Dark Hunger


Chapter 21


"Will it?" Julia said, stepping back.

"Maybe," Ricky said, "but I bet he's afraid to die."

And then he and Vince began dragging me across the fabrication room. They were taking me to the high mag field room. I began to struggle.

"That's right," Ricky said. "You know what's coming, don't you?" This was not in my plan. I hadn't expected it; I didn't know what I could do now. I struggled harder, kicking and twisting, but they were both immensely strong. They just dragged me forward. Julia opened the heavy steel door to the mag room. Inside, I saw the circular drum of the magnet, six feet in diameter.

They shoved me in roughly. I sprawled on the ground in the room. My head banged against the steel shielding. I heard the door click and lock.

I got to my feet.

I heard the rumble of the cooling pumps as they started up. The intercom clicked. I heard Ricky's voice. "Ever wonder why these walls are made out of steel, Jack? Pulsed magnets are dangerous. Run them continuously, and they blow apart. Get ripped apart by the field they generate. We got a one-minute load time. So you've got one minute to think it over." I had been in this room before, when Ricky showed me around. I remembered there was a knee plate, a safety cutoff. I hit it with my knee.

"Won't work, Jack," Ricky said laconically. "I inverted the switching. Now it turns the magnet on, instead of off. Thought you'd like to know."

The rumbling was louder. The room began to vibrate slightly. The air grew swiftly colder. In a moment I could see my breath.

"Sorry if you're uncomfortable, but that's only temporary," Ricky said. "Once the pulses get going, the room'll heat up fast. Uh, let's see. Forty-seven seconds." The sound was a rapid chunk-chunk-chunk, like a muffled jackhammer. It was loud, and getting louder. I could hardly hear Ricky over the intercom. "Now Jack," he said. "You have a family. A family that needs you. So think about your choices very carefully."

I said, "Let me speak to Julia."

"No, Jack. She doesn't want to talk to you right now. She's very disappointed in you, Jack."

"Let me speak to her."

"Jack, aren't you listening to me? She says no. Not until you tell her where the virus is." Chunk-chunk-chunk. The room was starting to get warmer. I could hear the gurgle of the coolant as it went through the piping. I kicked the safety plate with my knee. "I told you, Jack. It'll only turn the magnet on. Are you having trouble hearing me?"

"Yes," I yelled. "I am."

"Well that's too bad," Ricky said. "I'm sorry to hear that." At least, I thought that's what he was saying. The chunk-chunk-chunk seemed to fill the room, to make the very air vibrate. It sounded like an enormous MRI, those giant pumps. My head hurt. I stared at the magnet, at the heavy bolts that held the plates together. Those bolts would soon become missiles.

"We're not fucking around, Jack," Ricky said. "We'd hate to lose you. Twenty seconds." The load time was the time it took to charge the magnet capacitors, so that millisecond pulses of electricity could be delivered. I wondered how long after loading it would take for the pulses to blow the magnet apart. Probably a few seconds at most. So time was running out for me. I didn't know what to do. Everything had gone horribly wrong. And the worst part was that I had lost the only advantage I ever had, because they now recognized the importance of the virus. Earlier they hadn't focused on it as a threat. But now they understood, and were demanding I hand it over. Soon they would think to destroy the fermentation tank. They would eradicate the virus very thoroughly, I felt sure.

And there was nothing I could do about it. Not now.

I wondered how Mae was, and whether they had hurt her. I wondered if she was still alive. I felt detached, indifferent. I was sitting in an oversized MRI, that was all. This big terrifying sound, it must have been how Amanda felt, when she was in the MRI ... My mind drifted, uncaring.

"Ten seconds," Ricky said. "Come on, Jack. Don't be a hero. It's not your style. Tell us where it is. Six seconds. Five. Jack, come on ..."

The chunk-chunk-chunk stopped, and there was a whang! and a scream of rending metal. The magnet had switched on, for a few milliseconds.

"First pulse," Ricky said. "Don't be an asshole, Jack."

Another whang! Whang! Whang! The pulses were coming faster and faster. I saw the jacketing on the coolant beginning to indent with each pulse. They were coming too fast. Whang! Whang!

I couldn't take it anymore. I shouted, "Okay! Ricky! I'll tell you!"

Whang! "Go ahead, Jack!" Whang! "I'm waiting."

"No! Turn it off first. And I only tell Julia."

Whang! Whang! "Very unreasonable of you, Jack. You're in no position to bargain." Whang!

"You want the virus, or you want it to be a surprise?"

Whang! Whang! Whang!

And then abruptly, silence. Nothing but the low swoosh of the coolant flowing through the jacketing. The magnet was hot to the touch. But at least the MRI sound had stopped. The MRI ...

I stood in the room, and waited for Julia to come in. And then, thinking it over, I sat down.

I heard the door unlock. Julia walked in.

"Jack. You're not hurt, are you?"

"No," I said. "Just my nerves are shot."

"I don't know why you put yourself through it," she said. "It was totally unnecessary. But guess what? I have good news. The helicopter just arrived."

"It did?"

"Yes, it's early today. Just think, wouldn't it be nice to be on it now, going home? Back to your house, back to your family? Wouldn't that feel great?"

I sat there with my back against the wall, looking up at her. "Are you saying I can go?"

"Of course, Jack. There's no reason for you to stay here. Just give me the bottle of virus, and go home."

I didn't believe her for a second. I was seeing the friendly Julia, the seductive Julia. But I didn't believe her. "Where is Mae?"

"She's resting."

"You've hurt her."

"No. No, no, no. Why would I do that?" She shook her head. "You really don't understand, do you? I don't want to hurt anybody, Jack. Not you, not Mae, not anybody. I especially don't want to hurt you."

"Try telling that to Ricky."

"Jack. Please. Let's put emotion aside and be logical for a moment. You're doing all this to yourself. Why can't you accept the new situation?" She held out her hand to me. I took it, and she pulled me up. She was strong. Stronger than I ever remembered her being. "After all," she said, "you're an integral part of this. You killed the wild type for us, Jack."

"So the benign type could flourish ..."

"Exactly, Jack. So the benign type could flourish. And create a new synergy with human beings."

"The synergy that you have now, for example."

"That's right, Jack." She smiled. It was a creepy smile.

"You are, what? Coexisting? Coevolving?"

"Symbiotic." She was still smiling.

"Julia, this is all bullshit," I said. "This is a disease."

"Well of course you would say that. Because you don't know any better, yet. You haven't experienced it." She came forward and hugged me. I let her do it. "You have no idea what's ahead of you."

"Story of my life," I said.

"Stop being so stubborn, for once. Just go along with it. You look tired, Jack." I sighed. "I am tired," I said. And I was. I was feeling distinctly weak in her arms. I was sure she could sense it.

"Then why don't you just relax. Embrace me, Jack."

"I don't know. Maybe you're right."

"Yes, I am." She smiled again, ruffled my hair with her hand. "Oh, Jack ... I really have missed you."

"Me too," I said. "I missed you." I gave her a hug, squeezed her, held her close. Our faces were close. She looked beautiful, her lips parted, her eyes staring up at me, soft, inviting. I felt her relax. Then I said, "Just tell me one thing, Julia. It's been bothering me."

"Sure, Jack."

"Why did you refuse to have an MRI in the hospital?"

She frowned, leaned back to look at me. "What? What do you mean?"

"Are you like Amanda?"

"Amanda?"

"Our baby daughter ... you remember her. She was cured by the MRI. Instantly."

"What are you talking about?"

"Julia, does the swarm have some problem with magnetic fields?"

Her eyes widened. She began to struggle in my grip. "Let go of me! Ricky! Ricky!"

"Sorry, hon," I said. I kicked the plate with my knee. And there was a loud whang! as the magnet pulsed.

Julia screamed.

Her mouth was open as she screamed, a steady continuous sound, her face rigid with tension. I held her hard. The skin of her face began to shiver, vibrating rapidly. And then her features seemed to grow, to swell as she screamed. I thought her eyes looked frightened. The swelling continued, and began to break up into rivulets, and streams. And then in a sudden rush Julia literally disintegrated before my eyes. The skin of her swollen face and body blew away from her in streams of particles, like sand blown off a sand dune. The particles curved away in the arc of the magnetic field toward the sides of the room. I felt her body growing lighter and lighter in my arms. Still the particles continued to flow away, with a kind of whooshing sound, to all corners of the room. And when it was finished, what was left behind-what I still held in my arms-was a pale and cadaverous form. Julia's eyes were sunk deep in her cheeks. Her mouth was thin and cracked, her skin translucent. Her hair was colorless, brittle. Her collarbones protruded from her bony neck. She looked like she was dying of cancer. Her mouth worked. I heard faint words, hardly more than breathing. I leaned in, turned my ear to her mouth to hear.

"Jack," she whispered. "It's eating me."

I said, "I know."

Her voice was just a whisper. "You have to do something."

"I know."

"Jack ... the children ..."

"Okay."

She whispered, "I ... kissed them ..."

I said nothing. I just closed my eyes.

"Jack ... Save my babies ... Jack ..."

"Okay," I said.

I glanced up at the walls and saw, all around me, Julia's face and body stretched and fitted to the room. The particles retained her appearance, but were now flattened onto the walls. And they were still moving, coordinating with the movement of her lips, the blink of her eyes. As I watched, they began to drift back from the walls toward her in a flesh-colored haze. Outside the room, I heard Ricky shouting, "Julia! Julia!" He kicked the door a couple of times, but he didn't come in. I knew he wouldn't dare. I had waited a full minute so the capacitors were charged. He couldn't stop me from pulsing the magnet now. I could do it at will-at least, until the charge ran out. I didn't know how long that would be. "Jack ..."

I looked at her. Her eyes were sad, pleading.

"Jack," she said. "I didn't know ..."

"It's all right," I said. The particles were drifting back, reassembling her face before my eyes. Julia was becoming solid, and beautiful again.

I kicked the knee plate.

Whang!

The particles shot away, flying back to the walls, though not so swiftly this time. And I had the cadaverous Julia in my arms again, her deep-set eyes pleading with me. I reached into my pocket, and pulled out one of the vials of phage. "I want you to drink this," I said.

"No ... no ..." She was agitated. "Too late ... for ..."

"Try," I said. I held the vial to her lips. "Come on, darling. I want you to try."

"No ... please ... Not important ..."

Ricky was yelling: "Julia! Julia!" He pounded on the door. "Julia, are you all right?" The cadaver eyes rolled toward the door. Her mouth worked. Her skeleton fingers plucked at my shirt, scratching the cloth. She wanted to tell me something. I turned my head again, so I could hear.

She breathed shallowly, weakly. I couldn't catch the words. And then suddenly they were clear.

She said, "They have to kill you now."

"I know," I said.

"Don't let them ... Children ..."

"I won't."

Her bony hand touched my cheek. She whispered, "You know I always loved you, Jack. I would never hurt you."

"I know, Julia. I know."

The particles on the walls were drifting free once more. Now they seemed to telescope back, returning to her face and body. I kicked the knee plate once again, hoping for more time with her, but there was only a dull mechanical thunk.

The capacitor was drained.

And suddenly, in a whoosh, all the particles returned, and Julia was full and beautiful and strong as before, and she pushed me away from her with a contemptuous look and said in a loud, firm voice, "I'm sorry you had to see that, Jack."

"So am I," I said.

"But it can't be helped. We're wasting time. I want the bottle of virus, Jack. And I want it right now."

In a way it made everything easier. Because I understood I wasn't dealing with Julia anymore. I didn't have to worry about what might happen to her. I just had to worry about Mae-assuming she was still alive-and me.

And assuming I could stay alive for the next few minutes.

DAY 7

7:12 A.M.

"Okay," I said to her. "Okay. I'll get you the virus."

She frowned. "You've got that look on your face again ..."

"No," I said. "I'm done. I'll take you."

"Good. We'll start with those vials in your pocket."

"What, these here?" I said. I reached into my pocket for them as I went through the door. Outside, Ricky and Vince were waiting for me.

"Very fucking funny," Ricky said. "You know you could have killed her. You could have killed your own wife."

"How about that," I said.

I was still fumbling in my pocket, as if the test tubes were stuck in the cloth. They didn't know what I was doing, so they grabbed me again, Vince on one side and Ricky on the other.

"Guys," I said, "I can't do this if you-"

"Let him go," Julia said, coming out of the room.

"Like hell," Vince said. "He'll pull something."

I was still struggling, trying to bring the tubes out. Finally I had them in my hand. While we struggled, I threw one onto the ground. It smashed on the concrete floor, and brown sludge spattered up.

"Jesus!" They all jumped away, releasing me. They stared at the floor, and bent over to look at their feet, making sure none of it had touched them.

And in that moment, I ran.

* * *

I grabbed the jug from its hiding place, and kept going across the fabrication room. I had to get all the way across the room to the elevator, and ride it up to the ceiling level, where all the basic system equipment was located. Up there, where the air handlers were, and the electrical junction boxes-and the tank for the sprinkler system. If I could reach the elevator and ride it just seven or eight feet in the air, then they couldn't touch me. If I could do that, then my plan would work.

The elevator was a hundred and fifty feet away.

I ran hard, vaulting over the lowest arms of the octopus, ducking beneath the chest-high sections. I glanced back and couldn't see them through the maze of arms and machinery. But I heard the three of them shouting, and I heard running feet. I heard Julia say, "He's going for the sprinklers!" Ahead, I saw the yellow open cage of the elevator. I was going to make it, after all.

At that moment, I stumbled over one of the arms and went sprawling. The jug skidded across the floor, came to rest against a support beam. I scrambled quickly to my feet again, and retrieved the jug. I knew they were right behind me. I didn't dare look back now. I ran for the elevator, ducking beneath one final pipe, but when I looked again, Vince was already there. He must have known a shortcut through the octopus arms; somehow he had beaten me. Now he stood in the open cage, grinning. I looked back and saw Ricky just a few yards behind me, closing fast.

Julia called, "Give it up, Jack! It's no good."

She was right about that, it was no good at all. I couldn't get past Vince. And I couldn't outrun Ricky now, he was much too close. I jumped over a pipe, stepped around a standing electrical box, and ducked down. As Ricky jumped the pipe, I slammed my elbow upward between his legs. He howled and went down, rolling on the floor in agony. I stopped and kicked him in the head as hard as I could. That was for Charley.

I ran.

At the elevator, Vince stood in a half-crouch, fists bunched. He was relishing a fight. I ran straight toward him and he grinned broadly in anticipation.

And at the last moment, I swerved left. I jumped.

And started climbing the ladder on the wall.

Julia screamed, "Stop him! Stop him!"

It was difficult climbing, because I had my thumb hooked through the jug; the bottle kept banging painfully against the back of my right hand as I went up. I focused on the pain. I panic at heights and I didn't want to look down. And so I couldn't see what was dragging at my legs, pulling me back toward the floor. I kicked, but whatever it was held on to me. Finally, I turned to look. I was ten feet above the ground, and two rungs beneath me, Ricky had his free arm locked around my legs, his hand clutching my ankle. He jerked at my feet, and yanked them off the rung. I slid for an instant and then felt a burst of searing pain in my hands. But I held on.

Ricky was smiling grimly. I kicked my legs backward, trying to hit his face, but to no avail, he had both legs locked tight against his chest. He was immensely strong. I kept trying until I realized that I could pull one leg up and free. I did, and stomped down on his hand that was holding on to the rung. He yelled, and released my legs to hold on to the ladder with his other hand. I stomped again-and kicked straight back, catching him right under the chin. He slid down five rungs, then caught himself. He hung there, near the bottom of the ladder. I climbed again.

Julia was running across the floor. "Stop him!"

I heard the elevator grind as Vince rode up past me, heading toward the top. He would wait for me there.

I climbed.

I was fifteen feet above the floor, then twenty. I looked down to see Ricky pursuing me but he was far behind, I didn't think he could catch me, and then Julia came swirling up through the air toward me, spiraling like a corkscrew-and grabbed the ladder right alongside me. Except she wasn't Julia, she was the swarm, and for a moment the swarm was disorganized enough that I could see right through her in places; I could see the swirling particles that composed her. I looked down and saw the real Julia, deathly pale, standing and looking up at me, her face a skull. By now the swarm alongside me became solid-appearing, as I had seen it become solid before. It looked like Julia. The mouth moved and I heard a strange voice say "Sorry, Jack." And the swarm shrank, becoming denser still, collapsing into a small Julia, about four feet tall.

I turned to climb again.

The small Julia swung back, and slammed hard against my body. I felt like I was hit by a sack of cement, the wind knocked out of me. My grip loosened from the ladder, and I barely managed to hang on, as the Julia swarm smashed against me again. I ducked and dodged, grunting in pain, and kept going despite the impacts. The swarm had enough mass to hurt me, but not enough to knock me off the ladder.

The swarm must have realized it, too, because now the small Julia swarm compressed itself into a sphere, and slid smoothly forward to envelop my head in a buzzing cloud. I was totally blind. I could see nothing at all. It was as if I was in a dust storm. I groped for the next rung on the ladder, and the next after that. Pinpricks stung my face and hands, the pain becoming more intense, sharper. Apparently the swarm was learning how to focus pain. But at least it hadn't learned to suffocate. The swarm did nothing to interfere with my breathing. I kept on.

I climbed in darkness.

And then I felt Ricky pulling at my legs again. And in that moment, finally, I didn't see how I could go on.

I was twenty-five feet in the air, hanging on to a ladder for dear life, dragging a jug of brown sludge up with me, with Vince above waiting and Ricky below dragging, and a swarm buzzing around my head, blinding me and stinging me like hell. I was exhausted and defeated and I could feel my energy draining away. My fingers felt shaky on the rungs. I couldn't hold my grip much longer. I knew that all I had to do was release my grip and fall, and it would be over in an instant. I was finished, anyway.

I felt for the next rung, gripped it, and hauled my body up. But my shoulders burned. Ricky was pulling down fiercely. I knew he would win. They would all win. They were always going to win. And then I thought of Julia, pale as a ghost and brittle thin, saying in a whisper "Save my babies." I thought of the kids, waiting for me to come back. I saw them sitting around the table waiting for dinner. And I knew I had to go on no matter what. So I did.

It's not clear to me now what happened to Ricky. Somehow he pulled my legs off the rungs, and I hung in the air from my arms, kicking wildly, and I must have kicked him in the face and broken his nose.

Because in an instant Ricky let go of me, and I heard a thump-thump-thumping as his body went down the ladder, and he desperately tried to grab the rungs as he fell. I heard, "Ricky, no!" and the cloud vanished from my head, I was completely free again. I looked down and saw the Julia swarm alongside Ricky, who had caught himself about twelve feet above the floor. He looked up angrily. His mouth and nose were gushing blood. He started toward me but the Julia swarm said, "No, Ricky. No, you can't! Let Vince."

And then Ricky half climbed, half fell the rest of the way down the ladder to the ground, and the swarm reinhabited Julia's pale body, and the two of them stood there and watched me. I turned away from them and looked up the ladder.

Vince was standing there, five feet above me.

His feet were on the top rungs, and he was leaning over, blocking my way. There was no possible way I could get past him. I paused to take stock, shifted my weight on the ladder, got one leg up to the next rung, hooked my free arm around the rung nearest my face. But as I raised my leg, I felt the lump in my pocket. I paused.

I had one more vial of phage.

I reached into my pocket, and drew it out to show him. I pulled out the cork with my teeth. "Hey, Vince," I said. "How about a shit shower?"

He didn't move. But his eyes narrowed.

I moved up another rung.

"Better get back, Vince," I said. I was panting so hard I couldn't manage the proper menace. "Get on back before you get wet ..."

One more rung. I was only three rungs below him.

"It's your call, Vince." I held the vial in my other hand. "I can't hit your face from down here. But I'll sure as hell hit your legs and shoes. Do you care?"

One more rung.

Vince stayed where he was.

"Maybe not," I said. "You like to live dangerously?"

I paused. If I advanced another rung, he could kick me in the head. If I stayed where I was, he would have to come down to me, and I could get him. So I stayed. "What do you say, Vince? Going to stay, or go?"

He frowned. His eyes flicked back and forth, from my face to the vial, and back again.

And then he stepped away from the ladder.

"Good boy, Vince."

I came up one rung.

He had stepped back so far that now I couldn't see where he was. I thought he was probably planning to rush me at the top. So I got ready to duck down, and swing laterally. Last rung.

And now I saw him. He wasn't planning anything. Vince was shaking with panic, a cornered animal, huddled back in the dark recess of the walkway. I couldn't read his eyes, but I saw his body tremble.

"Okay, Vince," I said. "I'm coming up."

I stepped onto the mesh platform. I was right at the top of the stairs, surrounded by roaring machinery. Not twenty paces away, I saw the paired steel tanks for the sprinkler system. I glanced down and saw Ricky and Julia, staring up at me. I wondered if they realized how close I was to my goal.

I looked back at Vince, just in time to see him pull a translucent white plastic tarp off a corner box. He wrapped himself in the tarp like a shield, and then, with a guttural yell, he charged. I was right at the edge of the ladder. I had no time to get out of the way, I just turned sideways and braced myself against a big three-foot pipe against the coming impact. Vince slammed into me.

The vial went flying out of my hand, shattering on the mesh. The jug was knocked from my other hand and tumbled along the walkway, coming to rest at the lip of the mesh path. Another few inches and it would go over. I moved toward it.

Still hiding behind the tarp, Vince smashed into me again. I was slammed back against the pipe. My head clanged on steel. I slipped on the brown sludge that dripped through holes in the mesh, barely kept my balance. Vince slammed me again.

In his panic he never realized I had lost my weapons. Or perhaps he couldn't see through the tarp. He just kept pounding me with his full body, and I finally slipped on the sludge and went down on my knees. I immediately scrambled toward the jug, which was about ten feet away. That odd behavior made Vince stop for a moment; he pulled down the tarp, saw the jug, and lunged for it, vaulting his whole body forward in the air.

But he was too late. I had my hand on the jug, and yanked it away, just as Vince landed, tarp and all, right where the jug had been. His head banged hard on the walkway lip. He was momentarily stunned, shaking his head to clear it.

And I grabbed the edge of the tarp, and yanked upward.

Vince yelled, and went over the side.

I watched as he hit the floor. His body didn't move. Then the swarm came off him, sliding into the air like his ghost. The ghost joined Ricky and Julia who were looking up at me. Then they turned away and hurried across the floor of the fabrication room, jumping over the octopus arms as they went. Their movements conveyed a clear sense of urgency. You might even think they were frightened.

Good, I thought.

I got to my feet and headed for the sprinkler tanks. The instructions were stenciled on the lower tank. It was easy to figure out the valves. I twisted the inflow, unscrewed the filler cap, waited for the pressurized nitrogen to hiss out, and then dumped in the jug of phage. I listened as it gurgled into the tank. Then I screwed the cap back on, twisted the valve, repressurized with nitrogen.

And I was done.

I took a deep breath.

I was going to win this thing, after all.

I rode the elevator down, feeling good for the first time all day.

DAY 7

8:12 A.M.

They were all clustered together on the other side of the room-Julia, Ricky, and now Bobby, as well. Vince was there, too, hovering in the background, but I could sometimes see through him, his swarm was slightly transparent. I wondered which of the others were only swarms now. I couldn't be sure. But it didn't matter now, anyway.

They were standing beside a bank of computer monitors that showed every parameter of the manufacturing process: graphs of temperature, output, God knows what else. But they had turned their backs to the monitors. They were watching me.

I walked calmly toward them, in measured steps. I was in no rush. Far from it. I must have taken a full two minutes to cross the fabrication room to where they were standing. They regarded me with puzzlement, and then with increasingly open amusement. "Well, Jack," Julia said finally. "How's your day going?"

"Not bad," I said. "Things are looking up."

"You seem very confident."

I shrugged.

"You've got everything under control?" Julia said.

I shrugged again.

"By the way, where is Mae?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"Bobby's been looking for her. He can't find her anywhere."

"I have no idea," I said. "Why were you looking for her?"

"We thought we should all be together," Julia said, "when we finish our business here."

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