Sienna and Prez arrive together in the Astro van outside EditedPets’s 6th Avenue building. It is Saturday, December 24, 5:57 a.m., 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Empty offices await them upstairs. Prez holds a cardboard cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Sienna hasn’t drunk alcohol since Prez plucked her from the Midnight Lounge, but caffeine would be counterproductive; she wants a buffer of dullness today. For ten seconds, they look up at the building while New York rises from sleep.
“You ever heard of Phineas Gage?” Sienna asks.
“Who hasn’t? Backup QB for the Giants, 1980–1985.”
Sienna smiles to show appreciation for the joke, any joke.
“I read up on him last night. He was this railroad worker in the 1800s who got this thing called a tamping iron, a forty-three-inch rod, blown right through his head. The rod went in through his cheek, passed through his brain, exited his skull.”
“I would’ve gone with ‘thanks for the lift, Prez.’ But continue.”
“This guy Gage survives, blind in one eye but otherwise fine. Physically, anyway. His doctor says he’s different. Says he’s, quote, ‘no longer Gage.’ He’s more animalistic. He’s rude, he’s obscene. He’s violent. He’s a drunk. And not like me. He’s not drinking to bury stuff. He’s drinking because—well, he’s just gone bad.”
Prez softens. “Hey. Go easy. Today of all days.”
Sienna gazes at the seventh floor, the scene of so many crimes. She waits for her tumbling gray breath to conceal her before proceeding.
“Phineas Gage is one of the first documented cases of personality changes from brain trauma. The thing I wonder: Did Gage remember his old self ? Did he miss him? I think of Sammy out there, his brain getting crushed by his own skull, going a little madder every day. I’m the one who lined up hundreds of Phineas Gages and shot tamping irons through their skulls.”
Prez doesn’t try to make it better, and Sienna is grateful.
“How’d this guy die?” Prez asks.
“Seizures. Same as the Sammys.”
“Well, maybe this military lady’s got some answers for us. We can hope, right?”
Sienna feels for it—hope—but finds not even a tickle.
“Should we wait for Noah?” Prez asks.
“He’s probably already up there.” Sienna forces a smile. “Curly-haired Mets fanatics wake up early to beat the morning rush.”
* * * * *
But Noah’s not up there. Colonel Marcy Monroe is. She’s in the lab, arms straight at her sides, tracing Sienna and Prez’s path down the hall through the lab’s glass walls while two of her men guard the entrance. It’s like finding a tarantula on your bedroom wall. How did the woman get in there? The lab is unbreachable. At least it was supposed to be. Sienna feels indignation. She’s going to demand to know who gave this woman entry.
But Sienna demands nothing after seeing the colonel’s eyes. It’s not a normal stare. It feels more like some secret military tool, like how CIA agents can supposedly conduct lie detector tests with only two fingers on your radial pulse. Sienna tries to clear a path through her fog of foreboding.
“Hi. I’m Sienna Aguirre. It’s nice to—”
Colonel Monroe cuts her off with her eyes. Her eyes. Sienna is pinned like a rat to a dissection tray. She has the fluttery fight-or-flight sensation that, if this woman wanted, she could kill Sienna with her bare hands in seconds. Not unlike what Sienna could do to her rats. What Sienna would give to hear the laughter of some Gamma Phi Delta goofballs right now.
Prez intervenes. “We’re all stressed, but let’s have some common courtesy between—”
Colonel Monroe cuts off Prez with her eyes just as easily. His forehead wrinkles as if he’s just seen an animal he’s never imagined before.
“There’s no time left for courtesy,” Monroe says. “Am I correct, Dr. Aguirre, that Rat CN8 remains missing?”
If the colonel would pace, take out a folder, arrest warrants, a pistol, anything, Sienna would feel better, in the presence of a fellow human. Instead, only this icicle voice.
“Am I correct, Mr. Przybyszewski, that the last true reading of the GPS chip was in the vicinity of Park Avenue and 102nd Street?”
“Uh-huh. Before it hopped the UPS truck.”
Monroe calculates for one full second.
“That makes the closest underground access the 103rd Street station. So we’ll begin with the 6 train tunnel.”
“Wait.” Sienna wills herself to sound stronger. “This is my rat we’re talking about. This is my lab we’re standing in. I think I deserve to know what we’re talking about.”
Monroe adjusts her stance. It’s as shocking as a scream.
“Do you know anything about Swarm Theory, Dr. Aguirre?” Sienna loathes not being the smartest person in the room. “Some. Insects aren’t really my field of—”
“Take locusts. One locust—easy to kill, yes? A thousand locusts—even that you can spray away. But eighty million locusts? They’re no longer individual insects. They’re a superorganism against which we have no credible defense. It shouldn’t surprise you
to know that DARPA has spent fifty years studying this behavior. Imagine instead of sending a clumsy two-billion-dollar B-2 Stealth Bomber at a hardened target, we could send in a few thousand disposable drones for a fraction of that. Now, doctor, imagine a locust superorganism that decides to march against humans. It is our good fortune that locusts prefer our crops and affect us only through famine. But rats? Rats live inside our infrastructure. If rats were to become a superorganism, there would be no hope for us. None. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Sienna says. “That’s why—”
“You asked what we’re talking about, doctor. We’ve run the models. What we’re talking about is a projected thirty-six-month proliferation of one hundred million humanized rats blanketing the continental United States, a breed that will immediately begin replacing the vastly inferior Norwegian brown rat. Every DoD model has this strain dominating the entire world in just a few years. We don’t even need models to know this. It’s happened before. I bet you know all about it, Mr. Przybyszewski.”
“Rattus rattus,” Prez says quietly. “The black rat.”
“Which dominated the Northeast until the larger and more aggressive Rattus norvegicus began killing and displacing it. That’s without the ability to behave as swarms. Given the humanized rats’ ability to cooperate and collaborate, we estimate all humans will be driven from urban centers in less than five years. State and National Guard forces will be utterly incapable of responding to this kind of threat. Without swift federal action, the global human death toll will reach hundreds of millions in ten years.”
The refrigerator gulps, as if it, too, is sickened.
“I want a lawyer,” Sienna croaks.
Colonel Monroe takes a step forward. Sienna’s heart skips.
“You don’t get a lawyer,” Monroe says, “because you’re not under arrest.”
Prez notches his hip past Sienna, shielding her. “Then I suggest you change your tone, lady. You’re here at the invitation of Mr. Goff. I was here when he made it yesterday.”
“Yesterday,” Monroe muses. “The situation has changed since yesterday. At three-thirty this morning, Noah Goff was found dead.”
A thousand needles exit through Sienna’s ribcage. It’s the same sensation she felt upon hearing of the death of her father. She pictures the gangly, graceless Noah Goff she met at Rockefeller, taking on the whole school over his PetMate app; she sees the driven young man scribbling napkin notes during the Tasty Hand Pulled Noodle Accord; she sees the abruptly moneyed maverick, nearly handsome now, bringing Sienna bubble tea after FireFish reached twenty-five million in sales; she sees the comeback kid, spinning joyously on a stool and kissing her on the head as she explained C. nivalis. Maybe she’d resented being the Wozniak to his Jobs; maybe he’d not been the friend he could’ve been when she fell down alcoholic chasms; maybe his egocentric action put her in this spot now. But no one had ever inspired her like Noah Goff, and even if she ended up cleaning dirty laboratory glassware for the rest of her life—or laundry in prison—she’d always be grateful.
Prez guides her down into her desk chair. Colonel Monroe lets it happen. Sienna feels the cool, rounded #1 DAD thermos being lodged into her hands like a blankie.
“Water,” Prez says. “Drink.”
Sienna doesn’t. That’s not what the #1 DAD thermos is for. She looks at the colonel.
Monroe replies bluntly. “Rats.”
The lab reels. Sienna grips the thermos like a captain’s wheel.
“Was this our . . . ?” Prez begins.
“The bite marks do not match the incisor profile of the humanized rats. No Sammy DNA was recovered from the droppings found at the scene either. But were they acting on the orders of the Rat CN8? As improbable as it may be, there’s no other rational conclusion.”
Prez’s blasting exhale swirls Sienna’s hair.
“Killing rats is what I do,” he says. “And I don’t have the first goddamn clue how to rid the whole city of them in one fell swoop, not without killing all the people too.”
Colonel Monroe’s untouched face is its own response.
Sienna’s mind radiates with every film reel and movie she’s ever seen about nuclear devastation. The black-and-white mushroom cloud beneath Enola Gay. The domestic mannequins of the Nevada desert town obliterated in 1950s atomic tests. All those extras being flash-fried in The Day After. The post-bomb mutations of that fucked-up British TV movie Threads, in which a woman prostitutes herself in exchange for meat—rat meat.
“You crazy—you can’t—” Prez gives up trying to verbalize and wags a finger at the windows. “You’re not going to bomb New York City!” Monroe lifts an eyebrow, the first sign of attitude.
“The Marshall Islands,” Prez stammers. “All those atomic tests in the Pacific. They wiped out every living thing—except rats! The rats just burrowed down. Not even the fallout stopped them. Their reproductive cycle’s so fast, they became resistant in just a few generations. They’ll do the same thing here!”
Prez pants. He stares. He waits.
Monroe smiles with infuriating composure.
“Mr. Przybyszewski. You say the word bomb without nuance. Allow me to make a point. A nuclear detonation requires air to transfer destructive energy. Without air, all you have is the instant heat and vaporization of the explosion itself. What does the real damage? The blast wave, the moving of atmospheric pressure. Air, in other words.”
“I don’t care if it’s fire or air or what,” Prez says. “There’s a thing known as nuclear fallout!”
“The problem for global superpowers is that, if your enemy tunnels deeply enough in energy-absorbing rock and puts up some good thick twenty-three-ton blast doors, even conventional nukes can’t harm them. Just like your Marshall Islands rats, Mr. Przybyszewski. So what are these arch-enemies left to do?”
“Besides train suicide rats?” Sienna croaks.
“Ground-penetrating weapons. We came up against this in Afghanistan: our targets dug deep into mountains. A traditional explosive might block their entrance. But these targets were very good at digging themselves out and tended to keep alternate exits, just like rat nests. So we developed and perfected thermobaric weapons.”
Sienna mumbles half-remembered Greek. “Therme, heat; baros, pressure. A vacuum bomb?”
“A nuclear blast wave minus the radiation. Underground systems like the MTA subway have ample air and space. A detonation inside the 6 train tunnel near Sammy’s last known GPS location will create what we call overpressure. Essentially, a positive pressure wave will suck out all the air from under half a dozen city blocks. I don’t expect you’ve often had the wind knocked out of you, Dr. Aguirre.”
Sienna feels the press of shame. She might know an ARHGAP11A gene from an ARHGAP11B, but the colonel knows what it’s like to feel hot Afghan debris of rock and flesh pummel her body as she makes cold calculations of life and death.
“Wherever air is sucked out, a rush of air replaces it. That’s the negative pressure wave. At thermobaric scale, the air hits the skin of the soft target and transfers its energy directly to the inner organs. The target’s lungs, blood vessels, and intestines would instantly burst.”
“You going to just walk this bomb down the 103rd station stairs?” Prez demands.
“We’ll have a Green Light Team deliver the warheads on Vac-Trak cleaning trains. We’ll enter the Track 61 platform beneath the Waldorf-Astoria. From there it’s a short trip to the MTA tracks at Grand Central.”
Sienna knows the lore of Track 61. In the early twentieth century, a private freight elevator in the hotel shuttled VIPs to the hidden station below. This included FDR, who used the platform to help hide his paralysis. The most recently she’d ever heard of the station being used was for an Andy Warhol party in the mid-sixties.
“Those tracks can’t be operational,” she says.
Monroe gives another of her patient looks.
“I don’t care what magical Hogwarts platform you use,” Prez says.
“Rats aren’t going to just conga-line in front of a VacTrak to await their dooms. They’re going to squirm away into subtunnels and sewers, every little crack you can imagine.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Przybyszewski. But thermobaric blast winds travel fifteen hundred miles per hour. They will reflect off of every underground surface to create complex waves that lengthen the blast’s lethality from nanoseconds to tens of seconds. The cracks you talk about have nothing on Afghan cave systems. Every crevice will be penetrated for thousands of feet. We won’t need it, but before we detonate, just to be thorough, we’ll reverse the VacTrak fans to spread thousands of pounds of rodenticide through the tunnels. Every rat will die. Every rat. Even if Sammy managed to fuck another rat, it would also die. Do you understand?”
Sienna bolts up. She sways. Prez steadies her.
“How do you make sure there’s no people in those tunnels? Even if you give some sort of evacuation order, which I guarantee will lead to a whole fucking citywide panic, there’s going to be maintenance workers down there, construction workers, homeless people.”
The colonel’s eyes lathe to knife points.
“That’s just the start of it, doctor. Some of the tunnels will collapse. The ground above might destabilize. Foundations could lose cohesion. Some high-rises might fall and strike other high-rises, set off a whole chain of collapses. Think of the ventilation shafts, those subway grills pedestrians walk over without a thought. Blast waves will shoot from
those as well. Go ahead and picture it. Their fallen bodies will look almost normal from the outside. Some blood in their ears, I suspect. A few eyeballs displaced from their sockets. But inside? Ruptured lungs, livers, spleens, and bowels. They’ll be hemorrhaging with no help in sight. All of this might happen, doctor. Even with thermobaric bombs, thousands could die.”
“There’s got to be another way,” Sienna pleads.
“What would you prefer? The nuclear option isn’t entirely off the table. We have Soviet suitcase bombs acquired from arms dealers after the Iron Curtain fell. They have yields of probably one one-hundredth the power of Nagasaki. We can roll those in like carry-on luggage, key in a countdown timer, and a few million New Yorkers die,
while we blame it on Russian separatist terrorists from the Donbas. Your rats might still survive it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not open to trying.”
Prez lets go of Sienna, stomps halfway across the lab, gestures broadly.
“There’s gotta be something in here with that rat’s scent!”
“Yes!” Sienna cries. “There’s the cage! It’s right there!”
Prez snaps his fingers. “I’ll give it to Smog to sniff—that’s my dog—and we’ll go right back to where I said, Park and 102nd, and me and Smog will get down in those tunnels, those sewers, whatever, and we’ll find that fucking rat.” He looks from one woman to the other. “We have to.”
Sienna feels like one of the liquefied corpses Monroe mentally conjured, except boiling, like she’s filled with hot lava. The colonel needs to give Prez more time. Sienna considers making a threat: siccing the FBI or ATF on Monroe. But what cop at a local precinct would believe her tale of a super-intelligent rat and the government phantom plotting to blow up the city?
Monroe looks at Prez, who she clearly has less contempt for.
“Go ahead, Mr. Przybyszewski. They don’t sell thermobaric bombs at the 7-Eleven. I plan to have them secured tomorrow and to detonate them sometime tomorrow evening. That gives you roughly . . .” She checks her watch. “Thirty-six hours.”
Thirty-six. Jesus, that’s not even a notable bender.
As hard as it is to imagine, such kill-or-be-killed decisions are often made in boardrooms with the somber bureaucratic plainness of a routine PTA meeting. It’s all the information Marcy Monroe intends to give. The colonel turns on her heel and heads for the door. Sienna holds the #1 DAD thermos with both hands and speaks, softly.
“What will happen to us?”
The colonel pauses with the door in her hand.
“You mean if the world as we know it still exists? If we haven’t all been chased into the country?”
Sienna nods miserably. Official business now done, Monroe allows her military demeanor to slide away like a snake’s skin. It’s a metamorphosis. Her back hunches, neck lowers, lips snarl, fangs emerge.
“I would think your punishment will scale with how all this plays out. It’s not up to me. But if it was? I wouldn’t give you the decency of that scalpel over there. I’d use my own fucking teeth. I’d leave you worse off than the rats left Mr. Goff.”