Hero just looked at her, still puzzled by these soldiers and their inexperience with the very sort of event they’d been sent to investigate. She tapped the buttons on the side of the helmet, and her voice crackled in Trini’s headset.
“Use the radio, please.”
Trini fumbled on the side of her head until she found the right button and pressed it.
“Doesn’t this goddamn thing have a pocket?”
Outside Kiwirrkurra, they had changed into level A hazmat suits, which were fully encapsulating chemical entry suits with self- contained breathing apparatuses. They also wore steel-toed boots with shafts on the outside of the suit and specially selected chemical-resistant gloves. And no, there were no pockets, which would sort of defeat the purpose of the whole thing, providing both a nook and a cranny for God knows what to ride home with you.
Hero decided a simple “No” would suffice to answer Trini’s grumpy question. Trini had sucked down three cigarettes in quick succession after they’d landed—she’d been on Nicorette and the new nicotine patch for the entire flight—and she was wound tighter than the inside of a golf ball. Best to keep one’s distance, Hero decided.
Roberto turned and looked behind them, at the vast expanse of desert they had just crossed. Their jeep had kicked up a massive fantail of dust and the prevailing winds were blowing their way, which meant a few hundred kilometers’ worth of sediment was airborne and swirling toward them.
“Better get started while we can still see,” he said.
They turned and started the walk into town. They’d parked half a mile away and the going was slow in the suits, but they could see the structures that dotted the horizon from here. Kiwirrkurra was a collection of one-story buildings, a dozen at the most, unpainted, a patchwork of colors coming from the cast-off wood and scrap particle board that had been given to the residents by the resettlement commission. As far as planned communities went, it didn’t show much planning—just a main street, structures on either side of it, and a few outbuildings that had been thrown up later, possibly by latecomers who preferred a bit of space between themselves and their neighbors.The first odd thing they saw, about fifty yards outside of town, was a suitcase. It sat in the middle of the road, packed and closed and waiting patiently, as if expecting a ride to the airport.
The first odd thing they saw, about fifty yards outside of town, was a suitcase. It sat in the middle of the road, packed and closed and waiting patiently, as if expecting a ride to the airport. There was no one and nothing else around it.
They looked at one another, then went to it. They stood around the suitcase, staring at it as if expecting it to reveal its history and intentions. It did not.
Trini moved on, holding the gun in front of her.
They reached the first building, and as they came around the front of it, they saw this one had only three walls, not four, built that way on purpose for maximum airflow in the intensely arid environment. They paused and looked inside, the way you’d look into a dollhouse. There were cutaway areas: a kitchen, a bedroom, a bathroom (that room had a door), and another tiny bedroom at the far end of the structure. In the kitchen, there was food on the table, buzzing with flies. But there were no people.
Roberto looked around. “Where is everybody?” That was the question.
Trini backed away, into the street again, turning in cautious semicircles, scanning the place.
“Cars are still here.”
They followed her gaze. There were cars, all right, just about one per driveway, a jeep or motorcycle or pickup or old sedan. However the residents had managed to get where they were going, they hadn’t driven.
They continued on, past what might have been a playground, more or less in the center of town. An old metal swing creaked on its chain, blowing in the wind that now swept the desert sand and dust into town ahead of it. Roberto turned and squinted into the coming clouds. The sand ticked against the glass of his faceplate, and it was hard not to blink, though of course he didn’t need to.
Another thirty yards and they reached the other side of town. The front door to the biggest house was ajar, and Trini pushed it open the rest of the way, using the barrel of the Sig Sauer. Roberto gestured to Hero to wait on the porch, and he and Trini stepped inside, one after the other, in a practiced maneuver.
Hero waited in front, watching their movements through the open door and the dirty front window. They searched the place, room by room, Trini always in the lead, gun in hand. Roberto was the more thorough and perhaps the more cautious of the two, mov- ing carefully and steadily and never facing in the same direction for too long. Hero admired the grace and ease with which he moved, even in the cumbersome suit. But she also knew there was nothing to fear in there. Everything about Kiwirrkurra so far suggested a ghost town—she was sure of their result before Trini came out a few minutes later and announced it.
“Fourteen houses, twelve vehicles, zero residents.”
Roberto put his hands on his hips, relaxing his guard a bit. “What the actual fuck?”
That was when Hero saw what they’d come for. There, at the far end of town, in front of one of the best kept of the very modest houses, was a silver metal tank, its finish recently polished to a bright and reflective shine.
“I don’t think that’s from here.”
They walked toward the tank, wary. The wind swirled harder, and the dust in the air billowed around the houses, rearing up in columns in front of them before dust-deviling back to the ground in a corkscrew and moving on. It was getting hard to see.
“Stop here.” Hero held a hand out when they were still ten feet from the tank. She scanned the ground around them as best she could in the billowing sand, then continued on, searching the ground carefully before she placed each step.
“Walk in my footsteps.”
They did, following her in single file, careful to place their feet directly onto her boot prints as they went.
Hero reached the tank and squatted down. She saw the fun- gal covering immediately, but only because of her practiced eye. An untrained observer wouldn’t have perceived anything more than a greenish patch on the rounded surface of the tank, a bit like oxi- dized copper. The tank wasn’t in pristine condition anyway; it had made an uncontrolled re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, after all, that’s going to put a few dents in anything. But to Hero, the unremarkable greenish patch read like a semaphore.
Trini looked around them, still with her gun at the ready, just in case. She took a few steps toward the house, watching where she walked. She stopped, studying the building, which wasn’t very different from the other ones. But there was one thing she noticed—the car. An old Dodge Dart, it was parked at an odd angle to the house, its hood pushed almost right up against a porch pillar. The porch had a low-slung, corrugated roof that bent down at an angle, and from where the car was parked it wasn’t a very big step up from the hood to the roof. Trini looked up, thinking.
Back at the silver tank, Hero bent down, pulling her sample case around in front of her. She clicked it open, snapped out a 20x mag- nifying lens, and squeezed it to activate the LED lights around the edge of the beveled glass. Through the lens, she got a closer look at the fungus. It was alive, all right, and florid, visibly seething even at this magnification. She leaned as close as she dared, looking for active fragmentation. There was movement there, and she wished like hell she had a more powerful magnifier, but twenty power was the most the field kit carried, which meant she had to get closer still.
She looked back, over her shoulder, at Roberto.
“Slide your hand through the loop in the suit between my shoulder blades.”
Roberto looked down. There was a tight vertical flap of fabric sewn into the back of the suit, a handle of sorts, with just enough space to get his fingers through. He did as she asked.
“Now hold on tight,” she said. “I’ll pull against you, but don’t let me go. If I start to fall, give me a hard pull back. Don’t be shy about it. Don’t let me touch it.”
“You got it.”
He held on tight. Hero braced her feet just short of the tank, about a foot away from it, and leaned forward, putting the magnifying glass and her mask as close to the surface of the middle of the tank as she possibly could. Roberto hadn’t expected her to have quite as much confidence in him as she apparently did, and he swayed a little as she let her weight fall forward. But he was strong and recovered quickly, resetting his feet and holding her steady.
The faceplate of Hero’s helmet moved to within three inches of the surface of the tank, she switched the lens to max magnification and close focus and flicked the LEDs to their brightest setting.
She gasped. Through the lens, even at this minimal magnification, she could clearly see fruiting bodies sprouting off the mycelium, stalks with a capsule at the top, swelling at their seams with ready-to-spread spores. The mycelium’s growth was so fast it was visible.
Roberto couldn’t see around her bulky suit, and the curiosity was killing him. “What is it?”
Hero couldn’t tear her eyes away.
“I don’t know, but it’s huge, and it’s fast. And heterotrophic; it’s got to be pulling carbon and energy out of everything it touches, otherwise there’s no way it . . .” She trailed off, staring at something intently.
“No way what?”
Hero didn’t answer. She was fascinated by one of the fruiting bodies. Its capsule was bloating beneath the lens, ballooning up off the surface of the tank.
“This is the most aggressive sporing rate I’ve ever—”
With a sharp pop, the entire fruiting body burst, and the lens of the magnifying glass was flecked with microscopic bits of goo. Hero shouted and involuntarily lurched backward, away from the tank. She was more startled than frightened but lost her balance for a moment and threw her right foot out to the side to steady herself. Her boot squished through something soft before finding solid ground next to the tank, but it was too little too late; she was past the tipping point and on her way down, right into whatever she’d just stepped in. She watched as the ground moved up toward her in slow motion. And then she was moving upward again. With one strong, con- trolled tug on the loop at the back of her suit, Roberto pulled her onto her feet next to him.
She looked up at him, grateful. He smiled. “Careful.”
A voice called from nearby. “Hey.”
They turned. Trini was standing on the roof of the house, about ten feet above them. “I found Uncle.”
It wasn’t much of a climb, even in the suits. First onto the hood of the car, then one big step up onto the porch roof, then a sort of jump with a shoulder roll, and they were all the way up. Roberto went last, so he could give Hero a shove up onto the roof if needed, and he was so preoccupied with making sure she didn’t fall that he failed to notice the sole of her boot, even when it passed within a foot of his face. He would have had to be pretty eagle-eyed to see it anyway, because there wasn’t much of the stuff, but it was there.
Near the heel, between the fourth and fifth hard rubber corrugated ridges of her right boot, there was a smear of green fungus she’d picked up when she lost her balance back at the tank.
Hero scrambled the rest of the way over the edge of the roof, Roberto flipped himself up to join her, and they walked the few paces over to where Trini stood looking down at something. The wind and dust had picked up substantially, so her view was partially obscured, but Trini knew a human corpse when she saw one. This one was in rough shape. Uncle couldn’t have been dead for all that long, but the damage to his corpse was extensive, and it wasn’t postmortem. The flesh wasn’t mangled from the outside, by scavengers or weather.
“He exploded,” Hero said.
Boy, did he ever. What used to be Uncle was now a husk that had been turned inside out, everything internal made external. His rib cage was wrenched open cleanly and violently at his sternum, parted like a suit coat lying on the floor with nobody in it. His arms and legs were denuded of flesh, their bones pockmarked with what looked like more tiny explosions from within, and the plates of his skull had been split apart along their eight seams, as if the glue that held him together suddenly failed all at once.
Roberto, who had seen a lot of ugly things, had never seen anything like this. He turned away, and as he did so the wind let up, the dust cleared for a moment, and all at once he had an unimpeded view looking back the way they’d come. Every building in town was more or less the same height, and from up here on top of Uncle’s house, he could see onto all the other rooftops.
“Oh my God.”
The others turned and saw what he saw.
The rooftops were covered with dead bodies, every single one of them burst open in the same way as Uncle’s.
Roberto didn’t need to count to know there would be twenty-six.
From Cold Storage by David Koepp. Used with the permission of the publisher, Ecco. Copyright © 2015 by David Koepp.