Chapter 15

 Scott Westerfeld

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Chapter 15
Joseph Moore was still unconscious, snoring softly on the feathers. Maybe dreaming of his cat master.
I wondered if Dr. Rat would try to explain this new development away as just another hopeful monster. Surely a human who served a peep cat would take a few generations to evolve. Of course, people and cats have been getting along for thousands of years, since the Egyptians worshipped them as gods. Maybe this was just a new twist on that, or on the toxoplasma thing.
Whatever was going on, I had to catch this cat. The yowl I'd heard from the swimming pool must have come from the other end of the ventilation tunnel, downwind. Which meant that it would smell me coming.
"Fine," I whispered. I was armed with one more can of Crunchy Tuna, after all.
Facing the tunnel, I realized that my night vision was gone. Glimpsing the afternoon sun across the Hudson had left me half blind, seeing only spots and traces against the darkness. I closed my eyes to let them readjust to darkness, moving slowly back down the tunnel.
Then I heard a noise, faint footfalls in the dirt.
My eyes sprang open, but the tunnel ahead remained absolutely black. The only scents came from behind me - the pile of feathers and the sleeping peep. I swore softly no longer so proud of my hunting instincts. Just like Joseph Moore, I had been cornered, blind and upwind. And my spare knockout injector was in my duffel bag.
I crouched in a defensive stance, listening hard.
No sound at all came from the darkness. Had I imagined the footsteps?
My stuff had to be up there somewhere, probably only a few steps away. I gritted my teeth and scuttled forward, sweeping my hands back and forth across the dirt, hunting for the cold metal of the flashlight.
I barely glimpsed her before she struck, barreling out of the darkness and crashing into me, as hard and solid as a suitcase full of books. The impact knocked my breath away and threw me to the ground. Long fingernails raked my chest, shredding my hazmat suit. I blindly swung a fist and connected with hard muscle, driving a grunt from the peep.
"Patricia!" I shouted, half guessing, and she hissed at the sound, scrambling away from the anathema of her own name. I was right - it was Joseph's wife. The light came from behind her now, igniting a shimmering halo of feathers wound into her hair and sticking to her skin. With her long fingernails and half-starved face, she looked like a human partly transformed into an awful bird of prey.
She readied herself to spring at me.
" 'I've got friends in low places,' " I sang - the only Garth Brooks song that came to mind. The refrain halted her long enough for me to tear the shredded hazmat suit the rest of the way open.
Patricia Moore stared at my chest in horror; the jolly country singer stared back.
"Oh, yeah!" I said. "She's my cowboy Cadillac!"
Her eyes widened and she screamed, spinning away to scuttle up the tunnel toward the light.
Another anathema awaited her there: her husband, faceup on the floor. I turned and scrambled deeper into the darkness, sweeping the dirt floor wildly with my palms. Where was my damn flashlight?
My racing brain wondered how long she'd been tracking me. Had she followed me from downwind since I'd dropped into the tunnel? Or maybe she always lurked near her husband, just as Sarah had stayed close to Manhattan.
Suddenly my knuckles grazed hard metal, sending the flashlight's cylinder rolling farther into the darkness. I reached out, grasping blindly, and at that moment my ears split with Patricia Moore's scream - fear for her husband and horror at the sight of his beloved face, mixed up in one terrible cry that echoed through the tunnel.
My hand closed on the flashlight.
She was already headed back, loping toward me on hands and knees, growling like a wolf.
I covered my eyes with one hand, turned the flashlight on her, and switched it to full power. Her feral grunts choked off, and the tunnel flooded with light so strong that the blood-pink veins in my eyelids were burned into my vision.
A moment later, I flicked it off and opened my eyes. Against the sunlight streaming down the shaft, I could see Patricia Moore crouching in the center of the tunnel, head pressed against the feather-strewn dirt, motionless, as if paralyzed by one too many insults to her optic nerve.
I set the flashlight on low and found my duffel bag, only a few yards down the tunnel. Pulling out the spare injector and loading it, finally thankful for all those tedious drills in Hunting 101, I whirled to face her. She still hadn't moved.
Perhaps Patricia had despaired, thinking that her husband was dead, or maybe it was too much to keep fighting in a world that included my rendition of "Cowboy Cadillac." But for whatever reason, she didn't move a muscle as I approached across the feathered floor.
I reached out and jabbed her in the shoulder. She winced as the needle hissed, lifted her head, and sniffed the air.
"You're one of Morgan's?" she asked.
I blinked. My vision was still spotted with tracers, but her expression seemed thoughtful, almost curious. Her voice, like Sarah's, was dry and harsh, but the way she said the words sounded so reasonable, so human.
"Yeah," I answered.
"You're sane?"
"Um ... I guess."
She nodded slowly. "Oh. I thought you'd gone bad, like Joseph." Her eyes closed as the drug took effect. "She says it's coming soon..."
"What is?" I asked.
She opened her mouth again but fell into a heap without making another sound.
Maybe I should have headed back to the surface to rest up, reload, and share my revelations about the parasite's new tricks. Maybe I should have waited right there for the transport squad, brought them in by GPS and cell phone.
Both of my captives had been so unpeeplike - Joseph facing the orange late-afternoon sun as if the light didn't faze him, Patricia speaking so clearly once she'd identified my scent.
Are you sane? she'd asked. Yeah, right. I wasn't the one living in a tunnel.
But it reminded me of the way Sarah had changed after I'd cornered her, asking about Elvis, peering into my eyes without terror. Maybe I should have mentioned this to someone right away.
Maybe I should have wondered more about what was coming soon.
But I didn't wait around. I still had a peep cat to catch.
After handcuffing Patricia Moore, I called the transport squad, giving them precise GPS coordinates for the captives. They wouldn't even have to disturb Manny and his tenants to collect the peeps. They could simply put on Con Edison uniforms, set up a fake construction site on the Hudson River walk, and cut their way in through the metal 22 grate at the end of the ventilation tunnel.
They didn't need me, and with a high-priority work order from the Mayor himself in hand, it made perfect sense to follow the tunnel in the other direction: down the slope, the steady breeze at my back, toward the rumble of the huge exhaust fans.
Under the swimming pool again, I listened to the echoes bouncing down the shattered drain. The basement overhead sounded the same - still just a few dozen rats squabbling and skittering among the feathers. The brood hadn't returned, and nothing had touched the cat food I'd left behind.
I wondered how far down the tunnel the scent would travel, if floating molecules of Crunchy Tuna would tempt the peep cat out into the open. With the wind at my back, I was hardly going to catch it by surprise. I kept my flashlight on medium, not wanting to get jumped in the darkness again.
The slope grew steeper, descending as the tunnel continued. The air became chill around me, and drops of water began to plink from the ceiling. The low rumble of exhaust fans grew in the distance, throbbing like a massive heartbeat at the core of the city.
Then another sound floated up the tunnel, an impatient yowl that cut through the low-pitched thrumming. The cat could smell me now and knew that I was coming. I wondered if it also knew two of its pet peeps had been dispatched.
Just how smart was this thing?
The echoes of the cat's cry suggested a large open space in front of me. The push of the breeze at my back had strengthened, and the pulsing beat of the exhaust fans grew more distinct.
Then I felt something, a trembling in the earth. Unlike the rumbling of the fan, it was building steadily under my feet, until it made the stones in the tunnel walls vibrate visibly. I knelt on the quivering dirt, suddenly feeling trapped in the narrow tunnel. I peered deep into the darkness, one way and then the other, searching for whatever was coming as I tried to fight off panic.
Then the rumble peaked and began to fall away, fading into the distance, just like ... the sound of a passing train.
Chip had been right. The PATH tunnel was nearby, and the rush-hour commute was just beginning. The disturbance hadn't been some rampaging creature from the depths, just a trainload of New Jerseyites headed home. I stood, feeling like an idiot.
But the earth-shaking passage had left something visible up ahead - strands of stirred-up dust hung illuminated in the air. Flicking the flashlight off, I saw shafts of light filtering into the tunnel. They pulsed brighter and then darker in time with the constant throbbing - I had to be close to the exhaust fans now.
The tunnel ended a little farther on, and I stepped down from its open maw into a vast cathedral of machines. Whirring turbines filled the air with the smell of grease and an electric hum. Above me I could see a huge pair of fans turning at a stately pace, the blades eighty feet across; this was Chip's ventilation system.
Between the spinning blades the sky showed through, the dark blue of early evening.
In my days searching for Morgan's apartment, I'd often seen this building from the outside, a magnificent column of brick, windowless and ten stories high, like a prison balanced on the river's edge. The inside was just as cheerless, the greasy machines layered with a slapdash coat of gray paint and bird droppings. The scant sunlight pulsed in time with the fans' rotation. The air was drawn steadily toward the fans, carrying dust and the occasional stray feather upward.
I searched the huge space nervously - my peep hearing was useless. But there was nothing unexpected in the jumble of maintenance equipment, garbage, and empty coffee cups. Whatever my quarry was - mutation or longstanding strain of the disease - its pet peeps weren't preying on the workers who kept these fans going.
But where had the cat gone? That last echoing yowl must have come from in here, but the doors to the boardwalk and piers outside were locked.
The only way out that I could find was a set of metal stairs descending into the earth. I tapped my flashlight on the handrail, sending a clanging beat into the depths. A few seconds later, the peep cat let out a long nyeeeeow.
The creature was leading me down.
"I'm coming," I muttered, flicking my flashlight back on.
Below was a world of pipes and air shafts, cold water seeping through the concrete that held back the river, staining it with black bruises. The stairs kept going down, angling away from the river until the salt smell of the Hudson faded behind me and the walls were made of the granite bedrock of Manhattan. I was under the PATH tunnel now, in the service area that accessed its tangle of cables and shafts. Chip had a picture in his office of the huge machine that had bored this tunnel: a steam-powered drill crawling through the earth, the source of all his nightmares.
My flashlight fell on a sign hanging from chains draped across the stairs:
Area Closed
As if answering my hesitation, the cat yowled again, the cry rising up from below like a ghost's.
I paused, sniffing the air, the hair on my neck rising. Under the dampness and grease and rat droppings, a strange scent lay, massive and unfamiliar, like a heavy hand on my chest, it wasn't the scent of peeps or of the deep earth. It was the same foul smell I'd scented the day before. Like death. Deep in my genetic memory, alarms and flashing lights were going off.
I swallowed and stepped over the sign. As my duffel bag brushed the chains, they creaked sullenly with rust.
This far down, the earth looked wounded, wet fissures splitting the granite walls. The darkness inside seemed to repulse my flashlight and sent back long echoes from my footsteps. I saw no more empty coffee cups - every piece of garbage looked smoothed down by time, half rotted away. I remembered Chip saying that PATH workers had abandoned this place, and I could see why.
Or at least, I could feel it: a cold presence on top of the evil smell.
Finally the stairs ended at a rupture in the rock, a fissure large enough to walk into. I stepped inside, my flashlight glinting off mica-strewn granite. The shadows around me turned jagged.
This was the deepest I had ever been.
The air had fallen still, so I smelled the brood before I heard them. They were huddled together in a ravine of stone, a few thousand rats and their peep cat. Myriad eyes glittered back at me, unafraid of the flashlight.
The cat blinked, yawning, its eyes glittering red.
Red? I thought. That was odd. Cats' eyes should be blue or green or yellow.
"What's with you anyway?" I asked the peep cat softly.
It just sat there.
The posse of big fat rats still surrounded it, an entourage of heavy, pale bodies, larger than any rodents I'd ever seen on the surface. All the rats were the color of dried chewing gum, their eyes pink, bred almost to albino from generations in darkness.
I carefully pulled a video camera from my duffel bag and swept it across the brood. Dr. Rat would be thrilled to have footage of these deep-dwellers in their natural habitat.
In the silence, a barely audible sound began to make itself heard.
At first, I thought it was the PATH train rumbling past again. But the noise didn't build steadily. It came and went, much slower than the sound of the fans. I felt the tiny hairs on my arms moving one way and then the other and realized that the air in the cavern was being pushed in and out, as if a slow and huge bellows was operating.
Something down here was breathing. Something huge.
"No," I whispered.
In answer, a spine-melting sound washed through the cavern on a fetid breeze, like the moan of some titanic beast. It was so low-pitched that I felt more than heard it, like the buzz of power lines that my peep senses sometimes detect. Every nerve in my body screamed at me to stand up and run away, the sort of panic I hadn't felt since I'd become a hunter.
The sound passed away, though the air still shifted back and forth.
The peep cat winked its eyes at me in satisfaction.
Okay. I was leaving now ... and taking the cat with me. I put the duffel bag aside. If this worked, I was going to have to run fast, carrying as little as possible.
I pulled out my second can of Crunchy Tuna and slipped my gloves on. There was no point in using my knockout injector, which would overdose the cat.
The brood stirred when they smelled the cat food. I waited, frozen, letting the scent carry to the peep cat.
The almost-human intelligence on its face faded, replaced by the same dull look that Cornelius gets when it's feeding time: pure animal desire. At least the creature wasn't some sort of diabolical genius - it was just a cat, really, and a diseased one at that. "Come on, kitty," I said.
It took a few steps toward me, then sat down again.
"You know you want it," I murmured, lapsing into my kitty voice and fanning the smell toward the cat. The scent of the huge, hidden thing stirred, and a trickle of sweat coursed down my side.
The cat stood again and moved gingerly across the horde of rats, like someone stepping through a tent crowded with sleeping people. They barely stirred as it passed.
But then it stopped again, a few feet away.
"Extra nummies?" I nudged the Crunchy Tuna a little closer.
The peep cat just cocked its head. It wasn't budging.
Then I remembered Dr. Rat's perfume of Cal, the family scent distilled into pure essence. Perhaps smelling was believing.
I pulled out the tiny vial and opened it, waiting only a few seconds before screwing the bottle top closed again, not wanting to rile up the horde of rats.
As the smell spread throughout the room, the brood stirred like a single entity restless in its sleep. Snufflings echoed like a horde of tiny whispers around me. The rats would wake up fast once I made my move.
The cat stood up again, stretching, then took a few steps closer to the can of Crunchy Tuna. It remained only inches out of arm's reach, now staring at the can instead of me, nose quivering, suspicion and curiosity at war inside its little brain.
Of course, it was a cat, so curiosity won...
I snatched the creature up from the floor and squashed it to my chest. Leaping up and spinning around, I dashed back through the rough stone fissure, my flashlight bouncing maniacally off the walls.
The cat let out a disgruntled meow, and squeaks sounded from behind, a sudden panic spreading as the brood realized its master was gone. I reached the stairs and bounded upward, the metal banging like a gong under my boots. The cat fought, yowling and raking my chest, its claws catching the fabric of Garth Brooks's face in a death grip. But it couldn't escape my gloved hand.
Still struggling, it let out another scream, this one purposeful and harsh. The hum of turbines and giant fans above grew louder, but before they overwhelmed my ears I heard the rustling of a brood on the move below, like a lawn full of leaves stirred by an impatient wind.
At the last flight of stairs, I paused to peer back down. Rats streamed upward, shimmying along the handrails like tightrope walkers, bounding up the stairs, stumbling over one another in a boiling mass of fur and claws.
I dashed across the exhaust building, the image of stampeding rats spinning in my head, my senses swamped by the pulsing sunlight and mechanical sounds. We'd learned about massed rat attacks in Hunting 101, how a pack's chemical messages of panic could urge them into a state of mob hysteria. Once a horde of rats was committed to taking down prey, even a superbright burst from a Night Watch flashlight wouldn't change their minds.
And that went even for normal rats, without the brood bonds and hyperactive aggression of the parasite. The army pursuing me had a master to protect; this was evolutionary perfection trailing me, hungering to tear me to pieces.
The tunnel leading back to the swimming pool opened up two feet above floor level - an easy jump for me, but a climb that might take the rats a few extra moments. I would need every second of lead time to get to safety through the jammed-shut metal door.
The cat screamed again and struggled harder, and I fell something wet and warm against my chest. It was pissing on me as I ran! Leaving spatters of its scent on the floor, an unmistakable trail for the horde to follow.
"You little shit!" I yelled, leaping up into the exhaust tunnel.
The cat got one leg free and lashed out at my face, getting a single curved claw into my cheek, rapier-sharp and fiercely painful. I dropped the flashlight and grabbed hold of the cat with both gloved hands, pulling it away from me with a rip of skin that felt like yanking out a fishhook.
"Ow!" I screamed at it.
It hissed back at me.
The flashlight lay at my feet, but the rumble of turbines behind me was now joined by the rush of tiny claws - they'd almost reached the tunnel entrance. I dashed forward blindly both hands clutching the squirming cat.
Then I saw something horrible ahead ... light. Sunlight.
I stumbled to a halt.
It didn't make sense. The only light down here was at the far end of the tunnel, where my captured human peeps lay handcuffed, well past the swimming pool.
I swallowed. Had I gone too far already? Maybe the tunnel was shorter than it had seemed while I'd been crawling and skulking, listening between every step.
I ran a few more steps forward; then I saw them handcuffed on the sunlit ground: Patricia and Joseph Moore. This was the other end of the tunnel, a dead end.
I felt a low rumbling overhead - the transport squad in its garbage truck, getting ready to collect the peeps - and my heart leaped for a moment. Allies were only a few yards away.
But a steel grate still stood between me and them. By the time they cut through it, the horde would have torn me to pieces.
I had to get back to the swimming pool.
I turned from the light and ran, the murmur of the rats building in front of me, thousands of little claws on stone, like the sound of distant surf. The peep cat growled happily in my arms; it could smell its brood approaching.
The blackness before me began to glitter - the glow of sunlight at my back catching a swarm of reflective, night-seeing eyes. The brood filled the tunnel floor, spreading halfway up the walls like a shimmering pink smile.
I tore the remaining shreds of hazmat suit off and wrapped the cat in them to silence it, then pulled out Dr. Rat's Essence of Cal. You don't want to cause a rat riot, she had said.
Maybe I did.
I knelt on the ground, facing away from the horde, my body wrapped tightly around the cat. Its muffled growls rumbled like a hungry stomach.
Twisting the cap from the bottle, I hurled it spinning down the tunnel as far as I could and ducked my head to the floor.
Seconds later, they flowed over me, rat claws nicking through the Garth Brooks T-shirt like an Astroturf massage, their thin cries building as they scented what was ahead.
Rats are smart. They learn, they adapt, they know to be suspicious of free peanut butter. But these weren't rats anymore - they were a mob, whipped into a frenzy, running on instinct and chemical signals. And right in front of them was a trail of cat piss leading to a great big bottle of distilled Cal, the creature they knew had stolen their master.
When the last few had passed, I leaped to my feet, keeping the cat clutched tightly to my chest. It growled uselessly. The brood had found the bottle and fallen upon it in a churning mass.
I dashed back toward the swimming pool, half suffocating the peep cat to keep it silent, knowing they would be following me again in a few moments.
This time, I didn't miss the echoing presence of the pool overhead. I climbed up into the deep end, then headed for the stairs, grabbing the duffel bag I'd left the night before. A few rats scented their master, but they had hardly begun to stir by the time I got the heavy metal door open. From the other side, I shoved it closed again hard, stuffing steel wool back into the cracks, securing the snipped chains with a Night Watch deadbolt and squishing through the poisonous peanut butter to safety.
When the locker door slammed shut behind me, I collapsed on the floor, shaking in the darkened health club. The peep cat heaved as I loosened my grip to let it breathe again. It growled once, low and long.
You're dead meat, its eyes said.
"Oh, yeah?" I answered. "You and what army?"
Possibly the army I'd just run from like a headless chicken.
When I'd stopped shaking, I stood up and emptied the duffel bag onto the floor. Stuffing my struggling captive into it wasn't easy, but I finally zipped the bag closed, muffling its yowls.
I was still panting, still half in shock, but as I pulled off my gloves I realized that I'd escaped. My clawed cheek felt like a pencil had been shoved through it, but the mission into the Underworld had been a success.
And the peep cat wasn't so tough after all. Maybe Dr. Rat was right, and this new mutation was no big deal, just another evolutionary experiment gone awry.
It was still pissed off, though. The bag danced, needle-sharp claw tips poking through the vinyl. Not the best confinement system, but it would do for the moment. I only had to make it to the transport squad, a few blocks away. They would have a proper cage, and in any case, I had to drop by and warn them about the loose brood rampaging in the tunnel below.
And that other thing, the big breathing thing, whatever the hell that was ...
Manny's eyes widened when he saw me.
"Are you okay, man?" he said.
I shrugged. "Yeah. But I wouldn't go down there if I were you."
His gaze went from my shredded hazmat coveralls to my bloodied face, then fell on the struggling bulge in the duffel bag. "What the hell is that?"
"Just one less thing for you to worry about, Manny. But be careful; there's more down there."
"Jesus, it looks as big as a cat!" He sniffed the air, smelling the tunnel muck and pigeon feathers and feline piss all over me. "What happened down there?"
"Just got a little ugly is all. But it's under control."
One hand went to his face. "Maybe you should go to a doctor, man."
I nodded, realizing that Dr. Rat would be with the transport squad. "Yep. That's right where I'm headed."
I left Manny there at his desk, still wide-eyed and bemused, and headed down the river toward the entrance of the tunnel.
On the way, I spotted a stray cat lurking in the lengthening shadows. A block farther, another peered out from beneath a Dumpster full of garbage. I began to walk faster.
It's not unusual to see groups of rodents in the city, of course, but wild felines tend to stay alone. That's just predator-prey mathematics: It takes hundreds of the hunted to keep one hunter in business - there are always lots of sheep for every wolf.
The cats' smooth movements were so different from those of the scurrying rats - rather than displaying the manic wariness of lunch-meat species, predators always glide along with confidence and grace. Like they belong here and you don't.
I told myself it was just a statistical fluke, seeing two of them. Maybe it was because Lace lived so close to the meatpacking district, a place with lots of potential rat food lying around, and therefore lots of prey for feral cats. Or maybe with an angry mutant feline in my duffel bag, I was simply paying more attention than usual.
Like the cat I'd noticed the night before, these two followed my progress with cold, reflective eyes. My nerves were shot from the long day, but I got the definite feeling they knew I had a cat in my duffel bag and were not amused.
When I spotted the activity of the Night Watch across the highway, I didn't wait for the traffic lights to change.
"Well, look what the cat dragged in!" Dr. Rat called out.
"Other way around: I'm dragging it."
Her eyes lit up as she spotted the squirming duffel bag on my shoulder. "You caught the beastie?"
"Yeah. And its little friends are going crazy down there. You should warn the transport guys."
"Loose brood? I'll let them know."
As she went to talk to them, I slipped under the orange hazard tape strung around the site. The Con Ed truck was parked on the Hudson River boardwalk, its engine humming to power the work lights in the taped-off area. The sun had almost set, bleeding red into the clouds, but it was still warmer up here than down in the depths. After breathing the funk of the Underworld, a little fresh air felt good in my lungs.
The shriek of whirling metal came from the edge of the river, and showers of sparks erupted into the air. The transport guys had built a platform over the water and were cutting through the grate. As Dr. Rat spoke to the team leader, he and a few others started to get into full extermination gear; the Watch could clean out the tunnel properly now that the peep cat was in custody.
Everything was sorted out, more or less.
I wondered about the big thing under the ventilation towers, and if anyone was going to believe me about something I'd smelled and heard - and felt - but not seen.
"Let me put something on that." Dr. Rat had returned with a first-aid kit, thick rubber gloves protecting her hands. She swabbed stingy stuff onto Joseph Moore's fingernail marks, then plastered a bandage over the cat scratch on my cheek. Infections don't get very far with us carriers, but it still feels weird to leave a bleeding wound untreated.
"Okay," Dr. Rat said when my face was fixed up. "Let's take a look at your feline friend."
"All right. Just be careful."
"Don't worry about me." Through the vinyl, she squished the cat into one corner of the bag, then unzipped the top and reached in to grab it. With any other noncarrier, I would have been nervous, but Dr. Rat handles infected rats all day.
The peep cat emerged into the sunlight, growling.
She dangled it by the scruff of its neck. "Not too different from a regular cat."
I took my first good look at the peep cat and frowned. Up here in the real world, it didn't seem very frightening - no strange gauntness or peeped-up musculature, no spinal ridge to show where the parasite was wound into its nervous system. Just those weirdly red-reflecting eyes.
"Maybe the parasite doesn't have much effect on felines," Dr. Rat said.
"Maybe not on the outside," I said. "But it had its own brood!"
Dr. Rat shrugged, turning the cat around to look at all sides. It wailed at the indignity. "Rats may just tolerate it because it smells familiar."
"I haven't noticed much smell from it," I said. "And it's related to me."
She shrugged again. "Well, so far I haven't gotten any positive results with PNS. I've injected some of its blood into a few test cats, and they don't show any signs of turning positive. This is an evolutionary dead end, just like I figured." She looked closer at the peep cat, which took an angry swing at her nose with one claw, coming up short by an inch. "Or maybe this cat is the mutant, and your strain of parasite is the same old stuff."
"Well, now you can check for cat-to-cat transmission," I said.
"Sure thing. Just don't get your hopes up, Kid." She smiled. "I know it's exciting to discover something new, and you want to feel like it's a big deal and everything. But like I keep saying, failure is the rule when it comes to evolution."
"Maybe." I looked up the river to where the exhaust towers stood. "But this cat was really smart, almost like it was leading me down. And I think there was ... something else down there."
Dr. Rat looked at me. "Like what?"
"Kind of a huge rumbling thing, and it was breathing."
"Rumbling?" She laughed. "Probably just the PATH train."
"No, it wasn't." I cleared my throat. "I mean, yeah, there was a train down there. But this was something else, even deeper. It smelled like nothing I ever smelled before. And it seemed like the cat was taking me along for a reason, as if it wanted to ... show me what was down there."
Dr. Rat frowned, looking at the captive cat dubiously, then her eyes swept across my sweat-matted hair, my bandaged face, and my torn Garth Brooks T-shirt. "Cal, maybe you should get some rest."
"Hey, I'm not being crazy here. That guy Chip in Records says that really big, old, monstery things can get woken up when tunnels get dug. And this was right under those exhaust fans."
She chuckled. "I know all about Records. They're always telling stories that give you hunters nightmares. They spend a lot of time reading ancient mythology, you know. But in R&D we try to focus more on the science side of things."
I shook my head. "This thing wasn't mythological. It was really big and smelled evil, and it was breathing."
She lowered the struggling peep cat a bit and stared at me, trying to decide whether I was kidding or in some sort of shock or just plain bat-shit. I held her gaze steadily.
Finally, she shrugged. "Well, you can always fill out a US-29."
I nodded. The Unknown Subterranean form, also known as the Sasquatch Alert. "Maybe I will."
"But not till tomorrow, Kid. Right now you should go home and lie down."
I started to argue, but at that moment a wave of exhaustion and hunger hit me, and I realized that I could go home to Cornelius and Lace and probably sleep for real again. The orange tape was up, the transport squad was here - the site was secured.
Maybe this could wait until tomorrow.