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By Peter Lerangis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Peter Lerangis
All rights reserved.
"Tell me why I shouldn't smash your face."
Bart Richter could hardly get the words out. His teeth were clenched, like a mousetrap that had snapped just short of its prey.
Sam Hughes felt like the mouse.
Sam knew he should have given Bart the computer class homework — just handed him a copied disk, no tricks. He should have let Bart cheat, same as always. Maybe change a line here and there so it wouldn't be too obvious.
Planting the virus was stupid.
What was I thinking? Sam asked himself.
The plan seemed foolproof at the time. It wasn't a killer virus. It was easy to fix. Bart would insert the disk into his computer. His files would disappear. He'd call Sam in desperation. Sam would rush over, suddenly the hero. He'd agree to retrieve the files—but only if Bart agreed to stop the cheating.
But foolproof was not the same as Bart-proof.
Bart had never opened the disk. Instead, he had just handed it in.
The first person to open it had been Mr. Antonelli, the computer teacher.
And his files had been wiped out.
His class notes, his family finances, his e-mail, and the first seven chapters of his Great American Novel — all were gone in an instant.
By the end of the day, Bart was gone, too. From school, that is. Suspended. But only after Mr. Antonelli had yelled at him, flunked him, and threatened to sue him.
Which was why Sam was in the back of the Blue Mountain Mall on Friday evening, facing doom in the form of a fourteen-year-old halfback bent on vengeance.
"Mr. Antonelli's a smart guy," Sam said, backpedaling. "It's an easy virus. He — he can undelete those files, no sweat. I can tell him how, if you —"
Sam's back made contact with the brick wall. He looked to his right, toward the mall entrance, but a Dumpster blocked it from view.
Bart kept approaching. "I don't get it. What idiot would put a virus on his own homework?"
"It wasn't on my disk."
Sam, you fool.
The realization slowly spread across Bart's face. "You did it to me on purpose —?"
"I didn't think you'd hand it in —"
Bart swung. Fast.
Sam ducked, but he wasn't quick enough.
He was jolted off the ground, following the trajectory of his flying jaw. With a resounding CLANG, he slammed against the side of the Dumpster.
"Use your brain NOW, smart guy," Bart growled.
He reared his arm back again.
Sam gripped the lip of the Dumpster and pulled himself up. The smell of rotting food wafted up from inside.
He felt Bart's hand close around his calf.
Jamie Richter's voice.
Bart's twin sister. The lead singer in the worst garage band Sam had ever heard, Inhuman Phenomena. "The voice of a dying tomcat on a rainy night," he had said in his school newspaper review.
Maybe he'd been too harsh.
You've sabotaged one Richter. Insulted the other.
No way out of this one.
"Hulllk —" A cry for help choked in Sam's throat. He coughed out a glob of saliva.
Bart's grip loosened. "What the —?"
Bart was stumbling backward. Wiping goo from his face. Sam's goo.
You are dead.
"BART, YOU FATHEAD!"
Jamie's footsteps rang out. Coming closer.
Bart turned. "WHAT?" he snapped.
Sam jumped back onto the blacktop. The impact sent a stab of pain through his already swelling jaw.
Bart spun around and lunged for him.
But Sam was gone. Running across the lot.
"Sam?" Jamie called out.
Sam darted out onto the sidewalk.
"SAM, I HAVE TO TALK TO YOU!"
Now they were both chasing him.
He ran down the hill. Toward Rio de Ratas, "River of Rats," the brownish waterway that bordered town. The river had a real name, but no one remembered it. Pollution from Blue Mountain's factories had ruined the water ages ago. Nowadays the factories stood empty and abandoned, but the look and stench of the river remained.
Just before the river was a cyclone fence. Sam squeezed through a hole, under a lopsided, sun-bleached sign that bore the faint words BLUE MOUNTAIN INDUSTRIAL PARK.
The setting sun made black holes of the alleyways that snaked between the old brick buildings. Sam's footsteps tapped flatly against the cracked blacktop. Wary eyes glared at him as he passed makeshift shelters of old planks and cardboard boxes piled against the walls at the edges of the street-lamp light.
Where is it?
He hadn't been to the Turing-Douglas Research Labs in a long time. Not since he was a kid. But it would be a perfect hiding place.
Down Front Street, then right on Second.
The memories bubbled up through his panic. Coming to this neighborhood with his parents when he was a kid, night after night. The dank, stuffy labs where Mom and Dad told him to do his homework while they worked. The electronic equipment that loomed over him, beeping and burbling while he tried to concentrate but never could, because of that feeling, that weird feeling —
As he rounded a corner he spotted the familiar rotting truck dock. The grimy, graffiti-covered tan-brick walls.
The windows of the building were dark. Maybe his mom and dad had already gone.
Just my luck.
On a normal night, they were there until midnight. Lately they'd been working on another "special government project." Sam was beginning to think there weren't really any government projects. It was an excuse to get away from him. They just liked being scientists more than being parents.
Where are they when I need them?
The front door was locked. Sam raced around to the east side of the building. In the deepening darkness, he ducked into a basement stairwell.
Something rustled from below. A small shadow scampered out of the stairwell and into the night.
Sam jumped, stifling a scream. His head banged against a cement overhang.
For a moment, everything went black. Sam crumpled to the ground.
Then he picked himself up, staggering slowly down the steps.
At the bottom, near a grime-caked basement window, he crouched and waited.
"HUGHES! I'M GOING TO GET YOU!"
Near. Maybe thirty yards away.
The footsteps grew louder. They began circling the building, then suddenly stopped.
"AAAAAGH!" Jamie shrieked. "Rats!"
Just stay put.
"They're just animals." Bart's voice was calm, mocking.
But Jamie was already booking.
A moment later, so was Bart the Brave.
Their footsteps retreated into silence. Now the only sounds were the rustling leaves and Sam's dry, raspy breaths.
For now, at least.
He felt his swollen jaw. It ached badly. He was bleeding a little.
Sam stood, bracing himself against the sides of the stairwell.
The bump was worse than he'd thought.
His head felt strange. As if it were expanding. As if he had to hold on to it, just to keep it intact.
And he remembered.
"Mom, can we go-o-o-o?"
"Have you finished your homework, dear?"
"I have a headache!"
"Now, Sam, why does it seem you always have a headache when you have to do homework?"
He'd had headaches a lot when he was a child. Bad ones. Just like this one — as if his head were about to explode.
It's this place. It brings out the worst in me.
As Sam climbed the stairs, a sudden throb pushed against the inside of his skull.
His knees buckled. He clutched the rusted banister.
Do. Not. Make. Noise.
This was a bad one. A migraine, maybe. He must have really smacked the overhang hard.
Grimacing, he took another step.
The darkness gave way to a volcano of white, green, and red. As if the world had ignited.
He knew he wouldn't make it home. Not by himself.
Not even to the top of the stairs.
"Help me ..."
For a moment the pain retracted.
The voice had come from below him.
From behind the basement window.CHAPTER 2
"Hello?" Sam's voice was barely audible.
His heart was pounding.
And his headache was gone. For now.
He knew why.
Shock. Nature's protection. It causes production of epinephrine, which constricts blood vessels, shuts off pain, stimulates the heartbeat, allows passage of electrical signals across nerve endings. Laboratory form of epinephrine: adrenaline.
He knew it all. He'd been reared on science. By Dad the Artificial Intelligence Genius, by Mom the Distinguished Professor of Neurobiophysics.
It explained what was happening to his body.
But it didn't explain the voice.
It's your imagination.
Your own thoughts.
Now use the adrenaline rush and GO.
He bolted up the stairs. The pounding resumed.
Sam stopped at the top, holding his head.
He was fooling himself to think he could make it home alone.
He had to see his mom and dad now.
Be there for me. Please be inside.
He stumbled down a steep hill toward the rear of the building, where a floodlight marked the top of a fire exit.
The door had been propped ajar with a wooden wedge. No one had bothered to close it.
Sam yanked it open and slipped inside.
He squinted against the sickly green-white glare of the overhead fluorescents. He was in a basement corridor. Its polished wood floors and taupe-painted walls contrasted sharply with the building's depressed exterior.
LAB 10, read a sign above the nearest door.
Which offices were Mom's and Dad's? He couldn't recall. He stepped down the hallway, listening for signs of life.
It was real.
And loud. His eyes shot to the source of it. A door on the left, in the middle of the corridor.
Sam began to walk toward it.
He stopped when he heard footsteps.
Two people. In the far corridor. Coming nearer.
Instinctively he backed away.
A hulking electronic instrument, covered with a canvas tarp, was propped against the wall by the stairs. An old spectrophotometer, maybe.
He ran behind it and hid.
The footsteps drew closer. Rushed. Agitated.
"I heard him, all the way across the building," Mrs. Hughes said.
"I'm sorry," Mr. Hughes replied.
They were here after all.
Good thing they'd heard the voice. The poor dude in Lab 6 must have locked himself in.
Sam stood up. Over the top of the machine he could see his dad in front of Lab 6, fumbling for a magnetic card.
They were both so intent on opening the door, they didn't see him.
"This isn't supposed to happen," Mrs. Hughes scolded. "I told you he's too sensitive."
"My mistake," Sam's dad answered as he inserted the card in the slot. "I'll take care of it."
They pushed the door open and disappeared inside.
Sam slowly emerged from his hiding place and walked closer.
"He's too sensitive"?
Mr. Hughes's voice came from inside the room, muffled and soft: "Is everything all right?"
"Yes," answered the voice that Sam had heard crying for help.
It sounded young. Like someone his own age.
Sam leaned forward. The voices were hard to hear.
"What happened?" Mrs. Hughes asked.
"Someone ... tried to get in ... the window," the person answered.
I know that voice.
"No one's at the window now," said Mr. Hughes.
Mrs. Hughes sighed. "Probably a squirrel. This has happened before."
"I guess I should silence him, huh?"
"I told you that a long time ago," Mrs. Hughes scolded. "But you never listen."
"Fine. I'll fix everything. He won't make another sound, until we need him."
Sam curled down lower, into a ball.
He felt dizzy and scared.
It wasn't the headache or the pain from the bump.
It was the sound of cold, hollow tapping.
And the total silence that followed as his mom and dad left the room.CHAPTER 3
Mom and Dad have a prisoner in there.
HAVE. Be positive. He must be alive, right?
WHAT JUST HAPPENED?
Sam stayed hidden, listening.
They were walking away now, back down the hall, arguing in hushed voices.
Sam's head pulsed angrily. He struggled to focus.
What did Dad mean by fix?
Silence. Heal. Straighten out.
They're scientists. He's a spy.
He's a political prisoner.
That's their "special government project."
It was impossible. It didn't make sense.
Mom and Dad were good people, basically. They had their flaws, yes. They worked too late and ignored their son. Mom was quiet and hard to read. Dad was forgetful and eccentric; before the Turing-Douglas project, he hadn't been able to hold a job. But that was it — no malice, no evil deeds. They had kind and caring spirits.
That's what you always hear in the news whenever they catch some murderer. "We never suspected it. Such a normal, caring, kind person ..."
Sam blocked the thought. Mom and Dad were scientists. All they knew was Artificial Intelligence.
Sam thought of Bart as an eight-year-old, lurching across the Hugheses' front lawn like Frankenstein's monster, screaming "AIIIII!" That was Bart's idea of clever wordplay.
But everyone else shared the same stereotype. To all the kids at school, AI meant cyborgs and robots and —
What was it that Jamie used to talk about? Morbid Jamie, who'd kill off her Barbies in "tragic accidents" and then hold funerals for them?
Humans made of spare parts, locked in dark underground lairs — that was HER idea of what happened at Turing-Douglas.
Or was it?
Sam moved into the hallway. Silently. Slowly, too, because his head couldn't withstand sudden motion.
The door to Lab 6 was shut tight. He grabbed the doorknob and tried to turn it — just in case Dad forgot to lock it. Which would be just like him.
It held fast.
Sam rapped on the door — quietly first, then louder.
"Hey," he whispered, "anyone in there?"
He leaned his shoulder against the door and pushed.
The pain was excruciating. In his jaw.
And in his head.
He couldn't try again. One more jolt and his brain would keep going. It would crash through the door, leaving his body to fall in a heap.
Go. Get out of here.
And do what? Get help? Tell someone? "Officer, my parents are working on an experiment with a person locked in a lab?"
Sam ran. Down the hall. Back upstairs. Outside. He held in the pain. He knew that if he allowed the slightest sound to escape, just the slightest —
Then he couldn't take it, he was yelling, the screams ripping through him like a buzz saw — one word, over and over and over — he didn't know what it was and didn't care, because it was like expelling a poison, as if the volume of sound would stop the agony that blinded him as he ran through empty, unforgiving streets, away from the building, away away —
He rounded a corner and plunged into a dark alleyway (home, just get me on the road to home), his feet splashing in a rivulet of unidentifiable liquid, when he heard the other footsteps (where?) coming closer and tried to stop short, tried to get a grip, but he was moving too fast, and he emerged from the alley into a pale circle of street-lamp light when he collided with a dark figure.CHAPTER 4
Sam bounced back. In the dim light, he saw the gaunt, severe face of his attacker.
"You made me drop my backpack!" Jamie shouted, picking up her black leather sack. "What are you yelling about?"
"You scared me."
"You were yelling before you saw me."
"My head ..."
"What happened, Bart smacked you? Good. Did he get any teeth? Maybe he knocked some sense into you."
"I — I have to go," Sam sputtered, walking away.
"That's what you think." Jamie fell in step with him. Lit from above, her cheeks seemed to have sunk inward.
During the day she worked to look like that, laying on the gothic makeup — jet-black lips and eyebrows, white base.
Tonight she didn't need any of it.
"Please —" Sam began.
"Really, really stupid review," Jamie said. "Do you understand the word style, Sam? Or edge? Have you ever listened to any music after, like, the Beatles?"
"Not now, Jamie. This is not the time."
"And then you dump on my brother. So it's, like, war on the Richter family? What next? Destroy my mom's business?"
Excerpted from Watchers by Peter Lerangis. Copyright © 1999 Peter Lerangis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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