16

The Reverend Frederick Meeker, minister of the only Lutheran church in Morgan City, stepped from the doorway of his church, turned, and locked it. He’d been working in the church library, double-checking some tricky references he needed to document his Sunday sermon. He always liked to include the names of books, along of course with the chapters and verses from which his texts were taken, so that his parishioners could delve deeper, if they were so inclined. The Reverend Meeker prided himself that he was not one of these thud-and-blunder preachers, thumping the Good Book over the heads of his flock. His sermons stood not only on the Rock of God, but upon mountains of scholarly work available to anyone who cared to explore.

He just wished that more people did care. Seemed like everyone was sinking into a morass not just of sin, but of ignorance, especially the youth of today.

Like that incident in the Rexall today with young Scott Jesky and his purchase of those prophylactics. If the youth of today took their minds off sexual pursuits and put them into learning… well, then the world would be a better place.

He was just turning away from the ornate wooden doors of the church when he heard the tinkle of broken glass. Down the road, a block and a half away, was the establishment known as the Tick Tock Diner, a rude and crude blemish on the community. But it was from the opposite side of the Tick Tock’s block that the oddest sight came. Where there had once been a phone booth, there was now a twisted frame of metal and shattered glass. And some kind of reddish water was pouring from the booth, slipping into the gutter, and washing down into the sewer grill on the curb.

What was that thing? “Merciful God!” he cried, as a shudder gripped him. It didn’t move like water. It moved like something that was alive!

He was about to turn, go back into the church, and call the authorities, when a second, louder crash distracted his attention back to the diner.

There the front door was being kicked out. Two figures appeared. The reverend recognized both Brian Flagg and Meg Penny, but before he could call out to them, they raced off into the darkness.

What in heaven’s name was going on at the Tick Tock Diner? He decided that he’d better go and check. Somebody might need help.

He was forty-four years old, but he kept himself in shape with a regular exercise program at the local Young Men’s Christian Association. In no time at all he was in front of the Tick Tock, where he discovered that the front door wasn’t the only thing broken. The plate glass window off to the right was smashed, with a chair lying in the bushes below it.

From inside the diner he heard a low moaning.

“Hello?” he said.

He entered the darkness, almost immediately thumping his shin against the door. “Ouch!” he said, suppressing a curse. The lights weren’t working in here, so he took out his key chain, which had a small pocket flash attached. The small beam provided enough light for him to pick his way through the scattered tables and chairs.

“Is anybody in there? Is anybody hurt?”

No response. He found the door into the kitchen and entered. Up ahead, at the end of the hallway, he could see a shaft of light. He made for it but was stopped by that moaning sound again. Close by, higher in pitch. And rising.

He swung the light beam around… and caught the glow of the eyes of an alley cat, licking a spill of gravy and meat from the floor.

He exhaled, relieved. Just a cat. He turned back. That open door, that spill of light… As he approached it, he could tell it was a freezer door, wide open, letting out light and cold.

He looked inside. Nothing but food racks, hanging meat, and… Wait a second. How odd.

In the frost on the floor were frozen chunks of some unidentifiable substance that glittered like fine jewelry in the light. Fascinating! Maybe Abner Able down at the university would be able to make something of these things. He looked around and found a shelf holding a few mason jars. He opened one, crouched down, and scooped up the rough, magical-looking things. Like chunks of rubies they were!

He fastened the top back on the jar and carried his strange prize away.

Meanwhile, at the sheriff’s office, Meg Penny and Brian Flagg rushed in to get some much-needed help. Brian realized this was the first time he’d ever actually wanted to see Sheriff Herbert Geller!

But instead of the sheriff they found themselves confronted by a frazzled Sally Jeffers, sitting at a lit-up phone console, overwhelmed by incoming calls.

“We have to see the sheriff!” said Meg.

“I don’t know where he is!” said Sally, punching a phone line in. “Sheriff’s station, please hold,” she said into the mike in front of her mouth.

“What about Briggs?” demanded Brian.

Sally pointed at the radio. “I can’t raise anybody, all I’m getting is static.” She punched another line. “Sheriff’s station, please hold.” Then she turned back to Brian and Meg. “Last I heard from the deputy, he was heading up to Elkins Grove to check out some disturbance.” She punched a button and spoke into the mike again. “Sorry to keep you waiting…”

Meg turned to Brian. “Elkins Grove.”

“That’s where I found the old man.”

They rushed out of the station, got back into Meg’s VW, and zoomed into the night.

The patrol car was parked on the side of the road in a long swath of tall grass just before the woods.

“Look over there,” Meg said, directing Brian’s attention.

She parked and they got out, approaching the patrol car cautiously. The driver’s door hung partially open.

“Looks like he left in a hurry,” said Meg.

Brian looked suspiciously into the black-and-white car. This was the same place where he’d run into the stricken Can Man. Just about the same place where the Can Man had run into the road in front of Meg and Paul.

Brian looked out into the woods.

“Yo, Briggs!” he called.

In the woods crickets chirped. Nothing more.

“He’s up there somewhere,” he said to Meg.

“In the woods. In the dark woods!”

“Right. I guess we could wait here.”

Meg sighed. “While that thing wipes out the whole town?”

She started up the incline, and Brian Flagg followed her, muttering to himself. “Never thought I’d go out of my way to find a cop.”

They wended their way through the thick underbrush. The pale moonlight filtered through the thick latticework of branches overhead, highlighting the shallow ground fog that had been building as they progressed.

Brian bumped his head into a low-hanging branch.

“I feel like fucking Hansel and Gretel out here,” he complained. “We shoulda brought bread crumbs!”

“Shh,” said Meg. “I think I hear something.”

There was something, realized Brian. They stood still, listening to it. A distant thrumming sound, fading in and out of the silence of the night.

“What the hell was that?” Brian asked.

Meg shook her head, and they went a little farther before the rumbling sound stopped them in their tracks again.

“Boy, that sound gives me the willies!” said Brian.

Meg looked around apprehensively.

Suddenly a bright light flared up deep in the woods, suffusing the sky above them with a white glow. Brian started backing away, pulling Meg with him.

“Maybe we should get out of here,” he suggested.

“Maybe you’re right,” said Meg.

But before they could set upon this course, the vibration in the air grew deeper and louder. The light approached, sending moving shafts through the trees, turning night into artificial day. An unnatural wind kicked up suddenly, whipping the foliage into a frenzy.

Brian felt the sudden urge to run.

The light swept over them, and a descending wind almost knocked him down. He lost sight of Meg. He spun around, looking for her, and it was then that he saw the men.

Or at least he supposed they were men. After the events of the evening there was no telling what was what anymore. There were six of them, and they were coming down over the ridge toward Brian and Meg, silhouetted in the blinding light, approaching through the wind-whipped mist like figures in a dream.

A blazing row of lights rose up from behind them, hovering in the air, spotlights sweeping the night.

Brian and Meg crouched down against the wind.

Then Brian knew for sure what he had merely suspected before. There was a helicopter up there! A damned high-tech job, at that!

As the six men approached, Brian could see that they looked so weird because they were dressed in white plastic suits that covered every inch of their bodies. They looked out of clear plastic faceplates and they apparently talked through the small speakers slotted just below their necks. The sight of them gave Brian goose bumps.

“Ever seen anything like this?” he asked Meg.

“Yeah. In E.T.,” said Meg.

“All in all,” said Brian, “I’d rather go home.”

One of the men separated from the others and neared the couple. Brian could see the man’s face clearly through the faceplate. This was an elderly dude, wearing a smile and a twinkle in his eye. “Don’t be frightened,” he said, his voice doubled as it filtered through the headgear and issued from the speaker as well. “We’re here to help you.”

“And all dressed up for the occasion!” said Brian.

“Please, come this way,” said the old guy as the others hustled around the pair and pointed the direction they wanted them to go.

“Well, so much for free choice,” said Meg.

They were briskly escorted through the woods, over the ridge, and into a clearing, where all kinds of people in white plastic suits bustled around like worker ants among a profusion of lights, vehicles, and machines. As soon as they entered this odd bivouac, a man and a woman with clipboards joined the marching white-suits, and barraged Brian and Meg with questions.

“Look, who are you people?” demanded Brian.

“Name?” the woman asked Meg.

“Meg Penny,” she responded.

“Name?” the man asked Brian.

“Meg Penny.” He pointed at his companion. “She’s an imposter.”

Someone had popped up from nowhere and was trying to fit a blood-pressure sleeve over his arm. Brian batted it away. “Get that offa me!”

“Are you a resident of Morgan City, Meg?” asked the woman.

“Uh, yes.”

“Have you ever had high blood-pressure or heart disease?”

“No.”

“How about you, sir?” asked the other guy with the clipboard. “Diabetes?”

“No, thanks,” quipped Brian. “I’m trying to cut down.”

“Have you been experiencing any vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea?” the woman asked Meg.

“Not until she got a look at you guys!”

This isn’t getting us anywhere, thought Brian. That old geezer, he’s clearly in charge.

The older man was leading the troop through the vehicle encampment. Brian broke free of the men in white and fell in step with the leader. “Hey, you wanna fill us in, pal?” he said. “Who the hell are you people?”

“Oh, sorry. Identifications are in order, I suppose. I’m Dr. Trimble. I head this group. We’re a government-sanctioned biological containment team.”

Meg heard that as well. “Biological containment?”

“We’re microbe hunters, young lady,” Dr. Trimble said. He was about to tell them more when they were suddenly interrupted by a yell from one of the vehicles.

“Flagg!”

Brian looked up. Who should it be but Deputy Bill Briggs. He was escorted by a somber-looking chisel-face sporting a .45 Colt automatic on the hip of his white suit.

“What are you doing here, boy?” Briggs demanded.

“The men from Glad here are showing us how to keep our leftovers fresh.”

Briggs wagged a finger. “These people are here on serious business. They don’t have time for your bullshit, understand?”

Dr. Trimble turned to the man escorting Briggs. “Colonel, has the deputy been briefed in detail?”

“Yes sir,” said the gun-toting man.

“I’m heading back into town now to get things started,” said Briggs.

“Splendid,” said Dr. Trimble. “Colonel Hargis will arrange an escort.”

After shooting Brian a glower, Briggs continued on with Colonel Hargis.

Brian noticed a great deal of activity off to the right, where a number of trees had apparently been burned. When they walked closer, he could see that there was a big, charred hole in the ground, still steaming slightly. The smell of the burned trees—and something more—hung in the night air.

“What’s going on there?” Meg asked, indicating the white-suits setting up equipment and lights near the smoking hole.

“That’s the source of our worries,” said Dr. Trimble intensely. “A troublesome little souvenir from space. A mote in God’s eye.”

“What?”

“A meteor,” said Trimble.

Meg moved forward, fascinated by the sight, but Trimble reached out a glove and gently restrained her.

“Don’t get too close,” he said. “There’s danger of contamination.”

“I don’t understand,” said Meg.

Trimble turned to them, and his features were clearer now in the light. He had a handsome, well-preserved face, even though Brian figured the old bird must be at least seventy, judging by the gray hair, the wrinkles, and the gauntness. But the old guy seemed spry and lively, bursting with energy. His blue, expressive eyes darted here and there as he talked, and there was an enthusiasm and excitement in every gesture.

“I’ll make it simple,” Dr. Trimble began. “The dinosaurs ruled the Earth for millions of years, and yet they died out almost overnight. Why?”

Meg shrugged. It was way past Brian too.

“The evidence points to a meteor or maybe an asteroid that fell, bringing alien bacteria with it. Bacteria to which there was no natural immunity! Just like in H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds!”

“Plague?” said Meg. “Is that what this is all about?”

The scientist shook his head, smiling. “No. Prevention. Think of us as that apple a day that keeps the doctor away. We look for possible infection from outer space. And if it comes, we make sure it doesn’t spread.”

“And you think your meteor brought some killer germ from outer space?”

The man’s eyes looked up to the sky and he spoke in a breathless tone. “It’s something I’ve expected—and prepared for—all my life.”

Brian shook his head. “Oooh, boy, you got a surprise coming, buster.” He’d figured it out by now. This was what the Can Man had been babbling about. The light from the sky, the meteor—that thing on his hand! He must have picked it up from the meteor, steaming now in the ground! “That meteor brought something, all right, but if it’s a germ, it’s the biggest son of a bitch you’ve ever seen.”

“And getting bigger!” Meg added.

Brian was surprised at the white-suits’ reaction. All the plastic faceplates swung their way, and the buzzing talk ceased. Dr. Trimble’s eyes got very big as he turned to face them like somebody who had just been told he’d won a jackpot.

“Would you care to enlighten me?” he requested.

Meg and Brian looked at each other. How could they describe what they’d been through? Paul thought. “You’d better start with Paul and the Can Man, Meg,” said Brian. “And then I’ll pick up from there.”

She nodded and proceeded to tell the story, starting with that glistening glob on the hand of the Can Man. The scientist stayed stock-still as he listened to how the thing had grown, how it had attacked and eaten Paul, how no one would believe what Meg had seen.

And then Brian took over. He told of the huge thing in the Tick Tock Diner and how it had pulled George Ruiz into the sink, and how it had moved like a son of a bitch, almost getting them.

“It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen,” said Brian. “It’s like Dr. Frankenstein dumped all the spittoons in the world into one smelly glob, and then stuck the electrodes in!”

Dr. Trimble nodded.

“Hmm. Most curious,” he said.

“We’re telling you how people have been horribly dissolved by that thing,” said Meg, “and all you can say is ‘Most curious’?”

“Forgive my emotional detachment, but it comes with the job. Biologically speaking, you must understand, I deal with much death, in many horrible ways. Cancer, disease of various sorts… AIDS, what have you. I know them all too well. But this”—he stuck a finger in the air—“this is something quite different, it would seem. All those are diseases that strike from within. This giant amoeboid seems to strike from without! And as it absorbs its victims, so its mass and cellular content expand. But the question is, my friends: Is it single celled… or multicelled? Its rate of growth suggests single celled, and yet it is like nothing that exists in nature. By the way, did you notice the presence of a nucleus?”

“He means, like the brain,” said Meg.

“All I saw floating in that thing were pieces of bodies!” said Brian.

“How about flagella?”

“Huh?”

“Like, long antennae,” said Meg. “You mean, like in paramecia?”

“Aha! The young lady has taken biology. Excellent. Perhaps I should direct my question to you.”

“No, no antennae, sir, nothing like a paramecium. But come to think of it, it was kinda like the things we looked at under microscopes… Only, it doesn’t seem to have any skin!”

“A giant amoeba without a membrane—well, that is something. That’s not to say it’s an amoeba, but I think that we can assume that it’s single celled. The DNA structure must be very simple yet terribly elegant to promote an eating machine of this magnitude!”

“You believe us!” said Meg, just beginning to comprehend that they were being taken seriously.

“Yes, my dear. I believe you. Everything you have said confirms the existence of this thing, this horrid yet fascinating blob… And yet there may be even more to it than we know.”

As they were talking, more equipment and vehicles had arrived. Brian turned around, noticing for the first time that a windowless van had pulled up behind them.

“I can’t begin to thank you both,” Dr. Trimble was saying. “This information is incredibly valuable.” He went to the van and opened a back door. “Please, get in.”

“Where are we going?” asked Meg.

“Back to town,” said Dr. Trimble. “Morgan City is under quarantine until we’ve isolated that organism and checked every living soul for signs of infection. As I mentioned before, we are a containment unit. We don’t want any disease to spread.”

But Brian didn’t like the sound of this. He stayed put. “In the meantime we’re your prisoners.”

“Nonsense,” said Dr. Trimble. “You’re my patients.”

“Sounds like the same thing to me.”

“Brian,” said Meg, already getting in.

“Young man,” said the scientist, getting stern, “I’m far too busy to debate the point with you. Now, please step into the van.”

Meg stepped back down and grabbed Brian by the arm. But Brian instead backed away toward the woods, dragging Meg along with him. “Look, thanks for the offer, Doc, but my bike’s right over there and we can make it back on our own.” He waved good-bye with his free hand. “By the way, love your tailor. Gotta get me one of those.”

He turned around and ran smack into the broad-shouldered Colonel Hargis, accompanied by two other husky white-suited soldiers gripping M16’s. Tall too. They loomed over Brian Flagg like twin sentinels.

“Get in the van,” rumbled Colonel Hargis, in a voice like God’s.

Brian recognized the tone immediately, and knew that this was no time for rebellion. “Oh! Right! Van ride sounds nice!”

He and Meg clambered in, and the door immediately slammed shut behind them. Brian could hear the colonel bellowing outside. “Get these civilians to the relief station, ASAP!”

“Yes, sir!” came the response.

Brian sat down on one of the benches in the windowless compartment. A dim light shone near the cab of the van.

A few moments later the engine started and the van jumped and rumbled toward its destination. Brian stared at the door a moment, then smiled over to Meg. He got up and tried it.

“It’s locked,” he reported to his companion.

“So what?” She was sitting, clearly tired, on her bench, as though relieved to be there. “Brian, what’s with you? You’re acting like a complete jerk.”

“I have problems with authority figures.”

He checked his back pocket. Sure enough, Moss’s ratchet was still there. He supposed he had a good enough excuse for not getting it back on time. He pulled the tool out and started working on the lock.

“What are you doing?” Meg demanded.

“I think we should get out of here,” he said.

“What?”

“We ought to get my bike and blow this town. Things are getting a little thick.”

“Brian, that’s crazy! These people are here to help us!”

“Come on, Meg. We don’t even know who they are! NASA? CIA? The Royal Canadian Mounties? All I saw was a bunch of unmarked trucks. The whole thing stinks.”

“We can’t just run out!”

“Let’s think of it as looking out for our best interests.”

The lock clicked free. Brian pushed on the door. It opened. He turned to Meg. “You coming?”

She wore a look of resolve on her face. “I have to go back, Brian. My family’s there. People I care about.”

“Well, I’m going. If you’re smart, you’ll come with me.”

She looked at him crossly, speaking bitterly. “Then go, take care of yourself. It’s the only thing you’re really good at, isn’t it?”

That hurt worse that he’d have expected it to.

“Nobody else ever volunteered for the job,” he murmured, turning and checking outside. He didn’t want to get run over by a truck cruising along behind. But there was no truck, and the ground that was trundling by wasn’t passing too fast. A good jump would be a cinch.

Then it got even better. The van slowed for a turn, and Brian jumped, without even turning to say good-bye to Meg. He hit the ground, tucked himself into a ball, and rolled into the roadside brush. The world whizzed around him for a time, then stilled. He picked himself up and he brushed himself off.

The van bumped along toward Morgan City. Meg Penny had already closed the door.

Brian watched for a moment.

“Christ, Flagg,” he muttered in disgust. “A cheerleader.”

Then he turned and started walking back to Elkins Grove, where all this had started, and where his bike waited.

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