Authors: Tim Lees
fetched another lunch. We sat back at the table.
I said, “Where's Anna?”
“I didn't ask you how she is. I need to see her.”
“She's around. She's gotten friendly with Security. They're all alike, those guysâÂcops, military. It doesn't matter where they're from. We don't have to worry about Anna, Chris. There's more important things. I don't know where to startâÂ”
His smile was stiff as cardboard, and the words just seemed to creep around it, like they belonged to someone else.
He said, “They were bastards to me, Chris. You won't believe. Just total bastards.” He glanced quickly right and left. “I meanâÂJesus, I'm deputy director, O&D. Deputy fucking director! And they spoke to me like I wasâÂI dunno. The office boy or something.
Do this. Do that
. âIf you intend to keep your job.' One of them actually said those words! It wasâÂit was humiliating. So, so humiliating.”
“These areâÂwhat? Your New York friends? The guys who turned up at the precinct house?”
“They didn't give me time to think!” His face was in an awful rictus. He looked like a bad ventriloquist. “You've got to get me out of here. For pity's sake! We've all got to get out, before, before he gets here. Seven B. We've got to get out now.”
“So?” I leaned back, watching. “Deputy director, like you said. Just ask nicely, eh? Please let us out. All right?”
“Jeez. If it was that easy .Â .Â .”
I was halfway through my omelet before he managed to say more.
“They're crazy here, Chris. All of them. They hide it, but it's true.”
“They don't hide it that well,” I said.
“Smile, Chris. You're not smiling enough. Don't look suspicious, huh?”
“I'm smiling. I'm ecstatic. Go on.”
“It'sâÂwell. It's not generally known, but there were problems here. Not the containment fields, that's pretty much the same tech as the flask, you know? That's fine. But we had .Â .Â . secondary effects. We weren't prepared.
“Several staff sufferedâÂpsychotic breakdowns, I guess you'd call them. Now, we're talking very, very clever Âpeople here, OK? And some of them, well, you'd have to say they probably weren't firing on all cylinders to start with. And you take some guys like that, you put them in a place like this, and, uh .Â .Â . I guess things go wrong.”
“Hm. I guess.” I gestured at him with my fork. “The gods, right?”
“It wasn't what they did. It wasn't like that. But we'd spent so much time, so much effort, just to keep them in their cells. We never thought about the closeness. The proximity. So many here, together. This has never happened, not in all of history. We're the first to do it.” He shook his head. “We couldn't have known.”
“You could have guessed.”
The twitch in his eye was back.
“But we acted.
acted. Steps were taken. We cut down on the shift times. No one stayed even a minute longer than they had to. We paid motel bills. Travel. I saw the rosters. It was me, personally, I OK'd them, right? And the meds. ClozapineâÂit's an antipsychotic. I authorized it. I found out what was going on, and I took care of it. I
. What else was I supposed to do?”
I didn't answer that.
“You know that they're alive, don't you? Not like us, but .Â .Â . linked to us in some way. Part of us. I got hereâÂoh, day before yesterday, and already I can feel them, crawling through my head .Â .Â . I haven't slept. I'm too scared. When you sleep, they say you dream of them, and that's when they grow strong. They're stronger all the time, Chris. We drain the power, but it's still just going up and up. We can't stop it. Ever since those Âpeople came, the shantytown .Â .Â . They've been gathering for weeks. I've seen reports. It's like a feedback loop. They sing, they pray, whatever else they do. And down there,” he glanced towards the floor, “down there, they feel it. And they grow.”
“And Willis.” His voice was so hushed I could hardly hear. “He's got us all on lockdown. Nobody goes in or out, which is a problem in itself, 'cause some of these guys, they're getting .Â .Â . flaky. He thinks he's got a plan. HeâÂChrist. He thinks he's at the Alamo or something. I told him, I said, Seven B will hit us like a nuclear missile. I said that. And he just put his head back andâÂhe laughed. Sit tight, he said. Keep the perimeterâÂ”
“You worked it out yourself,” I said. “He doesn't always kill. Seven B.” I shrugged. “He didn't kill me.”
“There's time. They've calculated the trajectory, the speed. He's not a
Chris. He's not going to be slapped down by a few big guys in uniform. No way. And he's
. We don't know how to deal with that. We've never
that. He's going to tear this place apart to get to Seven, and anyone who's standing in the way, anyone who tries to stop himâÂ”
“It's going to be bad,” I said.
“I called it in. I phoned the office, I said, I don't know what I'm doing here, I said. We're going to die, I said. You need to pull us out. I told them. IâÂ”
“Fuck you.” He put his hand over his face.
“You phoned it in. So let's assume they know what's happening. What's their advice?”
“Advice? Jeez! OhâÂ
liaise between the different groups. Formulate a plan of action.
They don't know anything. They don't know anything at all!”
“I think they do.” I pushed my empty plate aside. “If things go well,” I said, “either you solve the problem, or the problem doesn't happen. Either way, that's good, right? While on the other hand .Â .Â .”
He looked at me between his fingers.
“On the other hand, if everything goes straight to hell, then it's a perfect press release:
Sad death of high-Âranking Registry official in brave attempt to avert disaster
. You know? High rank's important, by the way. It shows they took it seriously, so they sent an appropriate .Â .Â . now what's the word? Ah yes. Sacrifice.”
“You get it now, though, don't you?” I half-Ârose from my seat, staring him down. “You bloody ought to. 'Cause it's what you did to me in Budapest, you little shit.”
“You want to argue?”
“It's nothing like that! It's not a bit the same!”
“Smile,” I said. “Keep smiling.”
“I had plans. So many plans. And, andâÂplans for you, too, Chris. I knew you'd come out on top. AndâÂwe're almost there now. Almost! When I think how far we've come, what we've achievedâÂ” It took a moment, then suddenly, he did smileâÂa real smile, shaky, even just a little sad, but genuine, nevertheless.
“You think of all we've done.”
“If we can just get through the next few days. If we can just survive. If this place can survive. Imagine itâÂthe power of God, in every home, in every city in America. You think of that. What will it be like? Can you picture it? Can you? Honestly?”
And his smile got wider and wider, and it stayed there on his face for far too long.
ow,” said Anna, “here is problem. Perpetrator is experienced, has been restrained before. As officers on arms pull down, he takes big stepâÂ” She demonstrated, arching her leg up in a high, unnatural stride. “This happens very quickly. He does not drop. Now perp is dragging officers. Perp is in control. What next?”
“Kick his legs out.”
There were three men with her, all in the regulation light brown shirts, all attentive to the little class that she was running. Or attentive to her, anyway. She barely came up to their shoulders, but she'd an air of confidence, a physicality I'd grown inured to being close to her these last few days. I saw it again now and stood back, watching.
She turned on the ball of her foot and nodded to the man who'd spoken, a big Hispanic with an earpiece.
“Possible. Yes. Good. Possible too, I fall on ass in process. No, in my view, smart move is always use a wall. Wall, furniture, even streetlampâÂany object. Fixed object. Can be floor, floor work is good, but if not floorâÂanything that does not move.”
“Yeah. Well, that's good, that's good.”
“We train in this,” she explained. “I trained with Philadelphia PD. Good Âpeople.”
“Gotta be good in Philly. Tough town.” This from a tubby man who looked like he could drop you just by bowling into you.
The third, whose head was shaved, was keen to talk of his experiences. “We had this guyâÂI won't say who. Crazy guy, we couldn't get him down. There's four of us. Wound up moving with him. Holding in, close. Tight. Tried to bite us, but we didn't back off.”
“Tactically wrong, to back off. Always.”
“Right. So we made this kind of moving cage around him, the four of us. Kept him there till we got a chanceâÂ”
It was a very technical discussion, and they were all four deep in it, working out the finer points. Then Shailer strolled into their midst and said, “Anna! Come on, girl!” as if he'd been calling to a dog.
Her brows went down. She glared at him, only when she saw me standing in the doorway, her face changed. She brushed past him, ran towards me, and I swear, her face lit up, it truly did.
“Chris! You are well! You are here! Are you hurt? Are you damaged anywhere? Chris!”
She put her arms around me. It was a brief, comradely embrace, but worth the wait.
Shailer coughed impatiently.
“We don't have very long,” he said.
“You,” she told him, “you have no time at all. You understand?”
nd, let's see .Â .Â .” Dr. Thoms put his small, childlike hands together and smiled up at me. “You've an affinity with him? With Seven B?”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” said Shailer.
I said, “No” again, and Shailer improvised, spinning notions out of thin air, as was his gift and habit.
“We don't know the full extent of it, or how it works, but there's a definite affinity between them. Isn't there, Chris? Definite.”
I looked at Anna, shrugged.
“And not just physical,” said Shailer. “It probably goes right down, you know, right down to the brain pattern, the way of thinkingâÂthe whole lot. Plus, and this is really interesting, Chris here is the only man to meet him and escape unharmed. Isn't that right?”
“He knocked me out.”
“Yes. But he didn't actually
you, did he? That's what I'm getting at. He didn't
“There were hundreds of Âpeople must have seen him. I saw him at the zoo. He's been walking round Budapest for yearsâÂ”
“Chris, Chris.” Shailer touched my knee with an unwelcome familiarity. “There's no need for this modesty. We're interested in data hereâÂhard facts. This man before youâÂwell, I don't want to say
. But the project would still be on the drawing board if not for him.”
Dr. Thoms nodded, clearly pleased by this. He was a small, bald man with glasses and a pointed chin; he wore a white lab coat, very crisp and clean, which, for a director's post, struck me as an affectation. He'd a yellow notepad on the desk before him, and he scribbled on it intermittently throughout the conversation. There were stacks of documents piled very neatly all over the floor. But nothing personal; no photographs, no pictures of family, no plants, no ornaments of any kind.
he arrivesâÂChris can talk to him. He can probably be reasoned with. We'll maneuver him into position, then set up a containment field, orâÂ”
“Electric shock worked last time,” I said.
“I'd rather,” Thoms said, “see this settled peacefully.”
“Of course, of course,” said Shailer.
“He is unique.”
“He's ambulatory. That's .Â .Â . unusual,” I said.
“He's a new creature. A hybrid.
possibly.” He wrote on the pad in front of him. “Part man, part god. A long tradition thereâÂHercules, Dionysus .Â .Â .” He smiled. “Jesus Christ.”
“He isn't Jesus,” I said.
“The point is,” said Shailer, “he's proved dangerous. He's killedâÂa dozen? More. And we expect he'll kill again. He needs to be contained. By force, if need be. We have to be prepared. That's our priority.”
Dr Thoms pursued his own views. “He speaks English, though? He can be questioned?”
“He seems to understand, yes.”
“He can be reasoned with.”
“No. No, he can't.” I leaned forward, very close to Dr. Thoms. He had a faint smell, a mix of cheese and disinfectant. “What you call Seven B speaks English, and as far as I can tell, he has a high level of cognitive function. What he doesn't have are sympathy and ethics. His values are entirely different.
all right? Different appetites. Different drives. Shailer's right. We've got to contain him. Kill him if we have to. But stop him, trap himâÂyes. You've got flasks?”
“Good. We need to work fast. He'll be here inâÂI don't know. A day, maybe. Tomorrow. No later.”
“Well,” said Thoms, and he smiled again. “A day. That's good. That's very good.”
“It's not good. It's the worst news on the planet. But if we can hold him here, then .Â .Â .”
“Oh, certainly. We must talk with this prodigy. Oh yes.”
He smiled a long, slow smile.
“We need to kill it,” I said. “Or whatever these things do instead of dying.”
There was silence. Silence, and Thoms's attentive gaze, his charming smile. But behind his lenses, his eyes were cold and hard.
“No,” he said, still smiling. “NoâÂnot kill, I don't think. Not something this important.”
Anna had been leaning on the door frame, listening, and now she said, “I have question. Dr. Thoms? Picture on house. Lincoln, yes? President Lincoln?”
Thoms gave a brief nod of acknowledgement.
“Reason for this? I am only curious, you understand. Lincoln is, I think, from Illinois, not here, yes?”
His hands came together, his eyes swept over her, and his smile grew sweeter still.
“Lincoln freed the slaves,” he said at last.
“The powers we have here,” and he spoke very clearly now, as if he wanted to be sure she understood, “will set us all free.”
“Or kill us first,” I said.
Thoms didn't argue. But then, I realized, Thoms didn't argue over anything, with anyone. Instead, I ran up smack into that pleasant little smile, the smug, self-Âsatisfied, intoxicated grimace of a would-Âbe saint.
Anna had seen where we were going here, and seen it before I did. Nowhere. The only place we'd ever go with Thoms. So I took my lead from her; I cooled my temper and resigned myself.
“I think,” I said, “we've taken up enough of your most valuable time, Dr. Thoms. Thank you so much for seeing us.”
I stood. I smiled politely. He made soothing little noises in his throat, invited us to drop back any time. I took a sideways glance down at his notebook. I'd assumed it was a record of our conversation, but it wasn't. It was the same few words, over and over, covering the whole page. It took a moment till I worked out I was looking at a scientific classification.
Thoms, it said.
ThomsÂ .Â .Â .
I glanced back as I left the office. Thoms had settled in his chair, the smile still on his face. His eyes had drifted up inside his head somewhere, only the whites still showing.
ee the problem? See it now?”
Shailer's voice was low and urgent.
“Oh yeah,” I said. “Some dickhead who's as stupid and as egotistical as you. I see it, all right.”
I pushed past him, strode ahead. I'd no idea where I was going. Anna said, “I think we must leave now. I think we must be gone.”
Ten yards on, there was a door. EMERGENCY ONLY, in big red letters. Well, this was an emergency. I'd vouch for that. I shoved the bar. The door stuck, juddered, finally scraped open.
A voice said, “Sorry, bro.”
I had a glimpse of green fields, trees, the compound fences far beyond; and much, much closer, a large man in a pale brown uniform, his hand just inches from a leather holster of impressive size.
I apologized most humbly, shut the door, and shrank back in the gloom.
“You see?” said Shailer. “See? See? See?”