Contain the thing!
They must contain the thing, thought Dr. Trimble as the jeep lurched to a stop by the impromptu command post in Morgan City. If they could trap it, it would be just a matter of time before he could find the way to immobilize it. And then he could learn the true nature of this wonderful life he had created. Study it, get to know it, use it to create new mutants. Why, the secrets of life lay below him now in the sewers of Morgan City. How precious, how terribly precious!
“Come on, Doc, over here,” said Colonel Hargis, guiding him to where a soldier was hunched over a folding table, under a bank of lights. “I radioed ahead to get the information. Lieutenant Benton’s got the stuff we need.”
The lieutenant welcomed them, and they declined the offered coffee. Then Lieutenant Benton gestured down to the sheets of schematics spread out on the table in front of him.
“The whole goddamn town’s sitting on a system of aqueducts,” he said. “Runoff from the mountains.”
“Can we trap the thing down there?” asked Hargis.
“There seem to be three main junctions.” Benton tapped three times on the map. “Here, here and here. We close off those valves, I think we got it.”
“Excellent,” said Dr. Trimble. “How fortunate it chose Morgan City to descend upon!”
“Just hope it stays in the pipes, if you want it alive,” said Colonel Hargis.
“I want it alive, Colonel, whether or not it stays down there, do you understand me?”
“I don’t know, sir. Isn’t it just as good to us dead? I mean, can’t you do an analysis from a dead—”
Trimble shot the officer a glare that stopped him talking, fast. “Alive, Colonel.
“We’re working on those, sir,” promised Benton.
“So do it!” said Trimble. “A team of soldiers for every valve.
Colonel Hargis scrambled off to do his duty.
Dr. Trimble smiled to himself. Maybe I should have been a general, he thought.
No, he told himself, thinking about his creation oozing beneath the streets of Morgan City. As a general he never would have hoped to have a night as thrilling as this!
The aqueducts and sewer system below Morgan City were built in the fifties, after perennial flooding problems finally forced the town to raise the necessary capital. The builders had not used stone, as the Romans had in the original aqueducts, but rather huge concrete pipes.
Now Meg Penny walked within one of those pipes, guiding her little brother Kevin and his friend Eddie through the maze of dark, drippy tunnels, slogging through ankle-deep water.
Somewhere in this network of tunnels, she knew, the creature lurked.
Somehow they’d gotten away from it for a time. How, she had no idea. She didn’t even care about losing the hair; she was just happy they’d gotten away. But now they were lost, and she had to find the way out. The only lights they had were dim maintenance bulbs widely spaced along the tunnels.
But they had to keep going. They
They had to get out.
Eddie was wiping his nose with the back of his sleeve and snuffling back tears.
“Is it still after us?” he wanted to know.
“I don’t think so,” said Meg, noticing how their voices echoed and carried down here, wondering if that thing had ears. “Quiet, now.”
Kevin was in bad shape. She could feel him trembling. “I’ll be good. I swear,” he said. “I’ll never go to the movies again!”
“It’s gonna be okay, Kev,” she said, wishing she believed it. “C’mon. Let’s find a way out of here.”
In another tunnel, not far away, three heavily armed soldiers in plastic suits made their way slowly forward, weapons at the ready. Corporal Dennis Johnstone held in his hands the map that would guide them to the valve they had to close. Private Bill North’s heavy-duty flashlight probed the steamy darkness ahead. He leaned over to speak to Sergeant Henry Washington.
“Sergeant!” said North.
Sergeant North jumped, startled. “What?”
“I think I hear something!”
“That’s the sound of me having a heart attack, you idiot!” said the sergeant. “Corporal, let’s see that map. Christ, we’ll never find that goddamn valve.”
“Uh, Sarge,” said Corporal Johnstone, directing his own flashlight to an area behind them.
The sergeant looked. The beam picked out a bright red valve wheel.
“All right, let’s close it up and get outta here!”
They went to deal with the wheel.
At just about the same time Meg and the boys entered a large chamber.
Several tunnels connected here, up on the walls of the chamber. The floor, though, was a lake of muddy water. At the far end of the chamber was a concrete spill-off ramp.
“Look!” said Kevin. “Look up there, Meg!”
From the top of the chamber there was a spill of street-lamp light! Coming through an open storm drain above.
“How do we get up there?” said Eddie, whining.
As Meg’s eyes adjusted to the increased illumination, she saw the answer. “Those pipes over there. We can climb those pipes!” There was a series of cross-brace pipes running up the wall to the storm drain. “C’mon, that’s our way out!”
But first they had to wade through this fetid lake.
Meg stepped in, and it went nearly up to her waist. But still not too deep for the boys, thank God.
They splashed in after her, revitalized by the sight of a way out.
As she waded, Meg heard the sound of a soft squealing. She looked around and found herself nose to whiskers with a large, grizzled rat, paddling through the water nearby.
“Ugh! Watch out for that rat!” she warned the boys.
She looked away, just as the rat was tugged under the water.
“What rat?” asked Kevin.
She looked back, and there was no swimming rat.
But farther on she spotted another rat, clinging to a floating piece of garbage.
Even as she watched, the rat was sucked under.
The creature! It was close!
She turned to the boys. “C’mon!” she said. “Hurry!”
They hurried, all right, but the trouble was that the concrete bottom of this chamber was slippery as hell with crud and mud.
Meg heard a whirring sound behind them. She looked around, and in the dim light she saw the water… churning!
And the churning was getting closer!
“What’s happening?” asked Eddie, noticing as well.
“Go!” cried Meg.
After what seemed an eternity jammed into a few seconds, they reached the network of piping riding up the wall to the storm drain.
“Get up, there, Kevin!” cried Meg, boosting her little brother up onto the first pipe. Kevin’s foot caught hold, and his hands started pulling him up out of the water and onto the wall.
“Okay, Eddie,” she said. “You, too, now!”
She grabbed him to boost him up as well…
But with a speed that astonished her, Eddie was suddenly ripped from her grasp. Like a half-submerged skier he shot through the water, back across the chamber, splatting up a spray of water.
“Eddie!” yelled Meg.
Eddie screamed all the way.
And then, halfway back to the other edge of the water, Eddie was sucked under.
Meg Penny, hysterical, jumped out after him, trying to drag him back.
Kevin Penny, on the pipes, horrified, saw his sister vanish beneath the surface in Eddie’s wake.
His shock broke loose in a cry. “Meg! No!”
The turbulence in the water settled. Kevin could see nothing beneath the turbid calm.
Kevin could not move. He felt as though he were frozen on the pipes. His sister… Eddie… both down there under that water… with that awful, horrible, gummy, sticky,
Meg! Oh, Meg, he thought. It got you. It got—
But then a head bobbed up through the surface, flinging off water from long hair. It was Meg! The thing hadn’t got her!
“Eddie!” Meg Penny cried. The loss of the little boy was just too much. Her mind was spinning as she gasped in air, and swung her head around, looking for him.
She couldn’t believe it. They’d been so close, so very close to escaping. Meg waded back toward the pipes, still hoping that maybe it
An explosion of water directly in front of her.
The boy burst up from the water and for a moment hope filled Meg. But then she saw the expression on Eddie’s face—twisted in the throes of death. And she saw the stuff wrapped around his head.
Meg screamed, and Eddie was jerked back under, thrashing and struggling, eyes almost popped from their sockets.
Fear drove her legs forward. She raced for the pipes. She had to get out of here! Had to get out! Get out!
She reached the side of the chamber and grabbed the first pipe. “Up!” she cried. “Kevin, go up!”
She couldn’t help but look behind her as Kevin turned and started climbing up the pipes toward the drainpipe.
The creature was rising up from the water.
The top of it looked like the head of a cancerous jellyfish, rippling with inner gases. But then it lifted up higher, higher, an island of bloody mucus, quivering and sozzly.
By the faint light Meg could see the half-dissolved bits of human carcasses hanging in the colloidal stuff, like obscene fruit in a satanic Jell-O mold.
She climbed frantically.
Above her, Kevin slipped.
She was far enough up to catch him. She set his feet back on the pipes and pushed him up.
“Keep going!” she ordered.
There was only room enough for one at the storm-drain opening. As Kevin clambered up through it, Meg ventured another look below her.
The thing was still growing!
And even more of it was pouring in from the other drains, like never-ending flowing mucus from subterranean nasal passages.
The thing had become immense beyond imagining.
“Oh, my God!” Meg said.
She turned back to deal with Kevin. She had to concentrate on getting Kevin up that drain. Hanging on with one hand, she shoved him up the last yard.
And Kevin wriggled through, onto the street to freedom.
“I did it, Meg. Here! Grab hold!” he cried, turning back and holding down his hand. She scrabbled up, took his hand, and pushed for all she was worth up through the narrow opening.
But she stuck.
She didn’t fit! It was too narrow!
Nonetheless it was her only hope. She struggled desperately, trying to squeeze herself through, Kevin pulling on her. But her shoulders were completely wedged in.
As she struggled, she imagined the thing behind her, rising, rising, pseudopods forming and whipping, sensing its prey above it… reaching, reaching for another juicy morsel of flesh and blood…
“Run, Kevin!” she cried. “Run! I can’t make it!”
But Kevin just kept on pulling.
The soldiers in the tunnel nearby heard her shouts, and they came running into the chamber.
There they were confronted by the growing bulbous form of the creature they had been ordered to contain. It was reaching up for a pair of legs sticking from the storm drain.
“What the hell!” said the private. Automatically he raised his M16.
But the sergeant pushed the barrel from its aim. “That’s the thing, all right, but we have orders not to shoot it!”
“But, Sarge, what else are we—” the corporal was beginning.
Then a coil of something shot around the legs of the sergeant and dragged him off his feet. With a scream the sergeant was yanked through the water and into the oleaginous mass in the chamber.
“Fuck orders!” said the corporal, opening fire.
Meg Penny heard the screams and the shots. Nothing had touched her exposed legs, but she still couldn’t get through the storm drain.
She collected her wits and her nerve, and tried to speak calmly to Kevin.
“Kevin. Run to Town Hall!”
Kevin, nodding, got up and started to run off down the street.
She couldn’t get through here. There had to be another way, Meg Penny thought as she backed up, scooted down the rough concrete drain, and started climbing down the drainpipes. The creature seemed preoccupied.
The creature was devouring Sergeant Washington, who bellowed and screamed, fighting it.
The corporal had waded out into the water, and the light from his blasting rifle sputtered harshly as the bullets ripped into the creature.
But then the ground beneath him seemed to swell up.
He looked around and saw a flap of stuff lift up from the water.
“You’re standing on it!” cried the private, still at the lip of the tunnel.
“Shit!” cried the corporal, who tried to run around the flap. But then curtains of slime erupted all around him, slapping into him like a gigantic venus flytrap.
Meg Penny did not watch the flailing soldier being pulled down into the creature. She splashed along in the shallows, toward her last hope: the spill-off ramp at the far side of the chamber.
She scrambled up the concrete ramp.