MONSTER COUNTRY: REQUIEM – SAMPLE CHAPTER 1

1

Two years earlier

Sharon held her pistol on me as we flew in the helicopter, looking at me with eyes that barely blinked, as if afraid that in between blinks, I might disarm her and destroy the eggs.

Her fears were valid because I would do exactly that. I wouldn’t hesitate and certainly wouldn’t feel bad.

We sat in silence, both staring at the other as if in a child’s game to see who would blink first, only lives were on the line.

Too many have been lost already, we must nip this in the bud.

I forced myself to take calming breaths to dissipate my anger, but it seemed to have the reverse effect of fanning the flames with oxygen, making me more likely to blow.

“You need to get a grip,” Sharon said. “Or you’re going to do something both of us will regret.”

I have to get a grip?

 “You’re the one who escalated the situation by whipping out a gun,” I said through clenched teeth.

My anger would keep me from seeing straight and would provoke me into doing something I would regret if I was not careful.

 I looked at her bag. “You must destroy them. We can’t risk that contagion getting back to the states. You saw how quick it spread. It would be the worst pandemic ever.”

“I have a different perspective,” Sharon said, her pistol hand never wavering.

She could not do this forever and would have to put the pistol away or explain at the airport why she held me at gunpoint.

Genizyz had sent us here on a company plane. We would not have one waiting upon our arrival because we had requested an emergency evacuation. We would have to wait at least twenty-four hours for a flight. Sharon wouldn’t risk returning to the states on a commercial airliner, not with something like this.

That was plenty of time to destroy the eggs.

If I could just back off my anger and think.

“What are you gonna do when we land?” I asked with a growl, my emotions getting the better of me. “People will have questions if you’re holding a gun on me.”

My words struck a chord.

Her voice might have been cold, but her feelings ran as hot as mine, something I refrained from pointing out, although with some difficulty.

She had been so wrapped up in the heat of the moment that she had not planned ahead.

That was unlike her.

It told me much about her state of mind.

“We have to figure this out,” I said.

I was gunpowder with a lit fuse and she was a timebomb.

Things could go bad fast.

“You’ve been so focused on making sure those eggs survive,” I said cautiously, “you haven’t thought about how you’re gonna get them back to the states.”

“Genizyz will send a plane.”

“And what are you gonna do while we’re waiting for it to come?” I pushed my wrists together. “Are you going to arrest me?”

She didn’t answer.

The pilot had said nothing after picking us up. Did he know she held me at gunpoint? My back was to him so I couldn’t tell. I suspected he probably knew something was going on, which was why he had not said anything. He’d been spitting angry when he’d realized we’d deceived him about the situation on the ground when he’d come to pick us up. It was odd that he was now quiet.

“This has been a difficult day, Vince,” Sharon said at last.

“An understatement.”

I looked out the window, taking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, remembering some of the peaceful moments I had experienced while here in this jungle.

It had not all been terror and mayhem.

“Indeed.” Sharon leaned forward, her pistol coming with her, never wavering from me. “I don’t like the way things have gone. You and I are on the same team, but we got off on the wrong foot at the start of this project. It’s time we come together.”

I turned my attention back to her.

“You could drop the gun, that might make the conversation more pleasant.”

“You and I both stand to gain a lot from this discovery.” Sharon spoke with care, pausing to emphasize the last word.

At the expense of those who died?

I balled my hand into a fist.

“Those eggs must be destroyed,” I said evenly.

“Think of what you’re suggesting.” Sharon tapped the side of her head with one finger. “These eggs represent a new species, a species that has unique properties. Yes, some of these properties are—”

“Everybody we know was turned into a zombie,” I said through clenched teeth, “they tried to kill us, we have to stop this before it gets out of hand. To make matters worse, the contagion carrier is just as lethal as a zombie.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “I just hope this can be contained in the jungle. What happens if a zombie or these lizards gets back to civilization?” I shook my head. “The consequences are horrifying.”

“You’re not thinking long term, Vince.” Sharon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You were right earlier when you said I wasn’t thinking through the next steps.” She said this with great reluctance as if it were difficult to admit she had been wrong in some way. “You and I have to work on this together or there’s no chance it’s going to succeed. What happened to the others is regrettable, if there was any way to turn back the clock and change it, I would.”

I didn’t hide my disbelief.

She studied me with a calculating look.

“We are left with a choice. What do we do next? We can’t let their deaths be for nothing.”

“Which is why we must destroy those eggs. If we don’t do it now—”

“You don’t understand the situation, Vince. You have not worked for Genizyz as long as I have. You’ve just graduated. You don’t know corporate life well enough to know how these things work.

“They want results. They need results. They pay for results. All of the people we left back there signed up for this and knew what they were getting into. We thrived on the possibility of new discoveries. We found something amazing.” A smile flitted across her face. It was replaced by a frown that looked forced. “If the circumstances were different, we would celebrate. We found what every one of them was looking for. Do you remember how excited they were that night you found that first lizard? They would’ve dissected it right there if I hadn’t stopped them. After I forbade that, they spent all night studying the pictures, coming up with theories about its origin and what it could mean.”

“I don’t deny this is a momentous discovery, but are we prepared for the cost? Are you?”

“You tell me a significant discovery and I’ll tell you the costs. It’s just how these things work. There is always a price to pay for exploration and discovery. Sometimes it’s an unintended consequence, like what we’ve suffered here, but this doesn’t have to be the end. We know what we’re dealing with now, before we didn’t. We can plan for it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

I leaned forward, wondering if I could get her bag and throw it out of the helicopter before she could stop me. We were high enough the eggs would not survive the fall.

“I’m not getting into this game with you,” I said. “These creatures must be destroyed.”

“If you could destroy all of them, would you?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitation. “It is them or us.”

Would I really do it?

“You would choose mass extinction, is that what you’re saying? You’re being myopic. I don’t believe you would do it.”

“Myopic?” I pointed my finger at her, wary of the gun, but wanting to make my point. “You’re the one who’s being myopic. You’ve lost sight of what’s important. People should not die like this. We are taking a creature back to the states that we know nothing about. We have no idea why our teammates turned into zombies. Was it a virus or something else altogether? We just don’t know. A lot of people will die if we mess up. Can you live with that on your conscience? If this gets out, it could be the end of the United States as we know it.” I snorted. “Or the end of the world.”

“That is not going to happen.” Sharon shook her head as if I was too pessimistic. “You are discounting our abilities. You and I are smart people. We have top-of-the-line equipment at the best facilities. We are world-class experts. We can handle a few lizards.”

Her attempt at flattery fell flat on me.

“We don’t know anything about how the contagion transfers. We assume it is through blood contact but what if it is airborne? Even if it’s not, what if it can become airborne?” I ran my fingers through my hair. “What if it gets weaponized? This could create a whole new type of weapon of mass destruction.”

“There are many unknowns, I grant you that, and there are some risks; however, we can’t stand in the face of discovery and not move forward.”

“Sure, we can. Crush those eggs. We don’t need to tell anybody about anything we found.”

Sharon nodded as if she agreed with me, though she did not. She even hesitated as if considering my words.

It was an act, I was sure.

“Genizyz will want answers, Vince,” she said at last. “They’re going to want to know why we’re the only ones who came back. What are we gonna tell them?”

“We explain that creatures in the jungle killed the others. There’s no point in elaborating, they are not going to believe us when we talk about dinosaur-like lizards and zombies.”

She nodded again as if carefully considering my words. “This is a complicated situation. We can’t just sweep it under the rug. Maybe if there was one body, but a whole team? Any lie we tell them will be discovered. We have to come out with the truth. There’s no other way around it.”

I opened my mouth but shut it again.

She had a point.

“So your contention is that even if we lie,” I said, “and fabricate plausible reasons, they’re going to learn the truth anyway.”

“I don’t see any way around it. Think about it, Vince. They’re going to send somebody else back on another expedition. The truth is gonna come out one way or another. We might as well control how that happens.”

I shook my head, frustrated that Sharon was making sense. What I wanted to do and what made sense was starting to become two different things.

I didn’t answer for a long time.

“What are the other alternatives?” Sharon asked, making me hate the cold, logical tone of her voice. “We could destroy the eggs but tell them the truth. They won’t be satisfied with our explanation, they will send somebody else to bring back a specimen, it is going to happen. There is no way around that.”

She held my gaze when I looked over at her.

“You said I wasn’t thinking long term and you were right,” Sharon said. “But what about you?”

“How do you mean?”

“Your instincts are spot on, by the way, we must be cautious to the point of paranoia, but that does not change the fact that I will have to report it if you destroy these eggs. You will get kicked off the project. You’ll be out of a job and you’re not gonna be in a position to influence what happens next. You won’t know what’s going on at Genizyz.

“Won’t that drive you nuts? Can you just trust that Genizyz is gonna get everything right without you here watching over them, guiding their steps when you can? If you really believe that this contagion represents a danger to the world, wouldn’t you rather be involved in handling it, rather than giving it to somebody else and just hoping for the best?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but she went on before I could get a word out.

“I understand your anger. I share it. I’m angry as well, but we have to think this through, Vince. If we destroy these eggs, we are just slowing Genizyz down, we are not stopping them. They are going to find the truth and when they do, they are going to go back. Like it or not, one way or another, the source of this contagion, if it really is these lizards, is going to come back to the states. It is only a matter of time. You are now in a position to influence how that happens, but you won’t be if you take any of the actions you are thinking of.”

“You’re gonna tell them the truth one way or another.”

“I’ve made it clear that I believe this is a significant discovery. We can’t bury this. I have empathy with your desires. I mourn for those we left behind, but I don’t think that lying and fabricating evidence is feasible in the time that we have. Also, we don’t know the implications of this discovery. What if it could lead to a cure for cancer? Or AIDS?”

“Cancer?” I sputtered. “AIDS?” I shook my head. “Now, you’re stretching.”

“Am I? We don’t know anything at this point, so we shouldn’t rule those possibilities out. Perhaps the virus, if it is a virus, can be changed to destroy all the cancerous cells in a person’s body, do you want to risk ignoring that? Think of all the people’s lives you are putting in danger if you refuse to let us take this contagion and its host back. Labs study dangerous diseases all of the time. Genizyz has undertaken studies like this from time to time. This is not outside of our ability to effectively handle.”

“There is no reason to believe that the disease can be changed to fight cancer.”

“But can you conclusively tell me that it can’t?”

Sharon waited. I saw her point.

We knew so little, it was hard to make any type of a rational decision, particularly when everything she was saying about how Genizyz would respond made sense. I might not have worked in corporate America for long, but it was enough to know that she was telling the truth about what to expect from Genizyz.

“The contagion takes over a human and converts them into a monster,” Sharon said. “I think this bears further research, don’t you? If for no other reason than to learn how to counteract it. The contagion is out there. Sooner or later, it is going to get out. Do you want to wait until then to study it?”

“No.” I let out a long sigh.

Sharon could tell her words were having an impact. She hid a triumphant smile, but I didn’t let that irritate me. She was making sense.

That was far more irritating.

She shrugged. “Who says the eggs even carry the contagion? Maybe they don’t.”

The thought had not occurred to me.

“Genizyz is going to pour millions of dollars into researching this, it’s going to happen. You can’t stop it. Do you want to be a part? Or would you rather watch from the outside, fearing that everybody else will screw up and that the disease will get out? If you smash the eggs, Genizyz will fire you. You won’t know anything about our research unless it shows up in the news. Chances are good that it won’t. You’ll be left in the dark for the rest of your life. Can you handle that?”

She let out a long sigh.

“Vince, I’m going to put away my gun. I’m sorry I pulled it on you in the first place. I felt like I had no other choice, you were in an irrational—but understandable—state of mind. I wanted to talk through the consequences.”

Sharon hesitated for almost a minute before engaging the safety on her pistol and shoving it into her jacket pocket.

“Thank you for listening. The choice is yours.”

She moved her backpack and unzipped it so I could see the eggs. “Here’s your opportunity. If you want to destroy them, now’s your chance.”

I hesitated, knowing that she had told me precisely how Genizyz would respond. They would not walk away. The question she had posed bounced like a superball around my skull.

Do I want to be a part of this? I shook my head. What happens when the disease gets out?

Didn’t it make sense to prepare for that day?

I knew the answer.

Genizyz would not back down, even though everybody on our team had been turned into monsters. Genizyz would not let go. Genizyz would spend the money to make sure this creature and the disease was fully documented, researched, and understood so that they could capitalize on it in every way possible.

“Don’t forget,” Sharon said quietly, “you discovered this. You and Sandy. I remember that. I’m sorry if I made you think I was gonna steal it. I won’t. The credit goes to you and Sandy.”

Credit.

That was important.

Back before this trip, I hadn’t even hoped to return with credit.

It was a jumpstart for my career, promising everything I’d worked so hard to obtain.

If these creatures and the disease could be contained, if we were smart about how we built their cages, if we were careful about the decontamination processes, surely we could handle it?

“It’s not all that different than what the CDC does,” Sharon said. “In fact, if it makes you feel better, maybe we can get them involved.”

I gave a nod.

“I’m on board.” I pointed a finger at her. “Tentatively. The moment this thing starts going sideways, I’m gonna pull the plug.”

“As you should. That’s the right thing to do.” Sharon gave a satisfied nod as I settled back in my seat.

I glanced down at the eggs and was surprised when I counted six, not five, as I had initially thought.

How much death can come from just one egg?

I shook my head. I can’t afford to think like that.

She looked at me for a long moment while leaving the eggs within my grasp, before zipping her bag up and setting them on the floor right between us. “You can change your mind at any time, but I think you’ve made the right decision.”

Sharon looked around and swore. “The specimen, it’s gone!” She gave me a suspicious look.

“I didn’t do anything with it.”

After looking around, it was apparent it had somehow fallen out in all the chaos.

Sharon stared at me as if trying to read my mind before moving her bag away from me. “Best we keep these safe, I think.”

I shrugged. “Good thing we have lots of pictures, or nobody would ever believe us.”

Sharon just nodded. We rode out the flight in silence.

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