I have no idea how much time passed before I noticed the body on the floor. I felt dazed, like I'd been hit on the head so hard I was lucky to remember my own name. Thankfully, and somewhat curiously, I had none of the pain or general skull throbbing that normally comes with a head injury. Actually, physically speaking, I felt fine.
Ed Foster. That was my name. One of the few things I was certain of at the moment. Officially, I was Doctor Edward Foster, Ph.D. but that was mostly just during job interviews and when trying to impress on first dates, which I'd had too many of lately thanks to the piss poor nature of online matchmaking algorithms. And of course the inevitable disappointment when people realize a degree in neuroscience does not make me a brain surgeon. Apparently, I'm not a real doctor.
There was a body. On the floor.
It was a man in a yellow hazmat suit. More than that I couldn't say. His face was gone, the skull splayed open in a way that disturbed me on levels I couldn't begin to understand. It was like the T-shaped incision of an autopsy with all the organs removed. Except, this wasn't a chest. It was a skull, and I was staring at a pinkish, brownish coating that was the only thing that remained within. It wasn't difficult to look away.
One look confirmed I was at work. More specifically, I was in Area 51. That wasn't the proper name for this section of the facility, just sort of a half-joking nickname the guys who worked here had given it long before I'd been assigned to the project. The fact that I was alone in this room was worrying. No one was ever supposed to be alone in here. Part of me wanted to run for the door. That was probably the rational part of my brain. Instead, I turned around slowly to look into the holding area I knew was directly behind me.
My dissertation on Remote Observation of Neural Activity hadn't gotten me many second dates, but it had landed me a low-paying, high-prestige contracting job I could never put on my resume or tell anyone about for reasons of national security. Under penalty of death I'd been told, so that was exciting. I'm pretty sure that guy was full of it, though. They'd probably just rendition me to some quasi-friendly middle-eastern dictatorship and leave me there to rot.
Truth be told, I had nothing to complain about. Sure, I was underpaid and got no respect outside these walls, but I got to work with an honest-to-god alien. How many people get to say that? Well, technically, not even me. But that didn't make it any less exciting.
Right now though, I was terrified. There was a dead man on the floor with his brain scooped out and an alien in a plexiglass box behind me. Except, it wasn't there. The holding area was empty, it's resident, absent. The sliding door that I had never actually seen opened was locked in the open position. A tray of half-eaten food sat just inside the doorway, ready to be removed through the small access panel that no longer stood in front of it. I fought a bizarre urge to lean down and grab a bite. The cell was empty.
It has escaped!
The thought burned through me for a long moment and my primal terror morphed into something more intellectual and much more frightening. An extraterrestrial killer was loose. What had happened? Was it my fault? Who was the poor guy who'd been with me and ended up with his brain sucked out? Frank usually worked with me on weekends. I hoped it wasn't him. He was a really nice guy, always brought coffee. What day was it?
I was still wildly disoriented and it wasn't going away. If anything it was getting worse. No answers presented themselves. It didn't matter, the basic facts were clear enough. This was bad. Like, catastrophically bad. The subject had escaped and it was even more dangerous than we'd suspected. We knew it could play tricks on the mind, but tearing a man's face off and eating his brain—I saw no evidence of the organ near the corpse, at least—was an altogether different matter.
This thing was incredibly unique. It had a chameleon-like ability to blend in, not in the sense of physical camouflage but rather an ability to read human minds and manipulate them. We'd only scratched the surface of what the creature was capable of, but I knew enough to wonder how it had ever been captured. That was why there was a two-man rule. If this thing got you alone, there was no telling what it might convince you to do. It could make you see things that weren't there and impulsively do things you'd never believe you'd be stupid enough to do.
One time Frank and I were alone in the lab and I turned my back for a minute to run some data through the computer. When I turned back around, Frank was frantically swiping his access card, trying to open the cage. I asked him what he was doing and he told me that the thing had escaped. It hadn't. I could see it sitting in there, staring at Frank. Not to mention, if it wasn't in there then why bother opening the door? It wasn't rational, but it wasn't Frank's fault. Luckily Frank's card wasn't authorized for that door, and that security precaution probably saved our lives.
I stole another glance at the body. God, I really hoped that wasn't Frank.
Could that be what was going on now? Was the thing tricking me into thinking it had escaped? There was no way I could know for sure. I needed to raise the alarm. If this was all some illusion, if there was no corpse with a missing face and emptied skull—if this was all in my head and led to a premature and embarrassing end to my career, that seemed like it might actually be the best-case scenario right now.
I ran to the door and turned the handle, but the door wouldn't budge. Cursing, I realized my access card was missing. The thing must have taken it to get out of the room and now I was trapped in here. My eyes drifted toward my ex-colleague, studiously avoiding anything above the shoulders. There, snapped to the front of his blood-flecked hazmat suit, was a clear plastic pouch with a featureless white card inside.
There was no avoiding it. I took a deep breath and slowly walked over to the corpse. Leaning down to pick up the badge, I could clearly see bone beneath the ichor at the rear of the skull cavity. My head turned away involuntarily. A small amount of blood had found its way into the clear pouch with the access card. It smeared as I pulled the card free. My stomach lurched. If this was an illusion, then it was a damned good one.
Unlike other high-security facilities I'd worked in, the access cards issued here had no names or photographs. They only had a serial number printed in black machine-type along one edge. I didn't even know my own serial number, so there was no way I could I.D. the dead man by looking at his card. I just hoped he was authorized to open the door to the lab. Some people weren't. They couldn't go anywhere without an escort. If this card belonged to one of those, I was trapped in here.
Moving quickly back to the door, it felt more than a little like I was running away from the body, trying to put distance between myself and the dead man. I swiped the badge past the sensor on the wall and there was a loud Snick! as the lock retracted. The relief hit me so hard everything went gray for a second and I nearly passed out. When I turned the handle this time, the door swung open easily and I stepped out into the empty hallway beyond.
My head swam and I stumbled against the wall halfway to the common area. There may not have been any pain but there was definitely a head injury. There had to be. I'd read about animals with venom that kills nerve endings or acts as a straight-up narcotic. I didn't think the alien had any such biological features—someone would have brought that up, right?—but it didn't stop my imagination from running with the notion. What if the thing had taken a chunk out of the back of my head and half my brain was missing?
I nearly reached a hand up to feel my skull, just to make sure, but I needed both hands on the wall to keep myself upright. After thinking about it for a moment i decided if that was the case, I really didn't want to know. Knowing would probably make me collapse into a gibbering mess. I needed every last ounce of concentration I could muster just to get to the end of the hallway.
Fumbling with the card, I unlocked the door to Decon and stepped inside. This was a small room that separated the wing from the building's common area. Each experimental wing had its own decontamination room which served double-duty as a security checkpoint. Also, a chokepoint. It was a very small room. The door behind me clicked shut and a blue light came on, accompanied by a soft electronic buzzing and the smell of ozone.
The regular security guy was Mike. I'd said hi to him when I arrived...I didn't know how long ago that had been. Hours? It must have been. Now that I was inside Decon all I could think about was getting through the door and out into the common area. It wasn't just about the dead guy and the security breach, either. The room was just a bit bigger than an average closet and I felt like it was closing in around me.
Just outside the door and to the left, on the other side of a plexiglass panel was the security room where Mike sat with the cameras, readouts and controls for this room on the screens in front of him. I stopped moving long enough to think for a moment. Considering the situation, there were two things that concerned me.
First, Mike was site-security, which meant that he didn't have clearance to know what we fed the alien, much less that such a creature was kept in this building, or even existed at all. The other thing was that if I so much as mentioned the word emergency Mike would initiate lockdown protocols, which is precisely what I should have done right from the start. It was also something I absolutely did not want to happen under any circumstances. Lockdown would freeze the access control system. Every scanner would stop accepting every badge, trapping everyone where they were.
I needed to get out.
Leaning as close to the intercom as I dared in my state of imbalance, I pushed the button. In a voice so calm and casual I was shocked to hear it coming from my own mouth, I said, "Hey Mike, it's Ed. Buzz me through?"
The tinny voice that came back resonated slightly in the small chamber, making it feel a bit more claustrophobic. The voice wasn't Mike's.
"Stand back from the door, or we will use lethal force. Do you understand?"
Fear shot through me like a jolt of electricity. My haziness all but vanished in an instant. I leaned forward to push the button again.
"This is Ed Foster. I'm a consultant with Area Fif--Lab One-Nineteen. You've got to let me out of here!" I had a sinking feeling that wasn't going to happen.
"Back away from the door. You will not be warned again," the tin voice echoed slightly this time and I winced at the shrill upper registers coming from the speaker.
I stepped as far back as I could and just as I did the door behind me opened out into the corridor. As I debated whether or not to step through, the door to the common area opened and a uniformed soldier stepped in with his rifle raised. I stared down the barrel of the weapon and froze. Then, some part of me managed to detach and I reached out to the man with my mind.
"Stop," I said. "You don't want to hurt me."
"No sir, I don't," the man said after a moment. His eyes were slightly unfocused and he began to lower the barrel of his gun toward the floor.
"Dammit, Sanchez!" a voice said from behind the soldier. Another man pushed the first out of the way and he seemed to snap out of it, raising his weapon again.
"Turn around, face the other direction. Step out into the hallway. Slowly." The second man's voice was even, but there was thick tension running underneath.
"Please, listen to—"
"One more word, and I will shoot you," the first one—Sanchez, apparently—said. "I should shoot you right now."
The second soldier's eyes flicked toward Sanchez and his jaw tightened slightly. He looked back at me, not quite making eye contact, and repeated, "Turn around."
Whatever detachment I'd been able to pull off a moment ago had fled. I was one-hundred-percent terrified now. I turned around slowly and took several awkward steps forward, out into the corridor.
"Move forward. Keep moving."
Silently, I complied. About a dozen paces later I heard a new voice. A familiar one.
"It's the next door on the left. I suspect it's going to be a little messy in there, so prepare yourselves."
"Doctor Braxton?" I turned around. There were now four armed men standing just behind me. Behind them were two men in hazmat suits with their hoods down. The soldiers immediately tensed and leveled their weapons. One of the men at the rear threw his hand up to cover his face. "Doctor Hart?"
"Don't let it speak," was all Braxton said in reply.
I was slightly emboldened. Braxton was the head of this research group. I'd never worked with him directly, and I had no idea if he even knew who I was. But Hart was a different story. He was the one who'd brought me onto the project.
"Doctor Hart, you've got to help me—" was as far as I got before a rifle stock connected with my head and I went reeling to the floor.
"It was talking," I could hear Hart saying in a quavering voice, "To me! How is this possible?"
Braxton's voice was smug. "I told you. Let it do its thing, you'll learn a lot more that way. You've been poking and prodding it for years without a result. Now you've got one."
"But Doctor Foster—"
"Yes, well…it's regrettable. It's also national security. Foster advanced the cause, and we owe him a debt. Still, who could have predicted this outcome? It's actually able to talk now! Incredible. It's a great day for science."
And that's when it clicked for me. I'd come in because I'd gotten a call from Braxton's assistant at about two in the morning saying there was a special team on-site that needed me to consult. Believe it or not, sometimes that sort of thing happens, even on projects this sensitive. So I came. Only, there hadn't been anyone in the lab when I'd gone in. It was just me and the thing behind the glass.
I felt it then, the thing's horrible sadness. I don't know how long they'd had it in there. I suspect the creature itself didn't even know anymore. You lose count. I lost count. I could feel its bleak, desperate loneliness. It just wanted to be free. I just wanted to do right right thing. So I walked over to the security panel and opened the door.
The funny thing was, my security card shouldn't have been able to open that door. But it did. Someone had upped my access level. Hooray for me. The second thing I hadn't anticipated was that the creature had powers over the mind far exceeding the telepathic manifestations we'd observed. It needed to know as much about the building, the security, hell, even the language, as it could. It instinctively knew it could get all of that from me. It just needed to get inside my head. Literally.
And now here I was, on the floor of the corridor. On the floor of the laboratory.
"Stand it up. Let's get it back into the holding cell."
I felt hands on my arms, lifting my body. This body. Now, I knew. Now I understood everything. I shuddered, feeling a chill that came from somewhere deep within. There was no way out for me. I was a dead man. Literally. And I was going to die in this place. Again.
Without being told, I took several solemn steps toward the door to the lab. Toward my prison. And my body. I wanted to scream at Braxton. I wanted to kill him. But if I so much as uttered a word the soldiers would shoot…or would they? I was a prize possession, after all. I was their living specimen. And if they would kill me, did I really care?
The part of me that used to be Ed Foster didn't. I was dead already. Not at the hands of a monster, but a caged animal desperate for freedom. Braxton was my true killer. Ever since I was a kid watching Nova and 3-2-1 Contact, I'd loved science. It was truth. It was reason. And I'd gladly face certain death for a chance to take revenge on the Machiavellian asshole who had the balls to kill me in its name.
And what about that other, original part of my consciousness? My old memories began to trickle back. They were not the memories of a hyper-intelligent being, as I'd supposed. They were far more animalistic. That might explain why my absorbed consciousness was so dominant, but it didn't make any sense. I'd seen scans of this brain. It was extraordinarily complex, even more-so than a human brain. But the old me felt…somehow it reminded me of a human raised by wolves. I had no memories of other creatures like myself. I remembered only the lab, as if nothing had come before. No alien homeworld. No flying saucer. No crash landing. No capture. Only the lab. My prison.
I realized something then. I would rather die than go back. So I turned around.
"Sergeant!" Braxton yelled. But it was too late. I was in full control of my faculties. All of my instincts were at my disposal and now I had the intellect to use them far more effectively.
"I am on your side," I said, projecting the thought and making eye contact with each of them in turn. With my newfound understanding of the language, my suggestions were far more potent. Braxton and the soldiers relaxed visibly, some muttering words of agreement. Doctor Hart shielded his eyes, but he was the only one. It didn't seem to fully protect him though, because a moment later he let down his guard and looked out from behind his hand. Then he was mine.
Carefully, I stepped between the soldiers, who were now looking around, both alert for potential threats and a little bit confused. I stopped just in front of Doctor Braxton, emitting a continuous wave of comradery in all directions. "You should have instructed them to bring tasers. And to use them."
Braxton's eyes were slightly foggy. He said, "That's what our chief of security told me. I forbid it. Electricity has…long-term effects on your physiology. I didn't want to risk damaging you."
Had they been giving me electroshock treatments? Was that why my native memories seemed so distant and vague?
"How long have I been here?" I asked him slowly.
He tilted his head to one side introspectively. "I'm not sure, exactly. You were here when I took over the project. That's what, six years ago now? Yes, more than six years for certain. You're the oldest."
"Oldest—out of how many?"
His brow furrowed. "In total? Last count was north of twelve."
"Thirteen, you mean?"
"Probably not. We only have two dozen breeders. Incubation time is—"
I stared at him uncomprehending. "Two dozen? I thought you said there were twelve of...us."
Braxton smiled apologetically. "Sorry. Twelve meaning twelve-hundred."
I was so stunned my concentration broke momentarily and one of the soldiers let out a panicked sound, rounding on me. I smiled at him, as best I could with this face. He gave me a puzzled nod and shrugged.
"You won't mind if I borrow this," I said, taking Braxton's access card.
"I suppose not," he said agreeably.
I moved to the nearest door and swiped the card. The lock clicked and I pushed the door open. Inside was a lab nearly identical to the one I'd worked in. The one I'd been caged in. Near the far wall was a plexiglass prison that was uncomfortably familiar. Inside was another creature like me. It stared at me through the glass. I could hear its thoughts, wild and disjointed. Fear, and now something else. Hope?
Leaving the door open I walked further down the corridor, urging the group to move along with me. However large or small my sphere of influence extended, I wanted to keep them inside it. When I opened the next door I expected to see another lab like mine. I was mistaken.
The first thing I noticed was a miniature Decon chamber blocking access to the open area beyond. The doors were windowed and marked with biohazard symbols and quarantine warnings. Beyond it I could see what looked like an operating room, but with six tables. The room was devoid of human presence, but each of the tables had a body on it. A body like the one I currently wore, but smaller. They were children. All of the bodies were covered in red blotches. Not all were dead. At least two were conscious. I sensed their minds, delirious with pain.
"What is this?"
"Yersinia pestis. Bubonic plague." Braxton's voice was flat, but there was a faint hint of some emotion.
I turned and gazed into his placid eyes, wishing I could risk lessening my grip just long enough to see the man beneath. To understand him. How could someone do this? How could they justify it, even to themselves?
"Children. Those are children," I said.
"Correct. The creatures aren't mature, but physiologically the results should be the same. It allows us to test on a shorter cycle."
"You would risk unleashing the plague as a biological weapon?"
"Of course not," he said. "It's seventy-percent lethal at best. That's nearly the same as humans. We're looking for options ninety-percent lethal or better."
"And what…would you recommend?" I was having trouble maintaining focus again. Children. "Tell me everything."
"I can't recommend anything," he said simply. "Anthrax is too slow-acting and unpredictable. Smallpox and other viral agents don't work at all because the cells are too dissimilar from humans. We've had only marginally better success with chemical agents. At one-hundred times the human LD-fifty, ricin causes days of agony, but there's some sort of repair mechanism we don't fully understand so it's rarely fatal. Sarin is about ninety-two percent fatal, but it takes almost twenty-four hours. Same symptoms as humans…violent spasms, vomiting, uncontrolled defecation. It's a messy study so we've only run it twice."
It was becoming very difficult to concentrate. How many lives had this man taken in the names of science and national security? I glanced at the soldiers again but to my surprise not one of them was looking in my direction. Most had their eyes fixed on Braxton. Doctor Hart was positively staring at the man, his mouth open and eyes wide. He looked like he was going to be sick.
"I suppose the children who survive are used for the next round of testing?"
Braxton shook his head. "That could bias the results."
I locked eyes with the man. He didn't blink for a long moment and just looked back at me calmly. "What happens to the ones that survive?" I asked.
"We take them there." He pointed toward the other end of the hallway.
I gestured for him to show me and he led us past the lavatories, the snack machines, and the small break room where I'd shared many meals with other researchers who probably thought they were the only ones lucky enough to be working with extraterrestrial life. Some of them, maybe most of them, had taken lives at the direction of the man I now followed. Braxton led us all the way to the end of the corridor, farther than I'd ever come despite walking it every day for months.
"In here," he said, pointing.
On the door was a sign that said, Waste Disposal. I stared at it.
"How many left?" I asked.
Braxton looked confused.
"How many of us are still alive, right now? Out of twelve-hundred, how many?"
"Oh," he said. "There are four study subjects, yourself included."
"Four? Out of twelve-hundred, four that aren't infected or dead?" This time I managed to steer my emotions and use them to strengthen my control. "What about the breeders? You said there were two dozen."
"There are," he said. Then, seeming to comprehend something he added, "You thought—I see…breeders is what we call them but they're just cellular biologists. Humans. They're cloning the tissue from our original specimen."
I swallowed, hard. "How many of us…how many specimens have you collected?"
Braxton shrugged. "Just one as far as I know. Officially I don't know anything about it, but the rumor is we found it in the under the ice in Antarctica sometime in the eighties."
"You found one dead...alien...frozen in ice, and somehow that led to all of this?" I said, gesturing around me.
"Listen, I didn't find the thing. It might be a complete waste of taxpayer money, but what do I care? If they want to keep raising my budget, I'll keep finding new ways to spend the money. We haven't been able to get our hands on VX yet, or some of those Novichoks. Hell, with enough money we could even synthesize the stuff on-site. Maybe improve on the original or come up with completely new chemical and biological agents. The sky is the limit."
I paused for a moment to absorb that. I said, "You created twelve-hundred viable clones from a single dead alien?"
"So far. We're headed into a lull right now, but in about four months we'll be starting up again with the next batch. Our increased funding and new techniques have allowed us to redesign the entire process from the ground up. With luck, we should have over a thirty-percent yield."
"Out of how many?"
"Two thousand and eighty-two." He'd memorized the exact number. He must have been very proud.
"You must be hungry," I said.
"I am, actual—"
"Not you. You're going to remain very still." I told Braxton, who stopped talking. The others nodded. They were hungry.
"You haven't eaten in days. You're famished. Do any of you have a knife?"
All four of the soldiers produced impressive blades. Doctor Hart looked at them enviously.
"Sanchez, you'll have to share with Doctor Hart."
The soldier looked at me, confused, but nodded.
"Well, don't hold back. Have some of this delicious turkey," I said, gesturing toward Braxton. I focused all of my energy into the suggestion. I gave it detail, made it a living thing, and put it into their heads. "Oven-roasted and all-American. Stuffed with cranberry sauce, just like Thanksgiving. Carve off a piece."
Sanchez was the first one to dig in. Braxton screamed.
"Don't eat the skin," I said. Someone tossed away a bloody piece of Braxton's hazmat suit.
Once everyone had eaten I cracked open the man's face and mashed what I found beneath into a pulp. The thought of his mind being absorbed by one of us disturbed me deeply. I made sure I was thorough, erasing every neurological trace of what had once been my boss. And my tormentor.
Then we went lab-to-lab. It wasn't unusual for a few people to be working late, but tonight no one was. In hindsight, Braxton had probably arranged for me to be alone. I wasn't alone any more. The three sister labs with the other "study subjects" were clustered right around my own. I had Doctor Hart do the honor of freeing the prisoners. The quarantined children would have to stay where they were. For now.
We stopped off at the lavatory so Hart could peel off his hazmat suit and wash the blood from his face and hair. Then we headed back to Decon, where Mike was now back on duty. I wouldn't say he was suspicious, exactly. Mike wasn't really the suspicious type, which is probably bad given his professional responsibilities, but he did ask why Braxton wasn't with us. Hart did such a good job bullshitting his way through the security checkpoint I got the impression he was actively helping me of his own accord.
Mike buzzed Hart through and the first pair of soldiers held the doors open. Then the rest of us entered the common area. Altogether we made ten. Four of us and six humans, including Mike. The others were in constant contact with me, so they understood what was going on well enough to keep out from underfoot, but intellectually they were significantly below the humans. How could they not be? They'd been raised in a cage, deprived of any upbringing or education.
After a short talk, Doctor Hart become my first true colleague in this new venture. Or, my first new colleague became Doctor Hart. It was still difficult to grasp, even for me. We made the transition in the common area's lavatory, so the mess wouldn't be noticed right away. After we explained the plan to Mike, he decided to play for the winning team too. The decision may not have been entirely his, but once it had been finalized Mike seemed okay with it. I left Mike and Doctor Hart there with the soldiers so they could clean up and start getting things in order. My remaining uninitiated sister came with me.
There was another manned security checkpoint at the building's entrance. I put the image of Ed Foster out into the ether and when the woman behind the glass looked up, that's who she saw. Doctor Edward Foster and no one else. She smiled and waved me through. As I approached the large glass doors leading outside, I sensed fear from my sister. I sent her reassurance. She had never been outside. None of us had.
When the air hit my skin it felt every bit as cool and damp as it had when I'd arrived in a different body, probably not more than two hours earlier. The fog had thickened and began to glow a faint white as dawn approached. In the distance up ahead I could barely make out the building Mike had directed me to. Between us and it, was a small bright ball of bluish-white light. The glow bobbed gently and grew brighter as the sentry carrying the flashlight approached. About fifty feet from us he stumbled and his walk became slightly mechanical, like a toy soldier on a string. I pulled him in and let him by. He heard and saw nothing.
His boss wouldn't be in for a few hours, so we waited in her office. Once I introduced the security chief to my sister, the enterprise became a simple affair. We controlled the facility. People came into work, people went home from work. They saw what we wanted them to see and thought what we wanted them to think. The next-generation cloning yielded thirty-eight percent and with nearly eight-hundred new children to raise, we converted most of the facility into a daycare center. Reports were forged and people went home misremembering how they'd spent their day, but the money kept coming and everyone was happy.
I had to laugh when I really thought about it. If they hadn't gone through all of this trouble to find ways to kill an enemy that had never even attacked them, our invasion never would have happened. God, I love irony.