National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland
The goat did not want to go through the door. The poor thing was terrified, bleating and bucking and pissing on the floor of the lab. It was all the two soldiers could do to get the goat into the NIH Clinical Center’s biocontainment unit’s air lock. Professor Melanie Guyer could sympathize. She’d spent her entire career studying spiders, was a standout in her field, but she’d never seen spiders like these. In her opinion, people were scared of spiders for no good reason. Or, rather, that had been her opinion. She’d changed her mind. She’d seen what these spiders could do to rats. Jesus. The whole world had seen what they could do to people.
It had been a week since Los Angeles. Longer since she’d had a real sleep. What was it? Ten days since she’d gotten an egg sac overnighted from Peru to her lab at American University? FedEx, she thought, had never shipped a more dangerous package.
Ten thousand years. That’s how old the egg sac had been. It had been dug up near the Nazca Lines—great line drawings etched in the high desert of Peru—by a PhD student in archaeology who was friends with one of Melanie’s graduate students, Julie Yoo. The egg sac had been buried near the drawing of a spider. The
rest of the Nazca line drawings, birds and animals and geometric designs, were maybe two thousand years old. But not the spider drawing. The spider was different. Older. Much older. According to Julie’s friend, the box and other items they dug up near the spider were ten thousand years old.
Maybe the crackpots weren’t so far off in their theories about Nazca. How was it that an ancient civilization could have constructed such beautiful and precise images? On one level, the how was simple: rocks removed so that the white earth underneath became lines in the red dirt. The plateaus were protected from the weather so that the Nazca Lines could survive for thousands of years. Two thousand years. Or ten thousand years. Old enough that the question of how was also unsolvable, because they weren’t really drawings in a traditional sense. At ground level, they were simple lines and shapes. No meaning. But from above, they came so alive you could feel the beating pulse of these people praying to ancient gods. They didn’t have airplanes then, they couldn’t fly, so how had they designed them? Who knew? Melanie thought. Archaeologists had agreed that the simplest answer was that somebody had simply done a good job of planning. The Nazca had made the designs, staked out lines, and removed the stones. The egg sac had been found buried in a wooden box along with some of the stakes that the Nazca had used.
Careful measurements and good engineering. Human ingenuity. Math. Science. That’s what she believed in. At least that’s what she used to believe in. Now? She was beginning to be open to the idea that the Nazca Lines could have been made some other way, and for some other purpose, too.
She used to think that the ancient Nazca designs were a sort of prayer. She’d prayed to them herself, once, years ago. Back when she and Manny were still a couple, back when doctors had told her that having a baby would require an act of God. Not that seeing
the Nazca Lines or breathing a fervent prayer as her plane circled above them had done any good. She and Manny had split up, and she was left with her lab and her spiders. But that was the thing. Maybe the older drawing, the drawing of the spider, was there as something different from the other lines. Not a prayer.
Maybe the spider was a warning.
Ten thousand years was a long time in human history. A blink of the eye in the history of the earth, but beyond the scope of human records. It was a span of time in which meaning was lost.
Maybe if they’d been able to understand the warning, her world wouldn’t have gone to hell.
Melanie rubbed her eyes. So tired, but she didn’t have time to sleep. She didn’t want to sleep. She was afraid of falling asleep. She knew what she’d see if she fell asleep: Bark, her graduate student and former lover, cut open on the operating table, his body shot through with silk and egg sacs. Patrick hovering over the surgeon and the nurses, taking photos with the lab’s camera. Melanie standing on the other side of the glass. Julie Yoo running down the hall toward her, too late with the information. And then, so quick: the spiders hatching from inside Bark’s body.
Melanie rubbed her eyes harder. She didn’t want to picture it. The blood and the gore were bad, but worse were the spiders themselves. A black wave. A single thing made of a thousand individual organisms.
She’d never been afraid of spiders or bugs of any kind. Not once in her whole life had she been grossed out. When other kids or adults shrank away from creepy crawlies, Melanie leaned in, fascinated. What made them work?
But these were different.
She reached out for her coffee and then stopped herself. Her hand was shaking. She was jittery. Too much caffeine. Not enough
sleep. Too many nerves. What had it been? Ten days? Eleven? Twelve since she’d gotten the egg sac? Time was elastic.
The goat screamed again. That was the only way to describe it. Not a bleat, but a scream. It kicked out and caught one of the soldiers in the thigh, but the man just swore and wrapped his arms tighter around the goat. The pair—Melanie had stopped bothering to try to learn their names a few days ago—finally forced the goat through the door of the air lock and then jumped out, closing the door behind them. The poor goat stood in the air lock, forlorn. Forsaken. It had stopped bleating and stood there, shivering.
The soldiers stopped for a moment, catching their breaths. They looked out of place in the pristine lab, their combat uniforms a stark contrast to the lab coats and jeans and T-shirts worn by Melanie and the other scientists, who came in and out with such frequency that Melanie finally had to order armed guards to secure the entire floor.
Armed guards. That was her new reality. Armed guards, a repurposed hospital room for a bedroom so that she could be closer to her research, and spiders that could strip a goat to its bones in less than a minute.
The first soldier went through the airlock protocol, going down the list one by one. Once he was done, the second soldier double-checked each step himself. Then they turned to look at Melanie. Everybody was looking at Melanie. It felt like everything was on her.
Two weeks ago, her biggest worry had been how to break off her ridiculous relationship with Bark. But now, suddenly, she had an entire floor of the National Institutes of Health to command. She could order armed guards to make sure that she and Julie Yoo and the three other authorized scientists were not disturbed. Between her ex-husband, Manny, and his boss, the president of the United States, whatever she wanted just seemed to happen.
When she said she needed her equipment, overnight, presto
chango, her entire setup at American University was duplicated at the NIH. Duplicated. There was even a Grinnell College mug on the desk, almost exactly like the one on her desk at American, but without the tiny chip on the rim. Actually, her equipment wasn’t duplicated: it was improved and added to. There was new lab equipment she didn’t know how to use even if she’d wanted to. And if she went anywhere outside the lab, she was trailed by five Secret Service agents. Not that she’d done more than go outside once or twice to stand in the sunlight and marvel at the hundreds of soldiers ringing the National Institutes of Health. She was, according to Manny and President Stephanie Pilgrim, the most important woman in the world right now. There were other scientists working on the question of how to deal with these spiders, of course, but Manny and Steph trusted her. They were counting on her. She was, in their eyes, the only hope for the human race.
What she needed right now was to figure out what in God’s name these spiders were, because they sure as hell weren’t like any others she’d ever seen. When the egg sac had come to her office from Peru, she’d been excited to see it begin hatching. For a few hours it seemed like she’d been on the verge of a big discovery, the nearly two dozen spiders in the insectarium arousing an intense curiosity. They didn’t act like spiders, at least not as she knew them, and they were hungry. Then she’d come to understand that the spiders weren’t only in her lab, and that there were certainly more than two dozen of them. Much more. Hundreds of thousands of them. Millions. Outbreaks in China, India, Europe, Africa, South America. And in the United States. How many people were dead already?
She couldn’t think about it. Not now. Right now she needed to focus on these spiders, because she’d been tasked with figuring out how to stop them.
“Okay,” she said. “Julie, we shooting?”
Julie Yoo gave the thumbs-up. She stood over a bank of computer monitors, supervising the three techs who were running six Phantom Cameras, capable of shooting ten thousand frames per second. Whatever happened to the goat, it was going to be recorded in excruciating detail so Melanie could play it back at a speed that made a bullet look slow.
A small crowd gathered by the glass. There’d been large crowds before Melanie had ordered the lab cleared of all nonessential personnel. Now there was only Dr. Will Dichtel, Dr. Michael Haaf, Dr. Laura Nieder, and a dozen or so graduate students and lab assistants. Dichtel was a chemist who’d carved out a specialization in entomological toxicology. He’d made himself a small fortune synthesizing a modified version of the brown recluse spider’s venom that was now used in making microchips. Haaf was from MIT, an arachnid specialist, like her, and Nieder was there because she worked for the Pentagon trying to figure out how to adapt insect swarm behavior for the battlefield.
Melanie went to the air lock and went through the same checklist as the two soldiers had. You couldn’t be too careful. She knew what was coming. She looked back at Julie, who gave her the thumbs-up again, and then at the scientists crowding the glass. Her hand hovered over the keypad.
The goat was staring at her.
The poor thing was shaking so badly.
Melanie hit the button that opened the inner door of the air lock.
And they came to feed.