By Morgan Alreth
Copyright 2010 by Morgan Alreth
Copyright 2010 by Morgan Alreth
This story is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This story may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this story with another person, please encourage them to come here and download their own copy.The pavement was a greasy mirror, smearing reflections from the street lamps. Shadows smothered the building faces like black pillows. The sky was a dome of filthy clouds, bereft of star or moon.
He cared nothing for the night's darkness. But the day's rain had been his friend, cooling his wounds and masking his passage. Even better, rain made the air heavy. It carried scent to him in thick waves. He stood in the alley mouth and tasted the night.
This place reeked of metal, grease, and smoke; poisonous fumes that clawed the lining of his throat. He forced himself to ignore it, pointing his head up to draw in the deeper scents. He stopped frequently to open his mouth and gag.
There was everything here. But nothing he wanted. Rotten leaves in trash cans behind him. Oil in the streets and other alleys. Death. A cat lay smashed on the road. Blood. A bird in the gutter. None of this interested him.
A rattle. He spun and growled. A raccoon froze. Then the small creature dove under the nearest dumpster and scrambled for its life. He licked his teeth thoughtfully. He was not hungry yet. Perhaps tomorrow. He made a mental note of the raccoon's feeding ground and turned back to the trail.
The hunter had followed the track until his feet were sore. Finally the trail merged into the tangle of this place and dissipated. But he would find it again. Eventually. He moved from the alley mouth as silently as any other shadow, pacing along the center of the street.
Margie blinked in surprise. A small car was parked in her driveway. She clicked the headlights to hi-beam, then relaxed. It was a rusty Ford compact with a creased bumper, and a screwdriver handle sticking out where the trunk lock should be. She chuckled and headed for the back door, smacking the side of the visiting car in passing.
"Get out, Johnny." She grinned while digging for her key. "Who are you hiding from this week? A jealous boyfriend or a bill collector? Surely not the repo man? Not for that thing."
The driver's door screeched open and an arm emerged to hug the car's roof. Then a long leg poked itself out, moving stiffly. Finally her brother dragged himself through the opening and pushed out of the car to stand upright. He leaned on the roof and moaned, straining to smooth out the folds in his back. "I hate that car. Someday, I'm gonna buy a truck."
"Sure you will, Bro," Margie twisted the lock and shoved hard to force the door past the warped part. "The day we elect an honest mayor and the devil buys a parka. Now get in here and make some coffee. I gotta get these shoes off."
She came back to find Johnny slumped over the table with his head in his hands. But the coffee was almost done, so she cut him some slack. Two poured cups later, Margie propped her own elbows on the table and gave him a pinch-mouthed sigh. "Out with it. You didn't show up at the end of my evening shift just to visit. What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry." He uncovered his face and raised both hands. "I needed to talk. I was almost here when I remembered how late you work."
She rolled her eyes. A quick smack to the back of his head earned her a glare. "Stop whining and talk to me. What's wrong? You need money? Get screwed over by some slut again? Got fired? What is it?"
Johnny reached behind him and dug into the silverware drawer. He spooned three generous helpings of sugar into his coffee before taking a healthy slug.
"Sheesh, Bro." Margie stared. "Just grab the bowl and pour some coffee over it, why doncha?"
"I haven't eaten since yesterday." Her brother flushed. Margie let her head hang and her shoulders slump. "I'm ok, seriously. I just-"
"Shut up." She stood up and headed for the fridge.
"Seriously, Sis. You don't need to cook anything. It's late."
"Am I gonna have to come over there?"
"No, ma'am. Thank you ma'am."
"That's better. I'm in no mood to get fancy, so you'll eat scrambled eggs and like it. Clear?" He slid down in the chair.
"Yes, ma'am. Please don't hurt me, ma'am." She hit him in the forehead with a pat of butter, and got a grin in reply. In record time Johnny engulfed half a dozen eggs and four pieces of toast, with associated jelly. He sighed happily and drained his second cup of coffee. "Thank you, Sis. I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Only God knows," she muttered. "Now. Once you're done burping will you please tell me what's wrong?"
His expression tightened again and he set the cup down. "It's a little complicated. Bottom line, I'm in trouble and I need some help getting clear."
Margie wore the same poker face that had kept her in beer money all the way through college. "Go on."
"I quit my job. I had to." He looked away.
"Johnny." She smiled sweetly. "I'll ask one more time. Then I'm gonna start heating pliers on the stove burner. If you don't cough it up, all of it, right now, I am going to hurt you."
He gritted his teeth. "You know the lab I work for... used to work for... does government contracts?"
She nodded. "A lot of it's classified stuff that us lowly techs aren't supposed to know about. But really, how dumb do they think we are?" He rubbed his forehead.
"What do you mean?" Her voice was low and calm.
"You know we use animals for testing." His mouth worked as if he tasted something bad.
"Yeah. I know. Better than using people I guess."
"You might be surprised." He coughed and strangled. "They're doing DNA splicing experiments. Proscribed under international agreements. But they're doing them anyway."
"Gene splicing isn't proscribed." Margie shook her head. "Not for animals. Is it?"
"This kind is." He looked at her grimly. "They're making chimeras."
"What's a... whatever it was?"
Johnny took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Without looking at her he said, very slowly, "They're splicing human and animal DNA together to make hybrids."
Margie took a thoughtful sip. "I thought that's been going on for a long time. Didn't they mix some human DNA into pigs so that they could harvest parts for transplants? Or something like that."
"Yeah. That's bad enough. But now it's gone a lot farther..." A muscle in her brother's face started to twitch. "The government wants to breed sapient animals. For spies. And suicide bombers."
It was very quiet in the room. Margie got up and divided the last of the coffee between them. She sat back down and asked, "Did it work?"
He blinked rapidly. "They're getting closer. Some of them... God forgive me." He buried his face in his hands. "They used different kinds of animals, trying to see which kind worked best. They started with rodents, just to see how far they could take them. Then they tried bigger animals. Monkey and apes, because they have hands." He looked up, red-eyed.
"I saw this plot on the movie channel last week," she told him dryly. "When's the revolution scheduled?"
"It's not...!" He choked off the yell and turned away. "Please. I'm not joking."
Margie's eyebrows lowered. "You're serious. Really serious, aren't you? They are actually trying this?"
"Not with apes," he told her. "Not anymore." He rubbed his eyes.
"Why not?" She took a sip, watching him carefully.
"There was a problem." Johnny sighed. "All of the primates showed it, but especially the chimps and orangutans. They were too close to human. Once a primate gets beyond a certain percentage of human DNA, they become uncontrollable. I heard rumors that one chimp got loose and killed three people before they shot it."
"Good." Margie shuddered. She looked at him. "You were part of this?"
"I didn't know at first. I swear, Sis." He leaned toward her urgently. "On our parent's graves, I swear. They told us that they were testing a new kind of drug to help brain damaged people re-grow nerve tissue. They said the increased intelligence was an unexpected side effect. They were doctors and professors! How were we supposed to know?"
"You weren't. You couldn't." Margie's eyes started to look dangerous. "How did you find out?"
"Little by little." He rubbed his forehead. "Sometimes one of the project managers would get careless and leave a folder lying around. Or one of us would overhear a conversation we weren't supposed to hear. We, all of us techs, we would sit around at lunch or after work and compare notes. It started to sink in what was actually happening."
"So you quit. Good," she said. "I'm proud of you."
"Don't be." He looked sick. "I didn't quit right away. I kept trying to make excuses for them. Trying to come up with some way that they couldn't really be doing what we all knew they were doing. Then Ben Deering decided that he couldn't take anymore and handed in his resignation."
She waited. Johnny swallowed. "He left that afternoon in a bad mood. We all told him to show up at the bar later for a going away party. He never showed. A couple guys tried to call him. They kept trying over the next few days. He was just gone, disappeared. His landlord said he never came home from work that day. His car never showed up. We reported him missing to the cops. Nothing was ever done."
He got up and walked slowly into the living room and glanced out between the front drapes. Margie kept her seat and watched him through the doorway. He came back to the kitchen and leaned over the sink, breathing heavily.
"How did you get away?" She leaned back and looked up at the ceiling, thinking hard.
Johnny twitched his head. "I just drove away. Didn't say anything to anybody. Just left. Took side roads, doubled back on myself, went miles out of the way. I don't think they followed me. But naturally, this is the first place they will look. I need to leave in the morning."
"You'll take my Jeep," she told him. "I'll fill it up and pull out some cash. Three hundred tonight and three hundred more tomorrow. Head for Canada. It's closer. You'll need to bypass the big check points. Open country that the Jeep can handle, or find a lake and somebody with a boat, maybe. I'll send you some more money as soon as I can."
He looked at her. "Sis. I..." Her brother rubbed his eyes. Then he pulled a checkbook out of his hip pocket and sat down. "I'll write you a check for what I have in the bank. I don't think they'll freeze my account right away. It might cause too many questions. You can just deposit it, and they won't even notice for a while."
"All right," she told him. "We can do that." Margie stood up. "I'll go get the first withdrawal made before midnight. That three hundred a day limit is a pain, but whatever. When I get back, you can tell me why you suddenly changed your mind and decided to quit after all."
The pen stopped moving. He did not look up as she walked out.
The hunter tilted his head back. A trace of scent, nearly too faint to be detected. Was it? Yes. It was. His lips curled back in a silent snarl. He turned and headed for the prey.
Another shadow emerged from behind a hedge and stood to face him. A half-starved mix of Rottweiler and Shepard, the dog braced itself and bared teeth in challenge. The hunter stopped and looked contemptuously into the animal's eyes. The dog slowly covered its teeth. Its ears sagged, then its tail sank between its legs. The animal slunk away quickly, looking back often.
The hunter moved on. An open area lay ahead, with grass and trees. Perhaps he could find clean water there.
Margie returned to find her brother snoring on her couch. She smiled sadly and covered him with an afghan. The check was waiting on the kitchen table, made out for an amount larger than she had expected. Margie shrugged and went to bed. She called in sick and set her alarm for 4:30AM.
Never had the alarm sounded more obnoxious. But she managed to force herself out of bed and downstairs with minimal cursing. She woke up her brother by their traditional method, i.e. she belted him with a cushion. He spasmed into consciousness and rolled off the couch with a thump. Breakfast was not talkative.
Afterward, Margie kept her instructions short and simple. "Wash the dishes. I'll be right back with more money. Don't stick your nose out." He nodded blearily and she wobbled toward the door, wistfully considering the advantages to being an only child.
By the time Margie returned, the coffee had soaked far enough into both of them to permit coherent thought. "Here." She put a wad of cash in his hand. "And here's the title to the Jeep. The registration's still valid for thirty days. Just don't get pulled over, ok?"
Johnny grunted. "I knew I was forgetting something. I'll sign my car over to you. That way you can trade it in on something worth having. Is there enough on that check to finish paying off the Jeep?"
"Plenty." She pointed at the chair. "Sit. We aren't done yet. You are going to tell me what happened that finally got you to quit. Don't give me any crap, I'm in no shape to deal with it."
Instead of sitting, he leaned back against the counter and sighed unhappily. "I owe you that much, don't I?"
"You still owe me for that ice cream sandwich when you were eleven," she snapped. "Plus all the other stuff since. Talk."
Johnny clenched his eyes shut. "After the primates, they tried other animals. Pigs. But they were even harder to control than apes. The big cats were a non-starter. They tried herbivores, but for some reason the behavior alleles don't seem to work right. They either went crazy or died. Then they tried canines."
"Canines." Margie's lips compressed to a thin line. "This just keeps getting better. You're telling me that they made artificial werewolves?"
"No." He waved a hand. "No, no, no. Not even close. These were just highly intelligent dogs." He took a shaky breath. "Beautiful animals, Sis. Smart, good natured. Loyal..." His voice broke and he turned away.
"What happened to them?" She put a hand on his arm. Johnny did not look at her.
"Still there, in cages. Most of them. Except the ones..." He rubbed his nose. "There was one breeding pair I fell in love with. I called them Regina and Rex. Stupid. I knew I shouldn't let myself get attached. But they were such wonderful dogs, Sis. I used to take them out together for walks. They... it was like they were married or something. I know it doesn't make sense. But neither of them showed interest in other dogs. Dogs aren't like wolves, they don't mate that way, you know?" She nodded understanding. "But those two did." Johnny swallowed hard.
"We used to play ball together in the exercise area. We had a blast." He started to smile. Then he stopped. His voice dropped to nearly inaudible. "Then Regina got pregnant."
"She get sick or something?" Margie ran a glass of water and drank it, watching him over the rim.
"No." Johnny bit his lip and wouldn't meet her eyes. "She was strong and healthy. Everything went perfect." The weight of bitterness was a mountain on his voice. "I... I used..." He took a ragged breath and finally looked at her. Margie's belly tightened.
"I used to talk to them when we were outside exercising. Just talking, you know. Rambling. Talking about the puppies and stuff. I could swear they understood me." Tears broke out. He ignored them. "She was almost ready to deliver when Dr. Jones came in and told... told me..." He covered his mouth and ran to the bathroom. The sound of vomiting came clearly.
Margie went to the bathroom and dampened a washcloth. She knelt beside her brother and gently forced his head back. Then she wiped his face and gave him a light peck on the forehead. "It's ok. You're out of there now."
He sat back against the wall. "They wanted to check development rates, and analyze the..." He stopped and squeezed his eyes shut. "I'll never forget the look in Regina's eyes. She knew. She understood..."
Margie sat down next to him and waited.
"When Regina stopped breathing, Rex went crazy." Johnny shook his head and looked at her in exhaustion. "I just walked out. Dr. Jones was yelling at me to get back in there, but I kept walking. I just left."
She stood up and tugged his arm. "Come on, Bro. Time to get moving. You need to be out of here before sunrise."
On the way he stopped beside his car. "Almost forgot again. Let me get that title for you." Margie nodded indifferently and watched him walk around to the passenger side. While he rummaged through the glove compartment, she idly scanned the neighborhood.
Pre-dawn was sneaking up. No light in the sky yet, but the thin chill had set in - the one that night always throws down as its last defense before retreating. Porch bulbs in both directions defined the outline of the street. Margie took a deep breath and savored the clean smell of the city after a rain.
"Did you hear that?" Margie looked in a slow circle.
"What?" Johnny stuck his head out. "I didn't hear anything."
"Not sure." Margie listened. "Maybe someone starting a bike."
"Most likely." He turned back to the paper shuffling, squinting at a handful of papers in the dim glow of the dome light. Margie saw movement at the edge of darkness and stiffened.
"Johnny." Her voice yanked his attention. They stared as a massive dog crept forward. Margie's lips parted.
"It's Rex." Johnny's voice sounded like sandpaper on steel. He stood up and took a step forward. "He followed me."
The beast was the size of a Great Dane, but built like a Husky. Its heavy coat was the color of ripe wheat, soaked in mud and bloody streaks. It stood at the very edge of the circle cast by the car's dome light. Waiting.
Johnny approached slowly and offered a hand. "Hey, guy." The creature did not move. "You know me. It's good to see you." He squatted down and stuck his hand out with a sad smile. "How did you get here, boy? Did you follow me?"
The beast moved before Margie's eyes had time to process it. A blurred flash. A horrible sound of jaws closing on flesh. Johnny screaming. She threw herself around the end of the car and dove for the struggling pair on the ground.
The beast let go of her brother's arm and dove for his throat. Margie felt a shriek explode. The pouring stump that had once been Johnny's hand flailed at the animal's side, while his other arm tried feebly to cover his face.
She hit the pair like a battering ram, knocking the dog sideways and off Johnny. Both went rolling. "Sis! Run!" Johnny fought for breath and tried to drag himself into his car. Blood pulsed in a steady fountain from his mangled forearm.
The dog rose up and glared at Margie. She pushed to her feet, backing slowly away. The beast advanced, head low, growling like a chain saw. Suddenly it roared and lunged.
Margie swirled and made a break for the back door. She hit the door with her shoulder, swung around it and slammed it shut in one motion. Then she looked around in panic. The knife rack.
Margie grabbed her biggest butcher knife and turned just as the glass in her back door shattered. A bloody muzzle and one paw shoved their way through the gap. She charged the door and stabbed through the window gap with all her weight behind it. The creature gave a high pitched yowl and dropped back.
Margie snatched her phone and hit 911. Through the broken door she could see no sign of the animal. She was operating on auto-pilot. It was hard to fumble the door open with a phone in one hand and a knife in the other, but it simply didn't occur to her to put either of them down.
Sounds came out of the phone, but she was in no shape to respond to them. She dropped to her knees beside Johnny as the sirens approached.
The hunter looked out from beneath the shed. These humans were as nose blind as all the others. Some of them had walked past close enough to touch, but none had smelled him.
The human who smelled like the betrayer sat by the body, making the whines of grief. Other humans in dark wrappings walked around making noise for a while. Finally the ones who wore wrappings that smelled like tires put the body in their big box. The whining human got in with it and the big box rolled away. The other humans wandered around for a while longer, looking lost. Then they left too.
The hunter dragged himself out. The metal tooth had bit deep into his shoulder, and the pain got worse each time his heart beat. The blood loss, along with the hits and cuts he took when he broke out, were draining his strength quickly.
But it was done. The human in white wrappings that had killed his mate was dead. Now the betrayer was dead. Only one thing was left. He had to make it back and find where the humans had put her. He needed to lie down with her, so they could go to sleep together one more time.
The hunter turned and limped away, fighting hard not to collapse.
Margie looked down with no expression.
"Is that the one, ma'am?" The two cops waited with reasonable patience, considering that they had dragged the carcass all the way from their car for her so that she could look it over.
"I'm not sure." The animal was bony but still huge. It was thoroughly mange covered, with what few hairs remained being black. It didn't resemble the creature that had killed her brother much more than the cops did. "Like I said before, the sun wasn't up yet. But it's the right size."
"Most likely the right one, then," the senior cop said. Both looked relieved. "We only found one stray in the area big enough to kill a man." She lifted her eyes to him and he flushed. "Sorry."
"It's fine." Margie turned away. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I need to get back to work." She walked inside, leaving the two policemen exchanging shrugs.
Her home office was piled high with paperwork. She was lucky that her company offered a telecommuting option for bereavement situations. It had given her plenty of time to work on her side project. The night before, she had finally finished it.
Margie picked up the prepaid phone. A colleague had bought it for her at a carryout in a different town. She picked up the time card and activated it, then dialed the extended series of digits for an international call.
There were the usual delays. Finally she heard, "You have reached Montoya Industries. If you know the extension of the party you are trying to reach, you may dial it now."
Margie punched in the code, adding in the special override that gave her a direct connection. A suspicious voice came on. "Carlos Montoya. Who is this?"
"Uncle Charlie? It's Margarita." She walked into the living room. "I need your help. You heard what happened to Johnny?"
"Si, child. Juan was a fine boy. It broke my heart."
"There's more to it than the news told. A lot more."
"I better not right now. Can I meet somebody?"
"That's a new phone number. Is that phone safe?"
"For now. But I'm going to ditch it tomorrow."
"Good. Someone will call you tonight. Stay home if you can. The family will take care of you." The connection clicked off.
Margie stepped to the front window and looked out. Nothing unusual to be seen. With any luck she would be long gone by tomorrow night. Two more days and she would be in Mexico. Two more after that, and her virus would activate itself.
It was already embedded on her employer's main servers, and in the process of spreading into every branch and holding of the multi-national corporation. Nothing was going to stop it, she had led the design team for the company’s IT security system.
The government would figure out that it was her doing, eventually. But once it went live, the program would spread knowledge of what they had done all over the internet. After that it wouldn't matter what happened to her.
Denials wouldn't save them. Once the basic truth was out, they couldn't possibly keep the rest of it hidden. Too many techs, delivery people, janitors – too many little people knew too much. They couldn’t get to all of them in time.
Her lips peeled back in the snarl of a hunter.