Dark Hunger


Chapter 15


I winced at a harsh electronic squeal, and then over the intercom Ricky said, "-not much you can do."

"Is he here?" I said. "Did he make it?"

"No."

"Where is he?"

"Back at the car," Ricky said. "He never got out of the car. Didn't you know?"

"I was busy," I said. "So he's back there?"

"Yeah."

"Is he dead?"

"No, no. He's alive."

I was still breathing hard, still dizzy. "What?"

"It's hard to tell on the video monitor, but it looks like he is alive ..."

"Then why the fuck don't you guys go get him?"

Ricky's voice was calm. "We can't, Jack. We have to take care of Mae."

"Someone here could go."

"We don't have anyone to spare."

"I can't go," I said. "I'm in no shape to go."

"Of course not," Ricky said, turning on his soothing voice. The undertaker's voice. "All this must be a terrible shock to you, Jack, all you've gone through-"

"Just ... tell me ... who's going to get him, Ricky?"

"To be brutally honest," Ricky said, "I don't think there's any point. He had a convulsion. A bad one. I don't think he has much left."

I said, "Nobody's going?"

"I'm afraid there's no point, Jack."

Inside the airlock, Bobby was helping Mae out and leading her down the corridor. Ricky was standing there. Watching me through the glass.

"Your turn, Jack. Come on in."

I didn't move. I stayed leaning against the wall. I said, "Somebody has to go get him."

"Not right now. The wind isn't stable, Jack. It'll fall again any minute."

"But he's alive."

"Not for long."

"Somebody has to go," I said.

"Jack, you know as well as I do what we're up against," Ricky said. He was doing the voice of reason now, calm and logical. "We've had terrible losses. We can't risk anybody else. By the time somebody gets to Charley, he'll be dead. He may be dead already. Come on and get in the airlock."

I was taking stock of my body, feeling my breathing, my chest, my deep fatigue. I couldn't go back out right now. Not in the condition I was in.

So I got into the airlock.

* * *

With a roar, the blowers flattened my hair, fluttered my clothes, and cleaned the black particles from my clothes and skin. My vision improved almost immediately. I breathed easier. Now they were blowing upward. I held out my hand and saw it turn from black to pale gray, then to normal flesh color again.

Now the blowers came from the sides. I took a deep breath. The pinpricks were no longer so painful on my skin. Either I was feeling them less, or they were being blown off my skin. My head cleared a little. I took another breath. I didn't feel good. But I felt better. The glass doors opened. Ricky held out his arms. "Jack. Thank God you're safe."

I didn't answer him. I just turned around, and went back the way I had come.

"Jack ..."

The glass doors whished shut, and locked with a thunk. "I'm not leaving him out there," I said.

"What're you going to do? You can't carry him, he's too big. What're you going to do?"

"I don't know. But I'm not leaving him behind, Ricky."

And I went back outside.

Of course I was doing exactly what Ricky wanted-exactly what he expected me to do-but I didn't realize it at the time. And even if somebody had told me, I wouldn't have credited Ricky with that degree of psychological sophistication. Ricky was pretty obvious in the way he managed people. But this time, he got me.

DAY 6

4:22 P.M.

The wind was blowing briskly. There was no sign of the swarms, and I crossed to the shed without incident. I didn't have a headset so I was spared Ricky's commentary. The back passenger door of the Toyota was open. I found Charley lying on his back, motionless. It took me a moment to see he was still breathing, although shallowly. With an effort, I managed to pull him into a sitting position. He stared at me with dull eyes. His lips were blue and his skin was chalky gray. A tear ran down his cheek. His mouth moved. "Don't try to talk," I said. "Save your energy." Grunting, I pulled him over to the edge of the seat, by the door, and swung his legs around so he was facing out. Charley was a big guy, six feet tall and at least twenty pounds heavier than I was. I knew I couldn't carry him back. But behind the backseat of the Toyota I saw the fat tires of a dirt bike. That might work. "Charley, can you hear me?"

An almost imperceptible nod.

"Can you stand up?"

Nothing. No reaction. He wasn't looking at me; he was staring into space.

"Charley," I said, "do you think you can stand?"

He nodded again, then straightened his body so he slid off the seat, and landed on the ground. He stood shakily for a moment, his legs trembling, and then he collapsed against me, clutching me to hold himself up. I sagged under his weight.

"Okay, Charley ..." I eased him back to the car, and sat him down on the running board. "Just stay there, okay?"

I let go of him, and he remained sitting. He still stared into space, unfocused.

"I'll be right back."

I went around to the back of the Land Cruiser, and popped the trunk. There was a dirt bike, all right-the cleanest dirt bike I had ever seen. It was encased in a heavy Mylar bag. And it had been wiped down after it was used. That would be David's way, I thought. He was always so clean, so organized.

I pulled the bike out of the car and set it on the ground. There was no key in the ignition. I went to the front of the Toyota, and opened the passenger door. The front seats were spotless and carefully ordered. David had one of those suction cup notepads on the dashboard, a cradle for his cell phone, and a telephone headset mounted on a little hook. I opened his glove box and saw that the interior was neatly arranged, too. Registration papers in an envelope, beneath a small plastic tray divided into compartments containing lip balm, Kleenex, Band-Aids. No keys. Then I noticed that between the seats there was a storage box for the CD player, and beneath it was a locked tray. It had the same kind of lock as the ignition. It probably opened with the ignition key.

I banged the tray with the heel of my hand, and heard something metallic rattle inside. It might have been a small key. Like a dirt bike key. Anyway, something metal. Where were David's keys? I wondered if Vince had taken David's keys away on arrival, as he had taken mine. If so, then the keys were in the lab. That wouldn't do me any good. I looked toward the lab building, wondering if I should go back to get them. That was when I noticed that the wind was blowing less strongly. There was still a layer of sand blowing along the ground, but it was less vigorous.

Great, I thought. That's all I need now.

Feeling new urgency, I decided to give up on the dirt bike and its missing key. Perhaps there was something in the storage shed that I could use to move Charley back to the lab. I didn't remember anything, but I went into the shed to check, anyway. I entered cautiously, hearing a banging sound. It turned out to be the far door, banging open and shut in the wind. Rosie's body lay just inside the door, alternately light and dark as the door banged. She had the same milky coating on her skin that the rabbit had had. But I didn't go over to look closely. I hastily searched the shelves, opened the utility closet, looked behind stacked boxes. I found a furniture dolly made of wooden slats with small rollers. But it would be useless in sand. I went back outside under the corrugated shed, and hurried to the Toyota. There was nothing to do but try to carry Charley across to the lab building. I might be able to manage it if he could support part of his own weight. Maybe by now he was feeling better, I thought. Maybe he was stronger.

But one look at his face told me he wasn't. If anything, he appeared weaker.

"Shit, Charley, what am I going to do with you?"

He didn't answer.

"I can't carry you. And David didn't leave any keys in his car, so we're out of luck-" I stopped.

What if David were locked out of his car? He was an engineer, he thought of contingencies like that. Even if it was unlikely to happen, David would never be caught unprepared. He'd never be flagging down cars asking if they had a wire hanger he could borrow. No, no. David would have hidden a key. Probably in one of those magnetic key boxes. I started to lie down on my back to look underneath the car when it occurred to me that David would never get his clothes dirty just to retrieve a key. He'd hide it cleverly, but within easy reach. With that in mind, I ran my fingers along the inside of the front bumpers. Nothing. I went to the back bumper, did the same. Nothing. I felt under the running boards on both sides of the car. Nothing. No magnetic box, no key. I couldn't believe it, so I got down and looked under the car, to see if there was a brace or a strut I had somehow missed with my fingers. No, there wasn't. I felt no key.

I shook my head, puzzled. The hiding place needed to be steel for the magnetic box. And it needed to be protected from the elements. That was why almost everybody hid their keys inside the car bumpers.

David hadn't done that.

Where else could you hide a key?

I walked around the car again, looking at the smooth lines of the metal. I ran my fingers around the front grill opening, and under the back license plate indentation. No key.

I started to sweat. It wasn't only the tension: by now I could definitely feel the drop in the wind. I went back to Charley, who was still sitting on the sideboard.

"How you doing, Charley?"

He didn't answer, just gave a little shrug. I took his headset off, and put it on. I heard static, and voices talking softly. It sounded like Ricky and Bobby, and it sounded like an argument. I pulled the mouthpiece near my lips and said, "Guys? Speak to me."

A pause. Bobby, surprised: "Jack?"

"That's right ..."

"Jack, you can't stay there. The wind's been falling steadily for the last few minutes. It's only ten knots now."

"Okay ..."

"Jack, you've got to come back in."

"I can't just yet."

"Below seven knots, the swarms can move."

"Okay ..."

Ricky: "What do you mean, okay? Jesus, Jack, are you coming in or not?"

"I can't carry Charley."

"You knew that when you went out."

"Uh-huh."

"Jack. What the hell are you doing?"

I heard the whirr of the video monitor in the corner of the shed. I looked over the roof of the car and saw the lens rotate as they zoomed in on me. The Toyota was such a big car, it almost blocked my view of the camera. And the ski rack on top made it even higher. I vaguely wondered why David had a ski rack, because he didn't ski; he always hated cold. The rack must have come with the car as standard equipment and-

I swore. It was so obvious.

There was only one place I hadn't checked. I jumped up on the running board and looked at the roof of the car. I ran my fingers over the ski rack, and along the parallel tracks bolted to the roof. My fingers touched black tape against the black rack. I pulled the tape away, and saw a silver key.

"Jack? Nine knots."

"Okay."

I dropped back down to the ground, and climbed in the driver's seat. I put the key in the lock box and twisted it. The box opened. Inside I found a small yellow key. "Jack? What're you doing?"

I hurried around to the back of the car. I fitted the yellow key in the ignition. I straddled the bike and started it up. The motor rumbled loudly under the corrugated shed.

"Jack?"

I walked the bike around the side of the car to where Charley was sitting. That was going to be the tricky part. The bike didn't have a kickstand; I moved as close to Charley as I could and then tried to support him enough that he could climb onto the backseat while I still sat on the bike and kept it upright. Fortunately, he seemed to understand what I was doing; I got him in place and told him to hold on to me.

Bobby Lembeck: "Jack? They're here."

"Where?"

"South side. Coming toward you."

"Okay."

I gunned the motor, and pulled the passenger door shut. And I stayed exactly where I was.

"Jack?"

Ricky: "What's the matter with him? He knows what the danger is."

Bobby: "I know."

"He's just sitting there."

Charley had his hands around my waist. His head was on my shoulder. I could hear his raspy breathing. I said, "Hold tight, Charley." He nodded.

Ricky: "Jack? What're you doing?"

Then at my ear, in a voice just above a whisper, Charley said, "Fucking idiot."

"Yes." I nodded. I waited. I could see the swarms now, coming around the building. This time there were nine swarms, and they headed straight for me in a V formation. Their own flocking behavior.

Nine swarms, I thought. Soon there would be thirty swarms, and then two hundred ...

Bobby: "Jack, do you see them?"

"I see them." Of course I saw them.

And of course they were different from before. They were denser now, the columns thicker and more substantial. Those swarms didn't weigh three pounds anymore. I sensed they were closer to ten or twenty pounds. Maybe even more than that. Maybe thirty pounds. They would have real weight now, and real substance.

I waited. I stayed where I was. Some detached part of my brain was wondering what the formation would do when it reached me. Would they circle me? Would some of the swarms hang back and wait? What did they make of the noisy bike?

Nothing-they came right for me, flattening the V into a line, then into a kind of inverted V. I could hear the deep vibrating hum. With so many swarms it was much louder. The swirling columns were twenty yards away from me, then ten. Were they able to move faster now, or was it my imagination? I waited until they were almost upon me before I twisted the throttle and raced forward. I passed straight through the lead swarm, into the blackness and out again, and then I was gunning for the power station door, bouncing over the desert, not daring to look back over my shoulder. It was a wild ride, and it only lasted a few seconds. As we reached the power station, I dropped the bike, put my shoulder under Charley's arm, and staggered the final step or two to the door.

The swarms were still fifty yards away from the door when I managed to turn the knob, pull, get one foot in the crack, and kick the door open the rest of the way. When I did that I lost my balance, and Charley and I more or less fell through the door onto the concrete. The door came swinging shut, and whanged into our legs, which hung outside. I felt a sharp pain in my ankles-but worse, the door was still open, kept ajar by our legs. Through the opening I could see the swarms approaching.

I scrambled to my feet and dragged Charley's inert body into the room. The door shut, but I knew it was a fire door, and it wasn't airtight. Nanoparticles could come right in. I had to get both of us into the airlock. We wouldn't be safe until the first set of glass doors had hissed shut. Grunting and sweating, I hauled Charley into the airlock. I got him into a sitting position, propped up against the side blowers. That cleared his feet of the glass doors. And because only one person could be in the airlock at a time, I stepped back outside. And I waited for the doors to close.

But they didn't close.

I looked on the side wall for some sort of button, but I didn't see anything. The lights were on inside the airlock, so it was getting power. But the doors didn't close. And I knew the swarms were fast approaching.

Bobby Lembeck and Mae came running into the far room. I saw them through the second set of glass doors. They were waving their arms, making big gestures, apparently indicating for me to come back into the airlock. But that didn't make sense. Into my headset, I said, "I thought you had to go one at a time."

They didn't have headsets, and couldn't hear me. They were waving frantically, come in, come in.

I held up two fingers questioningly.

They shook their heads. They seemed to be indicating I was missing the point. At my feet, I saw the nanoparticles begin to come into the room like black steam. They were coming through the edges of the fire door. I had only five or ten seconds now. I stepped back in the airlock. Bobby and Mae were nodding, approving. But the doors did not close. Now they were making other gestures, lifting.

"You want me to lift Charley?"

They did. I shook my head. Charley was slumped there in a sitting position, a dead weight on the ground. I looked back at the anteroom, and saw it was filling with black particles, starting to form a grayish mist in the air. The grayish mist was coming into the airlock as well. I felt the first tiny pinpricks on my skin.

I looked at Bobby and Mae, on the other side of the glass. They could see what was happening; they knew only seconds remained. They were again making gestures: lift Charley up. I bent over him, got my hands under his armpits. I tried to haul him to his feet, but he didn't budge.

"Charley, for God's sake, help." Groaning, I tried again. Charley kicked his legs and pushed with his arms and I got him a couple of feet off the ground. Then he slid back down. "Charley, come on, once more ..." I pulled up as hard as I could, and this time he helped a lot and we got his legs back under him and with a final heave, got him standing. I kept my hands under his armpits; we were in a kind of crazy lovers' clench. Charley was wheezing. I looked back to the glass doors.

The doors didn't close.

The air was getting blacker all the time. I looked to Mae and Bobby, and they were frantic, holding up two fingers, shaking them at me. I didn't get it. "Yes, there's two of us ..." What was wrong with the damned doors? Finally Mae bent over, and very deliberately pointed with one finger of each hand to her two shoes. I saw her mouth, "Two shoes." And point to Charley. "Yeah, so, we have two shoes. He's standing on two shoes."

Mae shook her head.

She held up four fingers.

"Four shoes?"

The pinpricks were irritating, making it difficult to think. I felt the old confusion begin to seep over me. My brain felt sluggish. What did she mean, four shoes? It was beginning to get dark in the airlock. It was becoming harder to see Mae and Bobby. They were pantomiming something else, but I didn't get it. They began to feel distant to me, distant and trivial. I was without energy, and without care. Two shoes, four shoes.

And then I got it. I turned my back to Charley, leaned against him, and said, "Put your hands around my neck." He did, and I grabbed his legs and lifted his feet off the floor. Instantly, the door hissed shut.

That was it, I thought.

The blowers began to blast down on us. The air rapidly cleared. I strained to hold Charley up and I managed until I saw the second set of doors unlock and slide open. Mae and Bobby hurried into the airlock.

And I just fell down. Charley landed on top of me. I think it was Bobby who dragged him off me. I'm not sure. From that point on, I don't remember much at all.

NEST

DAY 6

6:18 P.M.

I woke up in my bed in the residential module. The air handlers were roaring so loudly the room sounded like an airport. Bleary-eyed, I staggered over to the door. The door was locked. I pounded on it for a while but nobody answered, even when I yelled. I went to the little workstation on the desk and clicked it on. A menu came up and I searched for some kind of intercom. I didn't see anything like that, although I poked around the interface for a while. I must have set something off, because a window opened and Ricky appeared, smiling at me. He said, "So, you're awake. How do you feel?"

"Unlock the goddamn door."

"Is your door locked?"

"Unlock it, damn it."

"It was only for your own protection."

"Ricky," I said, "open the damn door."

"I already did. It's open, Jack."

I walked to the door. He was right, it opened immediately. I looked at the latch. There was an extra bolt, some kind of remote locking mechanism. I'd have to remember to tape over that. On the monitor, Ricky said, "You might want to take a shower."

"Yeah, I would. Why is the air so loud?"

"We turned on full venting in your room," Ricky said. "In case there were any extra particles."

I rummaged in my bag for clothes. "Where's the shower?"

"Do you want some help?"

"No, I do not want some help. Just tell me where the goddamn shower is."

"You sound angry."

"Fuck you, Ricky."

The shower helped. I stood under it for about twenty minutes, letting the steaming hot water run over my aching body. I seemed to have a lot of bruises-on my chest, my thigh-but I couldn't remember how I had gotten them.

When I came out, I found Ricky there, sitting on a bench. "Jack, I'm very concerned."

"How's Charley?"

"He seems to be okay. He's sleeping."

"Did you lock his room, too?"

"Jack. I know you've been through an ordeal, and I want you to know we're all very grateful for what you've done-I mean, the company is grateful, and-"

"Fuck the company."

"Jack, I understand how you might be angry."

"Cut the crap, Ricky. I got no goddamn help at all. Not from you, and not from anybody else in this place."

"I'm sure it must feel that way ..."

"It is that way, Ricky. No help is no help."

"Jack, Jack. Please. I'm trying to tell you that I'm sorry for everything that happened. I feel terrible about it. I really do. If there were any way to go back and change it, believe me, I would."

I looked at him. "I don't believe you, Ricky."

He gave a winning little smile. "I hope in time that will change."

"It won't."

"You know that I always valued our friendship, Jack. It was always the most important thing to me."

I just stared at him. Ricky wasn't listening at all. He just had that silly smile-and-everything-will-be-fine look on his face. I thought, Is he on drugs? He was certainly acting bizarrely.

"Well, anyway." He took a breath, changed the subject. "Julia's coming out, that's good news. She should be here sometime this evening."

"Uh-huh. Why is she coming out?"

"Well, I'm sure because she's worried about these runaway swarms."

"How worried is she?" I said. "Because these swarms could have been killed off weeks ago, when the evolutionary patterns first appeared. But that didn't happen."

"Yes. Well. The thing is, back then nobody really understood-"

"I think they did."

"Well, no." He managed to appear unjustly accused, and slightly offended. But I was getting tired of his game.

"Ricky," I said, "I came out here on the helicopter with a bunch of PR guys. Who notified them there's a PR problem here?"

"I don't know about any PR guys."

"They'd been told not to get out of the helicopter. That it was dangerous here."

He shook his head. "I have no idea ... I don't know what you're talking about."

I threw up my hands, and walked out of the bathroom.

"I don't!" Ricky called after me, protesting. "I swear, I don't know a thing about it!" Half an hour later, as a kind of peace offering, Ricky brought me the missing code I had been asking for. It was brief, just a sheet of paper.

"Sorry about that," he said. "Took me a while to find it. Rosie took a whole subdirectory offline a few days ago to work on one section. I guess she forgot to put it back. That's why it wasn't in the main directory."

"Uh-huh." I scanned the sheet. "What was she working on?"

Ricky shrugged. "Beats me. One of the other files."

/*Mod Compstat_do*/

Exec (move{? ij (Cx1, Cy1, Cz1)} )/*init */

{ ij (x1, y1, z1)} /*state*/

{ ikl (x1,y1,z1) (x2,y2,z2) } /*track*/

Push {z(i)} /*store*/

React /*ref state*/

?1 {(dx(i, j, k)} {(place(Cj,Hj)}

?2 {(fx,(a,q)}

Place {z(q)} /*store*/

Intent /*ref intent*/

?ijk {(dx(i, j, k)} {(place(Cj,Hj)}

?x {(fx,(a,q)}

Load {z(i)} /*store*/

Exec (move{? ij (Cx1, Cy1, Cz1)} )

Exec (pre{? ij (Hx1, Hy1, Hz1)} )

Exec (post{? ij (Hx1, Hy1, Hz1)} )

Push { ij (x1, y1, z1)}

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