20

It had been a simple enough decision.

A little odd, but definitely workable.

That tunnel had been awfully dark. And Brian Flagg had only one source of light available to him: the headlight on his Indian motorbike.

And it wasn’t as if the pipes weren’t big enough! No, they were huge!

Two plus two equaled four every time.

Brian Flagg roared through the aqueduct system on his motorbike.

He didn’t know where he was going, he just went. Meg Penny was down here. Meg and her brother Kevin and his friend Eddie. That was what the voice over the radio had said.

Then, as he whipped through the dimness, his headlight striking out ahead of him, he heard the screams.

The screams and the shots.

He found the turn and roared off toward the sounds, down the incline of the pipe.

It was a girl’s scream he heard. Meg Penny’s scream.

He hurried.

Then he saw a faint light at the end of his tunnel. The pipe opened up there, into a chamber at the bottom of the pipe’s concrete spill-off. And there in that chamber, surging up from the water like a pustulant boil, was the creature.

And there, on the spillway, scrambling up the ramp like a poor half-drowned mouse, was Meg Penny.

Brian Flagg roared up to the lip of the pipe, leaned over, and reached out.

That thing was reaching out, too, with a pseudopod the size of a log. But Brian’s hand grabbed her outstretched hand, and he pulled her up.

The pseudopod hit the spillway hard, slopping off and just missing Meg’s feet as they were pulled up.

“Brian,” she said.

He pulled her onto the bike. She wrapped her arms around him. He turned the handlebars and he gunned the engine.

They roared off back up the tunnel.

“Brian, you came back!” she said, holding on for dear life as the bike zoomed away, the headlight slicing through the darkness.

Now, which way had he come? Brian Flagg wondered.

But then a blank wall reared up before them, and Brian put on the brakes and came to a skittering stop.

Dead end! He’d gone the wrong way.

He turned and saw the way he should have gone. But when they reached the intersection, there was something blocking them.

Brian stopped, startled. There hadn’t been a closure when he’d gone through this tunnel. What… ?

And then he saw what had blocked the tunnel.

A sheath of thick protoplasm, from the slotted vents above and below. Sticky stuff was still rolling through.

They were cut off. There was only one thing to do.

“Hang on,” he told Meg.

He turned the bike and he headed back toward the chamber.

Up ahead, limned by the dim light from the chamber, he could see the creature’s main bulk. It was flopping up the tunnel, straight toward them.

Brian Flagg revved the engine higher and higher. He pointed the headlight straight at the massive, globular nightmare coming for them.

“What are you doing?” cried Meg, disbelieving.

The thing was squeezing through vents, rippling through every side of them, sending out tendrils that just missed trapping them in goo.

Brian pushed the bike harder, harder, getting up speed as they approached collision with the thing.

At the last possible moment he turned the handlebars.

The bike screamed up the side of the pipe at a forty-five degree angle, and then kept on going, the centrifugal force keeping the wheels on concrete, and keeping Brian Flagg and Meg Penny in their seats. They rolled right over the monster, sweeping down in a spiral behind its mass.

“Briannnnnnnnnn!” Meg cried.

They tore toward the chamber, wind whipping through her hair, through Brian’s torn jacket. Adrenaline pumping through him madly, Brian kept his hand hard on the throttle. That thing back there was fast, and they couldn’t afford losing one bit of speed so close to it—

Now, if he could only navigate that spillway!

They burst from the tunnel, hung in the air for a moment, and then landed on the spillway…

At the wrong angle.

Both Brian and Meg were lifted from the seat and hurled over the handlebars as the motorbike slammed down onto the concrete, cracking the headlight as it tumbled and crashed downward. They flew asses over elbows, landing in the middle of the small underground lake.

Brian fought his way to the surface. “Meg!” he cried, gasping. His leg hurt like hell. He must have struck it in the tumble.

Something was bobbing beside him. He grabbed it, and it was loose and globby in his grasp. By the dim maintenance light, he could see the half-eaten body of a man—the remnants of a plastic suit…

“Over here, Brian!” Meg called.

Shuddering, Brian pushed the dead man away and the body softly sank out of sight.

Meg was just a few yards off. “Over here!” she cried, gasping for breath. “That tunnel over there! It’s free. It’s the way the soldiers came in.”

Soldiers. Yes, they must have been the ones to fire those shots… And that must have been one of them, half digested, he’d run into just now.

They splashed and flailed through the water. When they reached the tunnel, Brian limped ahead.

“You okay?” asked Meg.

“Must have hit my leg when the bike went over,” he said.

They hurried on.

A form separated from the shadows and stood in their way.

They yelped, startled.

They almost ran into him: it was a soldier, in a white suit, laden with equipment. “I’m not going to hurt you!” he said, frightened as they.

In fact, Brian could see that there was a stunned look on the man’s face. A glaze… “It got ’em,” he said. “Johnstone and the sarge!”

His faceplate was cracked. Blood streamed down his face.

“How do we get out of here?” demanded Brian.

The man didn’t seem to hear them. “They were trying to scream… inside it. They were trying to scream.”

Brian grabbed the front of the man’s plastic suit and shook him. Then he pushed him up against the wall.

“You gotta show us the way out!” he cried.

The soldier cringed away, whimpering. Brian could see now that his arm was flopping at an unnatural angle. The man’s arm was busted. He caught a glimpse of shattered bone sticking through the plastic of the suit. “Oh, Jesus,” said Brian.

“Brian!” cried Meg, gesturing desperately back toward the junction chamber.

He looked. He could see the quick movements there, the gushing glob of the monster, pouring back through the pipes, reforming… seeking them.

The soldier caught sight of the thing as well. He stepped back, turned, and started running the opposite way, through the tunnel.

“Follow him,” said Brian. “He’ll know the way out!”

They ran, and they ran, and they ran some more. The soldier ran hard, despite the equipment weighing him down. Strapped to one side of the man was a walkie-talkie. As they ran, the walkie-talkie began to speak: “Baker Team! Baker Team! What the hell’s going on down there?”

The soldier didn’t answer. He just kept on running.

A few seconds later the soldier stopped, breathing harshly. Immediately above him a vertical shaft ran up toward the surface, ridged with a metal-runged ladder and topped no doubt by a manhole.

The way out!

“This is it!” said Brian, looking up.

Not only was there a manhole up there: it was an open manhole. He could see stars glittering overhead. And a face was peering down toward him.

“We’re coming up!” cried Brian, pulling Meg over and guiding her hand to the first rung.

More plastic-suited men ringed the manhole. And two more faces peered down. Faces that Brian recognized.

Dr. Trimble and Colonel Hargis.

And they saw him. Recognized him!

Oh, shit!

“Close the manhole!” Dr. Trimble said.

“What?” said another man.

“That’s my man down there,” said Colonel Hargis.

“We have to contain that thing,” said Dr. Trimble, looking down at Brian, cold ice in his eyes. “Now, close it off. That’s an order.”

“No!” cried Meg, as the manhole cover scratched across pavement and rattled into place.

“No!” cried the wounded soldier, seeing what had happened. “Noooooooooo!”

“Hell,” said Brian. He climbed up the ladder. He was going to push that thing off! Before they could do anything about it!

Oh, hell! He could hear a truck. They were going to put a goddamn truck tire over the manhole cover.

Sure enough, by the time he reached the top and pushed, pushed hard, the thing didn’t budge. Not a half inch.

“You son of a bitch!” cried Brian.

No good being up here. He stormed down the ladder.

Below, the soldier was fiddling with his walkie-talkie. He flicked a switch and spoke into it. “Colonel! You can’t! That thing’s down here with us!”

Brian grabbed the walkie-talkie from him.

“Trimble? You hear me?” he cried into the receiver.

No answer.

“Talk to me!”

Then he noticed a chill around his feet… a pressure.

“The water’s rising,” said the soldier. “It’s coming for us.”

Brian looked down. Sure enough, the water level was inching up, lapping now at their ankles. The soldier whimpered and fell against a wall, beginning to weep with hopelessness.

God. They were trapped. This was it, thought Brian. They were going to get eaten… dissolved… digested, just like the others.

Damn!

He looked at Meg, and she was staring at him in a funny way.

“I thought you were gonna look after yourself,” she said.

“I guess I blew it, huh.” He looked around. Shrugged. Sighed. “I’m sorry, Meg. I really am.”

“Me too.”

Then she was looking at something else.

“Brian,” she said.

“Yeah?”

She pointed down at the soldier against the wall, coming apart. “On his belt, Brian. Look!”

Brian looked.

One of the pieces of equipment the soldier carried was strapped to his belt. Brian recognized it from war movies. It was a hand-held grenade launcher. There were words stenciled along the metal side: EXPLOSIVE PROJECTILE—CAUTION: BLOWBACK.

Oh, yes! Perfect!

He looked at her. And to think he had given up!

He grinned, kissed her hard on the lips, and stooped down. He grabbed the grenade launcher and pulled it off the soldier’s belt.

“This thing work?” he asked.

The soldier nodded. With his good hand he reached up and yanked back a cocking lever. “It won’t do any good. Not against that monster…”

Brian looked up the shaft. He put the walkie-talkie to his lips, thumbed the “on” switch. “Hey, Trimble. If you won’t listen to me… then listen to this!”

He aimed the grenade launcher up the shaft.

Meg and the soldier scrambled out of the way for cover.

Brian’s finger found the trigger.

And he pulled it.

The launcher tugged like a bucking bronco on his arms, but the missile went true. In less than a blink of an eye it tore up the vertical shaft to the manhole cover at the top.

Brian stepped to one side the very instant of the explosion. Metal and broken cement rained down—along with pieces of blown-up tire. It felt as though someone had clapped Brian on his ears. They were ringing like bells.

But he was okay.

Choking with the dust from the explosion, he picked himself up and called out, “Come on, folks! We got ourselves a way out!”

As quick as they could, they climbed the ladder, Brian first.

He had something important to do.

The fresh night air struck him, revitalizing him, as he lifted himself out onto the street, gratified at the sight that met his eyes.

Chaos.

The truck that had been standing on the manhole cover was flipped on its side. And so had a lot of soldiers. Including, Brian could see, Dr. Trimble, who lay just yards away, dazed, struggling to get back to his feet.

Brian jumped up through, clearing the way for Meg and the soldier to get out. His eyes raked along the rabble on the ground.

He saw what he needed.

He scooped it up: an M16 rifle.

He swung it toward Dr. Trimble. God, how he wanted to kill that bastard!

A voice stopped him. “Flagg! Drop it!”

He spun. Peripherally he could see Meg crawling out of the hole. Then the soldier, with Meg’s help. But just past them stood Deputy Billy Briggs, leveling his service revolver.

“It’s a lie!” he cried. “All of it!”

“I said, put it down!” cried Briggs. “I’ll blow you out of your shoes, boy!”

Dr. Trimble was using the time to pick himself up. “Shoot him!” he cried to Colonel Hargis.

Colonel Hargis raised his rifle, but hesitated. Brian could read the doubt in his eyes. The man, for all his hawkishness, wasn’t as loony as the scientist. And this business was getting thoroughly crazed.

“Shoot him?” said Briggs. “Shoot him! What is this, Russia?” The deputy swung his revolver, covering Trimble and Hargis.

There were clicking sounds as the other soldiers swung their weapons on Briggs and Brian.

“All right, hold it,” said Briggs. “Everybody just put your guns down!”

“He’s infected!” said Trimble, pointing at Brian. “Contagious! He’ll spread a plague through this town and kill you all!”

Then Brian noticed that there were townspeople gathering around. At the word plague they gasped and they drew back. That even got to Briggs. He swung his revolver around and put it on Brian.

“Listen to me, Briggs,” said Brian Flagg desperately. “Think for a minute! You suppose an army of guys in plastic suits shows up every time a meteor falls?”

“Shoot him!” cried Trimble. “That is a direct order!”

“How’d they get here so quickly? How’d they even know to come?”

“Shoot, damn it!” Trimble yelled, “Shoooot!”

“I’ll tell you how!” Brian continued. “That ‘meteor’ is man-made. It’s a satellite! It’s some kind of germ-warfare test! They fucked up!”

Maddened by Brian’s words, the scientist jumped over to Colonel Hargis and wrestled his M16 from his grasp. He swung it around, cocking it.

“Don’t try it!” said Briggs.

And the rifle went off.

Blam! Blam! The bullets sliced through the air, whizzing past Brian’s ear. He jumped and pulled Meg down, covering her as Dr. Trimble fired at them wildly. A bullet caught Deputy Briggs in the shoulder and his gun was knocked to the ground.

Silence dropped onto the battlefield as Dr. Trimble swung the rifle toward where Brian Flagg huddled with Meg Penny.

You’re the infection, boy! And I’m the penicillin!” said Dr. Trimble.

Brian was suddenly looking down the bore of the Army rifle as the doctor tightened his finger, his aim better this time.

Just then something whipped out from the manhole. A pseudopod flung out, catching Dr. Trimble’s ankles.

His finger squeezed the trigger, but the shot went wide as he was tugged onto the ground.

“What!” he cried, as the tendril pulled him toward the manhole. Dr. Trimble yelled and kicked as he was dragged along, tangled in the M16’s strap.

“Help!” he cried. “Help!”

It was the creature! Brian thought, getting up. The creature, reaching up from the sewers.

Everyone just watched, stunned and unable to do anything, as Dr. Trimble was pulled down into the manhole. The rifle caught on the sides of the manhole, stopping him.

“Help me!” he cried. “Please help me!” His voice was muffled through the plastic and the faceplate.

Then the doctor started screaming, jerking violently, caught there in the manhole.

Brian watched as something oozed and swelled up within the helmet, bubbling up over the man’s head from within.

And Brian could see the awareness in the doctor’s eyes. He knew exactly what was happening.

And then those bulging eyes were engulfed in slime.

The M16 strap broke.

Dr. Trimble was sucked away from sight.

From the sewers of Morgan City there arose a squishing, squelching sound.

The monster was eating.

Eating, and growing.

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