Hannah Stander is a consultant for the FBI—a futurist who helps the Agency with cases that feature demonstrations of bleeding-edge technology. It’s her job to help them identify unforeseen threats: hackers, AIs, genetic modification, anything that in the wrong hands could harm the homeland.
Hannah is in an airport, waiting to board a flight home to see her family, when she receives a call from Agent Hollis Copper. “I’ve got a cabin full of over a thousand dead bodies,” he tells her. Whether those bodies are all human, he doesn’t say.
What Hannah finds is a horrifying murder that points to the impossible—someone weaponizing the natural world in a most unnatural way. Discovering who—and why—will take her on a terrifying chase from the Arizona deserts to the secret island laboratory of a billionaire inventor/philanthropist. Hannah knows there are a million ways the world can end, but she just might be facing one she could never have predicted—a new threat both ancient and cutting-edge that could wipe humanity off the earth.
Chuck Wendig’s Invasive is available August 16th from Harper Voyager.
“The future is a door. Two forces—forces that we drive like horses and chariots, whips to their backs, wheels in ruts, great froth and furious vigor—race to that door. The first force is evolution. Humanity changing, growing, becoming better than it was. The second force is ruination. Humanity making its best effort to demonstrate its worst tendencies. A march toward self-destruction. The future is a door that can accommodate only one of those two competing forces. Will humanity evolve and become something better? Or will we cut our own throats with the knives we made?”
–Hannah Stander in her lecture to students at Penn State University:
“Apocalypse Versus Apotheosis: What Does The Future Hold?”
PART ONE: Formication
1. the sensation that ants or other insects are crawling on one’s skin.
Terminal F at the Philadelphia Airport is the end of the airport but it feels like the end of the world. It’s a commuter terminal, mostly. Prop planes and jets hopping from hub to hub. The people here are well-worn and beaten down like the carpet underneath their feet.
Hannah’s hungry. A nervous stomach from giving a public talk means she hasn’t eaten since lunch, but the options here late at night—her flight is 10:30PM—are apocalyptic in their own right. Soft pretzels that look like they’ve been here since the Reagan administration. Egg or chicken salad sandwich triangles wrapped up in plastic. Sodas, but she never drinks her calories.
She’s pondering her choices—or lack thereof—when her phone rings.
“Hello, Agent Copper,” she says.
“Stander. Where are you?”
“The airport. Philly.” Uh-oh. “Why?”
“I need you to get here.”
“Where is ‘here?’”
He grunts. “Middle of nowhere, by my measure. Technically: Herkimer County, New York. Let me see.” Over his end comes the sound of unrumpling papers. “Jerseyfield Lake. Not far from Little Hills. Wait. No! Little Falls.”
“I’m on a plane in—“ She pulls her phone away from her ear to check the time. “Less than an hour. I’m going home.”
“How long’s it been?”
Too long. “What’s up in Little Falls?”
“That’s why I need you. Because I don’t know.”
“Can it wait?”
“Can you give me a hint? Is this another hacker thing?”
“No, not this time. This is something else. It may not even be something for you, but…” His voice trails off. “I’ll entice you: I’ve got a cabin on the lake full of over a thousand dead bodies.”
“A thousand dead bodies? That’s not possible.”
“Think of it like a riddle.”
She winces. “Nearest airport?”
“Hold on.” She sidles over to one of the departure boards. There’s a flight leaving for Syracuse fifteen minutes later than the one leaving for Dayton—the one she’s supposed to get on. “I can do it. You owe me.”
“You’ll get paid. That’s the arrangement.”
She hangs up and goes to talk to an airline attendant.
* * *
Boarding. The phone’s at her ear once more, pinned there by her shoulder, this time for a different call. It rings and rings. No reason to expect her to answer but then—
Everyone moves ahead toward the door. Hannah pulls her carryon forward, the wheels squeaking. She almost loses the phone, but doesn’t.
“I wasn’t sure it was you.”
“You would be if you turned on caller ID.”
“It’s not my business who’s calling me.”
“Mom, it is exactly your business who’s calling you.”
“It’s fine, Hannah, I don’t need it.” Her mother sounds irritated. That’s her default state, so: situation normal. “Are you still coming in tonight?”
Hannah hesitates, and her mother seizes on it.
“Your father misses you. It’s been too long.”
“It’s a work thing. It’s just one night. I’ve rebooked my flight. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“All right, Hannah.” In her voice, though: that unique signature of sheer dubiousness. Her mother doubts everything. As if anyone who doesn’t is fawn: knock-kneed and wide-eyed and food for whatever larger thing comes creeping along. What’s upsetting is how often she’s proven right. Or how often she can change the narrative so that she’s proven right. “We will see you tomorrow.”
“Tell Dad goodnight for me.”
“He’s already asleep, Hannah.”
* * *
In flight the plane bumps and dips like a toy in the hand of a nervous child. Hannah isn’t bothered. Pilots avoid turbulence not because of its danger, but because passengers find it frightening.
Her mind, instead, is focused on that singular conundrum:
How can a cabin by the lake contain a thousand corpses?
The average human body is five-eight in length. Two hundred pounds. Two feet across at the widest point. Rough guess: a human standing up would comprise a single square foot. How big would a lake cabin be? Three hundred square feet? Three hundred corpses standing shoulder to shoulder. Though cording them like firewood would fill more space because you could go higher. To the rafters, even. Maybe you could fit a thousand that way…
She pulls out a notebook and paper, starts doodling some math.
But then it hits her: Hollis Copper was dangling a riddle in front of her.
Q: How do you fit a thousand corpses in a cabin by the lake?
A: They’re not human corpses.
She rents a little four-door sedan just as the place is closing. Smells of cigarette smoke smothered under a blanket of Febreze.
It’s late April, and the drive to Little Falls is long and meandering, through thick pine and little hamlets. The GPS tries to send her down roads that are closed (“Bridge Out”) or that don’t seem to have ever existed. She’s tempted to turn it off. Not because of its inefficacy, but because she knows it’s tracking her. Passively, of course. But where she goes, it knows. And if it knows, anybody can know.
She grinds her sharp spike of paranoia down to a dull knob. She is always cautioning her parents not to give in to that anxiety. (Let’s be honest, the horse is miles out of the barn on that one.) That is a deep, slick-walled pit. Once you fall into it, it’s very hard to climb back out.
She leaves the GPS on and keeps driving.
After another hour, she sees the turn for Jerseyfield Lake. It’s another hour till the cabin. The pines here are tall, like a garden of spear-tips thrust up out of the dark earth. The road is muddy, and the sedan bounces and judders as it cuts a channel through the darkness.
Then, in the distance, she sees the pulsing strobe of red and blue. As she approaches, one of those cops stands in her way, waving his arms. He’s mouthing something, so she rolls down the window to hear: “—back around, this is a crime scene. I said: turn back around, this is not a road, this is a private driveway and—“
She leans out of the window: “I’m Hannah Stander.” Her breath puffs out in front of her like an exorcised spirit. It’s cold. The chill hits her hard.
“I don’t care if you’re the Pope,” the cop says. He’s got a scruffy mustache and beard hanging off his jowls. “You need to turn around.”
“She’s with me,” comes a voice from behind the cop. And sure enough, here comes Hollis Copper. Tall and thin as a drinking straw. Hair cut tight to his head. Gone are his mutton chops; now there’s just a fuzzy, curly pelt on his face.
The cop turns. “She law enforcement?”
“Yeah,” Copper says.
“No,” Hannah says at the same time.
The cop gives an incredulous look. “You know what? I don’t give a shit. Park over there—” He flags her toward a puddled patch of gravel tucked tight against a copse of trees whose leaves are just starting to pop. She eases the sedan over there, cuts the engine, meets Hollis. She thanks the cop, still standing next to a cruiser and a couple black SUVs. He just gives her an arched brow. “Sure, honey.”
“He’s an asshole,” Hollis says, not quietly. “This way.”
They head across the limestone gravel toward a pathway cutting through the trees. She can make out knife-slashes of moonlight on distant water and the shadow of a small black cabin. Its windows and doorway are lit up like the eyes and mouth of a Halloween pumpkin.
“I’m not really law enforcement,” she says.
“You’re a consultant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That makes you law enforcement to me.”
“I don’t enforce the law.”
“You investigate breaches of the law. That’s the first step of enforcement.”
She knows better than to get into a semantic argument with him. “It’s not human corpses, is it?” she says.
He cocks his head at her. “Nope.”
* * *
The smell is what hits her first. It forces its way up her nose before she even crosses the threshold of the cabin door. It’s not one odor, but a mélange of them competing for dominance: a rank and heady stink like mushrooms gone mushy; the smell of human waste and coppery blood; the stench of something else behind it, something pungent and piquant, vinegary, acidic, tart.
It does nothing to prepare her for what she sees.
The dead man on the floor has no skin.
He still wears his clothes: a fashionable hoodie, a pair of slim-cut jeans. But his face is a red, glistening mask—the eyes bulging white fruits against the muscles of his cheeks and forehead. The skin on his hands is gone. The upper arms, too. (Though curiously, the skin at the elbows remains.) Where the present flesh meets the missing muscle, the skin is ragged, as if cut by cuticle scissors. It looks like torn paper. Dried at the edges. Curling up.
There’s one body, she thinks. Where are the rest?
It takes her a second to realize she’s looking at them. The little black bits on the floor – hundreds of them, thousands — aren’t metal shavings or some kind of dirt.
Insects, she realizes. Ants. Dead ants, everywhere.
“What am I looking at?” she says.
The question goes unanswered. Hollis just gives her a look. He wants her to tell him what she sees. That’s why she’s here.
“No tech,” she says. No laptop, no tablet. The cabin is a single room: cot in the corner with a pink sheet on it, galley kitchen at the far end, a cast iron pellet stove against the far wall. No bathroom. Outhouse, probably. (She’s all too familiar with those. Her parents had one for a number of years because they didn’t trust any plumber coming into their house.)
If there’s no tech, why is she here? She takes a ginger step forward, trying not to step on the ants. They may contain vital forensic data.
But it’s impossible not to step on the ants. They make little tiny crunches under her boot—like stepping on spilled Rice Krispies.
She looks up. Oh, god. What she thought was a pink bedsheet on the cot is no such thing. It was a white sheet. But now it’s stained pink. The color of human fluids.
She looks over at Hollis. He gives a small nod. He’s got his hand pressed against the underside of his nose to stave off the stench. She doesn’t even notice it now. Curiosity’s got its claws in.
The sheet on top, the one stained with fluids, is lumpy, bumpy, oddly contoured. She bends down, pinches the edges with her fingers and pulls it back.
Her gorge rises. This smell won’t be ignored. A wall of it hits her: something past-human, but something fungal, too. A sour bile stink filled with the heady odor of a rotten log. Her arm flies to her nose and mouth and she chokes back the dry-heave that tries to come up.
Under the sheet, she finds a good bit of what remains of the victim’s skin. All of it clipped off the body in tiny swatches—none bigger than a quarter, most smaller than a penny. Tattered, triangular cuts. Half of it covered in striations of white mold—like fungus on the crust of bread. The white patches are wet, slick. The air coming up off it is humid.
Amid the hundreds of little skin bits: More dead ants. Hundreds of them.
Hannah pulls out her phone, flicks on the flashlight. The light shines on the glossy backs of the ants—each a few millimeters long. Many covered with a fine carpet of little filaments: red hairs, like bits of copper wire. Some of those filaments are covered in the same white fungus.
And in some of their jaws—their prodigious jaws, jaws like something a morgue attendant would use to cut through flesh and bone—are snippets of dried skin.
Hannah’s head spins as she tries to imagine what happened here. A man dies. Natural causes? Falls forward. Ants come in—
A memory passes over her like the shadow of a vulture: She’s young, not even eight, and she’s out at the mailbox (before Mom chopped the mailbox down with an axe) and she pops the lid and reaches in—suddenly her hand tickles all over. Hannah pulls her hand out and the tickling bits turn to pinpricks of pain. Her hand is covered in ants. Little black ones. Dozens of them pinching her skin in their tiny mandibles. She screams and shakes her hand and ants fling into the grass as she bolts back to the house, forgetting to close the barbed wire gate—Mom would give her no end of dressing down over that because you never leave the gate open, never-never, ever-ever, because then anybody can get in…
She stands up. The smell recedes. She gently sets the sheet back over the battlefield of ants, fungus and human skin, then turns to Copper. “Is this even a crime scene?”
“That’s what I’m waiting for you to tell me.”
She looks around. The pellet stove is cold—the air here almost the same temperature as outside—but she sees ash spilled on the floor in a little line.
Hannah takes a knee next to the body. Most of the skin on the scalp is gone, as is most of the hair. The skull underneath is exposed: pinkish-brown, like the sheet on the cot. But no sign of injury. No broken bone. “Any injury to the body?” she asks, taking a pen and poking around.
Hollis tells her no, nothing.
The dead man’s ears are gone, mostly. Holes leading into the side of the head. As she nudges the skull with her pen, more ants spill out of those canals. All dead. Were they eating the brain, too? Or just trying to nest in there?
The dead body doesn’t bother her, but that thought does.
Excerpted from Invasive © Chuck Wendig, 2016