenacity of a black glue. He turned to begin the necessary preparations. He'd assisted Copper before, Outpost #31 not being large enough to rate a nurse, but this time he felt like going on sick call himself.

"If it's any consolation, Blair," said the doctor, "I'm not looking forward to this either. But it's got to be done."

"Yeah, I know." Blair was removing pans from a locker. "So let's quit talking about it and do it. The sooner we start, the sooner we'll be done with it."

Fuchs was the only one who might have volunteered to help. He was examining the body with care, growing interest having replaced his initial queasiness.

The rec room was always the busiest in the compound. Unlike the scientists, the maintenance personnel had a considerable amount of free time. Their expertise was only required during emergencies, normal checkout procedures usually taking only four or five hours a day. They spent the remainder of their days relaxing with a ferocity only the truly isolated can appreciate.

Tiny wooden figures spun on metal poles, furiously manipulated by Nauls and Clark. The football game they were playing was badly battered, the paint scratched, the legs bent by frustrated kicks, the rubber grips missing from several of the control bars. Dog handler and cook were going at it hot and heavy.

Sanders relaxed in a corner on one of the old, beat-up, thoroughly comfortable couches. He was thumbing through an old issue of
Playboy
, whistling to himself and wishing, as usual, that he was somewhere else. Anywhere else. A table and chairs were occupied by Bennings, Norris, the station manager, and a deck of dirty cards.

"Take two," said Garry, placing a pair face down on the table. Bennings obediently dealt him a couple, then gave one to Norris and three to himself. Garry studied the new cards, found that he now held an ace, a four, a deuce, one king, and one queen. Terrific.

Something nudged him under the table, then moved off to irritate Bennings. Judging from the meteorologist's tone as he responded to the interruption, he hadn't done any better on the draw than Garry.

He looked over toward the frenetic football game. "Clark, will you put this mutt with the others where he belongs! We're trying to play poker here!"

Clark exchanged a knowing look with Nauls, walked over and bent to look under the table.

"That's all right, boy," he said coaxingly to the husky, "it's all right. Nobody's going to hurt you. Come on now." He reached under and grasped the animal by the ruff around its neck. It submitted docilely to the grip.

Clark gently tugged the dog out from beneath the table and started walking it toward the door. As they passed the irritated Bennings, the handler glanced over his shoulder.

"Trying to play poker is right . . . drawing to an inside straight."

Bennings made a rude noise and threw his cards at Clark, who ducked and hurried out the door, the dog trotting easily alongside him.

The lab was larger than most of the nonstorage rooms at the outpost and was well equipped, in contrast to the regularly abused contents of the recreation room. Glass tubes and beakers gleamed beneath bright fluorescents. The steel sink shone argent. Even the floor was relatively clean.

Copper was working at the center table. His gloves were stained dark red. The other body lay nearby, draped with a white sheet and awaiting its turn. The corpse Copper was working on, or rather in, was that of the berserk gunman who'd invaded the compound earlier that morning and attacked Bennings and Norris.

Blair hunched over a microscope, studying on slide while Fuchs carefully prepared a fresh one. The assistant biologist utilized scalpel and tweezers and stain with all the skill of someone repairing a fine watch.

Copper wiped sweat from his forehead with the back of a forearm as he turned away from the body, which was already beginning to ripen in the warm air of the lab. He pulled off the stained gloves and tossed them into the nearly laundry bin.

"Nothing wrong with this one," he announced to his two co-workers. "Physiologically, anyway." He let out a tired breath and glanced at Blair. "Have any luck?"

"Not so far."

"Nothing toxic?"

Blair stood away from the eyepiece he'd been staring through and blinked at the doctor. "No drugs, no alcohol, no inimical intestinal bacteria. Nothing. Everything you've excavated checks out as normal."

Copper pursed his lips and nodded. He opened a drawer and took out a clean pair of the disposable surgical gloves. His gaze shifted to the strangely distorted humanoid mess lying beneath the white sheet.

"Fuchs, leave the slides for a minute and give me a hand here. Let's switch these around."

"You're getting healthy enough to make a nuisance of yourself, boy," Clark told the husky as he led it through the long, cold tunnel leading to the kennel. After removing him from the rec room the handler had carefully placed a new bandage and dressing on the animal's injured hip.

"You've got to understand, to most of the guys you're just another piece of camp machinery. Machinery ain't allowed to intervene in camp activity, especially card playing." He ruffled the dog's head between the ears. It licked his hand appreciatively.

"You're okay in my book, though. Maybe we can get you assigned here permanently. I don't think the Norwegian government would object. You'll have to learn to stick with your buddies, though." He unlatched the kennel door and walked the husky inside.

The kennel was a metal box some twenty feet long and five wide. It was not well lit and smelled powerfully despite the presence of the dog door at the far end, which gave access to a ramp leading outside. The dogs used it, but the box still smelled. The canine miasma didn't trouble the handler, however. He was used to it.

Some of the sled dogs were sleeping, curled up against each other for extra warmth. The kennel was heated, but not to the extent the rest of the outpost was. Too much heat would have been unhealthy for the animals.

Two of them lapped at the section of metal drum that served as a watering trough. Another was nibbling at the pile of dried food the handler had dumped into the kennel earlier. Others rose at his entrance, stretched lazily and rubbed against his legs. Two sniffed curiously at their new companion.

Clark patted the husky, and greeted several of the other dogs. "Nanook, Archangel, meet . . . well, we'll find a name for you one of these days, fella." He urged the new dog forward. "Now you make friends." He addressed the others as they all slowly began to gather around.

BOOK: The Thing
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