Fiction Page 13
STILL BEING EDITED (Horror/sci-fi novella)
Lawrence R. Dagstine
It was the middle of the night at Antarctica Research Facility NOVA, when the starry view of the winter sky was ominous and foreboding. The blizzard had begun to subside but the wind still whined around the military-funded research station. The five members of the research team were happy to see that the storm was clearing up, especially after being held up indoors for three months, and having to experience firsthand the subzero temperatures that only a place like Antarctica promised. Harmon Greyson: soldier, archaeologist, and scientist...considered by some to be the leader of this fourteen-month exploration of the winter continent's undiscovered ice fractures, was just as happy as the rest of his fellow researchers. The isolation had been getting to him up until this point, and he was afraid that if it continued any longer he would break down with a severe case of cabin fever; plus, the death of his top scientist during those last few months didn't help any.
The pale white domelike facility, which formed the half mile-wide stretch of research buildings, sat huddled in the snow and at the foot of a low ridge of mountains. Corrugated steel tunnels which gleamed like new whenever the sun shone linked the buildings; which was hardly ever. Inside the main building the contrast was astonishing. The heat-insulated walls kept the atmosphere at an even temperature and the overall impression was one of warmth and light. Now, however, the outside air was dark with snow as the remains of the blizzard swept down from the mountaintops.
Inside the central laboratory, Greyson was carefully freeing hardened ice and bacteria particles from the outer surface of a rocklike object. He was usually a pleasant person to work with, but if he didn't have any cigars in his pipe box his true sarcastic side would show. He was a tall, muscular man of fortiesh, his strength lying in his military roots, with a thin moustache and a scruffy beard and reddish-brown messy hair. In his white lab coat he had the air of a kindly doctor or chemist, as he probed the rock with a long metal clamp.
He stopped and turned as NOVA's communication specialist entered. "First light, Grogan? You're up early," he said. He lifted his brows in surprise and then went back to work, as if no one was there.
"Couldn't sleep, like you," Grogan said, removing his outer fur. Underneath he was dressed in torn jeans and a turtleneck sweater. Grogan was a small man with a bushy beard, almost a teenage boy still going through puberty. He stood in the doorway staring at the rock formation that Greyson had been picking at all this time.
"You seem amazed," said Greyson with the air of one possessing discriminatory wit. Grogan was still there when he finished his examination. "Well, don't just stand there gawking. Make yourself useful. Get me a hot chocolate or something."
"Huh? Oh," Grogan almost forgot. "I was just on the radio."
"And there was a faint signal coming through. I think there's a helicopter coming this way."
Greyson put down his utensils. "A helicopter in this weather? The storm must have calmed down."
"It has," said Grogan. "But who would come here at this hour?"
Greyson looked at the clock on the wall. 4:30AM. "I don't know," he said truthfully; he was attempting guessing. "Could be a supply scout with a drop-off, or maybe it's that medical examiner from the institute I requested." He thought for a second, recalling the body of his friend down in the morgue. Then he removed his lab coat and grabbed his parka. "Get your gear," he added, "and let's go introduce ourselves just the same."
Outside, as far as the eye could see, was a dark expanse of white. Sunrise was around the corner, and Greyson adjusted his goggles to counteract the glare of the helipad's flood lamps and brushed the icicles off his chin.
"Look," said Grogan. He pointed at the decorative blue words etched on the side of the helicopter as it made its descent. It said National Institute of Archaeology and Applied Sciences. "What does it mean?"
Greyson's eyes widened in amazement. "It seems that the institute did answer my request after all. I assume there's an examiner aboard." He drew the hood of his parka tight and glanced up at the helicopter, as it prepared to land. He remained impassive, staring up at the vehicle. A sure sign he was worried, and undoubtedly a sure sign this had to do with the death of his top scientist, Efrim Stevenson, a little under a month ago.
The helicopter began to decrease in speed, turn and drop. Beneath it the pilot and passenger on board could just make out a huddle of pale white igloos. But they were actually the buildings that connected the main facility. So this was NOVA. Not exactly the center of attraction.
The aircraft's winding blades swirled dangerously overhead, creating a miniature blizzard as it landed. A figure ran out from the cockpit with a wooden crate to greet Greyson. It was the pilot, dropping off supplies to carry the facility through the rest of the winter. A man in a Chesapeake coat, unprepared for the extreme weather, followed right behind him. Then the pilot got back into the helicopter and ascended into the morning sky, in hopes he would make it back to the Canadian mainland before dinner.
Greyson smiled and shook the passenger's hand, but it seemed that he wanted to get inside as soon as possible. "Welcome to the loneliest spot on the planet. You must be from the institute. I've been expecting you. The name's Harmon Greyson. I'm the head archaeologist and secondary scientist of the facility. This here's Grogan, our radioman. And there's still three others you have to meet."
"That's all very good," said the shivering medical examiner, "but if we can save the introductions for later, I'd like to get inside." They all made their way through the back entrance. "I do hope you have heat and hot water in this place."
"Plenty," Greyson laughed, patting him on the back. "A little underdressed, aren't we?"
"Those damn board members at the institute woke me up out of a deep sleep. I didn't even have time to pack the bare essentials." Which happened to be true. All he carried with him was a small bowling ball-sized duffel bag. And he was sure to be there at least a month, maybe more.
Greyson chuckled some more. "Well, rest-assured, Mr--" He looked at the visitor, whose accent sounded a bit Scottish, for a name.
"Mcghann," said the medical examiner promptly. "Thomas Mcghann." He was welcomed with open arms. Obviously Scottish in lineage, he was now the most recent arrival to the polar exploration team. A semi-tall, clean-shaven man with silvery hair and pale blue eyes which twinkled with humor.
"Rest-assured, Mr Mcghann," Greyson continued, "you'll find all the clothes and material items you need in our locker area. Feel free to roam about if you wish, too."
"Please, call me Thomas…And if you don't mind, I'd like to get down to business if it's at all possible. The institute said you've had a rather unexpected death of lately?"
"Yes," said Greyson. "Dr Efrim Stevenson, my partner in research." They reached a split in the tunnel where the corridors went two separate ways. "I'll take you to my lab and explain it a little bit more in detail." Greyson nodded at Grogan. "Why don't you go and get the good doctor here some tea and mittens? Also, wake up Chef and have him cook up some breakfast. I'm sure it was a long trip, and Thomas here must be starving."
Grogan nodded back and headed down the opposite corridor.
Thomas gave Greyson a peculiar look. "Chef?"
"Yes, he's an ex-general from Desert Storm, became a biologist. He's also our head cook." Greyson led Thomas out of the split in the corridor and down a narrow, corrugated steel tunnel to a door marked "Laboratory".
Thomas entered first, and crossed right away to the rocklike object on the table. "How interesting. Igneous in origin?" he asked Greyson, as the archaeologist hung up his coat.
"I don't know," said Greyson, putting the supply crate down next to it. He took a crowbar and pried the wooden box open. Inside were rations, soft drinks, candy, cigarettes, Playboy magazines, and two bottles of J&B---but no cigars, which sort of pissed him off. "Shit! How do they expect us to live off this?"
"Interesting," said Thomas. He was holding the arch of his chin as if in thought. "Where did you find it?"
"I didn't," said Greyson flatly. "Efrim did. Somewhere to the north of here in a great big ice fracture some 100,000 years old. I was nearby when he found it, but I didn't make the initial discovery. I was busy excavating another fracture at the time, about five miles away."
Thomas took his magnifying glass out and gave a quick analysis of the strange rock. It was smooth-surfaced, not so much like limestone or basalt, but with small sharp grooves and minerals in it (more like shale or freshly excavated granite). It was foreign to the region, or any other region for that matter. But rocks and minerals was not his field, just something he had always been interested in. A sort of hobby.
"There's a couple of things I want to tell you about that rock," said Greyson, pulling up a chair. He bit down on a stump of beef jerky which he had gotten from inside the crate. "At least some important stuff before we go and examine the body."
"The institute informed me before I came out here that Dr Stevenson's death might have been caused by his find." Thomas looked at the rock more closely. He saw a label on the side of it. Efrim Seven. "What an interesting name to give a rock. Why Efrim Seven?"
"I usually label my samples or findings after their constituents, but in this case I didn't. I call it Efrim Seven for two reasons. Efrim, because I named it after its discoverer, Dr Efrim Stevenson. Seven, because when I chiseled apiece off and put it under my microscope and had the computers analyze it, I saw that it contained seven minerals alien to this world. This somewhat prehistoric rock buried beneath the ice since long after the end of the Ice Age, doesn't belong in this part of the solar system. Matter of fact, it's so frozen that it's still thawing out as we speak."
"But what is it?" asked Thomas, seeing that he couldn't identify it.
Greyson shrugged his shoulders. "A chunk of asteroid or a piece of meteorite? Volcanic residue from the earth's core? A rock believed to exist only during the Ice Age? Who knows. I've tried many conclusions, but nothing to show from it. Predating says it's about 100,000 years old, but if you want my opinion I think it's much older."
Thomas pulled up a chair of his own and sat beside it. Affixing a pair of reading glasses to his face, he went into his bag and pulled out a pen and pad to take notes. "How long has it been in NOVA's possession? And how long was Dr Stevenson around it?"
Greyson thought long and hard about this. "Oh, I'd say about three months, since right before that terrible storm started. Efrim was working on this thing day and night, touching it without gloves performing analysis after analysis. After a full day's research, he would jot a couple of things down in his journal. He died four weeks ago, so I decided to take over from his notes. I've continued his research ever since, but not even I can find anything justifiable. Just that the minerals it's composed of are unearthly."
"And the body?" asked Thomas. "Did you perform a full autopsy?"
"Efrim's body is down in the morgue," replied Greyson sourly. "We put it on ice so it wouldn't decompose. And yes, we did perform a full autopsy to the best of our medical knowledge. Two a matter of fact."
Thomas leaned in for a closer look, poking the rock with his pen. "What were the results of those two autopsies?"
Greyson, still baffled by the test results to this point, said simply, "Confusing. I don't know any other way to explain it. That's why you're here. The first one was standard, and told us that he died from natural causes. The second one was computer-generated, and told us that he died from an acute infection due to an unknown plasma virus."
Thomas put his pen and pad down and stopped what he was doing. "Plasma virus?" The medical examiner had never heard of such a thing, and he was one of the institute's finest doctors with twenty years experience under his belt. "What the devil is that?"
There was a moment's silence as the significance of this question sank in. Both men were experts in their fields but none of them had come up against anything like this before: an alien rock, a mysterious and sudden death, an unknown virus. And yet after a good half-hour of dawdling about, neither of them could come up with an answer. They just sat in dumbfounded astonishment, the rock before them still and silent, giving off an eerie glow in the rays of the ultra-violet lamp high above it.
Deep in thought, Thomas stared hungrily at the rock once more. "Hmm, plasma virus." He was often skeptical like the next man...but what about this?
"What's the matter?" asked Greyson, giving him a serious look.
"I think your computer equipment has frostbite," Thomas jested. "Either that or there's permafrost in the circuitry."
Greyson stood up and crossed to the rock. "So what conclusions have you come up with?"
"Alien," said Thomas without hesitation, "if everything you've told me is true, of course. The creasing and formation is unmistakable." He gave the rock another poke with his pen. The last of the permafrost was melting to reveal a hard black shell. Thomas stared at it, puzzled. "How deep was it?" he asked.
"I'd guess about ten layers down," replied Greyson, "which confuses me about its age."
Thomas gave a short laugh. "Well, we have to accept one theory in the end now don't we? Discoveries like this have destroyed much older theories and brought about scientific breakthroughs."
Greyson nodded wordlessly and ushered Thomas into the doorway. The show was over. "Let's go see the body now."
Thomas remained at the door for a moment, a concerned look on his face. Although he didn't like to admit it, he too found the rock worrying and somehow frightening. He glanced across at it. It lay there on the table, silent and still, an unwelcome guest from outer space, or the continent's deep and hidden past.
Down in the morgue, Thomas was preparing himself by setting up the coronary equipment and taking out his sharp shiny utensils. He put on an apron and fitted himself with latex gloves, and watched as Greyson took the body out of the freezer with a harness, put it on a gurney, and rolled it over to the operating table. Greyson switched on all the surgical lamps and turned up the room's temperature by adjusting the thermostat on the wall. Even now, at a smooth 60 degrees, the six foot four pale body of Efrim Stevenson was beginning to thaw out and look very much alive, just soundly sleeping. Greyson looked at the balding head and shrunken face of his deceased friend, more in admiration than in fear; perhaps because of his life's work to NOVA and other North American institutes and scientific research facilities. He shook his head in a disheartened manner, covering the body's genitalia with a towel. He then went to retrieve a bottle of sulfur and formaldehyde, as well as two surgical masks, which Thomas had asked for previously; little did he know that as he went to the medical supply shelf, the forefinger on the right hand of Dr Stevenson's corpse twitched.
Thomas rolled his equipment over to the table. "Do be as so good to bring a few cotton swabs too," he said. He started the examination by using a very large clamp to open up the body's ribcage. Once exposed, Greyson returned with the bottles of solutions and other items Thomas had asked for.
"Sorry if I seem a bit queasy," said Greyson, keeping his distance. "After all, this is the third autopsy, and he was a friend of mine for over ten years."
"Understandable," said Thomas. "You might not believe this, but when I was younger I worked as a coroner for Scotland Yard. One night I was called in to perform an autopsy on a car accident victim. After careful looking, that victim turned out to be my own father. He crashed coming home from the docks."
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Greyson, casting his face at the floor. "It must have been a real shock to witness that, his death I mean."
"I didn't witness it, thank goodness," Thomas grinned, as he reached for the scalpel. "It just hurt that I had to perform the autopsy on him myself…my own father." He continued with the examination, and by the time the hour hand on the wall clock had hit 8:00, he was completely through--just in time for that breakfast Greyson had promised him.
"What is it?" asked Greyson.
"Bad news," said Thomas gravely, but his expression looked more like one of unconcerned lucidity. "We're out of cotton swabs." He smiled.
"Very funny," said Greyson. "No, really, so what's the deal with Efrim?" He straightened Thomas's utensils and stepped back from the table. He couldn't stand the suspense any longer.
Thomas walked over to the sink, took off his latex gloves and started washing his hands thoroughly. "I don't see anything wrong with him," he said honestly. "It's a clean death. Just like your first results, natural causes."
"But what about the plasma virus?"
"Your computer must have bugs in it." Thomas went back to the table and used a stick to show the body's anatomy to Greyson in full detail. "What you see here is a perfectly healthy man, who gave up the ghost when his time was due. There were no signs of infection or malignancy, and he even passed my little neurological exam. He has a perfectly healthy brain, with no scar tissue, a clean pair of lungs, working kidneys, functional liver, unclogged intestines, and the heart of a thirty year old man. The only conclusion I can come to is that his ticker gave out, perhaps the instant he saw something that frightened him or stressed him out."
"Frightened him? Stressed him out? Hogwash!" Greyson didn't believe that one bit. He knew Efrim's death had to be caused by something else, something more serious.
"It has happened," said Thomas. "But just the same, how did you find him? Was he in his room sleeping when it happened?" He meant at the scientist's time of death.
"No," said Greyson. "He was slumped over in his chair back at the lab, his hand practically glued to the side of that rock. And he wasn't wearing gloves."
"And where did you find that rock again?"
"About twenty-five miles from here, further north. There's an excavation site there. NOVA was given permission to work out of it. It was originally some kind of secret army tract, off limits to others for some time, used for testing out explosives on ice canyons." Greyson walked over to the morgue's ice-hardened window and looked out. "I sometimes have dreams that there are still nukes buried under the snow, or something the U.S. government wanted to dispose of quickly. But I suppose it's silly of me to think that way."
"Not at all," said Thomas. "You just have questions you want answers to, and if they're not answered properly, that can bring about grave concern." He started washing off his equipment piece by piece, putting them away in a small case in his bowling ball-sized duffel bag. "I think Dr Stevenson's death should be further investigated, regardless of today's autopsy. But as for a plasma virus, please."
Greyson, his arms and body tired and aching from no sleep, stretched and took in a deep breath of air. "I've been up for hours trying to piece things together, even a lousy clue. I don't know why I have a mindset on that rock, I just do. Shit. I'll believe almost anything at this moment." He looked at the body of Stevenson once more. Again, he failed to see its finger twitch. "Are we about done here?"
"Almost," said Thomas. "We just have to sew him up and put him back on ice."
After Thomas stitched Stevenson back up, Greyson told him to leave the body on the table, at least for now. He would turn the thermostat down all the way and come back to put it in the freezer later. Greyson felt hungrier now than Thomas, so much that the medical examiner could hear his stomach growling from across the room. He had to eat now. If there was one thing that irritated Greyson more than not having cigars to smoke it was working on an empty stomach.
Greyson led Thomas upstairs through steel tunnel after steel tunnel, past the crew's quarters and into the cafeteria. Thomas was introduced right away to a tall, muscular black man of about forty-five. He was wearing a chef's hat and an apron that said "World's Best Cook". And when he removed the kitchen bonnet, Thomas saw that the man had a black flattop and a scar across his forehead, just an inch or two above his left eyebrow and about the same inch or two thick. Pinned to his breast were medals, ones awarded to him during Desert Storm. At a table just behind him were two other men, laughing and giggling amongst each other.
"Stew?" asked the hat-donning cook. He was serving some sort of brown goulash out of a big cauldron using a giant ladle. On a small table next to the cauldron were a few hot plates, with separated and portioned servings. The servings included corned beef and hash browns, scrambled eggs and bacon, and a giant bowl of cream of rice. "Help yourself…" he offered in a deep voice.
Thomas nodded and grabbed himself a plate. It all looked so good that it was hard to choose. "Special recipe?" he asked the cook. The cook didn't answer him.
Greyson grabbed himself a plate as well, and started with the formal introductions. "This here's Chef, our biologist and man of many meals. If there's a cuisine out there you really like, he'll be sure to make it for you." He turned around and faced the table. "Over at that bench is Takosky and Letherjack, our technical engineer and electrician." He turned once more. "And you've already met Grogan, our communication specialist." Grogan waved from the doorway, as he gave a pull of his cigarette. "His job is radar and tracking, frequencies and enemy signals--24 hours a day, seven days a week."
"And you must be the smart one," said Thomas undeniably.
"I guess you could say that," Greyson said, serving himself some stew and eggs. "You know, I used to be like these guys back in the day. I was also a marine. Believe it or not, we share most of the duties here, and we all have our own little share of knowledge when it comes to the sciences."
"So NOVA is a team effort?"
"The research capabilities and isolation acceptance factor wouldn't be possible if it wasn't." Greyson sat down across the way from Takosky and Letherjack.
Thomas followed him and sat down too. "And Efrim? How did he feel about the isolation factor?"
"It must have not bothered him. Why else would he lock himself inside the lab, work day in and day out for over a month to study a rock?" Looking down at the fresh brown and yellow-colored breakfast on his plate, he sipped his orange juice and then added, "It's a waste if you ask me. He was my friend and partner in research, and I should have seen the signs earlier. I should have helped him."
"There was nothing you could do," said Thomas, taking small bites of his food. "Two out of the three autopsies were conclusive. He died from natural causes. If you're still so curious as to why he died so suddenly, perhaps you should go back to the computer for more information."
"I've been considering that," said Greyson.
Thomas thought about it himself for a moment. "Well, before we even consider the possibilities of a strange virus or contagion, ask yourself what plasma even is for a second."
"Plasma has two origins where medicine and science is concerned." Greyson gave him a strange look. He was beginning to think that maybe Thomas thought he was dumb.
"Yes, well we all know that plasma is the liquid part of blood or lymph tissue, distinguishing itself from other liquefiable elements in the body, which I examined very closely during the procedure…Yet still I could not find a trace of infection. And the blood tests show no signs of cellular degeneration either. Also, plasma has been known to turn up in volcanic regions because it is a highly ionized gas containing an approximately equal number of positive ions and electrons."
"Well, cross number two out, Tom. This is the coldest region on earth."
Thomas thought to himself some more. "So what if we put aside the medical and physics aspect for a second?" he asked Greyson. "What if there's a third possible answer to the origin of plasma? Something that might have to do with evolution around this area, somewhere around the neighborhood of 100,000 or more years ago?" He was starting to become deeply interested in the rock, so much that it surprised Greyson. "Perhaps the trials and tribulations of evolution has allowed you to uncover a new form of plasma, one which does more harm than good when in human hands."
"And perhaps the military did something years ago, and we're being jerked off for it now!" said Greyson sarcastically. "I've examined every corner, Thomas. There's nothing more I can do." He pushed his plate aside, suddenly losing his appetite. Takosky and Letherjack started laughing. Greyson looked up at them. "What the hell is so funny?"
"Just that you're taking this whole thing a bit too seriously," said Takosky. "Let the man rest in peace. Leave the mystery for the professionals, or at least until we're done with the expeditions and back in the States."
"Yeah, he's right," Letherjack agreed. "Efrim's dead. We all miss him, his quiet nerdy mannerisms, but there's nothing you can do. Not anymore. If you want to keep his torch burning, continue his research. Prove to him that his archaeological findings aren't foolish or haven't been overlooked." Which wasn't such a bad idea on the part of Greyson and his sometimes erratic behavior toward Efrim's name being mentioned.
Greyson was pissed. Thomas could see it. "Why don't you assholes just mind your own business?"
Takosky and Letherjack looked at each other and smiled. They picked up their trays, dumped them off in the garbage and exited the cafeteria. They both pushed into Grogan on the way out, causing him to drop his cigarette. Grogan laughed to himself. "Those guys must have been in a lot of bully competitions when they were growing up."
"More like Idiot of the Year awards," remarked Greyson.
"Letherjack made some valid points where the archaeological digs are concerned." Thomas scratched his chin in thought. "Yes, and he also said you should make sure his archaeological findings aren't overlooked and that they aren't deemed foolish. By heeding those words we can find answers."
Greyson was slightly confused. "What sort of answers? I've already identified seven strange minerals?"
"Well, maybe those seven minerals make up a new but harmful form of plasma, somehow viral in origin," Thomas said. "The answers I'm talking about lie in those ice fractures twenty-five miles from here, and those are the answers we need: the answer to Dr Stevenson's death, the answer to the alien minerals, the answer to the plasma virus!"
"Are you talking about an expedition?" Even though the storm had stopped, Greyson wasn't planning on going outside for at least another two or three weeks, just to check on the generators maybe. And he didn't think it was such a great idea bringing along someone inexperienced in archaeological exploration such as a medical examiner from a sunnier part of the world.
"Sort of," said Thomas. "We can dig around in the ice, take samples, look for more rocks or clues."
"I don't know," said Greyson, thinking long and hard about it. "The weather can sometimes reaches 130 degrees below zero, and long journeys on the snowcat have been known to make people nauseous. Are you sure you would be up to something of this nature?"
Thomas put his hand on Greyson's shoulder and leaned in toward him. "If we refuse to believe a formal cause of death, then we're left with a body and a mystery. We have to close the case on this; otherwise we might face more tragedy than expected." Unlike Greyson's mindset, which was geared toward the origins of the rock, Thomas's mindset was adjusted for learning about Dr Stevenson's death and making sure that it didn't happen to anyone else. He had even requested a blood sample from Greyson, because he had been around the rock for some time now himself.
Greyson took another sip of his orange juice. "Well, I could have the snowcat deiced and fueled up by noon," he said, considering it. "But you can't go dressed like that. You'll have to find something a lot warmer." He then looked over at Grogan, who was still standing in the doorway.
Grogan saw that he was being suggestive. It was in his face. "What?"
"A favor," said Greyson. "You know the body down in the---"
"Oh no!" Grogan fussed, not letting him finish. He knew what Greyson was thinking. "Why am I always left with the dirty work? Why does everyone pick on me? You know how much that sort of thing freaks me out! I fainted during the first autopsy!"
Greyson shook his head. "Stop being a wimp. I just need you to do it this once. Just put it back in the freezer like you've seen me do it all those other times. I have to take Mr Mcghann here to see those fractures."
"But why can't Chef do it, or Takosky? Or even Letherjack?" He looked at Greyson's expression for a moment and realized why he was asked instead of the others. "Nevermind. But you owe me!"
"Don't I always?" asked Greyson, throwing him a picturesque smile.
Grogan paid no attention and walked out in a tiff, slamming the cafeteria door behind him. From the background Chef continued stirring his stew and just laughed.
It had been about an hour now since the little scrap incident in the cafeteria, when Grogan had finally approached the hallway door leading to the morgue. He turned the knob. The entrance was locked, and as he put his hand against the door's glass top, he could feel the vibrating cold that was coming from the other end, freezing the soft part of his palm. "Great," he said to himself, shaking his head. "It must be 40 below in there. He could have at least warmed things up a bit." He started cursing Greyson in his head.
Instead of going back for a coat or a sweater or something warmer to put on, he started rummaging through his pockets for the key. It took him a minute of digging around, but he eventually found it and thrust it into the lock. He opened the door and before entering looked inside. It was dark and dismal, the hall leading to the room with the body. He still couldn't understand why the facility was in need of such a well-equipped morgue, especially in a place like Antarctica. Deaths like Efrim's weren't expected every winter, and the only other times the morgue was used was when autopsies were performed on fossils buried in the snow, such as those from saber-toothed tigers or woolly mammoths.
He kicked the doorstop with the back of his heel and left the door wide open, allowing some of the warmer air from outside to ventilate in. The lights were off, and since he was rarely down in this part of the facility, he hadn't a clue where the switch was. He went back out and returned a moment later with a flashlight, turning it on. He walked down the hall and followed the small swirling ball of light. He started to agree with something that Letherjack, the master electrician, had told him. Something about the storm taking its toll on the facility's power, and different parts of the main building needing more electricity than others.
The last door on the left was open, and Grogan knew that this must be the room because a cold cloud of mist emanated from the doorway. Only a dead body out in the open, being preserved by frigid cold temperatures would give off that kind of mist. Strangely, it got Grogan thinking about nitrogenous compounds and cryogenics. For what reason he did not know. Just that his imagination was playing tricks on him as he got closer to the examination room. Usually, NOVA's fossils and bodies weren't kept in nitrogen-filled tanks, but encased in dry ice freezers.
He stopped with one foot inside the doorway of the examination room, shining his light at the body on the operating table. Frightened, a chill ran down his spine and he suddenly found himself gasping for air. He knew how morbid places like this freaked him out, but he wasn't about to panic over it. He had to move the body, and that was that.
He walked over to the gurney and rolled it right beside the operating table. He glanced at Dr. Stevenson's body...just a glimpse, just for a second. He had never seen someone so still and something so unsettling in his life. Amazing how just a month ago this same body could move and hold conversations. He released the sidebar on the table and pushed Dr Stevenson onto the gurney, then covered him with a sheet. He opened the freezer's door and wheeled it inside. As he unfastened the metal coffin inside the freezer he realized he had forgotten something. He could not hoist the body into the coffin and into place without first sitting it upright and attaching a harness to it. But where was the harness? Was it even in the room?
Beaming the flashlight around in his hand, he went back outside and looked around for the harness, or a leather strap, or a looped band by which he could lift the corpse. After careful looking he found a bundle of sheets tied together, which he could use to hoist Stevenson up with, and returned to the icy cold freezer. Much to his astonishment, the body was gone. Grogan dropped his lip in fright.
A feeling of panic quickly began to grip him, and he dropped the flashlight and found himself hiding under the gurney, almost like a small boy hiding under his bed from the monsters he thinks are in his closet. How could the body just have disappeared? He was gone for less than five minutes? Unless those jokesters Takosky and Letherjack were playing another one of their pranks on him. "This ain't funny guys," he cried out, huddling himself in the deepest corner of the freezer, gurney overhead. "Efrim was our friend!"
Grogan crawled out of his corner and over to the flashlight, picked it up and tried to put it back on. He gave the side of it a quick slap. The battery seemed dead, or maybe something happened when he dropped it on the floor. A cold-flooded rage mixed with fear was rushing through his veins as he jetted out of the freezer, trying to make the flashlight work. It didn't sound like there was anyone else in the morgue with him, so inside his head he kept telling himself over and over again… "I'm just imagining things…the dead can't come back to life…the dead can't just get up and walk away…" Yet the evidence seemed unquestionable, since Takosky and Letherjack weren't about.
On the way out of the examination room Grogan slipped on some sort of gooey substance, falling face first to the floor. The flashlight, once again, hit the ground, but this time turning on automatically. Grogan rolled the substance around in his fingertips as he lay there and barely made out its color in the faint light. Red, like blood, but not as dark and not as thin and watery. It was actually sticky and sort of translucent, and there was a trail of it leading out of the room and into the hallway. Grogan quickly picked himself up and followed it.
Just outside the examination room door, the trail of red goo continued down the corridor, all the way into the darkness and probably up to the morgue exit. Once again, Grogan took in account that it might be Takosky or Letherjack playing a very nasty trick on him. It was better than assuming that Efrim had come back to life and was walking around in a zombielike state. The only reason he considered this was because the main door was closed, and he remembered that only a couple of minutes ago he had left it open, to let the warmer air in.
Grogan approached the door. He put his hand on the ice-cold knob, turned it but it would not open. It was locked from the other side, and the state of tension involved in it had Grogan digging around for the key once more. As soon as he got the key out, he told himself, the first thing he was going to do was inform Greyson as to what happened here. But as he thrust the key into the lock and turned it in a counter-clockwise direction, a pair of icy cold palms, almost like a pair of animal's claws, clutched the sides of his neck, twisting him around. Grogan dropped his jaw in fright. He was frozen with fear, motionless like a window display mannequin.
And then, whatever it was that was trying to choke Grogan, used its strength to tear his head clean off his neck; he didn't even have time to scream. Blood splattered on the door's glass-top window, and the remains of the radioman's body fell limp to the floor.
Outside, it was getting dark and a light snow was falling. It was almost nightfall by the time Thomas and Greyson had come within the ice fractures' province. As Thomas zipped up his red parka and put on his mittens, he noticed something. Although they had only traveled a few miles-and it was taking prac-tically forever to reach their destination-the lights of the research station behind them were no longer visi-ble. Greyson was calm the whole trip. He had his arms in back of his head and his legs up on the snow-cat's dashboard, dozing off behind the wheel. It plowed through the mounds of fresh snow ever so slowly. The cold was already unbearable through the vehicle's box-shaped windows, and this lack of enthusiasm from Greyson just irritated Thomas even more. Constant flurries of snow prevented him from seeing more than a few feet ahead, and he felt oblivious now because he saw that he was just scanning a spread of white.
"Did I ever tell you that you'd make a good navigator?" kidded Greyson, opening one eye. Burying his chin in his chest, he now crossed his hands on his stomach in front of him.
"I don't believe so," said Thomas, checking the vehicle's instrument readings for a condition report. He paused only once in a while during these check-ups to secure the oversized hat on his head that Chef had lent him. "If only Scotland Yard knew of this years ago."
"That's the spirit," said Greyson, dozing back off.
"I'm not used to these kind of speedometers or gauges or dials," Thomas griped. "I just can't read any of this equipment." He used his scarf to wipe the icy frost that was forming on the window in front of him. "Can you see anything?"
Greyson shook his head. "Not without the original map or a compass. Whether it's the middle of the afternoon or the middle of the night, the wind covers everything in a matter of minutes."
"So we're just heading in a northern direction and guessing?" As silly as it sounded, the question it-self made sense.
"Yep." Greyson nodded.
Suddenly Thomas pointed. "What's that over there?" They had reached a high ridge and he was gaz- ing at something upward, almost slanted on a slope.
Greyson took out his binoculars and peered into the setting gloom. A wooden cabin lay half-buried in the snow, several hundred yards distant. Only Thomas's willfulness and superb eyesight could have picked it out from such a range. "That's our power shack."
"Why is it so far from the station?" he asked.
"Safety measure-it's required by law. We have to have one on the outer perimeter to power the ex- cavation equipment and light up the tunnels along the fractures. It seems to be the only one in this area, so it's probably the beginning of a bare stretch of canal, one that'll take us right where we want to go."
"But what is it in general?"
"A new electrical system that can withstand the coldest temperatures," Greyson said. "Letherjack and Takosky built it six months ago. We've been testing it out ever since. It works well. Plenty of light."
The snowcat scrambled up the slope and approached the cabin. It was just a little bigger than a tool shed, but smaller than a cottage. The snow on its roof was undisturbed, dripping off the edge into icicles.
Greyson brought the snowcat to a halt, and Thomas was the first to jump out. Hastily he made his way to the cabin and checked the entrance. "This door couldn't have been opened for weeks," he remarked. "Maybe months. It's frozen shut."
"We only go inside if necessary," said Greyson, stepping out of the white tractor-like vehicle. "Like during power outages." He walked up to the cabin door, right beside Thomas. Behind them were a long stretch of pit some six feet deep and iced over, leading out as far as the eye could see. "Might as well open it," Greyson added, starting to yank the lock. "If worse comes to worse, this might have to be our shelter from the weather." Thomas took out his flashlight. After a couple of hits from the back of it the ice cracked away and both men stepped inside.
The walls and floor of the power shack were bare, but in the center stood a large complicated genera- tor, about twelve feet across, giving out a soft glow of heat. This was the main power tank. A couple of small pipes and hundreds of wires and cables ran off to the walls and underground to the rest of the area, including parts of the research facility and some of the far off excavation sites, to supply the extra power and electricity needed. There was very little scope for an energy drain, even in this harsh terrain.
"Did the military ever have access to such shacks?" asked Thomas, swiping his finger across the per-mafrost-mixed dust on top of the main generator.
"No, just researchers and technical engineers," said Greyson, wiping the snow off his jacket. "These little cabins weren't even around when the army was here." He started looking around the shack for some- thing, but Thomas hadn't the faintest idea what it could be.
"I thought maybe there might be a clue in this place." Thomas's search of the shack was performed quick and somewhat methodically. "You did say that you have dreams about the military and these sites."
Greyson crossed to the supply closet, opened it and removed two long shovels. "Well, we won't find what we're looking for in here." He handed one of the shovels to Thomas. "But you will need this if we're going to be digging around in the ice."
They both departed the shack and started making their way along the slippery canal that led deep into the heart of the excavation site and the ice fracture where the strange alienlike rock had been found. The two men emerging from the doorway were unaware of a hideous form-no longer Dr Stevenson-running around the corrugated steel tunnels of the facility, less than twenty-five miles away.
Thomas had never felt so cold in his life. Even with his new parka. He was already beginning to re-gret this trip to Antarctica, under the institute's orders. After five years as the special head medical exam-iner for the National Institute of Archaeology and Applied Sciences he should have known better, he told himself. But he did want to help Greyson. Finding out the cause of Dr Stevenson's death meant more to him now than anything else. And on the side, he had always wanted to participate in a winter ramble or a scientific excursion.
About thirty or forty yards down the trench, Greyson and Thomas came to the ice fracture that Efrim had been working in. It had to be it. This was where the canal ended and the pit was at its deepest. Also, Stevenson always put up metal flags as markers for places he had dug into. At least twenty flags, each one separated by a couple of feet, marked this particular area.
"I had a feeling this was it," said Greyson, his sore lips talking over the biting cold wind. "The ice has a smooth surface, like that found on the outer layer of the rock, with small ridges and grooves beneath it. There's probably a chunk or two more below it." He kicked a heap of snow away from the hole, sealed o-ver by a thin sheet of ice. Then he took the shovel and pressed down, breaking the three-month-old seal. For a moment he dug alone, but then he looked over at Thomas, saying, "Don't just stand there. Give me a hand." Thomas began to pitch in.
They dug for at least an hour and a half before finally coming upon something worth looking at. A rock, similar to the first one, only smaller, and with strange bubbly formations on the outer rim of it, was deep at the bottom of a crevasse. Greyson dropped his shovel and jumped inside. Thomas stayed up above in case he got trapped. Greyson started touching it.
"What is it?" Thomas asked him, from high above the fracture.
"It's the same rock," he yelled up, "only this one is more interesting. Actually, intriguing is more the word." He rubbed his hand over the rock's bubbly surface, and when his fingers touched the end he got a bad shock. "Ouch!"
Thomas panicked. "What happened?"
"I'm all right," said Greyson, slipping the rock into his bag. He started climbing out of the crevasse, Thomas giving him a hand. "I just caught a shock, that's all. I think there's some sort of radioactive chemical melded into it. Good thing I'm wearing gloves. I wonder why it would do that to me, though?"
"Nukes in the snow," said Thomas. "Remember?"
"Yeah, but I wasn't serious about that. Although something radioactive beneath the ice could make an object unidentifiable to the human eye and seem much older than it really is…It could also transgress the object's mineral pattern and break it down into several other base patterns, creating new minerals which are alienlike in nature." He picked up his shovel and started filling in the hole, proposing more theories in-side his head. His first one was trying to compare the autopsy with the rock's natural mineral pattern.
Thomas put a flag down next to the spot where he had dug. "How disconcerting." The medical exam- iner now erased the possibility of the military having some sort of involvement.
Greyson wasn't through. "Also get a load of this," he said. "If the rock was absorbing the sun's rays at a stage of evolution when Antarctica was covered in beach or forest, it would soak up enough of that radio-active material to coexist with at least six out of the seven minerals. Similar to gas particles, or the physics aspect of plasma as you put it, an exterior form of infection could break down the body's reflexes right a-way-but only if the rock's bacteria particles were preserved in the ice up until now, which at this point does seem likely."
"And you did find bacteria in the rock, didn't you?"
"No, Efrim did. But I saw evidence of it, too-under the microscope, when I continued his research."
"That could be the explanation of the origins to our plasma virus," said Thomas, falling behind Grey- son. He was not used to wearing galoshes, and Greyson was way ahead of him in his own world. "It's no wonder something like this would be naked to the human eye. I'm surprised even technology could pick this out-everything else we've considered combined."
"So this is it," said Greyson, shaking his head in disgust. "Efrim didn't have to die after all. We're dealing with a radioactive bacteria which is fatal to humans, and which has been embedded into the rock's minerals because of some stupid evolutionary mistake or fault lying deep in the earth's past."
Both men stopped talking and made their way back to the snowcat. It was already late, and the tem-perature was dropping fast. Greyson looked up at the sky. Judging from the cloud formation above the dis-tant hills, a blizzard was brewing. After months of living in the Antarctic, the sky had taught him to pay at-tention to such signs. He pulled his parka tightly around his face and called down the pit to the muffled fig- ure of Thomas, who found it hard to climb out of the deep trench by himself.
"Come on, the weather's turning." But Thomas seemed not to hear him. He was working furiously at crawling up the side of the pit. Greyson dropped down over the ledge and gave him a hand. Thomas took the bag with the rock and climbed the rest of the way out. He placed it on his shoulder and made the trek back across the snow.
As Greyson now trailed behind Thomas, he pointed at a dark boulder-like object in the distance and said, "Look, off yonder!" It was the snowcat. Both men set off across the icy waste, the wind howling excitedly. When they got to the vehicle they quickly jumped inside, turning on the motor. A sudden blast of snow blew across the horizon as it gathered speed and the ice beneath its treads crinkled and crunched. Thomas shivered. Without knowing why, he felt uneasy, as if the approaching storm carried with it a sense of impending doom. The weather just kept getting worse, and the trip back to the research station felt slower now than the trip out. It was probably silly for him to be nervous. But the vehicular traverse across the snowy waste seemed to Thomas almost like a march to the gas chamber, a steadfast journey into certain death.
Inside one of the steel tunnels to the research facility Letherjack had been kneeling in front of a giant toolbox, looking for something. A moment later he wriggled to his feet and was hopping up and down a-long the tunnel, like a jack-in-the-box, pulling wires and circuit breakers off the ceiling. Above his head hung an old storm lamp for use in emergencies. One of the original NOVA electricians had probably put it in, he thought to himself. He stood on his toolbox and reached up high, fiddling with it. Takosky walked past and observed his friend's actions in puzzlement.
"What are you doing?"
Looking down at Takosky like he was an idiot, Letherjack rubbed his moustache and straightened his Budweiser cap, saying, "What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Attempting an accident?" the engineer laughed, in his husky, native Russian accent. He took off his vest, offering a hand.
"Ever changed a light bulb?" asked Letherjack, as he headed the lamp off its hook and onto the floor. The glass smashed into fragments. "Shit!" His electrical expertise wasn't paying off this time.
Takosky shook his head. "Not like that. That's why they have ladders."
Letherjack got down off the toolbox. "Well, it was the next best thing. Damn. Now I have to put a fixture up in its place." He kicked the broken glass aside. "What do you want anyway?"
"I'm looking for Grogan. Have you seen him?"
"Nope, can't say that I have. Why don't you check the communication room?"
"He isn't there," said Takosky. "He still has my Tetris game, too."
Letherjack was surprised. "You mean our little Grogan? The Miraculous Munchkin of the year? Our little radioman isn't at his post? That's a laugh!" They were both unaware of what really happened to him, but the idea of Grogan being away from his radio for more than five minutes was funny in itself. He was the kind of person that usually never left the communication room for anything, except food; also probably to avoid being picked on by guys like Takosky and Letherjack.
"That's what I said," Takosky went on.
"Did you try the supply warehouse?" asked Letherjack. "Something might have been wrong with the communication system, and he went to get parts to fix it."
"Doesn't he know that that's what we're here for?" Takosky was slightly angry at the idea of it. But it did make sense. Grogan would do anything not to be around the two of them. Takosky didn't even realize how obnoxious he had been towards him over the past few months. "You're right. He's probably in the warehouse right now, scrounging around for parts. I'll get my coat and go have a look for myself."
Letherjack shook his head, more in irritation than in approval. He had a mess to clean up, and more wiring ahead of him.
Outside in the cold weather, a hideous form observed the lights of the main building's back entrance from behind a hillock of snow. It was now seven or eight feet high, no longer composed of one body but two-Dr Stevenson and Grogan, mutated and amalgamated with red and purple fleshy scars. It had four arms and four legs, where before it only had two of each, and made a slow hissing sound that was clouded over by the noisy gust from the wind. It saw Takosky fleeting outside, just around the corner from the heli- pad. After a moment or two, it set off toward him, moving toward the supply warehouse at exceptional speed. It reached the nearest pile of oil drums and began to edge slowly along the side of the building look-ing for a way in. And like Takosky, it had already been inside the facility.
Takosky, looking nervous and tense in the lights of the camp, paced impatiently up and down the icy path by the doorway, failing to notice the creature that currently had its eyes on him. The main building was invisible from where he stood and nothing had been heard of Grogan since after he went into the morgue early this morning. Basically, Takosky was just bored out of his skull. He wanted something to do, so he was trying to get the video game back he had lent him. Antarctic winters were known for their dullness and lack of adventure. Behind him, anxious and expectant, a strange being was ready for action.
The door to the warehouse was open at the moment, like an airship's cargo ramp, and flurries of snow were busy blowing inside. Takosky ascended the ramp, and then once indoors, descended a flight of stone steps and found himself in a large basement room filled with electrical wires, knobs and buttons. At the far end stood a huge piece of machinery, covering one entire wall. It consisted of two enormous metal rollers with steel blades, like a giant cropping fan. About three inches thick, a wide aluminum battery in the wall powered the rollers. Takosky guessed that Grogan must be on the other side working on some sort of radio equipment, because he thought he heard noises that sounded exactly like his whispering. Takosky marched quickly along a series of corridors until he reached the other side of the warehouse. Once there, he realized no one was around. His mind was playing tricks on him.
Then, appearing in the entrance with one head and then two was the deformed figure, its many arms and legs and its red and purple blotchy scars, soaking up the heat. It was stalking Takosky, and as it came strictly for him, the Russian engineer was unaware that the hideous form stayed crouched beside the stone steps by the warehouse's door, less than twenty feet away. Its cold, dark inhuman eyes followed Takosky's movements through a panel in the wall at the back of the rollers. As Takosky realized Grogan wasn't about, the hideous form of a man-half man, half mutation, and half plasma creature-crawled across the floor toward its next victim. With one swift movement it pried open the fanlike rollers in the wall, letting out a low rattling noise and settling beside a pile of broken parts. Startled, Takosky heard the commotion less than ten feet away but could not see anything in this awful lighting, just his own hands in front of his face.
"Grogan must be around here somewhere." Takosky looked around in desperation. He didn't want to stay any longer than he would have to. The unsettling noise coming from the area of the rollers was start-ing to make him feel a bit unstrung.
Despite the spooky rattling and grinding noises and the bad lighting, Takosky pressed on, making his way to a room at the rear of the warehouse where there was more likelihood of finding Grogan. Too late in his trek he realized he was unarmed, in case the noises behind him came from a wolf; he had left his rifle back in his room. But, he went on regardless.
Suddenly he thought something was in the shadows beside him. He stopped and peered into the dark- ness. "Grogan, is that you?" The passage was deserted. Then, without warning, a figure sprang from the blackness and struck him hard on the back of the head with a heavy fist. Mercifully, that was the last the engineer knew.
Quickly his attacker dragged the unconscious body through the rear of the warehouse. Within sec-onds a strange, mutated tongue penetrated Takosky's face on the floor, like a giant motor whirling into ac-tion, or a hungry monster devouring its prey. Once again, the hideous form had melded with another hu-man being. Moments later it reemerged, all three faces on all three heads, smiling malevolently.
Approaching the station at about five miles per hour was the snowcat, coming to an early halt. Grey-son stopped it in its tracks as several shots rang out. Then a ghastly scream, almost inhuman, filled the eve- ning air. The sound came from no more than a few yards away, and in the vicinity of the main building's back entrance. Greyson jumped out of the heavy tractor-like vehicle rather turbulently, asking himself who left the warehouse door open, and what was that awful sound. He didn't even wait for Thomas's reaction. He immediately set off toward the source of the noise, tearing through the ice at breakneck speed. Thomas stumbled after him.
Running hard, Greyson slid down a slippery slope and into a door at the back of the helipad, where he saw a hat blowing around in the snow. Before entering, he picked it up and saw that it had belonged to Letherjack. But the hat was covered in blood, and he could see a small hole in the top of it. Also, he could just make out the word "Budweiser" written across the hat's outer rim. Behind him the slow-approaching medical examiner let out a bellow of gastric pain and followed this unusual cause of concern in uncanny pursuit. Thomas wasn't used to running at this speed, especially in subzero weather.
"Wha-what did you find?" he asked, out of breath and practically keeling over in pain.
"It's Letherjack's cap," replied Greyson nervously. "It's soaked in blood…Something happened."
Both men stood up and peered cautiously inside the facility door, which for some reason had been left ajar. Greyson entered first, with the wary feeling that something bad had taken place while he and Thomas were gone, something drastic. It had only been three or four hours, and he never expected coming back to this: gunshots echoing throughout the camp, a shrill cry from perhaps some tortured animal, and evacuation doors and warehouse doors left open and unattended. It was all so crazy. It was as if the other members of NOVA had become lazy and taken advantage of Greyson's authority while he was away.
Once inside the corrugated steel tunnel, Greyson saw that most of the ceiling lamps had been knocked out or were hanging from stretched wires, about to go out. In the distance these dangling fixtures almost resembled small UFOs, hovering in the air. Under one of the farthest lamps-which still had a little power left to it-was the shapely form of a man, sprawled out in a silent and still manner. He did not move. And from what Greyson and Thomas could see, he did not breathe either. They went to check it out.
Thomas knelt beside the limp body of Letherjack. It was a horrible sight. He put his fingers against the side of the electrician's neck, looking for a beat, a pulse, or any vital sign, in hope that he was only unconscious and that this whole scare was one big joke. But then Thomas noticed the wound on the side of his head. A bullet was lodged in his brain, part of the matter spurting out-now spilling out-on the other side of his ear. Thomas looked up at Greyson. "He's dead," he said to him, trying to focus along on the dreadful reality of it. "It was a clean shot, whoever did this to him."
"But why?" Greyson asked, suspended in disbelief.
Thomas then put his gloves back on and started examining Letherjack's right arm. Almost the whole outer layer of skin was covered in pockmarks, a discolored red and purple-mixed fleshy texture. Very care- fully Thomas looked at this other wound, which seemed more dermatological than fatal. "Well, well, well," he muttered to himself. "I've never seen anything like this before." And Greyson had never seen Thomas so curious before, especially over just another dead body. The first thing that came to Thomas's mind was that the second wound was viral and somewhat morphological in origin, rather than it being of a dermatological nature.
Greyson took two steps back. "What's with the paint on his arm?"
"Not paint," said Thomas, very much concerned, "but plasma. These purple scabs are infected, swol- len veins beneath the skin. The red marks are eruptions-almost like puss pimples filled with blood."
Right away Greyson knew this had something to do with the rock, the same one Efrim Stevenson had died from. "I hope that's not the virus we've been trying to find answers to. But if it is-what are we go-ing to do? Won't it spread quickly in this kind of habitat?"
"It's not the flu," said Thomas, "but yes, I believe it will. Other than that, this man was murdered." He put himself in the shoes of his teachers for a second, the ones at Scotland Yard who had taught him eve- rything he knew. He had to think, because Greyson now seemed too grief-stricken to talk or come up with any ideas of his own. "Can this facility perform quarantines?"
Greyson laughed, even though it wasn't the time or place to quip. "No."
"Just the dry ice freezers then?"
"Hey, listen, I guess the U.S. government felt it wasn't necessary. Who would have thought a plague could find its way here, and then on top of it not be contained?" Greyson had a point. It was Antarctica, not the venomous rainforests of the Amazon or the African highlands or jungles of Congo.
Thomas agreed. But he also noted that the skin infection was not only viral or morphological, but ra- dioactive too. And the reason the computers picked up the virus and the human eye couldn't was because of the radioactive elements contained within it, like the seven alien minerals.
"I'm going to get Grogan and Takosky," said Greyson, as he walked back the way he came. "You stay with the body and keep a look out. It seems we have an intruder."
But as Greyson reached the end of the tunnel, the cold cylindrical metal of two hollow barrels pressed hard into the side of his temple, followed by a menacing voice which caused him to freeze in his tracks. "Don't move-I ain't playin'," said the threatening, yet familiar voice. Whoever-or whatever-the voice belonged to it seemed like it was serious. A moment later a man stepped out of the shadows, refusing to let go of a sawed-off shotgun and trembling. It was Chef, and Greyson had never seen him like this. Thomas was watching the whole display from only a few feet away.
"Chef, now you wouldn't shoot me would you?" Greyson tried talking sense into him. The station's head cook had a deadly look in his eyes. "You know as well as I do, that by pulling that trigger you're only bringing about your own death sentence." Bad choice of words.
Chef pressed the shotgun even deeper into the side of Greyson's head, causing him to squint in pain. "Oh yeah? How do I know you ain't part of that thing?" It wasn't normal for him to be this unnerved.
Greyson was practically choking on his own saliva. "I haven't the faintest idea-"
"Shut the fuck up!" Chef didn't let him finish. "You know damn well what I'm talkin' bout!" Thomas was frightened to come over, but he knew he had to help. The man had seen something that made him go crazy and become overly defensive.
"Chef, remember me?" he asked, advancing slowly on the balls of his feet. He gave a short wave. "I do believe it was in the cafeteria that we first met…" From opposite, Greyson closed his eyes just in case things turned out messy.
Now Chef pushed Greyson aside and pulled his shotgun on him. "Yeah, I know you. You're the freak that let the lion out of its cage. I should kill you right now." Thomas backed up. "If it wasn't for you performin' that autopsy on Efrim, none of this shit would have happened!"
"Are you saying that Efrim is to blame?"
"Somethin' inside Efrim is to blame-and Grogan, and Takosky, and it almost possessed Letherjack too! If you ask me, you shouldn't have messed with that corpse. You should have left it where it belongs-in the icebox!"
"What exactly did you see?" Thomas asked him, as he slowly reached for the shotgun. For a moment he thought he was making progress, but it turned out he was wrong. Chef took the rear end of the gun and swung it hard, making him fly backward onto the floor and leaving a very nasty bump on his head. Grey-son jumped on Chef's back and started hitting him in the head with his flashlight-and kept it up, too.
A second later the big man went down. Things went quiet, and Chef blacked out.
When Chef came to, everyone who was still alive or not presumed missing was sitting in the cafeteria, looking for an explanation. Greyson wasn't very good at interrogation, although in this case it was neces-sary. Chef was tied up to a chair, bleeding profusely from his head. And all this time Greyson and Thomas had this hunch that Chef had gone mad-worse than cabin fever-and killed everyone in the station.
"All right," Greyson started off, pulling up a chair and lighting up a cigar. "It seems we have one dead body, caused by either a shotgun blast to the temporal lobe, or an infection that mutates and kills on con-tact. Next, we have a missing body. Dr Stevenson's corpse is not in the morgue. Last but not least, our ra-dioman and technical engineer are missing. Can you explain any of this?"
Chef shook his head.
"That's it?" asked Greyson, looking for more than just silence. "That's all you have to say? You mur-der an innocent person by blowing their brains out, and you can't come up with anything?"
But Chef had a lot to say, and much on his mind. "I told you," he spoke firmly. "I was walking down the tunnel and this monster was clutchin' Letherjack's arm, making him scream somethin' awful. I ran to my room and got my gun. When I came back, Letherjack was on the floor and that thing was headin' the opposite way. I shot it twice in the back and some sort of red stuff leaked out, like a cohesive substance. It went wailin' down the tunnel."
"Did you follow it?"
"Hell no! After what it did to Letherjack? That thing was about eight feet tall, and it had Efrim's head, only that it was more sunken in, sort of distorted and altered-like the results of some bad surgery on a pair of Siamese twins. And its body seemed deteriorated-but it had these little recognizable compositions."
"What sort of compositions?" asked Greyson.
"Components from each of the team members' body make-up," said Chef, struggling to forget every-thing he had seen. "A little bit of Grogan, a little piece of Takosky, and a big chunk of Stevenson-all in one! In all the years that I was in the military and studied biology, I've never seen anything like it."
"It seems our little plasma virus has come one step further since our last investigation," said Thomas, entering the cafeteria with a morose look on his face. Greyson had no idea he was at the door listening. He thought that he was still down in the morgue, performing Letherjack's autopsy.
Greyson threw him a half-smile. "I just have to finish," he said. "Give me a minute." He looked back over at Chef, whose head had stopped bleeding now. "And what was your motive for killing Letherjack?"
"After that thing touched his arm, Letherjack wasn't dead. He got right back up and started actin' in- sane. He even came after me. Back in my country, we have a practice known as Santeria, where demons used to possess the bodies of villagers by invading their dreams. We had special witch doctors who could exorcise these demons before the soul of the possessed and the inner demon became one. On this continent there is no such thing. I did what was best for Jack's soul, and I did what was best for my own survival."
Greyson considered what Chef had said and looked at Thomas for his opinion.
"A radioactive virus from 100,000 years ago could cause delirium," Thomas said.
"So it drove him crazy? Crazy enough to try and kill Chef?" Greyson shook his head and stamped out his cigar. Then he turned to Chef and said, "Listen, I'm going to untie you. Since Thomas here is going to be barricaded in the lab most of the night, trying to find a solution to this problem, I'm-"
"Wait a minute-" Chef interrupted him. "For what reason?"
Greyson gave a short huff of disgust; he disliked being interrupted. "As I was saying, Thomas will be in the lab with the two rocks and a sample of Letherjack's blood, trying to find an answer to this mutating virus, or whatever you want to call it. Meanwhile, as for you, I'm going to need a hand finding that crea- ture. We can't have something like this running around the station. And no matter what you say, I still be- lieve that Grogan and Takosky are alive. Also, I'll need a blood sample from you. And last," he added, talking to both men, "I found out that supply copters won't make it back here for a month, so we're stuck."
"I don't care," said Chef resolutely. "I'll show you who's telling the truth. Just give me a gun and I'll blow that thing right into next week." And he was serious too.
"I never doubted you," said Greyson, in response to this sudden determination. "All I did was suspect you when you came at me with that shotgun. As for being armed, I think it's best if I carry the weapon. I can't reestablish a trust between us right away. You do understand, don't you?"
"So what am I supposed to carry, a kitchen knife?"
"No, a flare gun," said Greyson simply. "Just to start-until that trust has been reestablished." He cut the ropes that were confining Chef to the chair and handed him the flare pistol. "Now, are we on the same wavelength here?"
Chef gave a slight nod.
"Good, then let's let Thomas get back to work and do some hunting."
Their footsteps halted outside the back entrance. It had been ten minutes since they left the cafeteria and just in time Greyson spied a large figure standing in the center of the helipad, but he could not see the shape of its body or the look on its face because the lamps above had been knocked out. Chef froze as he was walking out the door. He snapped open Greyson's bag and dived inside for the rifle. Greyson smiled at him but not with good humor. "I'll take that." He quickly grabbed the weapon out of Chef's hands, knelt between his legs and aimed at the figure, which was standing no more than a few feet away. "Is that it?"
Chef nodded. "It has to be. Look at the size of it." Not only that, but the way it moved. It had those same swaying arms and prancing feet, and that jutting neck-creature-like motions that undeniably set it apart from anything in its class; enough to convince Greyson it existed, and enough to terrify Chef all over again.
Through a narrow chamber an elongated metal projectile came tearing through the night air at breakneck speed, ripping through the back of the tall shadowy creature. For a moment there was a horrendous moan, which sent Greyson and Chef flying back indoors. Then whatever Greyson had shot slumped over on the helipad as if semi-conscious, and lay quietly groaning. Chef patted Greyson on the back, cheering him. He had successfully hit it, but not in a part of its body where he would kill it; he wanted a live speci-men for Thomas. A giant pool of blood started forming on the helipad, and as Greyson and Chef walked up to the helpless creature they saw that this blood was mixed with fur. White fur.
Greyson couldn't understand. It was exactly how Chef described it. Eight feet tall, and the body parts to match. "This isn't the thing you were talking about, is it?" he asked, puzzled.
"No, it's not," said Chef. But in his eyes it had looked like it from the distance.
"Thanks for telling me now." Greyson shook his head in irritation. "I just wasted a poor polar bear." The animal had been mistaken for the creature; it had probably wandered into the camp, looking for food.
"Wait." Chef grabbed Greyson's wrist, as he started heading back. "That mutation I was telling you a- bout…"
"Yeah, what about it?"
"Look at the stomach and left arm." Chef pointed down at the creature.
Greyson knelt beside the paralyzed mammal. It had the same markings as those found on Lether-jack's arm, discolored blotches embedded into its fur and spread over a good portion of its body. Chef's mutation must have run into the polar bear and wrestled with it, but after being stung in the body a few times it was obvious the scavenger barely escaped with its life.
"I can't believe it can fuse with animals too," said Chef, trying to find something to cover it with.
"Viruses are usually capable of that," said Greyson. "They're pesky invaders. Once they've reached a particular host of cells it's bye-bye-birdie. In this case it's a mutated mix of blood plasma and skin, or fur."
"And why is that?"
Greyson didn't feel like going into it (probably because it wasn't the time or the place) but he did any-way. "This may sound ridiculous, but it has something to do with those radioactive rocks."
"You mean Efrim's little discovery back at the ice fractures?" asked Chef.
"Yep, you got it. And Efrim died mysteriously when he was in contact with the first rock, only that the computer didn't find the second autopsy to be that mysterious."
"No wonder." Chef had been confused all along. That explained why Greyson needed a professional medical examiner to perform a third autopsy. "I thought Efrim had come back from the dead in the form of a demon, and he was possessing everyone else."
"You've got to calm down on the voodoo, Chef," suggested Greyson. "Seriously." And there couldn't be too much biological know-how if Chef believed that demons were the cause of the problem. Who knows why Chef thought the way he did. Perhaps it was a side effect to one of the chemical weapons unleashed during Desert Storm. Or maybe he flunked a class on skepticism. Greyson laughed to himself.
As soon as they reached the outer boundaries of the camp, a new form emerged from one of the sealed domelike buildings. It was too dark to see what it looked like, but Greyson was able to tell at first glance that its height was about the same as the polar bear's. Chef saw it too. The form was making its way a-cross the snow to another out-of-use building, not too far off. Greyson gave a final, horrified look at it be-fore it scrambled up the slope to the abandoned shelter and broke in. Both men quietly slipped after it.
"In all the time I've been up in this refrigerator," noted Chef, "I've never been inside these buildings. What are they for?" There were three in all, resembling small barracks with cupolas on top, and their metal entrances separated each other by about thirty to forty yards. Steel posts in the ground indicated that there used to be barbwire fences up all around the place.
"Those two on the right used to be specimen shacks for the old NOVA, when it was military-funded," Greyson pointed out, as he used his night-vision to follow the creature's tracks. "That one over there-" He was referring now to the third building, the one the creature had entered. "That one used to be a toxic waste factory. Also military-funded."
"Long before your time, right?"
"Long before both our times, Chef."
"I bet the biohazard symbols still serve their purpose."
"I bet they do," Greyson agreed. "I bet they do."
Once inside the toxic waste factory he tried to get his bearings. It was very dark, and although Grey- son had a pair of goggles with a night-vision attachment, it didn't seem to work in this kind of atmosphere. Because the toxic material once stored there caused severe corrosion to the layers of wall paint, only a cer- tain amount of light was able to illuminate the interior. Still, a little pale moonlight filtered down through the small skylight above him and Chef, casting spooky shadows on the floor. Also, there was this sulfuric smell-a stench so strong and so deep that it made Greyson and Chef cover their faces with towels while walking.
"Ever been in here?" asked Chef, as he loaded his flare pistol with two warning shells. He wasn't tak- ing any chances, even without a real gun. And Greyson still didn't trust him with a regular weapon.
"Once," Greyson said, "and that was enough for me. I have a hunch that thing entered this place because of the radiation flowing from out of some of this old machinery."
"You think radiation feeds it?"
"I believe it feeds the mutation's plasma level, accelerating it to an uppermost viral state-beyond our comprehension. That's just a theory, though. If you want any further results, you'll have to turn to Thomas's autopsy report or the information in the computer on the rock's minerals."
Evolution…natural selection…radiation…plasma virus…human acceleration…mutation…a breed of monster…
Greyson put his theories aside and quickly banished those awful thoughts from his mind and set off through the building, Chef tagging along behind him. If Chef's description of the creature, which Greyson was beginning to believe, were in this building, perhaps because of some primal instinct or human split per- sonality, it must be there for only one reason-chemicals! And the creature couldn't be too far because the factory was small-only four rooms and a balcony overlooking the main floor-and it would return sooner or later after feasting on some poisonous waste.
Greyson looked down at the floor as he was walking. He noticed a fleshy object, barely visible in the pale glow of the moonlight. He knelt beside it. Much to his surprise it was a human finger, mutated and discolored. The finger had a ring on it. It was Takosky's high school ring; the finger belonged to him too.
"Here," said Greyson, finally finding it wise to equip his partner with a gun. "I've seen enough in the last half-hour to start trusting you again." He handed Chef a 9mm and two clips.
"I knew you'd come to your senses," Chef said, installing one of them. "Now with two guns I'm read-y for action." In his current stance he was acting like some black cowboy, but even in a time of consequen-tial decisions and weighty concern, Greyson found humor in it.
"Save the lasso tricks and buckaroo antics for later, general," Greyson said. "Also save those two flare shells for an emergency-like a warning blast or something."
"What do you mean?" Chef was confused.
"We don't have much time and much territory here to cover." Greyson dropped his bag of destructive toys and took only his rifle with him. "We don't want that thing leaving this place alive. You take the main floor and the rooms on the left, and I'll take the balcony and the two rooms on the right."
"No buts! We're splitting up-and that's final!"
Thomas glanced uneasily at the blood sample through the glass microscope for the umpteenth time. He was now in no doubt about his imminent death here in the Antarctic, failing to succeed in finding a cure to the spread of some unsanctioned human mutation or alienlike plague contagion; a virus that infects the deepest core of blood plasma, morphs its surrounding tissue, and uses radioactive material or energy to re- generate itself when the host cell is about to die out. The bacteria inside the 100,000 year old rock's miner- als were the carrier, human beings or mammals such as Letherjack became the host of the passed-on cells, and the surrounding radiation, like the sun, kept it running smooth and strong like an Eveready battery. But it would need more radiation when its supply ran low. It didn't take long for Thomas to find all this out, but the cure to this disease-that was a different story.
He probed on, looking for a solution to this madness. And if there were a monster mutation running around the camp, how long would it be until it broke into the lab and killed him? And what was the horrible manner in which the death would take place. Thomas shivered. It was clear that the addition of one extra victim would not make a difference at this point; one last body would not cause the slightest acid reflux in the functioning of this evolutionary masterpiece Chef spoke of. Take Letherjack for example.
These morbid reflections were brought to an abrupt halt as the blinking information on the computer sprang to his attention. He removed the sample of the infected blood plasma and mineral-mixed bacteria and combined the two, like he had done a little while earlier, and put them down beside the keyboard. Also beside the computer was an open bottle of hydrogen peroxide. A second later he dropped his jaw in fright. Whatever small summary of information, flashing before his eyes on the monitor, revealed itself as being a wordy chunk of bad news.
He started to read aloud. "The probability of this viral mutation, now known as Plasma Infection-C, spreading throughout the station and exterminating all human life within it is less than 72 hours variable. If after that, the mutation is not contained properly, and spreads to the mainland or a region with plenty of sun or radiation, the death toll could be catastrophic. If it were ever to evolve one step further, duplicating or multiplying itself from the original host cell and blood-gene pattern, the death toll could be even higher. A sample below shows a comparison between the extinction rate of the dinosaurs and the deadly meteor and the human race and Plasma Infection-C. Very similar results, when all other scientific theories are consid-ered or brought to an outcome." Thomas couldn't even finish. He didn't want to. He had read enough.
He leaned back in his chair and covered his eyes with his hands, but as he did so his feet kicked up- ward into the bottom of the table, rattling the computer and spilling the open bottle of peroxide. The liquid fell dead in the center of the plasma and mineral-mixed sample dish, and started bubbling-no, fizzing.
Startled, Thomas took his hands away from his face and leaned forward. He took out his magnifying glass and put it over the sample, his eye glued to the other end of it. An extraordinary transformation was taking place, but Thomas needed a better view of it. He was now in search of an end result.
He put the mixed sample dish back under the microscope and put his eye up to the lens, adjusting the focusing dial on the side of it. It was amazing. Somehow, the peroxide's contents had diluted the infected plasma and bacteria-infested minerals, causing them to separate from each other and degenerate. And the end result Thomas was looking for turned out to be a famous antiseptic mixture with 3% H²O, which re-versed the mutation process. If only he had found out sooner. A combination of sterilized water and liquid germicide. Peroxide.
"If this doesn't win me the Nobel Prize, then I don't know what will," Thomas chuckled, as he went to the computer to start on a band of equations; at this rate he could have a vaccine in just under an hour.
The only problem now was if peroxide was kept in regular stock. NOVA was set in a stormy sector of the Antarctic, and delivery copters rarely made it through the blinding snows or harsh winds during win-tertime. Still, Thomas gestured toward the supply closet. On the top shelf were twelve unopened bottles of the solution. He looked up and shook his head, not because they were slightly out of reach but because he hoped that twelve bottles would be enough. And not only did he have to make a blood-compatible vaccine of the solution for certain blood types, but he had to find a way to make deadly anesthetic darts out of it as well. They would make a handy little weapon, when loaded into the right kind of rifle, in case Chef's other so-called mutation really existed; but Thomas was pretty much a believer now.
Pale and tense, he walked over to the other side of the table and confronted the test tubes and chem-istry beakers. He mixed the antiseptic solution with another one of the sample dishes, and placed it on the burner. He began to smile. He was already making progress, and with his computer-generated chemical e-quations, it would be no time until he had what everyone else in the camp wanted…
A medical breakthrough.
While this concoction was taking place back at the lab, another more serious event was happening out in the far reaches of the camp. A search. The mutation, now dubbed by the three survivors of NOVA as "the plasma creature", had swiftly and expertly guided Chef out the back way of the toxic waste factory. It seemed that the more victims it claimed and mutated with, the smarter it grew and the better it adapted to its environment. Now, as Chef approached the guard's post out in back of the factory, he started to trem-ble. He waited outside the post door, two of them, a main entrance and a secondary security hatch, right where the red slimy tracks had ended, reassuring himself by giving the trigger of his gun a quick squeeze, but not releasing his grip-not on his life. His flare pistol was attached to his gun-belt.
He opened the first door and entered. The interior was like a small built-in one-floor cottage. Chef carefully eased open the second door and peered inside. It was dark, except for the moonlight, and every-thing was ominously quiet; too quiet. Could he have been wrong? Could the creature have just passed a-long the outside of the post, but not been inside? Chef wasn't sure. He still had to check the place out, just to be on the safe side. Greyson told him to stay within the confines of the factory and check the two rooms on the left, but of course he didn't listen.
From what Chef could see, the post was empty. The key card lock lay shattered on the opposite side, a burst of wires in a tangle of string as if pulled out of the wall with superhuman force. A desk and a chair lay in the corner, overturned-but that didn't mean anything. No one had been inside the place for at least five or more years, so who was to say that it hadn't been overturned since then?
"Now where could it be?" Chef wondered to himself. His voice, icy cold from the outdoors, stabbed the air rather hoarsely. He began to develop a grim look on his face. "Blood plasma don't appear outside a door for nothin'," he added. If only Greyson hadn't suggested splitting up, he'd feel a lot more at ease.
As of now there was only one logical place the plasma creature could be; lurking in the blackness out- side, just as its predecessor the polar bear had prowled the snowy wastes minutes before. The plasma crea-ture probably searched the factory high and low for some radioactive material, and when it found it, exited out the back and just happened to pass on through here, the guard's post. That was it. Chef was sure of it; and he didn't want to come to any other conclusions; he was glad his trembling stopped, and he wanted to keep it that way.
Suddenly, Chef paused. On his way out he had heard a strange noise-a kind of grinding and thump-ing. It seemed to be coming from under the floor. He looked down at his feet. There was an emergency fallout hatch over by the overturned desk, which for some reason he had failed to notice before. The lid to the hatch was silvery and metallic, sort of like a manhole cover. He opened it and found a flight of metal steps leading to a lower level. As he descended these steps the noise grew louder. He found himself in an underground passage, pipes and construction lamps lining the walls as far as the eye could see, and he had crept along this passage until he was directly within earshot of the place where he had first heard this sound, but from above. This was obviously some sort of underground facility in conjunction with the toxic waste factory, but for what use he did not know. Perhaps it was an escape route, put there years ago in case the military had a chemical spill. He didn't pay attention to the details of that now. He set his eyes on the large metal archway in the distance. A heavy metal door, not immediately visible, was recessed into the wall. The construction lamps ended at the overhead curve and the pipes disappeared into this wall. Also, the grinding and thumping noise came from the other side.
Chef started feeling around the wall. A moment later he found a mechanism that operated the door. What he did not notice was the puddle of blood beneath his feet.
Swiftly, Chef heaved the door open, which for years was rusted half-shut. Once inside, the first thing that came to his mind was the story of the spider and the fly, and how the mean old arachnid's parlor was a web of deception-a trap for those awaiting death or who told lies. Straightaway his ears were split by a deafening blast of sound, as if huge strips of metal were being ripped apart and hammered into pieces. This thunderous screeching emanated from a mass of moving machinery at the far end of the room. It was prob-ably also the only machinery still operational in this place. Two enormous rollers-or cropping fans, simi-lar to those in the parts' warehouse-were rising and falling in unison, slowly grinding together as they did so like a pair of giant molars, creating a small but temperate gust of air. In back, three giant vats of acid were undergoing a stirring process, as three mechanical arms dug deep into the bottom of these metal bolt-like barrels, causing a misty mixture of sulfur and pressurized steam to touch the ceiling. In front, a shiny aluminum conveyer belt was chugging inexorably toward a gapping shredder. Just above must have been the main floor of the factory, which he had visited with Greyson only a couple of minutes earlier.
Chef was surprised that some of this old machinery was still in working condition. But who had acti-vated it? This site had been off limits to non-military personnel for as long as NOVA's research division was in existence.
A brief second later he saw an arm, halfway on the conveyer and halfway in the sharp gapping teeth of the shredder. The arm was small, like that of a boy's. From the distance anyway. The part of it which still bore a hand was bloodied, and the polyester material wrapped around the upper part of it was obviously some kind of tattered shirt cloth.
A beige turtleneck sleeve. Grogan.
Quickly, Chef ran for a wall filled with red and yellow switches. Above his head was an open ventila-tion shaft leading to the surface. He pulled his flare pistol out of his gun-belt and fired two shots up into the square metal hole in the ceiling, hoping that they would attract Greyson's attention. He needed assis-tance, just in case the plasma creature was down here with him. Also-even though the arm seemed at-tached to something much bigger on the other side, only inches from the murderous whirling blades-he had the gut feeling that he might have been wrong about Grogan. Maybe the communication specialist was still alive. Maybe he was being held captive by the monster or something.
"Don't worry little buddy, as soon as Greyson gets here we'll get you out!" Chef said.
Desperately he scanned the wall for the right switch, hoping that the first one he pressed would stop the conveyer belt or shredder; also hoping that Greyson saw or heard one of the two warning shots and was on his way to help.
There were several switches. Several levers too. He pulled one of the levers on the right. The noise increased and the machinery began to accelerate. The arm was beginning to disappear on the other side of the shredder-but it was too dark to see what lie on the other side.
Chef yanked a second lever. Nothing happened. Then he pulled a third lever. Again nothing hap-pened. The arm was flattened against the sides of the conveyer. There was a low growling noise, almost like some vicious dog hidden in the shadows, which had been hungry for days, maybe weeks. Surely not a scream of agonizing pain from some bewildered animal, and surely not the cries of Grogan. Surely the sound of angry metal.
In a mad hurry Chef pulled all the levers and pressed all the switches he could find. Suddenly the noise subsided; the metal conveyer pad ceased its ascent and came to rest at the arm's bloodied fingers, be- tween the teeth of the shredder. Chef gave a sigh of relief. Once he was sure the growling stopped, he ran to the back of the machine for a closer look.
He moved through the tall thin columns of pipes and piston-powered metal, handgun at the ready. He walked carefully down the slender pathway of nuts and bolts and gears and rivets, looking for the man that might be trapped on the other side of that bloodied arm, hoping that the man was still alive. It was terribly dark now-darker than when he had first entered-and Chef could barely see an inch in front of his face. His back was against a wall, which he slowly edged along. And although it was too dark to see this wall, he was able to feel the sensation and composition of it: cracked plaster, molded paint, cobwebs, cardboard box feel-things the wall of an aged factory was known for.
It didn't take long before Chef's nerve had snapped. When he finally reached the opposite side of the shredder, he saw that he had been wrong. Grogan wasn't alive. Instead, he saw what was left of him. Lit- tle mounds of bedraggled cloth and melted flesh, a piece of arm and leg here and there, scattered about and forming a trail all the way up to an old army sign reading "Off Limits". The only biological conclusion he could come to was that the creature only needed blood plasma or skin tissue during the mutation phase of its existence, sort of like the transition between a caterpillar and a butterfly.
Now he saw first light. A small rusty door lay in the distance, a filth-covered bulb hanging above it; surely the exit to this basement. Chef's breath hung in the air as he made his way down the slender pas-sage in back of the machinery. Behind him he could hear heavy footsteps pounding on the concrete-and growling, just like before. This time his own example had forced him to comply to other measures-and Greyson wasn't anywhere to be found-but clearly when things got worse Chef would be interested in sav-ing only his own skin.
He was now nearing the door and had to make his way carefully through. As he did so the growling got louder and the footsteps quicker, and a feeling of panic began to grip him. Whatever was behind him was advancing steadily despite the narrowness of the passage. And Chef…Well, all he had to do was make it to the other side of the door.
He approached the door and pushed it open. It was so old that it actually fell off its hinges-but Chef wasn't worried about that now. Something was on his tail: the plasma creature, no doubt. And if he was right about his biological conclusion, then the creature had probably adopted a new more horrifying form.
With a shock just at the thought of it, he ran headlong into a weblike mass of flesh but somehow made his way through. This must have been some kind of secret nest for the creature, Chef thought to himself, and it was just his bad luck that he had stumbled into it. Once out of the fleshy trap, he set off toward the metal staircase in the distance leading up. As he ran, he snatched a backward glance at the size of the shad- ow speeding after him and gasped in horror. The sprawling shape of the creature, now over ten feet high, encompassed the room where Chef had entered, using the mass of flesh surrounding it to draw the oxygen straight out of his lungs. Just like a black widow spider sucking in its prey, the creature was now beginning to pull the solid masonry inward. At the same time the masses of mutated flesh, remains of some gigantic cocoon, had expanded and grown larger to the point where almost the entire room was covered in skin tis-sue and plasma, and where Chef could not even reach the exit.
NOVA's head cook had just time to take all this in before he plunged headlong into a murderous heap of pinkish tan protoplasm, which still separated him from safety. Fleshy branches and long mutated limbs swung menacingly as he drove his way through. He was not far from the staircase now, and he still had a breath of air left in him. Fifteen feet…ten feet…five feet…He was nearly there. Cursing and swearing in his head, he pushed on; the most he had gained was a minute's start.
Then, from nowhere, he felt a blob of flesh reach out from under the gap in the staircase's first footfall and wrap around his ankle. The creature's nest was alive, even beneath the metal stairs. It was pulling him down. He lunged and thrashed about but the fleshy limbs were now clutched around the lower part of his body, trapping his legs and waist, dragging him down, down, down beneath the gap in the first footfall.
As he struggled through the vacuolated protuberance Chef cursed his own weakness. Curiosity, that ancient mistake of man, had ensnared him into a lurid web of death. Just like the cat, he too would suc-cumb to the same demise.
Now, in the grip of this mutated mass, which plucked his clothes and burned his skin, he was learning the price of his folly. The strength of the fleshy limbs grew tighter, constricting the veins in the lower half of his body and practically tearing through the muscle fibers in his tendons. His breathing grew weaker and his own limbs began to tire, as he clawed his way up to the fourth footfall. But fear and the will to survive forced him up the stairs.
Then without losing hope he broke free, reaching the top of the staircase. He paused and listened up above, as he waited for the circulation to the lower part of his body to return. The masses of mutated limbs were stuck in the middle of the staircase, unable to reach where Chef was standing now. The oxygen was slowly returning to his lungs, and he no longer found it difficult to gulp for air. Suddenly, he became conscious of another, more different sound. Not the same growls from a couple of minutes before, but a sort of low rasping hiss, like a pit full of venomous snakes, about to leap up and attack. Just below him the flesh-y limbs that had held him captive began to move-upward!
He backed away with a scream of fear, failing to notice the monster that was clinging to the ceiling a-bove him, hanging quietly like some giant suction cup. It detached itself by sliding down the surrounding wall and slowly advanced toward him. The plasma creature looked different since the last time Chef ran into it. This time it was much larger, with many more arms and many more legs-mutated fleshlike protu-berances protruding from various undistinguished parts of its body. It was broadly and harmoniously built, tinted a pinkish-beige color, and all the major blood vessels in its cardiovascular system ran straight into one great big giant ventricle in its table-sized neck-which could be seen through the translucent layers of its skin, of course. In a way it was amazing…Amazing how a 100,000-year-old rock buried beneath the ice could cause all this.
Panic-stricken, Chef forced his arm forward-even though his circulation was still off-and drove repeated shots into the towering mass of flesh, but they had no effect. The creature continued its relentless advance. Chef saw that he was being backed into a corner, so he turned to run. As he did so he tripped o- ver a pipe in the floor and crashed to the ground. High above him, the plasma creature in its true modified state, let out a blood-curdling roar and plunged downward for the kill.
Greyson was upstairs on the balcony overlooking the floor of the factory when all this happened, rifle at the ready. He had failed to hear the two warning shots from Chef's flare pistol, and the head cook's cries and the other gun's deafening blasts were like a small packet of pins being spilled out on the floor, making him only a tad wary. But he was curious just the same. He had no idea there was a basement, or a guard's post out back for that matter. The last time he had set foot in this place was just to go into the foreman's office to snatch the blueprints for the main facility's heating system.
Suddenly, he paused. He heard footsteps coming up the metal stairs by the balcony railing far behind him. Perhaps this was the noise which got him acting all suspicious. It was too dark to see who it was-e-ven with the skylight up above-but the footsteps sounded pretty much like Chef's; high-soled, steel-toe boots that always made a clanking noise when indoors. There was also another window across the balcony, just a little out of reach-but that one too shed no light. The moon was beginning to hide its orbicular for- mation behind a great big cloud cover.
And then Greyson slowly backtracked across the balcony, put his rifle up in the air and asked, "Chef, is that you?" Of course there was no reply. And then he asked again, "Chef, I said is that you? Are you up here?" Now he wasn't sure…He came closer. "Did you find it-that thing we're looking for?"
Still no answer.
Then, whatever it was that was coming up the stairs and hiding in the shadows, made its presence ful- ly known…
"Oh my-" Greyson dropped his jaw in fright. And yes, that was pretty much the word for it because all this time Chef had been right. The plasma creature, over ten feet high and head practically touching the ceiling, stood on this thin metal walkway and just loomed over the poor defenseless-looking scientist. Al- so, the remains of Chef were deeply intermixed with its protoplasmic bodily texture.
Knowing that bullets at this range would probably not harm it, Greyson did what any smart man in his position would do. He ran.
He ran back the other way and launched himself through the second floor glass window in a spectacu-lar dive, landing feet first on a rusty metal ledge. The weathered steel snapped instantly beneath his hefty weight, causing him to fall helplessly into a giant mound of snow. The fall had knocked him silly-after all, it was two stories-and he broke out of the snow feeling a sudden head-rush, as if the blood in his body had all gone to his brain. Before the creature in the window up above had time to react, Greyson flung himself out of the icy cold mound of white, grabbed the rifle he had dropped and pulled himself to safety.
Running hard, Greyson headed away from the factory as fast as he could, into the dense snowy waste. Behind him the plasma creature let out a bellow of anger and turned in pursuit. Able to withstand the cold weather, the creature was now only twenty to thirty feet away, and although it wasn't using all the limbs it possessed, its speed over the ground was astonishing. It slithered and glided through the snow like an ad- vancing avalanche, smashing all the fences before it.
As he plunged through the wintertime air, Greyson had hoped his sense of direction had not deserted him. He was banking on finding the snowcat which he and Thomas had abandoned many hours earlier.
Suddenly he was clear of the camp's outer boundaries and standing on a shallow path. With a gasp of relief he caught sight of the snowcat still parked where he had left it. He bounded toward it and jumped in- to the driver's seat. He rummaged around his pockets for the key, and when he finally found it he thrust it into the ignition slot. He could hear the sound of fences and oil drums crashing and toppling over behind him and, above that, the angry roar of the plasma creature itself. Frantically, he turned the key in the igni- tion. The motor wouldn't catch. Perhaps frozen. Just as the roaring and growling seemed almost on top of him the engine spluttered into life. Tugging on the steering wheel, Greyson spun the large tractor-like ve-hicle around and accelerated away.
As he did so, he caught the creature in the full glare of the headlights. Its massive pinkish-beige body throbbed and pulsated, and the long fleshy limbs and mutated protuberances waved wildly in the air. In the split second it was observable, this repulsive vision of unearthly terror practically burned itself into Grey-son's mind, never to be forgotten. And it wasn't until now that he realized what had to be done; otherwise he would never get this thing off his tail and dash to freedom.
Yes, he realized…He had to use the combined strength of his wits and the vehicle's heavy treads to try and run it over.
Greyson fiddled desperately with the steering wheel, but all he got was unfriendly turbulence. As he circled the creature he tried to trap it in one spot-but it was too fast and it kept moving around, avoiding the snowcat's iron plow and the shaft of its long metal hood. He shook his head angrily, dislodging icicles from their stems, which hung over the roof of the vehicle. "Where's Thomas? Where's that damn medical examiner when you need him?" He looked up uneasily, as if to ask God for help. Thomas had been gone a long time, and now by himself, Greyson saw that the creature wasn't frightened of the snowcat one bit. In- stead, it used its broad strength to rush the vehicle and try and turn it over on its side.
With a final swerve the snowcat raised its front end and closed over the creature's head, and both dis- appeared below the surface of an ice patch. The horrible growling and roaring sounds subsided, the vehic- le's deadly purpose hopefully accomplished. A couple of oil drums nearby spilled out and poured streams of fuel into the patch, and filled it up into a sort of ignitable pond. Greyson jumped out of the emergency hatch at the roof of the vehicle and dragged himself up the hollow slope to safety. Gasping for air, he sat in the snow until he caught his breath…Then he pulled out his Zippo lighter and threw it on the ground in front of him, where a trail of blazing fire began to accelerate toward the inner slope.
A second later there was an explosion. A great big explosion.
Greyson got up and approached the pool of fire--what was once the snowcat and what was once the plasma creature--and looked inside. Horrible. Looking at his reflection beneath the flames he failed to notice the fleshy protuberance that was standing behind him. It seemed that he had only destroyed part of the creature's body, not the entire thing. In the darkness it somehow crawled its way out of the sunken pit and was already beginning to use the energy from the flames to regenerate itself.
Greyson swung around and tried to fire a shot at it with his rifle, but the oversized monster knocked the weapon out of his hand like some little plastic toy. Then it gave a swing of its own, knocking Greyson to the ground about ten feet away. The force of the hit practically sent him into an unconscious state, but not before witnessing a shadowy figure in the distance with a rifle of its own. The figure pumped dart after dart, like deadly tranquilizers from some zookeeper's gun, into the creature's chest. The creature gave off a shrill cry and began to melt beneath the ice, its entire bodily form degenerating before Greyson's eyes.
"What the--" Half-conscious, Greyson didn't know what was happening to it. And then he no longer had the strength to stay up. The plasma creature's fierce swing had taken its toll on him-his last bit of energy. The lids to his eyes started to fall down on him, and he dropped his face in the snow.
Greyson was out.
Greyson woke. He found himself staring up at a clear blue sky. It was daylight, and the blizzard from the night before had more than outlived its fury. He tried to sit up but there was no sensation in his arms or legs. For one awful moment he wondered if he had died. Then he realized his extremities were just numb with cold.
Suddenly a foot crunched in the snow a few inches from his head. A muffled figure in furs loomed over him. "Almost missed you in the snow," it said in a familiar Scottish accent.
Greyson smiled weakly. "Yes, well, this is Antarctica. There's rather a lot of it about."
"Are you all right?"
"I think so."
The man helped Greyson to his feet; it was Thomas, barely recognizable under Chef's oversized wool cap. "I came up with the cure," he said. "But you wouldn't believe me if I told you what it is."
"Try me," Greyson laughed, thankful it was all over. There were pieces of melted flesh and body parts all over, as far as the eye could see.
"I decided to let you sleep a little. It looked like you needed the fresh air." Thomas smiled at him. "I also got on the radio and contacted the institute. Since the storm has stopped, they're sending a couple of military people out here to perform a full quarantine. But anyway, just what happened?" He dare not tell Greyson the story about Letherjack. Not yet.
The explosion! It came back to Greyson with a rush. And Chef! Where was he? He began to run to- ward the pit like a madman. Right away, the combined stench of rotted flesh and burned fuel jumped out at him. Panting, he reached the top of the patch only to let out a gasp of horror. Where once the snowcat had stood, there was now only a heap of blackened ash and twisted metal. A few wisps of smoke curled up into the blue sky. He looked back at the factory building in the distance, and realized Chef was dead, too.
"It seems last night's incident may have knocked you up more than I thought," Thomas remarked.
"What do you mean?" Greyson was confused; still confused was more like it.
"Just don't go ga-ga on me. At least not until the army arrives."
Stunned by this unfortunate tragedy, Greyson lowered his gaze. As he did so he gave a cry of mourn- ing for his fellow researchers. For his friends.
For a while nothing happened. Then slowly he opened one eye and saw Thomas standing in front of him. The grin he had gotten to know so well over the last 24 hours spread across the medical examiner's face and he spoke. "We've survived."
Greyson gave a sigh of relief and smiled back. He was never more grateful in his life to hear those two simple words.