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THE SKELETON KEY GHOST STORIES: TEMPORARY DUTY

THE SKELETON KEY GHOST STORIES: BLOOD
November 24, 2002
THE SKELETON KEY GHOST STORIES: THE LONG NIGHT
November 24, 2002

THE SKELETON KEY GHOST STORIES: TEMPORARY DUTY

 06.02.06

9/11 has been great for business, but it’s sure made flying a bitch. I was running late for my flight to begin with, and then the good folks at the security gate insisted I remove my shoes. Note to self: don’t wear combat boots on a commercial flight. The guys back at the lab are always joking that I look like I play for the other team, but I wasn’t speaking Farsi or anything. I’m just not too particular about trimming the old beard. Maybe I ought to do something about that before the flight out of here. After all, it would suck if they decided to break out the latex glove.

Anyway, I managed to survive the turbulence and the in-flight meal (I use the term “meal” loosely – I think the airline gets its meat at the same place as that sketchy Chinese dive near the lab). The company even put me up in a decent joint instead of a “Hotel Beirut” knock-off like the one I stayed in on my last TDY. Tonight I’ll toss some ramen in the microwave (I like to pocket my per diem when possible), kick back on that sweet looking king-size and pop my Donnie Darko DVD in the laptop. Life is good.

I better enjoy it while I can. Tomorrow morning I meet the client’s people and we head out to the facility. I don’t imagine the accommodations will be quite as posh. I’m still geeked, though. This project is going to be so cool. I hope.

06.03.06

Red tape. Why do they call it red tape, anyway? It should be yellow tape, like the stuff cops wrap around a messy crime scene. Nothing says “things are just a little fucked up” like yellow tape. You’d think (or I’d think, since I’m writing this to myself and hence you is me) as long as I’ve been doing government contract work, I’d be used to it by now. You’d be wrong. Or I’d be wrong. We’d be wrong. Let me try this again….

Looks like I’m going to be cooling my heels here for a few days because Uncle Sam has wrapped his happy ass up in red – no, yellow – tape and shipped himself to Tahiti. Apparently, that’s where my clearance paperwork is. At least, nobody here knows where the hell it is, so it might as well be. As for me, I think I’ll head back down to the little dive I found around the corner from the hotel. The draft’s stale, but the bartender’s cute and makes a good show of bending over way more than she needs to every time she fishes a frosty mug out of the cooler. Never underestimate the power of tipping. So much for my per diem.

06.04.06

It’s official. I have papers. But don’t pencil me in for best-in-show just yet. I don’t think the judges would like my current shade of green. At least the security paperwork came in late enough today that I won’t be heading out to the facility until tomorrow. That should be plenty of time to kick this hangover. Of course, that bartender did say she would be working again tonight. Maybe all I need is a little hair of the dog.

06.05.06

The terrain out here is phenomenal. I’m almost glad I passed out watching Hellboy last night and never made it down to the bar. I could actually open my eyes in the sunlight this morning. Growing up in West Virginia, it always pissed me off when people from out west said that the Appalachians aren’t “real mountains.” But now that I’ve seen these suckers, I’m afraid I’d have to agree. At first I didn’t think there was that much of a difference. Then I realized the stuff that looked like fuzz on the mountainsides was actually thirty, forty foot trees. My whole sense of scale is off out here. The first big ridge I saw looked almost close enough to touch, until the driver told me that if I took off walking it would take me two days to reach the horizon. I bet a lot of people died crossing the desert in the days before cell phones. I mentioned as much to the driver and he just laughed. The guy’s got a messed up sense of humor.

Fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to see if Melton was right about how long it would take to hike the desert (Melton being the aforementioned driver). We made it to Calaway Army Air Field without incident. Tonight, I’m crashed out in the on-post digs, a converted 1950’s dormitory style barracks painted government issue lime-green. I can’t put my finger on it, but something about the place gives me the creeps. They call it the Jackalope Inn. How fucking quaint.

Funny thing, SSG Melton is the lowest ranking guy around. You know you’re in The Shit when the smallest enlisted fish is a staff sergeant. Most of them are older too, career guys. No pups in this kennel. At first I wondered what the hell these guys did to get stuck out in the ass-end of nowhere after all their years of service. Then I asked Melton about his family, and in his usual terse manner he said, “What family?” I have a feeling I’d get a similar response if I surveyed most of these other geezers. You should feel safer knowing guys like this are on our side. But then, you don’t have to sleep out in the desert with them.

06.06.06

The high desert’s cold after sunset, even in June. Cold enough to see my breath. The moon looks closer here, and under its light the pool of blood looks black as tar. Not my blood, thank God, though there’s some of that spilled too. There was an accident. We were about four hours out of Calaway when Melton shouted something (“What tha—”, maybe?) and pulled hard on the wheel. I was napping so I don’t really know what happened, but it seemed like he saw something dart out into the road. The tire gripped the soft dirt on the side of the road, and when Melton tried to correct, the Suburban rolled hard. We must have been doing seventy, but everything seemed to slow down. I counted each roll, all seven of them, wondering when we would stop. My window was down, and I felt earth beneath my cheek and ear the first few times we rolled onto my side of the truck. I somehow had the presence of mind to snatch my head back in before the next roll could snap it off. Melton wasn’t so lucky.

I can’t remember what happened next. When I came to, I saw the truck, laying up on the driver’s side, about twenty feet away. My seatbelt must have jammed, because when I checked out the wreck I found it had been sawed through, and my Leatherman was laying open inside the cab. Melton was still in the Suburban. Well, his legs were anyway. The rest of him was sticking out of the side window, crushed under the truck. That’s his blood drying under the desert moon, of course. I haven’t moved him. Despite all my gross-out gags back at the lab, the sight of those disembodied legs almost made me lose my stomach. I’ve never seen a fresh corpse, and certainly not one in this condition. That’s sort of why I’m writing this now. You see, I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep tonight. Not with a dismembered body lying a few feet away. Not out here, in the big desert.

For the first time on this trip, I’m not getting any signal on my cell phone. Complete flat line. Maybe if I start walking now I’ll reach the horizon in two days.

06.07.06

I remembered something today from some show on the Discovery Channel. It seems that people have actually died of thirst out in the desert with water still in their canteen because they were “rationing” it. This knowledge might come in useful if I actually had any water to not ration. Melton and I each had a bottle when we left Calaway. Of course, I finished mine before we’d been on the road half an hour. When it comes to drinking, I have only one speed, and that’s “chug.” I think Melton still had about half a bottle, but I couldn’t find it in the cab of the Suburban. It’s probably under the truck, with the rest of Melton.

It’s noon now and blazing hot. When you mention the word desert to most people the first thing that comes to mind is endless sand dunes with nothing else in sight, or tall cacti, road runners, coyotes and shit. But this is high desert — broad expanses of sage-covered powdery dirt hemmed in by distant mountain ridges. If you’re lucky enough to stumble across a dry streambed, you might just find a desert cedar that throws a little shade. I got lucky. So, I’m killing time while the afternoon heat passes before hiking further out the road. They said it was a six hour drive to the facility, so I figure we were closer to it than Calaway. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen a single vehicle out on the road. We’re about twenty hours overdue … where’s the search party? I’ll get moving again at sunset. I should be napping now, but last time I closed my eyes for more than an instant I saw Melton walking across the desert towards my little shade spot. Only it wasn’t really walking, I guess shambling would be the word for it. And it wasn’t really Melton either, not really. It was just his legs.

06.09.06

Will Mercer: 1, Desert: 0. Believe me, at times the outcome was in question. Even traveling at night, the lack of humidity is as bad as the midday sun. My skin was getting dry before the truck ever stopped rolling. After just a little more than a day it was starting to look as cracked and baked as the desert earth. And my lips are so raw and wasted right now, I basically have to grow a new pair. But a little bit of survival knowledge (garnered mostly from nature programs and National Geographic) and some good old-fashioned West Virginia stubborn-headedness paid off, and I eventually found the facility. No thanks to this outfit, I might add. The clowns didn’t even know I was coming. All that hassle getting the right security papers here, and all I had to do was show my driver’s license and they let me waltz in through the front gate. All right, maybe I didn’t waltz in. After I collapsed, they had to drag me. Still, the point stands.

I vaguely remember the gate guards taking me to the room I’m writing in now. I passed out on a mattress that’s only marginally softer than the rocks I’d slept on earlier in the day. I shouldn’t complain. I’ve got a roof over my head, and more importantly, water. It’s discolored and tastes a little funny, but this place looks like it was built during WWII and I’ll bet it still has the original pipes. The room looks an awful lot like an old hospital room — cinderblock walls (painted that all too familiar shade of lime green), and one small window with what I first thought was an air-conditioner. Turns out it’s what I’ve heard called a swamp cooler. Basically, it’s a box with a squirrel-cage fan drawing air through fiber panels with water constantly circulating over them. It cools through evaporation, and out here where the relative humidity is below 25% it works pretty damn well. When I started writing, I was debating whether to get up and explore or sleep some more. Well, debate’s over and sleep kicked explore’s ass. I’m going to crash out again in a minute, after one more glass of water. I hope Melton was in decent condition when they went out to recover him. I know he was ripped in half, I just hope nothing had, you know, started eating at him.

06.10.06

What a difference sleep makes (or the combination of sleep and water, anyway). I feel like a new man. As far as I can tell, nobody checked in on me. I woke up feeling rested and decided to check out the facility myself. You should see the place. This building is huge, but they have about the most primitive laboratory I’ve ever seen. Maybe I’m just spoiled, but I’ve never worked in a microbiology lab with wooden benches and brass fixtures before. All the instrumentation is manually controlled. Even the steam sterilizers are worked with valves and levers. There isn’t a keypad in the entire place, or even a computer. The people here don’t seem to mind. They might just be the biggest collection of super-geeks I’ve ever seen. Most of them look like they stepped out of some 50’s B-movie. Close-cropped flat-tops, big glasses with bulky black frames — I know the look is coffee-house chic now, but I don’t think these guys are trying to be ironic. I saw a few engineers with a similar look when I did some work down at the Cape in Florida a few years ago, guys (and even a few women) that wouldn’t have been out of place in old mission control footage from the Apollo days. They aren’t very talkative either.

I’ll have to finish this later, looks like they’re ready to give me the tour and explain exactly what I’m supposed to be working on. Somehow, I don’t think it has much to do with what they told me back in Maryland.

* * *


I’m back, and holy shit, what a day it’s been. This is no defense facility. These people are working on offensive biologicals. Big Brother would probably (no, definitely) yank my clearance just for writing this shit down, but about now I’m too freaked to care and this is the only outlet I have to vent. Besides, there’s no way they’re going to let this journal offsite, even with what I’ve written already. If I could get an e-mail back home I’d beg off this assignment and be out of here tomorrow. Unfortunately, outside communication (unmonitored anyway) is not an option. I’ve always suspected that we were secretly developing offensive agents. Honestly, I figure that’s the best way to defend against what the bad guys are doing. You can’t fight something you don’t know exists, and the only way we can begin to understand what’s possible is to try and make the stuff ourselves. OK, I’m rambling here and it’s not helping me think. This whole thing just has me shitless. I knew this was serious business with all the old high ranking non-coms on security detail back at Calaway and now here (still have no idea how I got in so easily – maybe they did expect me, but if so, why would they lie about it?). But what the fuck have I gotten myself into?

Let me take this from the top, and maybe I can reason things out by writing this all down. This morning I was sitting here writing when two scientists show up to finally explain my duty assignment. The first one, a squat guy with buzz cut and thick glasses, tells me his name is Dr. Ben Halleck. He makes a show of introducing the other guy, Dr. Elias Grinnell. Grinnell’s the director of research here. He’s an older guy, bald, thick, sharp features, big meaty hands and he’s about as personable as a grizzly. As soon as Halleck explains how important and brilliant the director is, Grinnell gives him a weird little look and the guy scampers away. Grinnell tells me he’s glad additional staff has finally arrived (at which point, I wonder, why didn’t his people even know I was coming?). According to Grinnell, things have been a little (dramatic pause here) hectic for the past week. You know that little voice you hear in your head, but it comes from down in your gut? The voice you sometimes ignore, only to realize maybe you really were driving a little too fast in that rainstorm, or maybe you should have shut that breaker off before trying to replace the light switch? That voice. At this point the little guy is screaming at the top of his lungs. But this Grinnell guy, despite all the gruffness, he’s charismatic, and my brain is genuinely curious. You don’t make it this far in science if your curiosity doesn’t sometimes override your common sense. So I tell him I’m glad to be here, and excited to learn more about the project. For the first time, he smiles. All will be revealed, he promises.

Grinnell leads me down labyrinthine corridors, a rat’s maze of lime-green concrete block walls and swinging doors. I can hear monkeys screeching. Nobody mentioned primate research, I comment. He raises a brow and says, “I imagine there’s a lot they didn’t tell you. The things that happen here, they don’t leave this facility.” He seems mildly amused, but that little voice from down in my gut is singing the chorus from “Hotel California.” Fuck, I never realized how much I hate that song.

We’re walking down endless corridors punctuated by wooden doors with small glass windows. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen any of the tri-foil biohazard symbols that are usually plastered all over even in the tamer labs I’ve worked in. Instead, the doors are marked with engraved bakelite signs reading “Restricted Access,” or the less benign “Danger – Toxic Substances” and “Warning – Infectious Agents.” I guess this place is deep enough that OSHA never pops in for a visit.

During our walkthrough Grinnell keeps talking about The Enemy. He goes on about troop movements and supply lines and morale. Stuff you don’t hear much about these days while we’re so focused on terror. He talks about what The Enemy’s up to, how we have to stay one step ahead. I’m about to ask him if he’s talking about China, North Korea maybe, but it’s hard to get a word in edgewise with this guy, plus he looked at me like I was insane when I mentioned Biopreparat earlier in the conversation. We finally come to a door with a guard posted on either side. Grinnell’s suddenly quiet. The voice in my gut tries to go panic-button on me, but doesn’t like the sound it makes in the dead silent hall and shuts up fast. It’s funny, but I could swear for just a second that Grinnell looked at me like he had heard the voice, too. Then without a word he turned away and pushed through the door.

We walk into the virology lab. Shit. The dudes in there are in get-ups that look more like Hawkeye Pierce’s surgical dress than any lab gear I’ve ever worked with. I recognize what they’re up to immediately. Inside what looks more like a chemical fume hood than a biological safety cabinet, they’re culturing cell lines in glass flasks. I haven’t used a glass anything in a micro lab since college. Before I can wonder much more about that, Grinnell starts talking about the virus that they’ve isolated from some chimpanzees acquired in the Congo basin. He’s telling me about its unique characteristics – the stability of the dried virus particles, the unprecedented communicability. My gut-voice is too tired to scream anymore. At this point it’s resigned to quiet sarcasm. “Your funeral,” it says.

Grinnell mentions the accident and the quarantine facility casually. They’ve been exposing virus-infected cell lines to dozens of different chemical cocktails in an attempt to mutate the bug. It worked. They developed a strain that infected the chimps as readily as the original. The virus incubated with typically mild flu-like symptoms. But then it went warp-speed, turning the animal’s internal organs into frappe. Then, in a proud, almost fatherly voice, he tells me: “And it infects humans, too.”

Last week one of their people got sliced with a scalpel during a chimp dissection. They moved him to isolation and in a week’s time found the virus in his blood. Grinnell tells me that this unfortunate event has a silver lining. They now know that the bug definitely causes illness in humans. Plus, in trying to save their colleague they will have to create a treatment for it – which happens to be a necessary milestone before deployment.

That’s right. He said deployment. Huge WTF moment. I’m not naïve. I suspected we had kitchens where we cooked this shit up, and that if it came down to the final inning and the home team was losing we’d use them. But he’s talking about deploying a bug with a communicability rate that would take it around the globe in days. And he’s not batting an eyelash.

I wasn’t really capable of coherent speech after that bombshell, but Grinnell wasn’t finished. He actually took me down to see the infected scientist. We came into a small room with a large plate glass window looking into a small dimly lit cell. Grinnell identified the person laying on an inclined bed as Leonard Smythe. He was in bad shape. His eyes – they weren’t human. There wasn’t any white left in them. Blue irises swam in two pools of blood. The blood trickled from his nostrils, a slow, steady black-red stream. The stuff was leaking out from random spots all over him, seeping out of sweat glands I suppose. Not gushing, just moist, like sap from a damaged tree trunk. Where there wasn’t external blood his skin looked bruised, likely caused by capillaries in the endodermis hemorrhaging. His face was a hellish red. I can’t imagine what kind of fever he must be running. Hell, I couldn’t believe the guy was even alive.

Then he talked. Somehow that poor bastard was not only alive, but coherent. That’s when I puked all over Grinnell’s shoes.

“You aren’t supposed to be here,” he gurgled like an automatic coffee brewer bubbling words while it percolated. After that, Elvis left the building.

06.11.06

After everything that happened yesterday, everything I saw and heard, I somehow managed to turn in a day’s work. It was almost like yesterday never happened. I was able to shut it out and take care of business, at least until I returned to my quarters. Here, alone with my thoughts, yesterday seems real and immediate, and today seems like the distant dream.

I worked with Halleck today. He’s a nice enough guy, but he doesn’t have the steadiest hands. I wouldn’t want to be around him if he was handling a dirty needle, or say, dissecting a diseased monkey. We were prepping human cell cultures that will later be infected with the virus. After the cells are infected, we’ll hit them with some drugs to see if we can find the magic bullet that kills the virus, but leaves the cells alive. Pretty basic stuff, too basic really. I asked if they had sequenced the virus isolate – many times you can figure out a better way to attack a bug if you can identify the proteins for which its DNA codes. Halleck just looked at me funny and launched into an explanation of how they isolated the original samples. Nobody mentioned Smythe today, and I wasn’t about to bring up the subject. I’m haunted by those eyes. I’m exhausted. Hopefully I’ll be able to sleep.

06.12.06

Not much sleep last night. I hear chimps screaming when I lay silent, and when sleep
tries to settle in, I see Melton pulling his legless torso across the desert, his face sun-scarred and his eye-sockets picked clean by scavengers. Or worse, Smythe, his bloody red eyes fixed on mine in a fever-hot accusatory glare. The oozing skin sloughs off his cheeks and jaw as he says, “You aren’t supposed to be here” and breathes the worst kind of poison into the air. I’m not sure if I’m really hearing the monkey screams or if they’re only imagined, but the visions of Melton and Smythe are all too real, so I spent most of the night with the monkeys, fighting off sleep. There’s the morning knock at the door, time to get to work. I want to go home.

* * *


Back. I really want to forget today. I know now the screams last night weren’t imagined. Turns out that in the final 24 to 36 hours before death, the victims of this bug go into a mindless rage. Today I had a ringside seat to two chimps about to crash. They hurled themselves against cage walls, spattering bloody ichor everywhere. They lunged at any movement, flailing their arms and yelling incessantly. They exist in a world of pain I can’t even imagine, and they are pissed. I really need to find a way out of here.

06.13.06

The high desert’s cold after sunset, even in June. Cold enough to see my breath. I walked as far as I could, probably in circles. I tried to follow the stars, but they don’t look like they did … what, eleven days ago? Now they are just distant points of alien light, foreign constellations spinning coldly across the sky. I think I’m losing my mind.

It was close to noon when I heard the klaxons. I was picking at a chili dog and some under-cooked tater tots in the cafeteria. I’ve hardly eaten since arriving at the facility. I don’t think I need to explain my lack of appetite to you. Anyway, sirens go off, and people start running everywhere. Through a window I see Army trucks rolling in. Men in gas masks pour out of the trucks, but they don’t approach the facility. Instead they form a picket line, fencing the building in. Fencing us in. I can hear running and shouting in the hallways, but I can’t take my eyes off the guns pointed at us from every angle. A distant part of my mind registers the piss running down my leg without much interest.

I’m out of it until Grinnell shakes me to my senses, his big fingers digging painfully into my shoulders. “Snap out of it, Mercer. I’m counting on you.” He looks down at the spreading stain on my trousers with a mixture of disgust and amusement. “Smythe went into the rage this morning. He’s out of isolation. I’ve always suspected Halleck had something to do with it, maybe trying to put him out of his misery to make up for his blunder. But none of that’s important now. You can still get out before those bastards shut us in like rats in a cage.”

With that we’re off and running. Grinnell leads me to a windowless side room off the mess. He directs me to a nearby mechanical room. “There’s a service tunnel that leads to the power station, about a half-mile away. You can get out through there. They’ll never even know you were here.”

I’m frozen. Something’s wrong. I mean, other than the obvious facts that I’m in the middle of the desert, surrounded by madmen, a deadly virus of the worst sort, ghost dreams, countless soldiers who seem ready to shoot us down. My mind sticks on Grinnell’s words. There’s something so detached and predetermined about them. But the moment passes in the confusion, and Grinnell’s shouting for me to get moving. Instinct takes over and I bolt in the direction Grinnell pointed out, looking for the promised mechanical room. I see the door, and I’m about to grab the handle when the blood-soaked thing that was Smythe turns a corner about 40 feet up ahead. He’s out of his mind and snarling like something straight out of hell. But when his eyes meet mine, for a second there’s a flash of something – recognition, understanding, I don’t know. Then he’s charging at me as fast as his ravaged body will carry him, spraying blood and infection like a sprinkler. My mind tries to shut down, but adrenaline won’t let it. The handle sticks, but I manage to throw the door open. There’s a sickening crunch as Smythe slams into the other side of the door, his weight snapping it closed behind me. There’s a rusting boiler in front of me, and behind it a small trap door. It pulls open with an unnerving screech. I scramble down the service ladder to a narrow tunnel. Incandescent bulbs spaced at long distances stretch off into infinity. I run as fast as my ravaged body will carry me, and I don’t stop until the lights go out.

I don’t know how far I’d gone down the tunnel. Maybe a quarter-mile, halfway to the power station. I’m still full of adrenaline, but mindless panic gradually gives way to paralyzing terror in the black depths of the tunnel. It’s not just dark now. It smells different, and it’s silent. No dripping water, no distant hum of machinery, no voices echoing behind me. It’s like a sensory depravation tank. Or death. I take some deep breaths and count to ten, and then keep counting. I don’t remember how far I got before I was finally able to reach out my arm and find a wall. Keeping my outstretched fingers against the wall, I began a slow march in the direction I’d been running. I went on like that for what seemed like long hours, one hand on the wall and the other splayed out in front of me, certain I was going to walk into soldiers – or Smythe – in the dark.

I almost collapsed with relief when I finally felt the cold metal bars of the ladder at the end of the tunnel. I scrabbled up and found a heavy steel door blocking the exit. My first efforts were futile, but eventually there was a loud popping noise on the opposite side and the door gave way. I stumbled out of the service tunnel into a large metal building. Dark hulks of silent, rusting machinery sat silhouetted in the late afternoon sun. There was a little sound now, gentle wind blowing against the building and the faint howl of a coyote. The coyote’s howl probably shouldn’t have been comforting, but after the palpable silence of the tunnel below I found it as soothing as a mother’s lullaby. The floor of the building was covered in thick dust and grime, and when I found a door to the outside it was standing ajar, tentacles of earth creeping in as if the desert were slowly reclaiming its turf. I pointed myself away from the facility as best I could and set out at a fast hike, as close to a run as my legs would allow.

The sky’s starting to show the first hints of dawn. I’ve found a good cedar, and I’ll rest here. The little tree should protect me from the heat, and any eyes that might be looking for me. I can’t stop thinking about something that happened back in the facility. When I was in the mechanical room, just after my close call with Smythe, I distinctly heard him say something on the other side of the door. It wasn’t a furious scream of rage or anguished shriek of pain, but a clear, almost resigned protest. “No, no, no. You were never supposed to be here.”

06.14.06 (???)

I don’t know how long I slept, but it’s night again. The wind is blowing from a different direction. It’s probably just wishful thinking, but every now and then I hear something like distant traffic noise. I don’t have any other clues to follow, so I’ll just start walking in that direction. Last night I was terrified of being discovered, afraid soldiers were going to hunt me down and shoot me, but that all seems like a distant sepia-toned memory now. Thirst will kill me before a bullet does if I don’t find some water. It occurs to me that everything that happened at the facility – the outdated equipment, the weird scientists, the monkeys, the soldiers, and most of all, Smythe and those horrible, blood-filled eyes – maybe every bit of it was a hallucination, brought on by head trauma from the accident, exposure, and lack of food and water. I’ve just been laid up under this same cedar for days (or what seemed like days – I can’t trust anything I’ve written since the accident). I never should have strayed from the highway.

* * *


Dust storm. It started near midnight as far as I can tell. I’m hunkered down in another dry gulch. No cedars in this one, but it’s deep enough to keep me from the worst of the wind-blown dust. Occasional eddies fling the stinging stuff in my eyes, making it hard to write this. I’ll bet what I thought was traffic noise was this storm blowing in. If it lets up, I’m going to try and put some more desert behind me before daylight.

* * *


It was traffic noise – I’m sitting under an Interstate 80 sign! The road is deserted. With luck, there’ll be some traffic soon and I’ll be back in the real world. I can almost taste water now. I’d kill for some Claritin, too, that dust storm really screwed up my sinuses.

06.15.06 – 06.08.06? WTF?!?

I hitched a ride into Elko, a small town at the intersection of I-80 and Nevada State Route 225. From there I phoned the home office. They were freaking out. Apparently I’ve been missing for – get this – two days. Somehow my mind stretched two days into seven. I must have hit my head harder than I realized in the rollover. That much was real, anyway. They found the wreck (and what was left of Melton) a few hours after they realized we were missing. The rest of it, those days at the facility, none of it happened. Of course not, how could it have? The whole notion is absurd, and every single detail was wrong. The client is sending a chopper out to pick me up at Elko’s small airport, and on to Calaway from there. I don’t know what happens after that. Even if I pass a medical screen, I’m begging off this assignment. They can send some other lucky individual. Once I get out of here, I’m making it a point never to set foot in the desert again. And I’m going to burn this journal. On second thought, I think I’ll hold onto it. With a little work, maybe it’ll make for a decent short story.

I have about an hour to kill before the chopper gets here. I think I’ll find a place to get that Claritin and grab some juice. The sandstorm left my throat all scratchy on top of packing my sinuses solid.

* * *


I’m on the chopper ride back to Calaway now. Despite the noise and bumpy ride, I fell asleep as soon as we left the ground. We should get back to the base soon, but I wanted to write this dream down before I forgot it, it might come in handy if I ever get around to writing that short story. In my dream, I was napping, until I suddenly heard Melton yell “What tha–!?!” I looked out the window to see a man standing calmly in the road in front of us. Then the world started doing somersaults as the Suburban rolled, and all I could think was, “What was Grinnell doing standing in the middle of the road, and what was that S.O.B. smiling about?”

06.09.06

They took me over to the post hospital when we got back for a once-over by some Army doctors. I’m dehydrated (big surprise), but other than that not much worse for the wear. The local security types debriefed me, then the range safety officer, and finally a neurologist. I spilled everything, even the hallucinations. I didn’t mention this journal, though. There’s an off chance they would confiscate it just for the stuff in here that really did happen, and I’d like to hold onto this. My nose is running now, hopefully clearing out the last of the sand.

06.10.06

I feel like shit today. My little walkabout in the dreamtime must have weakened my immune system. I hate summer colds. I’m in the post hospital. There’s no shortage of beds here, and the neurologist wants to make sure I didn’t get a cracked melon in the crash, so they’re holding me as a precaution. Going to lay back down, don’t feel much like writing. Funny thing, the neurologist here is named Halleck. I must have heard his name mentioned before leaving with Melton, that probably planted the seed in my mind for the name in my dream. He tells me his grandfather was a microbiologist like me. He did some work at a top-secret facility out here in the desert in the days after the war, but apparently died of a freak heart attack. The old base is an abandoned ruin now, somewhere out near where I picked up a ride to Elko. I probably stumbled right by it.

06.11.06

My eyes are pretty bloodshot and I am feeling like a truck hit me. Not much new, still waiting for permission from corporate to come home once I get medical clearance. If they insist that I finish the job, I just might quit and buy my own ticket home.

06.13.06

I’m in The Slammer, the Level 4 containment patient care suite within USAMRIID at Fort Detrick. I arrived in the bubble stretcher that they’ve only used in drills – until now, that is. They have no clue what I have. Some new strain of Ebola, or Marburg maybe. I know what it is, but I’ve given up trying to tell them about the lab in the desert. About Grinnell. About the monkeys. About Smythe. About the outbreak that happened some fifty years ago, and the men that must have died slow, horrible deaths when the Army shut the place down with everyone inside. I won’t be able to write much longer. I can barely see now, and soon my eyes will be so full of blood that I’ll be almost wholly blind. The rage should start not long after that. Hopefully by then my central nervous system will be so shot I won’t feel much of anything. The rage must be powerful stuff, strong enough to stay with a man even after death. At least, that’s the only reason I can figure that Grinnell would have been pissed off at the world enough to doom it to his fate. You see, they’ve quarantined everyone I came in contact with after being picked up, but they never found the trucker who gave me a lift into Elko. Right about now, his nose will be running like a faucet and his eyes will be noticeably bloodshot.


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