Dark Hunger


Chapter 19


"Maybe ... I don't know, maybe it was in his throat or something."

"In his throat?" I said. "You mean, just hanging out between his tonsils? These things kill you, you know."

"Yeah, I know. Of course I know." He shrugged. "Beats me."

I stared at Ricky, trying to understand his demeanor. He had just discovered that his lab was invaded by a lethal nanoswarm, and he didn't appear to be upset at all. He was taking it all very casually.

Mae came hurrying into the room. She took in the situation with a glance. "Did anyone check the video playback?"

"We can't," Ricky said. He pointed to the closet. "The controls are disabled-in there."

"So you don't know how he got in there?"

"No. But he evidently didn't want us calling out. At least ... that's how it looks."

Mae said, "Why would Charley go in there?"

I shook my head. I had no idea.

Julia said, "It's airtight. Maybe he knew he was infected and wanted to seal himself off. I mean, he locked the door from the inside."

I said, "He did? How do you know that?"

Julia said, "Um ... I just assumed ... uh ..." She peered through the glass. "And, uh, you can see the lock reflected in that chrome fitting ... see that one there?" I didn't bother to look. But Mae did, and I heard her say, "Oh yes, Julia, you're right. Good observation. I missed that myself." It sounded very phony, but Julia didn't seem to react. So everybody was playacting, now. Everything was staged. And I didn't understand why. But as I watched Mae with Julia, I noticed that she was being extremely careful with my wife. Almost as if she was afraid of her, or at least afraid of offending her.

That was odd.

And a little alarming.

I said to Ricky, "Is there a way to unlock the door?"

"I think so. Vince probably has a skeleton key. But nobody's unlocking that door now, Jack. Not as long as that swarm is in there."

"So we can't call anywhere?" I said. "We're stuck here? Incommunicado?"

"Until tomorrow, yes. Helicopter will be back tomorrow morning, on its regular run." Ricky peered in through the glass at the destruction. "Jeez. Charley really did a job on those switching panels."

I said, "Why do you think he would do that?"

Ricky shook his head. "Charley was a little crazy, you know. I mean he was colorful. But all that farting and humming ... he was a few fries short of a Happy Meal, Jack."

"I never thought so."

"Just my opinion," he said.

I stood beside Ricky and looked through the glass. The swarm was buzzing around Charley's head, and I was starting to see the milky coating form on his body. The usual pattern. I said, "What about pumping liquid nitrogen in there? Freezing the swarm?"

"We could probably do that," Ricky said, "but I'm afraid we'd damage the equipment."

"Can you turn the air handlers up enough to suck the particles out?"

"Handlers are going full-bore now."

"And you wouldn't want to use a fire extinguisher ..."

He shook his head. "Extinguishers are Halon. Won't affect the particles."

"So we're effectively kept out of that room."

"Far as I can tell, yes."

"Cell phones?"

He shook his head. "Antennas route through that room. Every form of communication we have-cells, Internet, high-speed data trunks-everything goes through that room." Julia said, "Charley knew that room was airtight. I bet he went there to protect the rest of us. It was a selfless act. A courageous act."

She was developing her theory about Charley, fleshing it out, adding details. It was a little distracting, considering the main problem was still unanswered-how to unlock the door, and disable the swarm. I said, "Is there another window in that closet?"

"No."

"This window in the door is the only one?"

"Yes."

"Okay, then," I said, "let's black out the window, and turn the lights out in there. And wait a few hours, until the swarm loses power."

"Jeez, I don't know," Ricky said doubtfully.

"What do you mean, Ricky?" Julia said. "I think it's a great idea. It's certainly worth a try. Let's do it right now."

"Okay, fine," Ricky said, immediately deferring to her. "But you're going to have to wait six hours."

I said, "I thought it was three hours."

"It is, but I want extra hours before I open that door. If that swarm gets loose in here, we've all had it."

In the end, that was what we decided to do. We got black cloth and taped it over the window, and put black cardboard over that. We turned out the lights and taped the light switch in the off position. At the end of that time, exhaustion hit me again. I looked at my watch. It was one o'clock in the morning. I said, "I have to go to bed."

"We should all get some sleep," Julia said. "We can revisit this in the morning." We all headed off toward the residence module. Mae sidled up alongside me. "How are you feeling?" she said.

"Okay. My back's starting to hurt a little."

She nodded. "You better let me take a look at it."

"Why?"

"Just let me take a look, before you go to bed."

"Oh, Jack, darling," Julia cried. "You poor baby."

"What is it?"

I was sitting on the kitchen table with my shirt off. Julia and Mae were behind me, clucking.

"What is it?" I said again.

"There's some blistering," Mae said.

"Blistering?" Julia said. "His whole back is covered-"

"I think we have dressings," Mae said, interrupting her, reaching for the first-aid kit beneath the sink.

"Yes, I hope so." Julia smiled at me. "Jack, I can't tell you how sorry I am, that you had to go through this."

"This may sting a little," Mae said.

I knew that Mae wanted to talk to me alone, but there was no opportunity. Julia was not going to leave us alone for a minute. She had always been jealous of Mae, even years ago when I first hired Mae in my company, and now she was competing with her for my attention. I wasn't flattered.

The dressings were cool at first, as Mae applied them, but within moments they stung bitterly. I winced.

"I don't know what painkillers we have," Mae said. "You've got a good area of second-degree burns."

Julia rummaged frantically through the first-aid kit, tossing contents out right and left. Tubes and canisters clattered to the floor. "There's morphine," she said at last, holding up a bottle. She smiled at me brightly. "That should do it!"

"I don't want morphine," I said. What I really wanted to say was that I wanted her to go to bed. Julia was annoying me. Her frantic edge was getting on my nerves. And I wanted to talk to Mae alone.

"There's nothing else," Julia said, "except aspirin."

"Aspirin is fine."

"I'm worried it won't be-"

"Aspirin is fine."

"You don't have to bite my head off."

"I'm sorry. I don't feel well."

"Well, I'm only trying to help." Julia stepped back. "I mean, if you two want to be alone, you should just say so."

"No," I said, "we do not want to be alone."

"Well, I'm only trying to help." She turned back to the medicine kit. "Maybe there is something else ..." Containers of tape and plastic bottles of antibiotics fell to the floor. "Julia," I said. "Please stop."

"What am I doing? What am I doing that is so awful?"

"Just stop."

"I'm only trying to help."

"I know that."

Behind me, Mae said, "Okay. All finished now. That should hold you until tomorrow." She yawned. "And now, if you don't mind, I'm going to bed."

I thanked her, and watched her leave the room. When I turned back, Julia was holding a glass of water and two aspirins for me.

"Thank you," I said.

"I never liked that woman," she said.

"Let's get some sleep," I said.

"There's only single beds here."

"I know."

She moved closer. "I'd like to be with you, Jack."

"I'm really tired. I'll see you in the morning, Julia."

I went back to my room and looked at the bed. I didn't bother taking off my clothes.

I don't remember my head touching the pillow.

DAY 7

4:42 A.M.

I slept restlessly, with constant and terrible dreams. I dreamed that I was back in Monterey, marrying Julia again, and I was standing in front of the minister when she came up alongside me in her bridal gown, and when she lifted the veil I was shocked by how beautiful and young and slender she was. She smiled at me, and I smiled back, trying to conceal my uneasiness. Because now I saw she was more than slender, her face was thin, almost emaciated. Almost a skull. Then I turned to the minister in front of us, but it was Mae, and she was pouring colored liquids back and forth in test tubes. When I looked back at Julia she was very angry, and said she never liked that woman. Somehow it was my fault. I was to blame. I woke up briefly, sweating. The pillow was soaked. I turned it over, and went back to sleep. I saw myself sleeping on the bed, and I looked up and saw that the door to my room was open. Light came in from the hallway outside. A shadow fell across my bed. Ricky came into the room and looked down at me. His face was backlit and dark, I couldn't see his expression, but he said, "I always loved you, Jack." He leaned over to whisper something in my ear, and I realized as his head came down that he was going to kiss me instead. He was going to kiss me on the lips, passionately. His mouth was open. His tongue licked his lips. I was very upset, I didn't know what to do, but at that moment Julia came in and said, "What's going on?" and Ricky hastily pulled away, and made some kind of evasive comment. Julia was very angry and said, "Not now, you fool," and Ricky made another evasive comment. And then Julia said, "This is completely unnecessary, it will take care of itself." And Ricky said, "There are constriction coefficients for deterministic algorithms if you do interval global optimization." And she said, "It won't hurt you if you don't fight it." She turned on the light in the room and walked out. Then I was suddenly back in my Monterey wedding, Julia was standing beside me in white, and I turned to look back at the audience, and I saw my three kids sitting in the first row, smiling and happy. And as I watched a black line appeared around their mouths, and swept down their bodies, until they were cloaked in black. They continued to smile, but I was horrified. I ran to them, but I couldn't rub the black cloak off. And Nicole said calmly, "Don't forget the sprinklers, Dad."

I woke up, tangled up in the sheets, drenched in sweat. The door to my room was open. A rectangle of light fell across my bed from the hallway outside. I looked over at the workstation monitor. It said "4:55 A.M." I closed my eyes and lay there for a while, but I couldn't go back to sleep. I was wet and uncomfortable. I decided to take a shower. Shortly before five in the morning, I got out of bed.

The hallway was silent. I walked down the corridor to the bathrooms. The doors to all the bedrooms were open, which seemed strange. I could see everybody sleeping as I walked past. And the lights were on in all the bedrooms. I saw Ricky asleep, and I saw Bobby, and I saw Julia, and Vince. Mae's bed was empty. And of course Charley's bed was empty. I stopped in the kitchen to get a ginger ale from the refrigerator. I was very thirsty, my throat painful and parched. And my stomach felt a little queasy. I looked at the champagne bottle. I suddenly had a funny feeling about it, as if it might have been tampered with. I took it out and looked closely at the cap, at the metal foil that covered the cork. It looked entirely normal. No tampering, no needle marks, no nothing.

Just a bottle of champagne.

I put it back and closed the refrigerator door.

I began to wonder if I had been unfair to Julia. Maybe she really did believe she'd made a mistake and wanted to put things right. Maybe she just wanted to show her gratitude. Maybe I was being too tough on her. Too unforgiving.

Because when you thought about it, what had she done that was suspicious or wrong? She'd been glad to see me, even if she was over the top. She'd accepted responsibility for the experiment, and she'd apologized for it. She'd immediately agreed to make the call to the Army. She'd agreed with my plan to kill the swarm in the comm room. She'd done everything she could do to show she supported me, and was on my side.

But I still was uneasy.

And of course there was the matter of Charley and his swarm. Ricky's idea that Charley had somehow been carrying the swarm inside his body, in his mouth or under his armpit or something, didn't make a lot of sense to me. Those swarms killed within seconds. So it left a question-how did the swarm get into the comm room with Charley? Did it get in from outside? Why hadn't it attacked Julia and Ricky and Vince?

I forgot about my shower.

I decided to go down to the utility room, and look around outside the comm room door. Maybe there was something I had missed. Julia had been talking a lot, interrupting my train of thought. Almost as if she hadn't wanted me to figure something out ...

There I was again, being hard on Julia.

I went through the airlock, down the corridor, through another airlock. When you were tired, it was annoying to have that wind blowing on you. I came out into the utility area, and went toward the comm room door. I didn't notice anything.

I heard the sound of a clicking keyboard, and looked into the biology lab. Mae was there, at her workstation.

I said, "What are you doing?"

"Checking the video playback."

"I thought we couldn't do that, because Charley pulled the wires."

"That's what Ricky said. But it isn't true."

I started to come around the lab bench, to look over her shoulder. She held up her hand.

"Jack," she said. "Maybe you don't want to look at this."

"What? Why not?"

"It's, uh ... maybe you don't want to deal with this. Not right now. Maybe tomorrow." But of course after that, I practically ran around the table to see what was on her monitor. And I stopped. What I saw on her screen was an image of an empty corridor. With a time code at the bottom of the picture. "Is this it?" I said. "Is this what I shouldn't deal with?"

"No." She turned in her chair. "Look, Jack, you have to go through all the security cameras in sequence, and each one only records ten frames a minute, so it's very difficult to be sure of what we're-"

"Just show me, Mae."

"I have to go back a bit ..." She pressed the back button in the corner of the keyboard repeatedly. Like many new control systems, the Xymos system was modeled on Internet browser technology. You could go backward in work, retracing your steps. The frames jumped backward until she came to the place she wanted. Then she ran it forward, the security images jumping from one camera to the next in rapid succession. A corridor. The main plant. Another angle on the plant. An airlock. Another corridor. The utility room. A corridor. The kitchen. The lounge. The residence hallway. An exterior view, looking down at the floodlit desert. Corridor. The power room. The outside, ground level. Another corridor. I blinked. "How long have you been doing this?"

"About an hour."

"Jesus."

Next I saw a corridor. Ricky moving down it. Power station. Outside, looking down on Julia stepping into the floodlight. A corridor. Julia and Ricky together, embracing, and then a corridor, and-

"Wait," I said.

Mae hit a button. She looked at me, said nothing. She pressed another key, flicked the images forward slowly. She stopped on the camera that showed Ricky and Julia. "Ten frames."

The movement was blurred and jerky. Ricky and Julia moved toward each other. They embraced. There was a clear sense of ease, of familiarity between them. And then they kissed passionately.

"Aw, shit," I said, turning away from the screen. "Shit, shit, shit."

"I'm sorry, Jack," Mae said. "I don't know what to say."

I felt a wave of dizziness, almost as if I might collapse. I sat down on the table. I kept my body turned away from the screen. I just couldn't look. I took a deep breath. Mae was saying something more, but I didn't hear her words. I took another breath. I ran my hand through my hair.

I said, "Did you know about this?"

"No. Not until a few minutes ago."

"Did anybody?"

"No. We used to joke about it sometimes, that they had a relationship, but none of us believed it."

"Jesus." I ran my hand through my hair again. "Tell me the truth, Mae. I need to hear the truth. Did you know about this or not?"

"No, Jack. I didn't."

Silence. I took a breath. I tried to take stock of my feelings. "You know what's funny?" I said. "What's funny is that I've suspected this for a while now. I mean, I was pretty sure it was happening, I just didn't know who ... I mean ... Even though I expected it, it's still kind of a shock."

"I'm sure."

"I never would have figured Ricky," I said. "He's such a ... I don't know ... smarmy kind of guy. And he's not a big power guy. Somehow I would have thought she'd pick someone more important, I guess." As I said it, I remembered my conversation with Ellen after dinner. Are you so sure about Julia's style?

That was after I'd seen the guy in the car. The guy whose face I couldn't really make out ...

Ellen: It's called denial, Jack.

"Jesus," I said, shaking my head. I felt angry, embarrassed, confused, furious. It kept changing every second.

Mae waited. She didn't move or speak. She was completely still. Finally she said, "Do you want to see any more?"

"Is there more?"

"Yes."

"I don't know if I, uh ... No, I don't want to see any more."

"Maybe you better."

"No."

"I mean, it might make you feel better."

"I don't think so," I said. "I don't think I can take it."

She said, "It may not be what you think, Jack. At least, it may not be exactly what you think."

It's called denial, Jack.

"Sorry, Mae," I said, "but I don't want to pretend anymore. I saw it. I know what it is." I thought I'd be with Julia forever. I thought we loved the kids together, we had a family, a house, a life together. And Ricky had a new baby of his own. It just was weird. It didn't make sense to me. But then, things never turn out the way you think they will. I heard Mae typing quickly on the keyboard. I turned so I could see her, but not the screen. "What're you doing?"

"Trying to find Charley. See if I can track what happened to him over the last few hours." She continued typing. I took a breath. She was right. Whatever was going on in my personal life was already well advanced. There was nothing I could do about it, at least not right now. I turned all the way around and faced the screen.

"Okay," I said. "Let's look for Charley."

It was disorienting to watch the camera images flash by, repeating in sequence. People popped in and out of images. I saw Julia in the kitchen. The next time I saw her and Ricky in the kitchen. The refrigerator door was open, then shut. I saw Vince in the main plant room, then he popped out. I saw him in a corridor, then gone.

"I don't see Charley."

"Maybe he's still asleep," Mae said.

"Can you see in the bedrooms?"

"Yes, there are cameras there, but I'd have to change security cycle. Ordinary cycle doesn't go into the bedrooms."

"How big a deal is it to change the security cycle?"

"I'm not sure. This is really Ricky's area. The system here is pretty complicated. Ricky's the only one who really knows how to work it. Let's see if we find Charley in the regular cycle." So that's what we did, waiting to see if he appeared in any of the standard camera images. We searched for about ten minutes more. From time to time, I had to look away from the images, though it never seemed to bother Mae. But sure enough, we saw him in the residential hallway, walking down the corridor, rubbing his face. He'd just woken up. "Okay," Mae said. "We got him."

"What's the time?"

She froze the image, so we could read it. It was 12:10 A.M.

I said, "That's only about half an hour before we got back."

"Yes." She ran the images forward. Charley disappeared from the hallway, but we saw him briefly, heading into the bathroom. Then we saw Ricky and Julia in the kitchen. I felt my body tense. But they were just talking. Then Julia put the champagne in the refrigerator, and Ricky started handing her glasses to put in beside the bottle.

It was difficult to be sure what happened next, because of the frame rate. Ten frames a second of video meant that you only got an image every six seconds, so events appeared blurred and jumpy when things moved fast, because too much happened between the frames.

But this is what I thought happened:

Charley showed up, and began talking to the two of them. He was smiling, cheerful. He pointed to the glasses. Julia and Ricky put the glasses away while they talked to him. Then he held up his hand, to stop.

He pointed to a glass that Julia was holding in her hand before she put it in the refrigerator. He said something.

Julia shook her head, and put the glass in the refrigerator. Charley seemed puzzled. He pointed again to another glass. Julia shook her head. Then Charley hunched his shoulders and thrust out his chin, as if he were getting angry. He poked the table repeatedly with his finger, making a point.

Ricky stepped forward between Julia and Charley. He acted like someone interrupting an argument. He held his hands up soothingly to Charley: take it easy. Charley wasn't taking it easy. He was pointing to the sink, heaped with unwashed dishes.

Ricky shook his head, and put his hand on Charley's shoulder.

Charley brushed it off.

The two men began to argue. Meanwhile, Julia calmly put the rest of the glasses into the refrigerator. She seemed indifferent to the argument a few feet from her, almost as if she didn't hear it. Charley was trying to get around Ricky to the refrigerator, but Ricky kept moving to block him, and held his hands up each time.

Ricky's whole demeanor suggested that he did not regard Charley as rational. He was treating Charley in that careful way you do when someone's out of control. Mae said, "Is Charley being affected by the swarm? Is that why he's acting that way?"

"I can't tell." I looked closer at the screen. "I don't see any swarm."

"No," she said. "But he's pretty angry."

"What does he want them to do?" I said.

Mae shook her head. "Put the glasses back? Wash them? Use different glasses? I can't tell." I said, "Charley doesn't care about that stuff. He'd eat out of a dirty plate somebody else had used." I smiled. "I've seen him do it."

Suddenly, Charley stepped several paces back. For a moment, he was completely still, as if he had discovered something that stunned him. Ricky said something to him. Charley began pointing and shouting at both of them. Ricky tried to approach him. Charley kept backing away, and then he turned to the phone, mounted on the wall. He lifted the receiver. Ricky came forward, very quickly, his body a blur, and slammed the phone down. He shoved Charley back-hard. Ricky's strength was surprising. Charley was a big guy, but he went down to the floor, and skidded backward a few feet. Charley got to his feet, continued to yell, then he turned and ran out of the room.

Julia and Ricky exchanged a glance. Julia said something to him.

Immediately, Ricky ran after Charley.

Julia ran after Ricky.

"Where are they going?" I said.

Mae released the hold button, and the screen flashed "Updating Time," and then we started seeing images from all the cameras again, in sequence. We saw Charley running down a corridor, and we saw Ricky start after him. We waited impatiently for the next cycle. But nobody was visible there.

Another cycle. Then we saw Charley in the utility room, dialing the phone. He glanced over his shoulder. A moment later, Ricky came in, and Charley hung up the phone. They argued, circling around each other.

Charley picked up a shovel, and swung it at Ricky. The first time Ricky dodged away. The second time it caught him on the shoulder and knocked him to the floor. Charley swung the shovel over his head, and slammed it down on Ricky's head. The gesture was brutal, the intention clearly murderous. Ricky managed to duck back just as the shovel smashed onto the concrete.

"My God ..." Mae said.

Ricky was getting to his feet, when Charley turned and saw Julia enter the room. Julia held out her hand, pleading with Charley (to put down the shovel?). Charley looked from one of them to the other. And then Vince entered the room, too. Now that they were all in the room, he seemed to lose his urge to fight. They were circling him, closing in. Suddenly Charley dashed for the comm room, stepped inside, and tried to shut the door behind him. Ricky was on him in a flash. He had his foot in the door and Charley couldn't get it closed. Charley's face looked angry through the glass. Vince came right alongside Ricky. With both of them at the door, I couldn't see what was happening. Julia seemed to be giving orders. I thought I saw her reach her hand through the crack in the door, but it was difficult to be sure. In any case, the door opened, and both Vince and Ricky entered the room. The action that came next was swift, blurred on the video, but apparently the three men were fighting, and Ricky managed to get behind Charley, and get him in a hammerlock; Vince pulled Charley's arm behind his back, and together the two men subdued Charley. He stopped fighting. The image was less blurred.

"What's happening?" Mae said. "They never told us any of this." Ricky and Vince were holding Charley from behind. Charley was panting, his chest heaving, but he no longer struggled. Julia came into the room. She looked at Charley, and had some conversation with him.

And then Julia walked up to Charley, and kissed him full and long on the lips. Charley struggled, tried to wrench away. Vince grabbed a fistful of Charley's hair and tried to hold his head steady. Julia continued to kiss him. Then she stepped away, and as she did I saw a river of black between her mouth and Charley's. It was only there for a moment, and then it faded.

"Oh my God," Mae said.

Julia wiped her lips, and smiled.

Charley sagged, dropped to the ground. He appeared dazed. A black cloud came out of his mouth, and swirled around his head. Vince patted him on the head and left the room. Ricky went over to the panels-and pulled out wiring by the handful. He literally ripped the panels apart. Then he turned back to Charley, said something else, and walked out of the comm room.

At once Charley sprang to his feet, closed the door, and locked it. But Ricky and Julia just laughed, as if this was a futile gesture. Charley sagged again, and from then on he was out of sight.

Ricky threw his arm around Julia's shoulder, and they walked out of the room together.

"Well, you two are certainly up bright and early!"

I turned.

Julia was standing in the doorway.

DAY 7

5:12 A.M.

She came forward into the room, smiling. "You know, Jack," she said, "if I didn't trust you so completely, I'd think there was something going on between the two of you."

"Really," I said. I stepped away from Mae a little, while she typed quickly. I felt tremendously uneasy. "Why would you think that?"

"Well, you had your heads together about something," she said, as she came toward us. "You looked quite fascinated by what you were seeing on the screen. What're you looking at, anyway?"

"It's ah, technical."

"May I see? I'm interested in technical things. Didn't Ricky tell you I had a new technical interest? I do. I'm fascinated by this technology. It's a new world, isn't it? The twenty-first century has arrived. Don't get up, Mae. I'll just look over your shoulder." By now she had walked around the bench, and could see the screen. She frowned at the image, which showed bacterial cultures on a red growth medium. White circles within red circles. "What's this?"

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