It wasn't that bad of a drive, really. Finding October Falls was a bit of a scavenger hunt, true, but in the days of cell phones, Google Maps and GPS receivers, even the town that time forgot couldn't stay hidden for long.
But it had given him a hell of a chase.
Randal had come up from Florida all the way to Macon, Georgia; the common starting point for all the directions he could find. Could he have gotten to October Falls directly from Tampa? Logic told him yes, but the collected wisdom of Google, Map quest, and Rand-McNally all told him "maybe, maybe not." From Macon, he'd driven south via a web of incomprehensible back roads... a whirlwind tour of small towns he thought only existed in horror movies about horny rednecks and mutant cannibals. He was in the neighborhood of Tifton when the various maps, printouts, and handwritten directions he'd been using for navigation began to disagree as to precisely where he as and what direction he should be going.
He found himself speeding through the tiny town of Runsford before he even knew he was getting close to it. From there, he found and took the one road heading due east into... according to some maps at least... absolutely nothing.
Twenty-seven minutes later, he was in October Falls.
It was a nice enough place, not nearly as small and backward as he'd been lead to believe. There was a McDonalds, but no WalMart. He passed a few gas stations, but none had names he recognized. No Shell, no Conoco, no BP. No Lowes or Home Depot. There were no shopping malls or cookie-cutter subdivisions, although there were signs proclaiming the imminent arrival of both. One of the signs had been defaced with some kind of symbol that Randal didn't recognize. Did the locals have their own written alphabet here?
Randal took all of it in, trying to put the essence of October Falls into a single three or four sentence paragraph. Stories needed settings, but he had to have the damned story first.
And for that, he'd need Doctor Varner.
Randal had the Nobel-winning physicist's address, but finding a street in October Falls proved to be just as maddening as finding the town itself. Almost nothing was marked.... roads, intersections, addresses... nothing. His GPS had quit giving him useful information just prior to Runsford. It would occasionally feed him a longitude and latitude, but instead of a road map, the display showed him to be quit literally in the middle of nowhere. Randal stopped at not one... but several gas stations and asked for help. The locals were surprisingly friendly and, among the four he spoke with, he'd gotten three sets of mutually exclusive directions to a place that the fourth gentleman swore didn't exist.
It turns out that the fourth man was right. He found this out at the fifth, stop where he got a frown of concentration from the desk clerk, followed by a solid minute of head scratching, and finally a set of directions that took him south... out of town and into the woods.
He'd been told not to bother looking for street signs or addresses, but to navigate by landmarks... a tree here, a rock there... and the odometer on his dashboard. Ten point eight miles later, Randal drove past the dirt road he'd been looking for. He backed up and made the turn.
The road he found himself on was barely wide enough to accommodate his car. After only a few feet, trees pushed in so tightly around him that there wasn't enough room to open either door, leaving him trapped inside his vehicle. The greenery overhead quickly turned late-evening to almost-midnight. Randal slowed to a walking pace but kept going. When the road widened to branch in three directions, he parked and got out.
He'd be on foot from here on up.
He grabbed his briefcase from the back seat and buttoned his coat against the chilling air. It wasn't night yet, but it was dark enough in the woods to need a flashlight. He fetched a large one from underneath the seat. He didn't think he'd need anything else... particularly what he had in the trunk or the glove compartment. Not yet, anyway.
He took the path on the left. It was only a twenty minute walk to the cabin, but the incredibly steep incline and treacherously rocky hillside made Randal's calves burn after five minutes. He exercised every day, but this was a far cry from a leisurely jog around the block. By the time the trail flattened, Randal was breathing heavily... healthily... and dabbing at his brow with his handkerchief.
"Wow," he huffed. "This old man must have a helicopter..."
The man he'd come to see was seventy-four years old. Even if he was in good health, he couldn't possibly...
...ah, but impossibility was the very reason he was here, wasn't he? Randal chuckled and walked the few remaining yards to the dim clearing. The trees fell away quickly, yielding to an acre of high weeds, rotting stumps, and deep shadows. In the center of it sat a log cabin, low and broad with a slender brick fireplace pointing at the moon overhead. It was larger than Randal expected. He cursed himself for getting lost and arriving too late to get a good picture. Still, if this went well he could come back tomorrow and get one.
But what were the chances of this going well?
He didn't really know, did he? Why jump to conclusions?
Randal marched through the weeds toward the cabin, wondering just how many disease-carrying insects he'd be picking out of his clothes when he got back to the hotel. He didn't have a single speck of insect repellent on his skin, and Lyme disease was NOT fun. He had pictures to prove it. He made a mental note to disrobe and inspect himself before he got anywhere near his bed tonight.
Randal knocked on the cabin door. The wood was so thick and dense that it swallowed the sound of his knuckles.
"That's a hell of a door," he said as he knocked again, harder.
If there was any sound from inside, the door swallowed it as well.
There were windows on either side, both cloaked with heavy curtains. The curtains didn't budge... no one peeked out to see who was standing on the doorstep.
"Okay," said Randal. His third knock was an insistent hammering with his fist. Any other door would be rattling in its frame, but this one-
"WHO the HELL!" The door flew open with surprising speed... the wooden barrier replaced by a short old man with hair the color of snow. A tanned leather face scowled up at Randal.
"Doctor Varner," Randal announced. It wasn't any more of question than the old man's words were a greeting. "I'm Randal Holt, I-
"Nobody here by that na-"
"Don't bother," Randal interrupted. He shook his head, smiling softly. "Don't... bother. You're a hard man to find, doctor."
The leather face retained its scowl... probably its default expression judging from the lines that had been worn into it... as the old man thought.
"Who are you," he said, slowly. The anger was still in his voice, but it was being forced under control. The old mans words came in individual barks, each one like a stab at Randal's throat. "And what. Do. You. Want."
Randal hadn't expected Varner to be happy to have his hideaway discovered, but this kind of rage was... a bit out of character. None of his interviews or research hinted that Varner was a man with a temper.
"Well, umm" Randal began. The old man's anger had thrown him off of his well-rehearsed opening. He had to get this back on track... "My name is Randal Holt and I'm from New Medicine magazine, out of Florida. What I WANT is an interview."
"An interview!" Varner spat. Literally. A large wad of phlegm landed just to the left of Randal's shoe.
"Yeah..." Randal took a small step back "That's where I ask you questions like: What's a Nobel prize-winning physicist doing hiding in a cabin in South Georgia?"
Varner shook his head. "No. Forget it. Just go away. Leave me to my privacy; I've got nothing to say to you."
"But my readers want to know about your research-"
"Your readers don't KNOW about my research!" Varner spat, this time figuratively. "NOBODY does, and it's gonna stay that way!"
Randal saw it coming: the old man stepped back and the heavy door started moving... fast. Either it was lighter than it looked or Varner was on some serious supplements. Randal threw himself at the opening, not quite trying to force his way in, but just keeping the door open a second longer.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that!" He blurted in the instant he'd bought himself.
The pause lasted barely the span of a heartbeat... but after it, everything changed.
"What... do you mean by that?" The anger was seeping back into the old doctor's voice, this time tempered by suspicion.
"I found you," said Randal. "I'm a freelancer with no budget and a knack for computers. The hardest part about finding you was the walk from the car to this cabin."
A poetic overstatement, but it did the job. The old man was hooked... worry and paranoia could close a lot of doors, but it could open them as well. And keep them open as long as Randal gave the old man reason to be concerned. Randal had found the right buttons, now he just had to finesse the controls a little.
"You're the man who cured cancer. You said that yourself... those are your words."
"I was wrong!"
"The fact that you're standing here talking to me suggests otherwise. You cured it. Maybe not a panacea... maybe not for everybody, but at the very least you cured YOUR 'incurable' cancer, and that research-"
"There WAS no research!" the old man snapped. "A theory! It was a THEORY!"
"A theory you thought was good enough to abandon all your other research for and sink hundreds of thousands of dollars in. You stole money; you stole equipment; you bankrupted yourself just to pursue it on your own-"
"I did no such thing!"
"-Then you YOURSELF announced that you had cured cancer. Your words, not mine. You reached out to the medical community; you said you could prove it... and then you disappeared. You, your medical records, your research, your equipment... all gone overnight. Why?
The old man just stared at him for a while, and then whispered:
"What... what do you know? And how did you find me?"
"Your disappearing act may have worked a few decades earlier, but it's 2007, doctor. Nothing ever really disappears. Medical records. Research..."
"I erased everything-"
"Computer forensics. Backups. Partial files... It's a mess, and honestly it’s confusing as hell. But there are people who get paid a lot of money to undo what you did. I know... I paid them. What I bought was a chunk of research-"
"Did you show it to anybody!?" The old man was afraid now. Almost terrified... "DID YOU!? Who saw it!"
"The people who helped me recover it, obviously. And a doctor or two-"
"WHO!? Could they... could they tell what I was doing!? Could they... oh, my God... could they reproduce-"
"You seem to be asking ME a lot of questions, doctor, but that's not really how an interview is supposed to work. But, to be gracious... the few medical doctors I showed it to couldn't make any sense of it. But then, they weren't supposed to, were they? It was all physics and math... how would THEY know what it was. So then I shopped it around the physics department at a local university-"
"Oh my God..." Doctor Varner gasped. "What have you done!?"
"They said the work was... interesting. I didn't tell them where it was from, and all they could tell me was.... well... it was interesting."
"Names! NAMES! WHO saw my work!? I need to know-"
"And those are all the answers you're getting, Dr. Varner. I came here with questions of my own. Like: what exactly does a physicist know about curing cancer? I would assume not very much, but... either you managed to do it, OR you and your team of doctors pulled off one hell of a hoax. Either one makes excellent copy. Readers will love it."
"It was a hoax!" Varner insisted.
"No." Randal shook his head and smiled. "Stage IV non small cell lung cancer does not disappear overnight. You could have pulled it off with just one doctor on your side, but you let yourself be examined by teams...dozens of independent tests. You made a lot of noise before you went silent, doctor. You had cancer. And then you didn't. People who don't look too close might be satisfied that it was a hoax or a mistake. But I've seen for myself. And I always look close."
"And who else? Freelance... there's nobody out there waiting on this article, is there? You're just following a rumor you think might pay off."
"It paid off the second you opened that door, doctor. Your diagnosis was almost five years ago. You should be dead. Instead, you're hiding in a cabin in the woods. Why?"
"Understand this:" said Varner. "You CAN'T publish my story. You just can't."
"Why not? Nondisclosure? It's corporate interests, isn't it? You sold out and now the drug companies keep you quiet so they can-"
"No! GOD no! Look... nobody can know what I did! Let them think I was crazy... tell them it was a hoax! Please!"
"It was a dangerous, foolish experiment. A desperate action by a man who thought he was too smart to just lay down and die. If people tried to repeat it.... I just can't."
"But you have to. And you know it. The reason you're still talking to me is because your research has resurfaced. I resurfaced it. I've shared it. It MIGHT be out there right now. Someone MIGHT be following in your footsteps while we're having this conversation. It MIGHT be too late to stop. If it CAN be stopped, then the only thing that can do it... is your story. Your research is dangerous? Tell me how. Tell me what happened."
"Inside," said Varner. The physicist stepped aside and opened the door. Randal stepped in.
The cabin was large from the outside, but the first thing that struck Randal upon entering was that the room, which contained a wood-burning stove, a few chairs, and an old sofa" took up less than half of the space he expected. He looked around for a door leading to another room, but he found none. There was a decorative blanket with an Indian design hanging on the far wall. If there was a door, that would have to be it.
"Cozy," said Randal. "Build it yourself?"
"Family property," said Varner. He closed the door and secured it with four heavy locks. The locks looked new.
"Really?" said Randal. "I thought your family was from-"
"I didn’t say it was MY family," Varner snapped. "Sit."
Varner indicated the sofa, and Randal sat. It was without a doubt the most uncomfortable piece of furniture he'd ever sat on.
"If you don’t mind"’ Randal pulled out his tape recorder" one of two that he had on his person. As he fetched the first from his pocket, he secretly hit the record button on the second. That way, he could make a show of turning the first recorder off if he needed to, but still have a record of what was said. He sat the first recorder on the table.
Randal expected Varner to pull one of the apparently homemade chairs over and sit across from him, but instead, the old man paced back and forth by the table. Varner folded his arms across his chest and glanced at the recorder. When he started talking, he spoke to the walls" sparing not a single glance for Randal.
"Lung cancer," he began. "I hadn’t smoked for over ten years. TEN YEARS! Apparently there’s something in my genes that makes me predisposed. Humph. I was much too busy for doctors. I had the cough, but I just kept taking medicine. That's what medicines for, right? Then there was blood. I should have gone to the doctor, then, but" it wasn’t MUCH blood. It went away" came back" went away. I suppose I knew what it was, but that made me want to seek treatment even LESS. I wasn’t married; no family" too busy for that, too. There was no one to badger me into doing what I already knew I-"
Varner shook his head.
""I’m rambling. You know this part of the story already. The cancer had spread. It was everywhere. I had months to live. Months. YEARS worth of research yet to complete and I had only months left to live. I couldn’t accept that. I sought second opinions and alternative treatments" everything from faith healers to acupuncture. The best I could accomplish was temporary relief of the pain."
"Your theory," Randal said, wanting to speed things along. "Where did it some from?"
"Any freshman physics textbook," Varner huffed. "It’s a basic tenet. But then" most advancements" the kind that win Nobel prizes" come from proving basic tenets wrong. Or finding new ways to understand them. That was what my research: finding ways to manipulate entropy. "
"But what does that have to do with cancer?"
"Everything. Everything is physics if you look deeply enough. Biology is no exception. The idea of applying my research to my" problem" came in a dream. A nightmare, really, and that’s where it should have stayed. But at the time, I thought that maybe" just maybe, I was on to something."
"But how does a theory from physics actually apply to lung cancer?"
"What IS cancer, Mr. Randal?" said Varner. "What is it? How do you define it?"
"Uncontrolled cell growth-"
"Chaos. Cancer is chaos at a cellular level. Physics treats the randomness of a system not just as the absence of order, but as a measurable quantity in its own right. It’s called entropy. It is always increasing" this increase drives all natural processes from chemistry to biology to" cancer. My theory was that if cancer could not be fought at a biological level, with drugs and surgery, then perhaps it could be fought on some other level" the level of entropy and order. Could cancer" which is by its very nature chaotic" exist when the local level of entropy was decreasing? It turns out that the answer is ‘no.’"
"So you did you make that happen? Especially in such a short period of time-"
"Short? This was years of research" entropy manipulation and control won me a Nobel prize. This isn’t something I just threw together. The final step was moving from equations on a blackboard to actual implementation. But people didn’t believe me. They thought the cancer had gotten into my brain. They were right, but then, so was I. In the end, I certainly proved that I was right. I cured cancer" and created something worse. No one could have imagined" nightmares, indeed. I couldn’t let the research continue. I couldn’t let anyone else TRY. I burned it all; destroyed it. "
"But how did you actually DO it? What was the mechanism?"
Varner stopped pacing. He frowned and cast a long sideways stare at Randal.
"You don’t even care, do you? You haven’t even ASKED""
"People have seen it the research, if-"
"No, they haven’t. All you want is the how. How did I do it. You haven’t even ASKED what happened after" why I burned it all and ran away. You don’t care what I unleashed" you just want the mechanism. If you really HAD my research" enough of it for me to be concerned" you wouldn’t need to have tracked me down to ask me how I did it. The world is full of physicists, Mr. Randal. I can name" four" five that could reproduce my results even given only PART of my notes. All of them are a lot easier to find than me."
"I'm a reporter," said Randal. "I'm after the story. Other physicists can't give me that."
"If you're after the story, why aren't you ASKING for it, eh? I'm not stupid. What you want is what you already HAVE if you were telling the truth outside. But you weren't, were you?"
"A few sketches," said Randal. "That’s all there was. Not even computer files" just paper that didn’t burn completely. It wasn’t enough. We’ve tried". But it wasn’t enough. We need you, doctor."
"And who is ‘we’?"
"The world! I am who I say I am" I’m writing an article about the cure for cancer-"
"Get out. I don’t want to know any more. And, trust me, neither do you. Just get OUT!"
"Now wait just a minute, I-"
The old scientist’s voice reverberated off the wooden walls and made Randal’s ears ring. For someone who'd been dying from lung cancer, Varner had a very strong set of lungs.
Randal stood up, but didn’t leave immediately.
"I found you," he said. "You’re ordering supplies" One thing you couldn't burn were the records of the materials you used" the same materials you had delivered to an address here in town. You’re still doing the research."
"I have to find a cure" a cure for the cure. I have to get the cancer back."
"I asked you to leave."
"This won’t go away, doctor. I found you; other people will, too."
"They do at their own risk," said Varner. He gave Randal an odd look. It looked like a threat. "Go away."
The clearing was dark, and Randal had to make his way back to the car relying solely on his flashlight. It was a difficult trip made even more so by the knowledge that he’d be doing it again within the hour.
Randal had no intention of letting the story die. He’d come too far"
Once he reached the car, Randal started the engine on the faint chance that it could be heard from the cabin. Even if it could, there was no way that the old man could actually SEE him drive off at such a distance, so after a few minutes he shut off the engine and waited.
"Nice night for breaking and entering," he said as he got out and walked around to the trunk. From it, he retrieved a crowbar, a digital camera, and an empty backpack. Whether he needed the backpack or not depended on what he found in the doctor's "hidden" back room. If there was anything worth taking, he’d need something to carry it in.
He scanned the surrounding trees with the flashlight’s strong beam, then turned it off and started uphill in the dark. He expected the old man to be asleep by now, but if he wasn’t, Randal didn’t want a wavering bolt of white light in the woods to give away his approach.
It took another hour to reach the clearing. When the cabin was in sight, Randal circled around until he could see the rear of the structure. There was a pair of gas-powered generators on concrete pads behind the cabin, and next to them was a door.
Randal stepped behind a tree and watched.
Nothing moved. There were no sounds. Randal let another half-hour go by, then stepped into the open. No alarms sounded; no security light blared to announce his trespass.
Smiling, Randal moved quietly across the grass to the generators. Neither was running, but both looked well used. Randal was tempted to turn on his flashlight and examine the nameplates" they were large high-capacity machines, but just how much power did a log cabin need? Especially considering that the room he had seen earlier had had no electric appliances. What was Verner using this much power for?
Randal examined the door. It was locked; the latch didn’t even turn, no matter how much force he applied. He could get the door open with the crowbar, but he couldn’t do it quietly. He abandoned it and moved along the wall until he came to a window. It gave a little when he tried to lift it. It was locked, but not as securely as the door had been" probably just a standard window latch. It, too, would make noise if he forced it, but not as much as the door. Randal decided to give it a shot.
With moderate force from the crowbar, the metal latch tore free from the wood with a crack. Randal waited for sounds of a response inside, and after several silent minutes had passed, he raised the window and hoisted himself inside.
He dropped to the floor in a totally dark room. He pointed the flashlight down, turned it on, then slowly swung it upward until he was looking at a wall. He turned slowly, halfway expecting the light to reveal old man Verner’s scowling face glaring at him. Instead, what he found were several free-standing shelves crammed with equipment. Against one wall was a long table stacked with books and papers. A row of small filing cabinets filled the space beneath it, and an old desk sat nearby.
Directly across from the outer door was another door. Randal assumed that, if he opened it, the old Indian rug would be hanging across his path. He decided not to test that. Beside the door was an small white refrigerator.
In the center of the room was a large shape covered with a brown tarp. The shape was taller than Randal" much taller, actually" and wide enough for a man to get into. Randal took a step toward it and almost tripped over a thick electrical cable that fed out of a wall-mounted junction box and disappeared under the tarp. There were several such cables tracing the same path, and dozens of smaller ones trailing from shelf-mounted equipment to the thing in the center of the room. Randal assumed the larger cables were for power, and the smaller ones were control wires.
Randal took a closer look at the shelves. He recognized an oscilloscope and what may have been a Geiger counter" but the markings on everything else were meaningless to him. Important, but meaningless. He tugged on the tarp, but the cloth was so heavy that Randal realized that it wasn’t entirely cloth at all. It was lead shielding... the kind that doctors used for X-Ray machines. He could pull it off, but that would certainly make more noise than he was willing to risk. Instead he pushed it aside in a few places and shined his light underneath. There was SOMETHING there" a capsule or chamber of some type. The wires fed into various places, but nothing was marked as to what purpose anything served.
He took a few pictures and moved on.
The chamber was obviously the most important thing in the room, but being able to see it wasn’t the same thing as understanding it. For that, he’d need notes. Given the opportunity to study only one, he’d opt for the notes.
There were plenty on the table. Entire notebooks filled with equations and so many Greek symbols that they may as well have been diaries of some alien visitor. A few recognizable, and therefore interesting phrases peeked out from among the math. Anti-Entropy. Non-recoverable energy. Closed systems.
Recognizable words, but none of it had anything to do with medicine or biology. Or even chemistry. That was what Randal had come here to find" a chemical formula or notes for a manufacturing process" anything that could be used to reproduce Verner’s cure.
Not everyone bought into the idea that Verner's cure was a hoax. Some of the people who still believed were willing to pay a lot of money to prove themselves right. Enough money to justify breaking and entering and, if need be, theft. Not that it was about the money, of course. The idea that an old man's privacy was standing between in the way of a cure for cancer was just... obscene.
Randal looked through some of the other, older notebooks. He spotted a few references to drugs, but none of them had anything to do with cancer. They were all tranquilizers or poisons. Perhaps that was the key" selectively tranquilizing cancer cells. That didn’t sound right, but apparently it was something Verner had worked on not long after setting up shop here in the woods. But then" he had already CURED his cancer by then. So what was he trying to poison?
Randal stuffed a random selection of the notebooks into his backpack, making sure to include some of the older ones as well as one or two of those that were filled with numbers and gibberish. Just ONE of those books was a hundred times more valuable than what he already had... which wasn't much.
What he didn’t find were schematics of the machine under the tarp. They had to be here somewhere, but it was a large room and he was only one man with a flashlight. He tried the file cabinets and found more books, notebooks, and papers. He had better luck at the desk. The first piece of paper he picked up had what looked like a wiring diagram. Some of the other pages had lists of parts and equipment. He stuffed all of these into his pack and kept looking. He opened the first desk drawer.
It was filled with syringes. Needles. Dozens" no, hundreds of needles.
A sudden sound made Randal jump. His hand shoved the desk drawer closed before he could stop it. Instantly, he snapped off the flashlight and froze. He considered running for the window, taking what he had and leaving, but no"
After a few minutes of no response from the other part of the cabin, Randal turned on the light once more and followed the original sound to its source.
It was the refrigerator. The compressor had turned on, filling the room with a loud rattle followed by a soft hum.
One of the generators outside was running now as well. Randal wondered if they were on a timer, of if he was about to have company in the aging doctor’s lab.
He eyed the window, telling himself that he should leave. He had more information than he come here with, and that was enough. But it might not be. He didn’t know WHAT he had. Maybe it was enough" maybe it wasn’t.
Randal went to the refrigerator and opened it. The bottom shelves were empty, but the top shelf was home to several rows of glass bottles. Unfortunately, two enormous bottles in the front hid everything else from view. Randal took one out and examined it.
It was an animal tranquilizer. A very large bottle of a very strong tranq used for horses and other livestock. He sat it on top of the refrigerator and took out the second bottle. It was identical to the first-
The interior door opened forcefully, slamming into Randal’s shoulder and throwing him to one side. The enormous bottle slipped form his grasp and shattered. At the same time, Randal fell against the refrigerator. The jolt dislodged the first bottle, and it, too, hit the floor and burst.
"WHA-" The first thing Randal saw on Verner’s face was genuine shock. The old man hadn’t thrown open the door expecting to surprise an intruder" he was in a hurry for some other reason. When the double-jolt of breaking glass hit his ears, Verner looked down and shock became something else:
"My Chemicals!" he sputtered the words so rapidly that they were barely recognizable. For a second, the doctor stood staring at the broken bottles with his fists opening and clenching helplessly before him. The rest of his body was literally shaking. He inhaled suddenly. "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE!?!!!"
It was the loudest sound that Randal had ever heard come from a human mouth. The doctor’s scream rang in Randal’s ears for several seconds afterward, even while he was backing away" toward the window.
"I-I- Look I was just looking around. It was pretty obvious you were still continuing your research and I figured if you weren’t going to share willingly""
"YOU BROKE THEM! FOUR MONTHS SUPPLY!"
Verner didn’t advance, but he did step into the room. He stopped at the lake of broken glass and clear, aromatic fluid that was already soaking into the wooden floor.
""my God"" The last wasn’t a shout. It was something worse. A moan of heavy, stifling dread. "myyyy God."
For the second time, Randal saw a chance to leave. For the second time, he let that opportunity pass.
"It was just tranquilizers. Big bottles, yeah, but still cheap. You can get more-
"Do you know how long it takes to get supplies up here? Weeks""
"Look, I can see you’re upset. You" you share a little bit of what you’re doing back here and I will personally drive to the nearest veterinary supplier and replace those bottles. All the way to Macon if I have to."
"But can you do that" within the next hour?"
Verner’s slowly lifted his face and aimed his eyes at Randal. The dread in those eyes sent an icy shock down Randal’s spine. Dread and something else" something frightening"
"By the time you get to your car, it will be too late," he said.
"Too late for what? What was that stuff for?"
"To keep me together," said Verner. He started toward Randal.
"That stuff was for you? Those were ANIMAL drugs-"
"I NEEDED those! I needed a TREATMENT so that I could keep myself together long enough to find a CURE."
"Treatment for what?" Randal asked, but he already suspected the answer. The doctor was becoming agitated. He was trembling again, although Randal wasn’t sure if that was from panic or anger. As the old man advanced, the tremors grew from tremors to jerks and then to convulsions.
"Involuntary muscle spasms," Randal answered his own question. "Side effect of your cancer cure. That’s not" that’s not bad. That can be fixed!"
"You think that’s what’s happening?" Verner hissed. "You think this is IT?"
"Well" what IS it?"
"Order from chaos!"
Verner’s body spasmed violently. He fell to one knee, grimacing with pain. The convulsion stopped before Randal could reach him, but Verner didn’t rise. Randal grabbed the old man’s shoulder.
It was like holding a leather bag filled with small rocks. Randal jerked his hand away.
""liver" heart" every system". Every organ. Cancer spreads everywhere" so does what I created" anti-cancer""
"What are you talking about?"
"I meddled." Verner was weak now. On both knees and one hand, he looked like he would topple at any moment. "Physics is about" understanding God. I wasn’t content" too proud" I had to" had to BE God""
"Curing cancer is not playing God."
"Science has laws" I bent them. They bent me. I played God" God" won""
"Look, whatever’s happening-"
"Too late! The shock is... accelerating.... They're waking up... Go. GO!"
Verner collapsed and curled into a tight, trembling ball on the cabin floor.
"GO!" the old man growled" a touch of his old strength returning. But just a touch. Just enough to issue a warning. "LEAVE me! NOW! BURN whatever you took! It’s evil! It’s all" evil" GO!"
Randal didn’t go. Story or not, he had no intention of leaving a dying man alone on the floor. He reached down-
Verner’s arm shot out and struck Randal in the chest. For a shocking, breathless instant, Randal was actually airborne-
He struck the wall and slid to the floor, barely catching his balance enough to end up on his hands and knees. Dizzy and gasping, Randal shook his head as if that actually helped to clear it. It took him three attempts to successfully draw one full breath of air" and he did so just as Verner inhaled his last.
It was a long, weak, gurgling wheeze" the sound of someone trying to breathe with a hole in their chest. At first Randal thought the sound was coming from HIM, but even with his last breath, the old man was still trying to warn him away.
"Goooo".." The single word ended with a sputtering cough, and then silence.
"V-verner," Randal got to his feet. It took another second for his chest to catch up with him, and it brought pain with it. He’d never been punched across a room before. It hurt a good bit more than it appeared to in the action movies. "Ungh"." Deep breath. "Verner?"
The old man didn’t move. Not to speak. Not to breath.
Randal pulled the cell phone from his pocket as he knelt beside the motionless physicist. He felt for a pulse. There was none. He checked the signal on his phone. He expected to find nothing there as well, but, amazingly, first bar was lit. He dialed 911-
Verner coughed... a violent hack that sparked a full-body convulsion.
With his finger hovering over the "SEND" button, Randal felt for a pulse again.
The old man's eyes opened.
The old man's eyes kept opening... wider and wider still... until the flesh in the corners tore and trickles of blood flowed down each cheek. The orbs rotated wildly in their sockets, each moving independently of the other. One eye fixed on Randal. Then the other. They began to bulge outward, but Verner's body convulsed again... this time with such force that Randal hear bones breaking. Verner's chest heaved outward-
Randal stood and moved back... the unsent emergency call all but forgotten...
The old man's jaw yawned open as his chest contracted. A thick rope of flesh exploded out of the dead man's mouth and splattered onto the floor in front of him. The free end slithered back and forth wildly as, behind it, Verner's mouth gave birth to more and more of... whatever it was. The old man's throat bulged obscenely as something too huge to occupy it began to push its way up from his torso.
Randal shook his head, as if denying what he was seeing would make it go away. But it didn't. He heard all to clearly as Verner's jaws snapped to make room for the balloon of flesh that filling his mouth. And, though he was no doctor, he knew all too well what he was looking at. The flapping, lengthening tube moving toward his shoes was an esophagus, and the swollen ball of pink flesh now squeezing its way past Verner's teeth was a stomach. The old man had literally vomited out his upper digestive system... whole. Whole and growing and somehow, ALIVE.
Randal wondered just WHEN he had gone insane. Was it when the doctor had hit him? Had he hit his head when he fell? Or was it before then? Had there been some kind of accident on the road... or maybe this was just a dream. That was it. That was it EXACTLY. He was asleep... in the car, back in the woods. He had fallen asleep while waiting, and was now dreaming this... horror...
It had taken Randal only a second to come to the conclusion that none of this was real. In that second, the tentacle-like tube of flesh on the floor had come to its own realizations.
First: That it wasn't alone in the room.
And Second: That it was hungry.
Randal's nightmare made a single whip-like motion that carried the tentacle of flesh up and around Randal's right forearm... where it tightened with a shocking grip that would have made Randal scream even if he wasn't already drawing breath to do that very thing.
"AAAGH!" Randal pulled back. The end of the tentacle jerked toward his head, but it didn't quite have enough slack to reach his face. It stopped short, mere inches from Randal's eyes. Randal looked into the end of the fleshy tube. He wasn't looking at Verner's mouth... no, that was still on the floor with the rest of him. But he was seeing A mouth... the place where the esophagus had snapped free of Verner's throat had grown teeth of its own. Concentric rings of tiny, curved fangs writhed rhythmically around the opening, as if trying to hypnotize him. The flesh just behind the "mouth" thickened suddenly, and Randal heard the thing gurgle.
He jerked his arm to one side and moved his head in the opposite direction.
The first stream of stomach acid missed his face, but the creature spat three more jets of bile in rapid succession. None caught him in the eyes, but his cheek, neck, and shirt weren't splattered. Randal didn't know how acidic normal stomach acid was supposed to be, but his skin began to burn immediately.
The comforts of madness and dreams vanished. Now there was only blind panic.
Randal turned and sprinted or the door, completely oblivious that the creature was wrapped around his right arm until he reached the limit of his "leash" and it snapped his arm backward, spinning him to the right. Randal didn't look... if he had, he would have lost his eyes right there.
The jet of bile sizzled past his nose as Randal, unable to execute the second half of the "fight or flight" reflex, executed his only remaining option. His fist clamped around the thing's neck before it could spit again. THEN he looked.
On the floor, the stomach had pulled free of the corpse's mouth and was moving toward him under its own power... aided by four pairs of spindly legs that had sprouted from its sides. Behind it was another fleshy tube still trailing into Verner's throat. Having expanded to ruinous proportions to birth to an entire stomach, Verner's throat had no problem spooling out the loops of living intestine to which the stomach was still attached.
Randal saw this, but he didn't want to. He wasn't trying to. But he had to find-
THERE! The crowbar was on the long table where he'd left it. He lunged for it, but the creature that Verner's digestive system had mutated into was not content to let him drag it around the room. The esophagus was several yards long now, and still growing. Several more coils looped around his forearm and began to move forward like a snake on a branch. The "head" began to fight his grip, punctuating his efforts with tiny hisses and droplets of bile that stung Randal's flesh where they landed. Randal forced the head back and caught it with his trapped right hand... already weak from creature's grip.
There was more noise from the floor, but Randal didn't want to know. He grabbed the crowbar with his left hand and swung it.
Flesh looped around it, snagging the weapon and drawing tight. It pulled, but Randal held on to it with the strength of madness and desperation. There was a span of flesh between the portion of the creature's body that was wrapped around his arm and the part that had snared the crowbar. The creature's head slipped free of his grasp just as he pulled his arm toward him and bit down on that length of flesh.
He bit HARD, sinking and grinding his teeth into the thing that had sprang to life and pulled itself out of Verner's body.
Instead of spitting, the thing's head squealed loudly as its body reacted to attack with ripples of motion. It felt pain. Good.
Randal snatched the crowbar free, slammed his right arm against the table, and stabbed with the crowbar.
It wasn't a perfect shot, but he still caught the esophagus between the flat edge of the crowbar and the wooden table-
Blood and bile splattered away from the half-severed tube.
"EEEEEEE-" The head squealed.
Randal stabbed again, and this time it WAS a perfect shot. He severed the tentacle cleanly. The flesh wrapped around his right arm dropped away-
-Just as a several loops of intestine circled his feet, drew tight, and pulled.
"WHA-" Randal began, then he hit the floor. He managed to avoid losing the crowbar and hitting his head... either would have cost him his life. Immediately he felt something tightening around his legs and moving upward. He thought that cutting off the creature's "head" would kill it, but the thing he severed hadn't been a head... merely a mouth. If the stomach-creature had a "brain," it was located in the swollen, undulating sack of flesh that was scurrying toward him, trailing intestines that were entangling him like a gladiator's net.
"nnNNYAA!" Randal lashed out with the crowbar. The stomach creature skittered to one side... each tiny leg drawing an audible "tik" from the floor as it moved. The crowbar struck the bare floor. Randal swept the weapon sideways. The creature may have spontaneously evolved legs to move itself, but it hadn't quite mastered the art of jumping. The tip of the crowbar struck its flank with a wet "thump," tossing it aside. If only Randal had managed to strike it harder... if only the damned thing wasn't ATTACHED to him by Verner's intestines. Randal didn't even mange to stun it. The thing paused-
A vertical split bisected its nearest flank, and flaps of flesh yawned open to reveal three rows of needle-sharp teeth. This was no mere feeding tube like the esophagus had been... this creature had just spontaneously evolved a mouth straight out of Randal's nightmares.
Having properly armed itself, the living gut darted forward, hissing like an enraged snake.
It was FAST-
-but not smart.
Randal twisted toward the charging creature and stabbed with the crowbar, bringing it down in an overhead arc. The metal shaft impaled the thing just inches before it reached his face, striking with such force that the tip ended up embedded in the wooden floor, pinning the creature to the spot where it had died.
The tentacles around Randal's legs loosened... then tightened... then loosened again as the thing decided whether it was going to die or not. Randal didn't wait. He snatched his legs free of the filthy trappings and removed the crowbar from the impossible thing he had just killed. He had to put his foot on Verner's stomach in order to pull the weapon out, and as he applied his weight, the organ ruptured splattering bile and blood in all directions.
Randal backed away from the smell and averted his eyes, which had begun to sting. He looked away-
-and saw Verner. The sounds he had heard earlier had not been made by the creature attacking him. They were from Verner. Verner's limbs knocked against the floor violently as his body thrashed...and transformed.... twisting, swelling, and being literally pulled apart as its own living organs struggled to escape its confines. His mouth already hung open impossibly wide, detached jaw leaning to one side from the stomach-creature's horrific exit. Now several other things were clawing their way into the light from that same orifice. Verner's entire torso had swelled to resemble a giant fleshy egg... with skin stretched so tight that it was almost transparent. Randal could see things inside it... multiple creatures growing... fighting... trying to cannibalize the same muscle and connective tissue to incorporate into new, nightmarish designs.
This was Verner's cure.
AntiCancer. A new order given to cells that had abandoned the old.
The old man had cured cancer but since then he had been living on the verge of this very state... literally tranquilizing his organs into submission so that he could stay in one PIECE!
Randal wanted the room to loose focus... wanted the blessed peace of insanity or unconsciousness. Now that he KNEW... now that he was SEEING what he had come all this way to see... he-
And where the hell were Verner's EYES!?!
Empty sockets stared up at him from the floor, but what of those wildly independent orbs that had locked onto him before? Had they... pulled themselves free? Were they watching him from some hidden corner of the room even now? And what ELSE had crawled unseen out of Verner's throat while he was busy fighting for his life? What was-
Randal knew what the wet ripping sound was before his eyes and his mind had a chance to agree. Once again, he had waited too late... and what he had not wanted to see was, in fact, happening right in front of him.
Verner was giving birth. Finally yielding to the pressure of its offspring, Verner's body split down the center. Skin and tissue tore free of itself and the results of Verner's cure spilled, crawled, wiggled, and leapt onto the floor around him in a volcano of slithering flesh.
The digestive tract had taken up the most space inside the body, but now the smaller organs were free. Verner's heart had sprouted legs and crab-like pincers. His liver had flattened into something resembling a small manta ray... complete with a long and pointed spike. A gallbladder unrolled itself into a worm and opened its tiny new mouth to breathe its first breath. They were all there. Kidney. Spleen. Testicles. Every single one.
And within seconds of achieving freedom, each somehow located Randal and began to move toward him... some fast... some slow... all with murderous intent.
Behind them, what remained of Verner's body was STILL moving as, now free of the greedy larger organs, the "leftovers" gained their chance to organize and be free.
Randal began to back away-
He had just located one of Verner's eyes.
And that was all it took.
With madness somehow denied him, Randal finally gave in to panic AND logic... both of which were pointing him in the same direction-
Through the window, and down the hill to the car. NOW!
Crowbar clutched in one hand, Randal sprang for...and through... the cabin window. He paused to slam the window shut behind him, then darted across the grass as fast as desperation could carry him. He didn't scream... he did not scream... he funneled that energy into making his legs move faster. And because he did not scream, he clearly heard the sound of the window shattering behind him just as he left the clearing.
He didn't look back to see what it was. He just ran. None of the creatures seemed particularly fast in the cabin, but he had seen the first creature sprout a new mouth on demand, so he had no doubt that some or all of them could MAKE themselves as fast as they needed to be to catch their prey.
And their prey had no intention of slowing down. Ever. EVER!
His mind was already in the car before he had run even half the distance to it. He would get in and he would drive... not to October Falls, but all the way back to Florida.
He heard something moving in the woods behind him. Not on the ground, but in the trees. Something was shaking the leaves above and behind him as it gave chase.
He didn't look. He just ran... faster... the saints of adrenalin and gravity giving wings to his horrified feet. Randal had no idea how he avoided tripping as he darted across the treacherous ground at his insane pace... but he didn't. Perhaps the saint of luck was with him as well.
When the ground flattened out, he realized the car was close. He rounded a corner and there it was!
He didn't even slow down. His keys were in his pocket-
Something small but incredibly fast slammed into him from behind. It hit him HARD, and it BIT-
This time, Randal did scream. He heard something rip-
Whatever it was had sank its teeth into the backpack and was now viciously ripping at it, seemingly unaware that it wasn't his flesh. There was a rush of air, and a more flapping as Randal felt himself being pulled backward. Not hard enough to stop him, but enough to throw him off balance in mid-step.
"NOOO!" Randal screamed, falling. He slipped his arms out of the backpack's straps and rolled to his feet. He felt the backpack being snatched away. Randal swung the crowbar left and right... then in an upward arc... hitting nothing.
It had his head! Screaming, Randal grabbed it and threw it to the ground. He pummeled it with the crowbar-
It was the backpack.
Randal looked up. He could see patches of stars through the trees, but that was it. All he could hear was the pounding of his own heart. Where was it? WHERE?! And WHAT!?
Randal spun. Nothing. It had come from overhead, but either it was invisible or it was smart enough to hide and try to attack him only from the rear.
"STOPPIT!" Randal screamed.
Keys. Car. He had to get in the car. He had to get out of here before anything else made it this far from the cabin. He reached in his pocket and darted for the driver's side door.
three steps... four...
Panic turned to rage, and rage to strength as Randal abandoned the keys in his pocket and grabbed the crowbar with both hands. He stopped suddenly and turned, swinging at the sound.
The crowbar hit not with a satisfying crack, but a muffled ‘whumf.’ Wings fluttered around Randal’s face as the stricken creature tried to right itself and change direction at the same time. He couldn’t see clearly what he’d hit until it flew off and landed in a nearby tree. Once motionless, the shape became all too clear. Now flattened and expanded into a thing equal parts bat, butterfly, and nightmare, Verner’s lungs had taken flight and stalked him from the air all the way from the cabin. As Randal watched, the pink wings unfolded, revealing an enormous curved beak ringed by sharp, spindly legs. The beak opened and the new life form cried out with a sound like an angry, drowning bird.
Then it dropped from the branch and arced skyward.
Randal ran. His first two encounters with this thing had been lucky" if that beak had sunk into his flesh instead of his backpack, he’d be dead. And he seriously doubted he’d get another crowbar hit in like the last one.
Key in hand, he slammed shoulder-first in the driver’s side door. He unlocked it and dove inside.
Above, the lung-creature called out again" a long warble that descended toward Randal’s exposed back. Randal snatched open the glove compartment and grabbed EVERYTHING inside it: Spare tape for his recorders, an unopened pack of cigarettes, an about a thousand utterly meaningless pieces of paper.
And a .45 semiautomatic handgun.
Randal sat up and twisted toward the open door. He didn’t bother to aim" or even look. The gun battered his hand and his ears as it fired twice" three times" four"
The first bullet lost itself in the darkness, but the second two caught the creature just as it dipped into view, wings spread and beak wide. The second bullet ripped through a meaty ridge at the top of one wing, rendering the entire appendage useless. The third was perfect" shattering the beak and continuing through the center of the creature’s body. A spray of blood and tissue exited the thing’s back as it dropped to the ground just outside the car door.
Randal leaned out and pointed the weapon at the creature, fully intending to shoot it again. But it wasn’t moving" not even a twitch. It was dead.
Randal slammed the door and started the car.
Trees crowded in around him as the car shot down the path back to the main road. Once the wheels hit asphalt, Randal pointed the car toward October Falls and put the accelerator to the floor. The car was still accelerating when Randal caught sight of something skimming over the treetops ahead of him. It wasn’t the lung creature" and in fact it didn’t look alive at all. It more resembled a sheet caught in a strong breeze.
Only there was no wind.
Randal eased off the accelerator and squinted up at the thing as it suddenly changed direction. Randal tried to veer away, but the road was narrow and leaving it at his current speed would be suicidal. He took his eyes off of the approaching shape just long enough to find the gun on the passenger seat. He reached for it-
Something hit the windshield, and when Randal looked he didn’t see the road-
-he saw Verner’s flattened, dead face staring at him through the glass.
With the anti-cancer spreading to every organ of the old physicist’s body, there was no reason to think that the body’s largest organ would be exempt. And so it was Verner’s SKIN that was draped across his windshield, blocking Randal’s view of the road except for the tiny holes that had once held the old man’s eyes and larger opening that had been his mouth. All three openings sucked hungrily at the glass while the skin flapped around the side windows, seeking a way inside.
"YAAA!" Randal hit the brakes, but it was too late. At his speed, an instant was all it took. Randal felt the inevitable bounce of the car leaving the road. The engine revved higher as, for an instant, it drove the rear wheels against empty air instead of asphalt.
He was flying. He had seen a man’s body explode into a hundred clawed, hungry fragments, and now that man’s empty skin was staring at him" SMILING at him" through the windshield. And he was flying"
And then he wasn’t.
The speeding car destroyed several small trees that weren’t quite sturdy enough to stop it, but an ancient oak finally brought its rampage to a halt. Randal felt the seat belt draw tight at the first impact, but the airbag didn’t deploy until the dizzying final hit. Belt and bag both kept Randal from becoming one with the dashboard, but by the time the airbag deflated Randal was only vaguely aware that he’d survived.
He managed to lift his head on only the second attempt. The windshield was gone" shattered by a branch that has missed impaling him by only two feet. There were chunks of glass everywhere, but no sign of the skin creature.
"Nnnnn"" Randal had no idea what he was trying to say. Words and the world" especially the last half-hour of it" seemed very far away.
It was the distant stink of gasoline that convinced him that reality was not quite done with him.
He unbuckled his seat belt and reached for the gun. The impact had dislodged it from the passenger’s seat. He reached into the floorboard. He found his old cigarettes among the folds of the blanket, but there was no sign-
Something wrapped around his arm, engulfing it from elbow to fingertips.
Randal threw the driver’s side door open and used his legs to propel himself out of the vehicle. He landed on his back, with the contents of the glove compartment raining down around him as the warm "blanket" followed. He looked up at Verner’s dead and smiling face as it floated down toward his own.
Randal rolled to the right and reached for-
-everything went dark. Dark and warm and very, very tight. The world reeked of an old man’s stale sweat as Verner’s skin wrapped tightly around him. Randal couldn’t breathe" no only was there no air, but he wasn’t enough room for his chest to hold anything more than the air it currently had in it. And when he exhaled, the living blanket pressed even tighter.
And then he felt his own skin being pulled" grasped and tugged by a million tiny mouths as his attacker bit down" every hair becoming a tooth and ever pore a mouth. It was like being wrapped in a cactus and squeezed to death.
Not that it would wait until he was dead. It was already getting its first taste of him even now. His cheeks and forehead were bleeding" patches of perforated skin being were yanked away. He felt hungry bristles of sharpened hair pushing into his eyelids, seeking the delicate orbs shut away beneath them.
Randal’s right hand was the only part of him that was free. He tried to rip the skin away from his face, but the attacking creature’s flesh was like leather. Randal reached out again, fingers scraping frantically at the wet grass. He pulled up rocks and roots, tossing each aside as his brain fought off starvation. Would his numb fingertips even recognize-
Randal seized the old cigarette lighter and spun the tiny wheel. He couldn’t see whether it lit or not, so he spun it again and again, throwing up sparks as he waved his arm back and forth through the gasoline-soaked grass.
And then he blacked out.
He saw a bright light ahead of him.
He reached out for it, but he had no arms...
"Whoa, whoa, don’t try to move," said the paramedic.
Randal was strapped to a collapsible gurney, arms held fast at his sides. He was in an ambulance. The paramedic turned off the flashlight that he had been shinning into Randal’s eyes, checking for a response. A second paramedic closed the doors. Randal heard him walking the length of the ambulance toward the front.
"Did I"" Randal started.
"Shhhh, don’t talk yet. You’ve been in an accident and there was a fire. You were caught in it, but ya must have crawled away and ended up back on the road. Do you remember?"
"Did I kill it?"
The paramedic gave him a quizzical look, as if the question was somehow strange. Then he ignored it altogether and held up three fingers.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Good. And your name?"
"There’s more of him out there" some of it can fly""
"Right," said the paramedic, who was now completely uninterested in anything Randal had to say. He leaned toward the front of the ambulance and shouted. "Hey JIMMY what’s the HOLD UP!"
"GIMMIE A MINUTE!" came a shout from outside.
Randal tried to sit up, but the straps held him down.
"You don’t understand! There’s still lots of him left! Parts I didn’t even SEE! Miles of blood vessels"there’s" there’s his"my God!"
"Hey Jimmy, this one’s losing it! Let’s get a move on!"
"I said hold ON!"
"Hold on for WHAT!"
"Is it out there, somewhere? Can it still think!? Is it still thinking HIS thoughts" or have they" changed" too""
"Just calm down, we’ll be on our way in a minute-"
"You don’t understa-"
"There’s something under the axle!" Came a shout from outside. "Was there someone else in that accident, because I swear to God there’s a BRAIN under he- AIEEEEERRRGH!"
Something thumped hard against the side of the ambulance as the scream outside rose... and ended. The paramedic with Randal bolted for the door.
"NO!" Randal screamed. The door opened and the man was gone. There was a loud, sudden wet sound from outside, but no scream. No scream at all.
Strapped to the gurney, Randal could only star up at the ceiling... into the single unblinking eye watching him from the corner of the ambulance. He wondered if Verner's Nobel prize-winning brain would still remember him when it found its way inside.
And, if it did, would that make what happened afterward easier...or worse?
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