Authors: Scott Sigler
Tags: #Fiction, #Neurobehavioral disorders, #Electronic Books, #American Horror Fiction, #Horror, #Fiction - Horror, #Science Fiction, #Horror - General, #Thrillers, #Horror fiction, #Parasites, #Murderers
To the memory of Mike Lehn, who led by example.
To the memory of Mookie: fourteen years as my writing partner was not enough.
To the Sigler Junkies all over the world. The FDO thanks you.
It had to be a joke.
Being hazed on the first day of work was nothing new, but John Gutierrez had never thought someone would have the balls to prank him on
On Inauguration Day.
One simply did not haze the president of the United States.
Murray, Im not finding the humor in this, John said. The country has some very serious issues to deal with, and this goes beyond the realm of good taste.
Murray Longworth looked surprised. A . . . joke? This is no joke, Mister President.
Of course it was. John Gutierrez hadnt been born yesterday.
He looked around the Oval Office, gauging the reaction from his key advisers. Tom Maskill, his twitchy deputy chief of staff, was trying and failing to look nonplussed. Secretary of Defense Donald Martin sat back on an antique couch, his legs crossed. Donald was old-school Washington: tall, white, graying hair, tailored suit . . . looked like he was made of plantation money. Chief of Staff Vanessa Colburn sat on a striped chair. In appearance she was Donalds polar oppositefemale, black and young. Her no-nonsense poker face carried a cold stare that could freeze you where you stood. At the moment, that stare was fixed directly on one Murray Long-worth, deputy director of the CIA.
Murray also had an old-school Washington look, but different from Donalds. Murrays suit looked expensive, too, but like its owner it seemed a bit rumpled and tired. Murray was past retirement age, slightly overweight, with a scowl permanently etched into his face. His was a familiar image among the dinosaurs of Washington, a look Vanessa had dubbed
Cold War White Man
. He was
CIA deputy director, but not
deputy director. Murray worked mostly behind the scenes.
Ive heard a lot about you, Murray, John said. I spoke to all five former presidents before I took office. Of the many nice things they had to say, there is only one person they each pointed out by nameyou. They said that you are a . . . how shall I put this? A special kind of go-to guy.
Yes, Mister President, Murray said.
Now it seems they all pointed you out for a reason, to set me up for this ridiculous story about triangular growths infecting Americans and turning them into psychopathic killers.
Sir, Murray said, I assure you this is no joke.
Then why havent we heard anything about it before? Vanessa asked, her voice almost as expressionless as her face.
President Hutchins wanted this in the black, Murray said. And keeping things in the black is what I do.
Murray had brought in a large flat-panel screen for his presentation. It looked out of place in the Oval Office, a brash piece of technology in a room designed to reek of history and tradition. John stared at the image frozen on that screen: an old woman, clearly dead, a lumpy blue triangular growth on her shoulder. Each side of the triangle was about an inch long. It wasnt on her skin, or under it, but
of it. Beneath the photo, her name
According to Murray, that growth had made Wilson murder her son with a butcher knife, then attack two police officers before they shot her to death in self-defense.
This wasnt just a joke, it was inexcusable.
Based on the endorsement of the former presidents, John had saved Murray Longworths Project Tangram presentation as the last of the day. It was the closing act in a mind-boggling cache of the previous administrations secrets: two stealth submarines resting on the bottom of the Sea of Japan ready to rain nukes on North Korea; two more subs sitting off Qatar, ready to first-strike Iran should the new government fall and fundamentalists get their finger on the nuclear button; secret deals with the Chinese government; a Mach-10 skunkworks strike-fighter that could fly forty miles above the Earth; fast-track deals for drilling in Alaska and off the coast of Florida; plus a dozen other tawdry dealings thatunder Hutchinss administrationhad been business as usual.
If I could finish the presentation, sir, Murray said, things might be a little clearer.
John looked at Vanessa, then Donald. They both shrugged. John sighed and nodded for Murray to continue.
Thank you, sir, Murray said. The disease was discovered about four months ago by CDC epidemiologist Doctor Margaret Montoya and her colleague Doctor Amos Braun. Both are still on the project. Symptoms begin with itching and small rashes that grow into large welts, then finally triangular blue growths. The disease also seems to create extreme paranoia in its victims, to the point where almost all subjects showed a definitive pattern of avoiding hospitals, health-care workers or members of law enforcement. Paranoia toward police and military, in particular, was particularly severe. Most victims either died of unknown causes, committed suicide or were killed by law enforcement as a result of psychotic behavior.
Wait a minute, Vanessa said. The parasite
them avoid hospitals? Aggressive behavior from some chemical imbalance is one thing, but you expect us to believe that these parasites actually modified a hosts decision-making ability?
It happens in nature all the time, Murray said.
But these are
Behavior is merely a chemical reaction, maam, Murray said. Trust me, there is zero question.
Vanessas face showed just how much she trusted Murrays opinion. Is this supposed parasite contagious?
Murray shook his head. As far as we can tell, it does not transmit from an infected host to other people. Something spreads the disease, however, and we havent figured out what that vector is.
So Americans can catch a parasite that turns them into killers, she said, and yet you guys kept the people in the dark?
President Hutchins opted to keep this information secret, yes, Murray said. He feared that reports could cause panic as well as a flood of false cases into hospitals that could impede our ability to find real victims. There is also the threat of a lynch-mob mentality that could result in grave harm to Americans guilty of nothing more than having poison ivy or psoriasis.
Vanessa leaned back in her chair and threw her hands up in disgust. You see, Mister President? This is why the last eight years have crippled America. The old guard never trusted the people. This is exactly why were here, to put an end to government run as a web of lies.
I understand youre enthusiastic about implementing new policies, Murray said. But if you dont mind a little advice, Miss Colburn, you might want to get the whole story before you dismiss the calculated decisions of a former president.
Vanessa sat forward again and glared at him. John couldnt suppress a small smile. Murray Longworth was taking a tone with Vanessa Colburn right off the bat? John wondered how long Murray would last.
By all means, Vanessa said, smiling her best saccharine smile. Please continue.
Murray nodded. Charlotte Wilson was just the first case we discovered. He pointed a remote control at the screen.
An old man, very much alive, with hateful eyes that would have commanded full attention were it not for the one-inch-wide bluish triangle on his neck.
This man checked in to the hospital, then hours later set his hospital bed on fire. He burned alive.
A corpse on a morgue table, covered with blackened third-degree burns, legs cut off below the knees.
This man killed three people: his wife, his six-year-old daughter and, when we tried to apprehend him, a CIA agent named Malcolm Johnson.
A charred, rotted corpse, little more than a skeleton coated with gossamer green fibers.
This one also killed his family, Murray said. We found him after hed died.
John wasnt smiling anymore. He stared at the last picture. What happened to him?
Murray looked at the picture for a moment, then turned back to face John and his staff.
Once the hosts die, their bodies decompose at an extremely advanced rate. Corpses break down to nothing but a blackened skeleton in less than two days.
John watched Donald, Vanessa and Tom. That had always been his strength, the ability to watch people, to understand them from facial expressions, posture, movement.
Tom looked like he wanted to vomit. Donald clearly believed. Vanessa was starting to. And in believing, Vanessa grew more and more angry. Most people wouldnt have seen it, but John knew her better than most. A secret like this, kept from the American people . . . she would want someones head. Unfortunately for Murray Longworth, that head would likely be his.
A giant of a man lying on a hospital bed, eyes closed, chest exposed, arms and legs locked down with heavy canvas straps. A black, oozing sore on his right collarbone, white bandages covering his right forearm, tubes going into his nose and arms.
Perry Dawsey, Donald said. I know that name. Isnt he that football player who went crazy and murdered his friend? Scary Perry Dawsey?
Murray nodded. Dawsey is the only known survivor. He had seven parasites, which he cut out of himself, removing the final one five weeks ago.
Jesus Christ, Vanessa said. Look at this body count, and you kept it secret? What are you, some kind of monster?
Now it was Murrays turn to smile a little. John immediately disliked that expressionit was the smile of a hunter. Murray Longworth clearly loved the game, and he was used to winning, no matter what the cost.
Funny you should mention monsters, Murray said. We put together a team to investigate the situation, led by CIA operative Dew Phillips. Through Phillipss work we discovered that the parasites leave the human host and became free-moving organisms.
If the Oval Office hadnt had such nice rug, you could have heard a pin drop.
Murray, John said, talking slowly, choosing his words carefully. Are you telling us that these triangular growths . . .
Thats correct, Mister President, Murray said. We even refer to them as hatchlings.
And then what? Donald said. Do they
on their own or something?
Thats correct, Mister Secretary, Murray said. Not only do they walk, they operate as a unit. Hatchlings tried to build and activate a construct that we believe is either some kind of gateway or a weapon. This is footage shot by army soldiers in Wahjamega, Michigan.
Murray cued the video. The quality was fairly good. John saw soldiers, trees and then something deeper in the winter woods . . . something
. It looked like a big archway, maybe twenty feet high at the apex, an illuminated wedding band half-buried in the muddy forest floor. Inside of that he could see three more arches, each smaller, each farther back. It was like looking into a glowing cone.
scurrying over the arches like termites on a rotten log. A strange skin growth was one thing, but this . . . this wasnt even remotely
John felt a cold tingle wash over his skin. If this
real, than it had to be . . . what? Aliens? Demons? This just couldnt be happening.
No way, Vanessa said. Theres no way thats real. Why are you wasting the presidents time with special effects?
Its real, maam, Murray said.
John leaned forward for a closer look, his ass barely on the edge of his chair. Just what the hell are those supposed to be?
Hatchlings, Murray said. You get a better look, right about . . . now.
The video grew shaky as the hatchlings suddenly rushed forward to attack. The shot angled sharply before the first creature reached the troops, probably as the soldier shooting the footage dropped the camera. Murray paused it there. John stared at a tilted close-up of a pyramid-shaped creature with angry, vertical black eyes and tentacles for legs.
Again, total silence.
John Gutierrez had made a career out of sizing people up. That innate skill had taken him from mayor to state senator. It had been key in adding Vanessa to his staff. When he met her, he
Her skill and ruthlessness had guided him from state senate into Congress, and now the White House. An amazing feat, considering that John was forty-six years old and the nations first Hispanic president. John Gutierrez trusted his eyes, his instinctsand those tools now told him that Murray Longworth wasnt bullshitting anyone.
This was real.
What the hell are we dealing with, Murray? John asked. Youre not going to tell me these are aliens, are you?
Thats our best guess, sir, Murray said. The technology is way beyond anything we know. We suspect that the hatchlings are a form of biological machine, designed to build the glowing structure.
John wanted to kill Hutchins. The former president might as well have left a giant, steaming pile of shit on the Oval Office rug. Now the problem rested squarely in Johns lap, and no matter what happened, the public would associate this with his presidency, not Hutchinss.
Wahjamega, Donald said. Wait a minute, thats where the Osprey helicopter crashed back in December. Eight soldiers died.
A cover story, Murray said. There was no crash. The eight soldiers died when we attacked and destroyed the gate.
Donald looked around the room in disbelief, as if he were waiting for Vanessa or John or Tom to say
But no one said
Simply amazing, Vanessa said. She sounded sarcastic, but also quite shaken, and John couldnt blame her. The families of these brave men may never know the truth. They died in battle, and we list it as a helicopter crash. How
of us. So whats happened since then?
Dawsey needed serious medical care, Murray said. We had him in a VA hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Seems he recovered faster than expected, got access to a computer, hacked into the facilitys database and altered his security status. Its a bit embarrassing to say, but on January eighth he just walked out.
The parasites built something in his brain, some kind of mesh structure that lets him track down infected hosts. He found one that had just murdered three people. Dawsey killed the man in self-defense. Before the man died, however, Dawsey discovered the location of another gate, in