"Just do it," Mae said. "Now get moving."
I tightened my backpack, and adjusted the straps so it wouldn't rattle. I locked the night-vision goggles up on my forehead, and I started forward. I had gotten about halfway to the mound when I saw a dark figure climb out into the night.
I dropped down as quietly as I could. I was in a thick patch of sagebrush three feet high, so I was reasonably well concealed. I looked over my shoulder, but I didn't see either Mae or Bobby; they'd dropped to the ground, too. I didn't know if they'd separated yet. Cautiously, I pushed aside a plant in front of me, and looked toward the mound. The legs of the figure were silhouetted against the faint green glow. The upper body was black against the night stars. I flipped down the goggles, and waited a moment while they flared blue, and then saw the image resolve.
This time it was Rosie. Walking around in the night, looking in all directions, her body vigilant and alert. Except that she didn't move like Rosie, she moved more like a man. Then after a moment, the silhouette changed into Ricky. And it moved like Ricky. The figure crouched down, and appeared to be looking over the tops of the sage. I wondered what had brought it out of the mound. I didn't have to wait long to find out. Behind the figure, a white light appeared on the western horizon. It grew rapidly in brilliance, and soon I heard the thumping of helicopter blades. That would be Julia coming from the Valley, I thought. I wondered what was so urgent that she had had to leave the hospital against orders, and fly out here in the middle of the night.
As the helicopter approached, it switched on its searchlight. I watched the circle of blue-white light as it rippled over the ground toward us. The Ricky figure watched, too, then slid down out of sight.
And then the helicopter roared over me, blinding me for a moment in the halogen light. Almost immediately it banked sharply, and circled back.
What the hell was going on?
The helicopter made a slow arc, passing over the mound but not stopping, then coming to a stop right above where I was hiding. I was caught in the blue glow. I rolled onto my back and waved to the helicopter, pointing repeatedly toward the lab. I mouthed "Go!" and pointed away.
The helicopter descended, and for a moment I thought it was going to land right beside me. Then it abruptly banked again, and moved away low to the ground, heading south toward the concrete pad. The sound faded.
I decided I had better change my position fast. I got to my knees and in a crouch, moved crabwise thirty yards to the left. Then I dropped down again. When I looked back at the mound, I saw three-no, four figures coming out of the interior. They moved apart, each heading to a different area of the mound. They all looked like Ricky. I watched as they went down the slope of the mound, and moved out into the bush. My heart began to pound in my chest. One of the figures was coming in my direction. As it approached, I saw it veer off to the right. It was going to the place where I had been before. When it reached my last hiding place, it stopped, and turned in all directions. It was not far from me at all. I could see through the goggles that this new Ricky figure now had a complete face, and the clothing was much more detailed. In addition, this figure moved with the sensation of real body weight. It might be an illusion, of course, but I guessed that the swarm had increased mass, and now weighed fifty pounds, maybe more. Maybe twice that. If so, then the swarm now had enough mass to jolt you with a physical impact. Even knock you off your feet.
Through the goggles I saw the figure's eyes move, and blink. The surface of the face now had the texture of skin. The hair appeared to be composed of individual strands. The lips moved, the tongue licked nervously. All in all this face looked very much like Ricky-disturbingly like Ricky. When the head turned in my direction, I felt that Ricky was staring right at me. And I suppose it was, because the figure began to move directly toward me. I was trapped. My heart was thumping in my chest. I hadn't planned for this; I had no protection, no sort of defense. I could get up and run, of course, but there was nowhere to go. I was surrounded by miles of desert, and the swarms would hunt me down. In a few moments I would be-
With a roar, the helicopter came back. The Ricky figure looked toward it as it came, and then turned and fled, literally flying over the ground, not bothering any longer to animate the legs and feet. It was creepy to see this human replica, suddenly floating over the desert. But the other three Ricky figures were running, too. Running hard, conveying a distinct sense of panic. Did the swarms fear the helicopter? It seemed they did. And as I watched, I understood why. Even though the swarms were now heavier and more substantial, they were still vulnerable to strong winds. The helicopter was a hundred feet in the air but the downdraft was powerful enough to deform the running figures, flattening them partially as they fled. It was as if they were being hammered down.
The figures vanished into the mound.
I looked back at Mae. She was standing up in the streambed now, talking on her radio to the helicopter. She'd needed that radio, all right. She yelled to me, "Let's go!" and began running toward me. I was dimly aware of Bobby, running away from the mound, back to his ATV. But there was no time to worry about him. The helicopter hung poised right above the mound itself. Dust whipped up, stinging my eyes.
Then Mae was beside me. Removing our goggles, we pulled on our oxygen masks. She turned me, twisted the tank valve behind me. I did the same for her. Then we put the night goggles back on. It seemed like a lot of contraptions jiggling and rattling around my face. She clipped a halogen flashlight to my belt, and another to her own. She leaned close, shouted: "Ready?"
"Okay, let's go!"
There was no time to think. It was better that way. The helicopter downdraft roared in my ears. Together we clawed our way up the slope of the mound, our clothes whipping around us. We arrived at the edge, barely visible in the thick swirling dust. We couldn't see anything beyond the rim. We couldn't see what was below.
Mae took my hand, and we jumped.
I landed on loose stones, and half stumbled, half slid down the slope toward the cave entrance. The thumping of the helicopter blades above us was loud. Mae was right beside me, but I could hardly see her in the thick dust. There were no Ricky figures anywhere in sight. We came to the cave entrance and stopped. Mae pulled out the thermite capsules. She gave me the magnesium fuses. She tossed me a plastic cigarette lighter. I thought, that's what we're using? Her face was already partly clouded behind the mask. Her eyes were hidden behind the night-vision goggles. She pointed to the interior of the cave. I nodded.
She tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to my goggles. I didn't understand, so she reached forward by my cheek and flicked a switch.
"-me now?" she said.
"Yes, I hear."
"Okay then, let's go."
We started into the cave. The green glow had vanished in the thick dust. We had only the infrared light mounted on top of our night-vision goggles. We saw no figures. We heard nothing but the thumping of the helicopter. But as we went deeper into the cave, the sound began to fade.
And as the sound faded, so did the wind.
Mae was focused. She said, "Bobby? Do you hear me?"
"Yes, I hear you."
"Get your ass in here."
"I'm trying to-"
"Don't try. Get in here, Bobby."
I shook my head. If I knew Bobby Lembeck, he was never coming into this pit. We rounded the bend, and saw nothing but suspended dust, the vague outlines of cave walls. The walls seemed smooth here, with no place to hide. Then from the gloom directly ahead I saw a Ricky figure emerge. He was expressionless, just walking toward us. Then another figure from the left, and another. The three formed a line. They marched toward us at a steady pace, their faces identical and expressionless.
"First lesson," Mae said, holding out the thermite cap.
"Let's hope they don't learn it," I said, and I lit the fuse. It sputtered white-hot sparks. She tossed the cap forward. It landed a few feet in front of the advancing group. They ignored it, staring forward at us.
Mae said, "It's a three count ... two ... one ... and turn away." I twisted away, ducking my head under my arm just as a sphere of blinding white filled the tunnel. Even though my eyes were closed, the glare was so strong that I saw spots when I opened my eyes again. I turned back.
Mae was already moving forward. The dust in the air had a slightly darker tint. I saw no sign of the three figures.
"Did they run?"
"No. Vaporized," she said. She sounded pleased.
"New situations," I said. I was feeling encouraged. If the programming assumptions still held, the swarms would be weak when reacting to genuinely new situations. In time they would learn; in time they would evolve strategies to deal with the new conditions. But initially their response would be disorganized, chaotic. That was a weakness of distributed intelligence. It was powerful, and it was flexible, but it was slow to respond to unprecedented events. "We hope," Mae said.
We came to the gaping hole in the cave floor she had described. In the night goggles, I saw a sort of sloping ramp. Four or five figures were coming up toward us, and there seemed to be more behind. They all looked like Ricky, but many of them were not so well formed. And those in the rear were just swirling clouds. The thrumming sound was loud. "Second lesson." Mae held out a cap. It sizzled white when I lit it. She rolled it gently down the ramp. The figures hesitated when they saw it.
"Damn," I said, but then it was time to duck away, and shield my eyes from the explosive flash. Inside the confined space, there was a roar of expanding gas. I felt a burst of intense heat on my back. When I looked again, most of the swarms beneath us had vanished. But a few hung back, apparently undamaged.
They were learning.
"Next lesson," Mae said, holding two caps this time. I lit both and she rolled one, and threw the second one deeper down the ramp. The explosions roared simultaneously, and a huge gust of hot air rolled upward past us. My shirt caught fire. Mae pounded it out with the flat of her hand, smacking me with rapid strokes.
When we looked again, there were no figures in sight, and no dark swarms.
We went down the ramp, heading deeper into the cave.
We had started with twenty thermite caps. We had sixteen left, and we had gone only a short distance down the ramp toward the large room at the bottom. Mae moved quickly now-I had to hurry to catch up with her-but her instincts were good. The few swarms that materialized before us all quickly backed away at our approach.
We were herding them into the lower room.
Mae said, "Bobby, where are you?"
The headset crackled. "-trying-get-"
"Bobby, come on, damn it."
But all the while we were moving deeper into the cave, and soon we heard only static. Down here, dust hung suspended in the air, diffusing the infrared beams. We could see clearly the walls and ground directly ahead of us, but beyond that, there was total blackness. The sense of darkness and isolation was frightening. I couldn't tell what was on either side of me unless I turned my head, sweeping my beam back and forth. I began to smell that rotten odor again, sharp and nauseating.
We were coming to level ground. Mae stayed calm; when a half-dozen swarms buzzed before us, she held out another cap for me to light. Before I could light the fuse, the swarms backed off. She advanced at once.
"Sort of like lion taming," she said.
"So far," I said.
I didn't know how long we could keep this up. The cave was large, much larger than I had imagined. Sixteen caps didn't seem like enough to get us through it. I wondered if Mae was worried, too. She didn't seem to be. But probably she wouldn't show it. Something was crunching underfoot. I looked down and saw the floor was carpeted with thousands of tiny, delicate yellow bones. Like bird bones. Except these were the bones of bats. Mae was right: they'd all been eaten.
In the upper corner of my night-vision image, a red light began to blink. It was some kind of warning, probably the battery. "Mae ..." I began. Then the red light went out, as abruptly as it had begun.
"What?" she said. "What is it?"
And then at last we came to the large central chamber-except there was no central chamber, at least, not anymore. Now the huge space was filled from floor to ceiling with an array of dark spheres, about two feet in diameter, and bristling with spiky protrusions. They looked like enormous sea urchins. They were stacked in large clusters. The arrangement was orderly. Mae said, "Is this what I think it is?" Her voice was calm, detached. Almost scholarly. "Yeah, I think so," I said. Unless I was wrong, these spiked clusters were an organic version of the fabrication plant that Xymos had built on the surface. "This is how they reproduce." I moved forward.
"I don't know if we should go in ..." she said.
"We have to, Mae. Look at it: it's ordered."
"You think there's a center?"
"Maybe." And if there was, I wanted to drop thermite on it. I continued onward. Moving among the clusters was an eerie sensation. Thick mucuslike liquid dripped from the tips of the spikes. And the spheres seemed to be coated with a kind of thick gel that quivered, making the whole cluster seem to be moving, alive. I paused to look more closely. Then I saw that the surface of the spheres really was alive; crawling within the gel were masses of twisting black worms. "Jesus ..."
"They were here before," she said calmly.
"The worms. They were living in the layer of guano on the cave floor, when I came here before. They eat organic material and excrete high-content phosphorus compounds."
"And now they're involved in swarm synthesis," I said. "That didn't take long, just a few days. Coevolution in action. The spheres probably provide food, and collect their excretions in some way."
"Or collect them," Mae said dryly.
"Yeah. Maybe." It wasn't inconceivable. Ants raised aphids the way we raised cows. Other insects grew fungus in gardens for food.
We moved deeper into the room. The swarms swirled on all sides of us, but they kept their distance. Probably another unprecedented event, I thought: intruders in the nest. They hadn't decided what to do. I moved carefully; the floor was now increasingly slippery in spots. There was a kind of thick muck on the ground. In a few places it glowed streaky green. The streaks seemed to go inward, toward the center. I had the sense that the floor sloped gently downward. "How much farther?" Mae said. She still sounded calm, but I didn't think she was. I wasn't either; when I looked back I could no longer see the entrance to the chamber, hidden behind the clusters.
And then suddenly we reached the center of the room, because the clusters ended in an open space, and directly ahead I saw what looked like a miniature version of the mound outside. It was a mound about four feet high, perfectly circular, with flat vanes extending outward on all sides. It too was streaked with green. Pale smoke was coming off the vanes. We moved closer.
"It's hot," she said. And it was. The heat was intense; that's why it was smoking. She said, "What do you think is in there?"
I looked at the floor. I could see now that the streaks of green were running from the clusters down to this central mound. I said, "Assemblers." The spiky urchins generated raw organic material. It flowed to the center, where the assemblers churned out the final molecules. This is where the final assembly occurred.
"Then this is the heart," Mae said.
"Yeah. You could say."
The swarms were all around us, hanging back by the clusters. Apparently, they wouldn't come into the center. But they were everywhere around us, waiting for us. "How many you want?" she said quietly, taking the thermite from her pack.
I looked around at all the swarms.
"Five here," I said. "We'll need the rest to get out."
"We can't light five at once ..."
"It's all right." I held out my hand. "Give them to me."
"But, Jack ..."
"Come on, Mae."
She gave me five capsules. I moved closer and tossed them, unlit, into the central mound. The surrounding swarms buzzed, but still did not approach us.
"Okay," she said. She understood immediately what I was doing. She was already taking out more capsules.
"Now four," I said, looking back at the swarms. They were restless, moving back and forth. I didn't know how long they would stay there. "Three for you, one for me. You do the swarms."
"Right ..." She gave me one capsule. I lit the others for her. She threw them back in the direction we had come. The swarms danced away.
She counted: "Three ... two ... one ... now!"
We crouched, ducked away from the harsh blast of light. I heard a cracking sound; when I looked again, some of the clusters were breaking up, falling apart. Spikes were rolling on the ground. Without hesitating, I lit the next capsule, and as it spit white sparks, I tossed it into the central mound.
We ran for the entrance. The clusters were crumbling in front of us. Mae leapt easily over the falling spikes, and kept going. I followed her, counting in my mind ... three ... two ... one ...
There was a kind of high-pitched shriek, and then a terrific blast of hot gas, a booming detonation and stabbing pain in my ears. The shock wave knocked me flat on the ground, sent me skidding forward in the sludge. I felt the spikes sticking in my skin all over my body. My goggles were knocked away, and I was surrounded by blackness. Blackness. I could see nothing at all. I wiped the sludge from my face. I tried to get to my feet, slipped and fell. "Mae," I said. "Mae ..."
"There was an explosion," she said, in a surprised voice.
"Mae, where are you? I can't see."
Everything was pitch black. I could see nothing at all. I was deep in some damn cave full of spiky things and I couldn't see. I fought panic.
"It's all right," Mae said. In the darkness I felt her hand gripping my arm. Apparently she could see me. She said, "The flashlight's on your belt." She guided my hand. I fumbled in the darkness, feeling for the clip. I found it, but I couldn't get it open. It was a spring clip and my fingers kept slipping off. I began to hear a thrumming sound, low at first, but starting to build. My hands were sweating. Finally the clip opened, and I flicked the flashlight on with a sigh of relief. I saw Mae in the cold halogen beam; she still had her goggles, and looked away. I swung the beam around the cave. It had been transformed by the explosion. Many of the clusters had broken apart and the spikes were all over the floor. Some substance on the floor was beginning to burn. Acrid, foul smoke was billowing up. The air was thick and dark. ... I stepped backward, and felt something squishy.
I looked down and saw David Brooks's shirt. Then I realized I was standing on what was left of David's torso, which had turned into a kind of whitish jelly. My foot was right in his abdomen. His rib cage scraped against my shin, leaving a white streak on my pants. I looked back and saw David's face, ghostly white and eroded, his features eaten away until he looked as featureless as the faces on the swarms. I felt instant nausea, and tasted bile. "Come on," Mae said, grabbing my arm, squeezing it hard. "Come on, Jack." With a sucking sound, my foot pulled free of the body. I tried to scrape my shoe on the floor, to get clean of the white muck. I was not thinking anymore, I was just fighting nausea and an overpowering sense of horror. I wanted to run. Mae was talking to me but I didn't hear her. I saw only glimpses of the room around me, and was only dimly aware that the swarms were emerging all around us, swarm after swarm after swarm. They were buzzing everywhere. "I need you, Jack," Mae said, holding out four caps, and somehow, fumbling with the flashlight, I managed to light them and she flung them in all directions. I threw my hands over my eyes as the hot spheres exploded around me. When I looked again, the swarms were gone. But in only a few moments, they began to reemerge. First one swarm, then three, then six, then ten-and then too many to count. They were converging, with an angry buzz, toward us. "How many caps have we got left?" I said.
I knew then that we were not going to make it. We were too deep in the cave. We would never get out. I had no idea how many swarms were around us-my halogen beam swung back and forth across what seemed like an army.
"Jack ..." Mae said, holding out her hand. She never seemed to lose confidence. I lit three more caps and Mae threw them, retracing her steps toward the entrance as she did so. I stayed close to her, but I knew our situation was hopeless. Each blast scattered the swarms for just a moment. Then they quickly regrouped. There were far too many swarms. "Jack." More thermite in her hands.
Now I could see the entrance to the chamber, just a few yards ahead. My eyes were watering from all the acrid smoke. My halogen light was just a narrow beam cutting through the dust. The air was getting thicker and thicker.
A final series of white-hot blasts, and we came to the entrance. I saw the ramp leading back toward the surface. I never thought we'd get this far. But I wasn't thinking anymore, everything was impressions.
"How many left?" I said.
Mae didn't answer me. I heard the rumble of an engine from somewhere above us. Looking up I saw a wobbling white light in the cave higher up. The rumble became very loud-I heard an engine gunned-and then I saw the ATV poised on the ramp above. Bobby was up there, shouting "Get outttttt!"
Mae turned and ran up the ramp, and I scrambled to follow her. I was vaguely aware of Bobby lighting something that burst into orange flame, and then Mae pushed me against the wall as the riderless ATV roared down the ramp toward the chamber below, with a flaming cloth hanging from its gas tank. It was a motorized Molotov cocktail.
As soon as it passed, Mae shoved me hard in the back. "Run!" I sprinted the last few yards up the ramp. Bobby was reaching down for us, hauling us up over the lip to the level above. I fell and scraped my knee but hardly felt it as he dragged me onto my feet again. Then I was running hard toward the cave entrance and had almost reached the opening when a fiery blast knocked us off our feet, and I went tumbling through the air, and smashed against one of the cave walls. I got to my feet, head ringing. My flashlight was gone. I heard a kind of strange screaming sound from somewhere behind me, or thought I did. I looked at Mae and Bobby. They were getting to their feet. With the helicopter still thumping above us, we clambered up the incline and collapsed over the lip of the mound, and tumbled down the slopes, out into the cool, black desert night.
The last thing I saw was Mae waving the helicopter away, gesturing for it to go, go, go-
And then the cave exploded.
The ground jumped beneath my feet, knocking me over. I fell to the ground just as the shock wave caused sharp pain in my ears. I heard the deep rumble of the explosion. From the mouth of the cave an enormous angry fireball billowed upward, orange laced in black. I felt a wave of heat rolling down toward me, and then it was gone, and everything was suddenly quiet, and the world around me was black.
How long I lay there beneath the stars I am not sure. I must have lost consciousness, because the next thing I remember was Bobby pushing me up into the backseat of the helicopter. Mae was already inside, and she leaned over to buckle me in. They were both looking at me with expressions of concern. I wondered dully if I had been injured. I didn't feel any pain. The door slammed beside me, and Bobby got in the front next to the pilot. We had done it. We had succeeded.
I could hardly believe it was over.
The helicopter rose into the air and I saw the lights of the lab in the distance.
Julia rushed toward me as I came down the corridor. In the overhead light her face looked beautiful in a lean, elegant way. She was in truth more beautiful than I remembered. Her ankle was bandaged and she had a cast on her wrist. She threw her arms around me and buried her head in my shoulder. Her hair smelled of lavender. "Oh, Jack, Jack. Thank God you're all right."
"Yeah," I said hoarsely. "I'm okay."
"I'm so glad ... so glad."
I just stood there, feeling her hug me. Then I hugged her back. I didn't know how to react. She was so energized, but I was exhausted, flat.
"Are you all right, Jack?" she said, still hugging me.
"Yeah, Julia." I said, just above a whisper. "I am."
"What's wrong with your voice?" she said, pulling back to look at me. She scanned my face. "What's wrong?"
"He probably burned his vocal cords," Mae said. She was hoarse, too. Her face was blackened with soot. She had a cut on her cheek, and another on her forehead. Julia embraced me again, her fingers touched my shirt. "Darling, you're hurt ..."
"Just my shirt."
"Jack, are you sure you're not hurt? I think you're hurt ..."
"No, I'm okay." I stepped away from her awkwardly.
"I can't tell you," she said, "how grateful I am for what you did tonight, Jack. What all of you did," she added, turning to the others. "You, Mae, and Bobby too. I'm only sorry I wasn't here to help. I know this is all my fault. But we're very grateful. The company is grateful." I thought, The company? But all I said was, "Yeah, well, it had to be done."
"It did, yes, it certainly did. Quickly and decisively. And you did it, Jack. Thank God." Ricky was standing in the background, head bobbing up and down. He was like one of those mechanical birds that drinks from a water glass. Bobbing up and down. I felt unreal, as if I was in a play.
"I think we should all have a drink to celebrate," Julia was saying, as we went down the corridor. "There must be some champagne around here. Ricky? Is there? Yes? I want to celebrate what you guys have done."
"I just want to sleep," I said.
"Oh, come on, just one glass."
It was typical Julia, I thought. Involved in her own world, not noticing how anyone around her was feeling. The last thing any of us wanted to do right now was drink champagne. "Thanks anyway," Mae said, shaking her head.
"Are you sure? Really? It'd be fun. How about you, Bobby?"
"Maybe tomorrow," Bobby said.
"Oh well, okay, after all, you're the conquering heroes! We'll do it tomorrow, then." I noticed how fast she was talking, how quick her body movements were. I remembered Ellen's comment about her taking drugs. It certainly seemed like she was on something. But I was so tired I just didn't give a damn.
"I've told the news to Larry Handler, the head of the company," she said, "and he's very grateful to you all."
"That's nice," I said. "Is he going to notify the Army?"
"Notify the Army? About what?"
"About the runaway experiment."
"Well, Jack, that's all taken care of now. You've taken care of it."
"I'm not sure we have," I said. "Some of the swarms might have escaped. Or there might be another nest out there. To be safe, I think we should call in the Army." I didn't really think we had missed anything, but I wanted to get outsiders in here. I was tired. I wanted somebody else to take over.
"The Army?" Julia's eyes flicked to Ricky, then back to me. "Jack, you're absolutely right," she said firmly. "This is an extremely serious situation. If there is the slightest chance something was missed, we must notify them at once."
"I mean tonight."
"Yes, I agree, Jack. Tonight. In fact, I'll do it right now." I glanced back at Ricky. He was walking along, still nodding in that mechanical way. I didn't get it. What about Ricky's earlier panic? His fear that the experiment would be made public? Now it seemed he didn't care.
Julia said, "You three can get some sleep, and I'll call my contacts at the Pentagon."
"I'll go with you," I said.
"It's really not necessary."
"I want to," I said.
She glanced at me and smiled. "You don't trust me?"
"It's not that," I said. "But they might have questions I could answer for them."
"Okay, fine. Good idea. Excellent idea."
I felt sure that something was wrong. I felt as if I were in a play, and everyone was acting a part. Except I didn't know what the play was. I glanced over at Mae. She was frowning slightly. She must have sensed it, too.
We passed through the airlocks into the residential unit. Here the air felt uncomfortably cold to me; I shivered. We went into the kitchen and Julia reached for the phone. "Let's make that call, Jack," she said.
I went to the refrigerator and got a ginger ale. Mae had an iced tea. Bobby had a beer. We were all thirsty. I noticed a bottle of champagne sitting in the fridge, waiting. I touched it; it was cold. There were six glasses in there, too, being chilled. She'd already planned the party. Julia pushed the speakerphone button. We heard a dial tone. She punched in a number. But the call didn't go through. The line just went dead.
"Huh," she said. "Let's try that again ..."
She dialed a second time. Again, the call failed to go through.
"That's funny. Ricky, I'm not getting an outside line."
"Try one more time," Ricky said.
I sipped my ginger ale and watched them. There was no question that this was all an act, a performance for our benefit. Julia dutifully dialed a third time. I wondered what number she was calling. Or did she know the number for the Pentagon by heart? "Huh," she said. "Nothing."
Ricky picked up the phone, looked at the base, put it down again. "Should be okay," he said, acting puzzled.
"Oh for Christ's sake," I said. "Let me guess. Something has happened and we can't dial out."
"No, no, we can," Ricky said.
"I was just calling a few minutes ago," Julia said. "Just before you got back."
Ricky pushed away from the table. "I'll check the comm lines."
"You do that," I said, glowering.
Julia was staring at me. "Jack," she said, "I'm worried about you."
"I'm being fucked with."
"I promise you," she said quietly, meeting my eyes. "You're not." Mae got up from the table, saying she was going to take a shower. Bobby wandered into the lounge to play a video game, his usual way to unwind. Soon I heard the sound of machine-gun fire, and the cries of dead bad guys. Julia and I were alone in the kitchen. She leaned over the table toward me. She spoke in a low, earnest voice. "Jack," she said, "I think I owe you an explanation."
"No," I said. "You don't."
"I mean, for my behavior. My decisions these past days."
"It doesn't matter."
"It does to me."
"Maybe later, Julia."
"I need to tell you now. You see, the thing is, I just wanted to save the company, Jack. That's all. The camera failed and we couldn't fix it, we lost our contract, and the company was falling apart. I've never lost a company before. I never had one shot out from underneath me, and I didn't want Xymos to be the first. I was invested, I had a stake, and I guess I had my pride. I wanted to save it. I know I didn't use good judgment. I was desperate. It's nobody else's fault. They all wanted to stop it. I pushed them to go on. It was ... it was my crusade." She shrugged. "And it was all for nothing. The company's going to fold in a matter of days. I've lost it." She leaned closer. "But I don't want to lose you, too. I don't want to lose my family. I don't want to lose us."
She dropped her voice lower, and stretched her hand across the table to cover mine. "I want to make amends, Jack. I want to make things right, and get us back on track again." She paused. "I hope you do, too."
I said, "I'm not sure how I feel."
"Yes. But I'm not sure, anymore."
"You mean, about us?"
I said, "I hate this fucking conversation." And I did. I hated that she would start this when I was exhausted, when I had just gone through an ordeal that nearly got me killed and that was, ultimately, all her doing. I hated that she dismissed her involvement as "bad judgment" when it was considerably worse than that.
"Oh Jack, let's go back to the way we were," she said, and suddenly she leaned the rest of the way across the table and tried to kiss me on the lips. I pulled back, turned my head away. She stared at me, eyes pleading. "Jack, please."
"This is not the time or the place, Julia," I said.
A pause. She didn't know what to say. Finally: "The kids miss you."
"I'm sure they do. I miss them, too."
She burst into tears. "And they don't miss me ..." she sobbed. "They don't even care about me ... about their mother ..." She reached for my hand again. I let her hold it. I tried to take stock of my feelings. I just felt tired, and very uncomfortable. I wanted her to stop crying. "Julia ..."
The intercom clicked. I heard Ricky's voice, amplified. "Hey, guys? We have a problem with the comm lines. You better come here right away."
The comm room consisted of a large closet in one corner of the maintenance room. It was sealed with a heavy security door, with a small tempered glass window set in the upper half. Through this window, I could see all the wiring panels and switch racks for the telecommunications in the lab. I also saw that great chunks of wiring had been yanked out. And slumped in a corner of the closet I saw Charley Davenport. He appeared to be dead. His mouth hung open, his eyes stared into space. His skin was purple-gray. A black buzzing swarm swirled around his head.
"I can't imagine how this happened," Ricky was saying. "He was fast asleep when I checked on him ..."
"When was that?" I said.
"Maybe half an hour ago."
"And the swarm? How'd it get there?"
"I can't imagine," Ricky said. "He must have carried it with him, from outside."
"How?" I said. "He went through all the airlocks."
"I know, but ..."
"But what, Ricky? How's it possible?"