Watchers by Dean Koontz


  Cliff Soames and another NSA agent talking with two deputies in the next room. “You started taking over the minute you got here, didn’t you? Before you even talked to me about it?”

  “Yeah. We’re making sure your people understand that they must not talk of anything they’ve seen here tonight, not even to their own wives. We’re citing the appropriate federal laws to every man, ’cause we want to be sure they understand the fines and prison terms.”

  “Threatening me with jail again?” Walt asked, but there was no humor in his voice, as there had been when they’d spoken days ago in the garage of St. Joseph’s Hospital after seeing Tracy Keeshan.

  Lem was depressed not only by the deputy’s death but by the wedge that this case was driving between him and Walt. “I don’t want anyone in jail. That’s why I want to be sure they grasp the consequences—”

  Scowling, Walt said, “Come with me.”

  Lem followed him outside, to a patrol car in front of the house.

  They sat in the front seat, Walt behind the steering wheel, with the doors closed. “Roll up the windows, so we’ll have total privacy.”

  Lem protested that they’d suffocate in this heat without ventilation. But even in the dim light, he saw the purity and volatility of Walt’s anger, and he realized his position was that of a man standing in gasoline while holding a burning candle. He rolled up his window.

  “Okay,” Walt said. “We’re alone. Not NSA District Director and Sheriff. Just old friends. Buddies. So tell me all about it.”

  “Walt, damn it, I can’t.”

  “Tell me now, and I’ll stay off the case. I won’t interfere.”

  “You’ll stay off the case anyway. You have to.”

  “Damned if I do,” Walt said angrily. “I can walk right down the road to those jackals.” The car faced out of Bordeaux Ridge, toward the sawhorses where reporters waited, and Walt pointed at them through the dusty windshield. “I can tell them that Banodyne Laboratories was working on some defense project that got out of hand, tell them that someone or something strange escaped from those labs in spite of the security, and now it’s loose, killing people.”

  “You do that,” Lem said, “you wouldn’t just wind up in jail. You’d lose your job, ruin your whole career.”

  “I don’t think so. In court I’d claim I had to choose between breaching the national security and betraying the trust of the people who elected me to office in this county. I’d claim that, in a time of crisis like this, I had to put local public safety above the concerns of the Defense bureaucrats in Washington. I’m confident just about any jury would vindicate me. I’d stay out of jail, and in the next election I’d win by even more votes than I got the last time.”

  “Shit,” Lem said because he knew Walt was correct.

  “If you tell me about it now, if you convince me that your people are better able to handle the situation than mine, then I’ll step out of your way. But if you won’t tell me, I’ll blow it wide open.”

  “I’d be breaking my oath. I’d be putting my neck in the noose.”

  “No one’ll ever know you told me.”

  “Yeah? Well then, Walt, for Christ’s sake, why put me in such an awkward position just to satisfy your curiosity?”

  Walt looked stung. “It’s not as petty as that, damn you. It’s not just curiosity.”

  “Then what is it?”

  “One of my men is dead!”

  Leaning his head back against the seat, Lem closed his eyes and sighed. Walt had to know why he was required to forswear vengeance for the killing of one of his own men. His sense of duty and honor would not allow him to back off without at least that much. His was not exactly an unreasonable position.

  “Do I go down there, talk to the reporters?” Walt asked quietly.

  Lem opened his eyes, wiped a hand across his damp face. The interior of the car was uncomfortably warm, muggy. He wanted to roll down his window. But now and then men walked past on their way in or out of the house, and he really could not risk anyone overhearing what he was going to tell Walt. “You were right to focus on Banodyne. For a few years they’ve been doing defense-related research.”

  “Biological warfare?” Walt asked. “Using recombinant DNA to make nasty new viruses?”

  “Maybe that, too,” Lem said. “But germ warfare doesn’t have anything to do with this case, and I’m only going to tell you about the research that’s related to our problems here.”

  The windows were fogging. Walt started the car. There was no air conditioning, and the fog on the windows continued to spread, but even the vague, moist, warm breeze from the vents was welcome.

  Lem said, “They were working on several research programs under the heading of the Francis Project. Named for Saint Francis of Assisi.”

  Blinking in surprise, Walt said, “They’d name a warfare-related project after a saint?”

  “It’s apt,” Lem assured him. “Saint Francis could talk to birds and animals. And at Banodyne, Dr. Davis Weatherby was in charge of a project aimed at making human-animal communication possible.”

  “Learning the language of porpoises—that sort of thing?”

  “No. The idea was to apply the very latest knowledge in genetic engineering to the creation of animals with a much higher order of intelligence, animals capable of nearly human-level thought, animals with whom we might be able to communicate.”

  Walt stared at him in openmouthed disbelief.

  Lem said, “There’ve been several scientific teams working on very different experiments under the umbrella label of the Francis Project, all of which have been funded for at least five years. For one thing, there were Davis Weatherby’s dogs . . .”

  Dr. Weatherby had been working with the sperm and ova of golden retrievers, which he had chosen because the dogs had been bred with ever greater refinement for more than a hundred years. For one thing, this refinement meant that, in the purest of the breed, all diseases and afflictions of an inheritable nature had been pretty much excised from the animal’s genetic code, which insured Weatherby of healthy and bright subjects for his experiments. Then, if the experimental pups were born with abnormalities of any kind, Weatherby could more easily distinguish those mutations of a natural type from those that were an unintended side effect of his own sly tampering with the animal’s genetic heritage, and he would be able to learn from his own mistakes.

  Over the years, seeking solely to increase the intelligence of the breed without causing a change in its physical appearance, Davis Weatherby had fertilized hundreds of genetically altered retriever ova in vitro, then had transferred the fertile eggs to the wombs of bitches who served as surrogate mothers. The bitches carried the test-tube pups to full term, and Weatherby studied these young dogs for indications of increased intelligence.

  “There were a hell of a lot of failures,” Lem said. “Grotesque physical mutations that had to be destroyed. Stillborn pups. Pups that looked normal but were less intelligent than usual. Weatherby was doing cross-species engineering, after all, so you can figure that some pretty horrible possibilities were realized.”

  Walt stared at the windshield, now entirely opaqued. Then he frowned at Lem. “Cross-species? What do you mean?”

  “Well, you see, he was isolating those genetic determinants of intelligence in species that were brighter than the retriever—”

  “Like apes? They’d be brighter than dogs, wouldn’t they?”

  “Yeah. Apes . . . and human beings.”

  “Jesus,” Walt said.

  Lem adjusted a dashboard vent to direct the flow of tepid air into his face. “Weatherby was inserting that foreign genetic material into the retriever’s genetic code, simultaneously editing out the dog’s own genes that limited its intelligence to that of a dog.”

  Walt rebelled. “That’s not possible! This genetic material, as you call it, surely it can’t be passed from one species to another.”

  “It happens in nature all the time,” Lem said. “Genetic
material is transferred from one species to another, and the carrier is usually a virus. Let’s say a virus thrives in rhesus monkeys. While in the monkey, it acquires genetic material from the monkey’s cells. These acquired monkey genes become a part of the virus itself. Later, upon infecting a human host, that virus has the capability of leaving the monkey’s genetic material in its human host. Consider the AIDS virus, for instance. It’s believed AIDS was a disease carried by certain monkeys and by human beings for decades, though neither species was susceptible to it; I mean, we were strictly carriers—we never got sick from what we carried. But then, somehow, something happened in monkeys, a negative genetic change that made them not only carriers but victims of the AIDS virus. Monkeys began to die of the disease. Then, when the virus passed to humans, it brought with it this new genetic material specifying susceptibility to AIDS, so before long human beings were also capable of contracting the disease. That’s how it works in nature. It’s done even more efficiently in the lab.”

  As creeping condensation fogged the side windows, Walt said, “So Weatherby really succeeded in breeding a dog with human intelligence?”

  “It was a long, slow process, but gradually he made advancements. And a little over a year ago, the miracle pup was born.”

  “Thinks like a human being?”

  “Not like a human being, but maybe as well as.”

  “Yet it looks like an ordinary dog?”

  “That was what the Pentagon wanted. Which made Weatherby’s job a lot harder, I guess. Apparently, brain size has at least a little bit to do with intelligence, and Weatherby might have made his breakthrough a lot sooner if he’d been able to develop a retriever with a larger brain. But a larger brain would have meant a reconfigured and much larger skull, so the dog would have looked damned unusual.”

  All the windows were fogged over now. Neither Walt nor Lem tried to clear the misted glass. Unable to see out of the car, confined to its humid and claustrophobic interior, they seemed to be cut off from the real world, adrift in time and space, a condition that was oddly conducive to the consideration of the wondrous and outrageous acts of creation that genetic engineering made possible.

  Walt said, “The Pentagon wanted a dog that looked like a dog but could think like a man? Why?”

  “Imagine the possibilities for espionage,” Lem said. “In times of war, dogs would have no trouble getting deep into enemy territory, scouting installations and troop strength. Intelligent dogs, with whom we could somehow communicate, would then return and tell us what they had seen and what they’d overheard the enemy talking about.”

  “Tell us? Are you saying dogs could be made to talk, like canine versions of Francis the Mule or Mr. Ed? Shit, Lem, be serious!”

  Lem sympathized with his friend’s difficulty in absorbing these astounding possibilities. Modern science was advancing so rapidly, with so many revolutionary discoveries to be explored every year, that to laymen there was going to be increasingly less difference between the application of that science and magic. Few nonscientists had any appreciation for how different the world of the next twenty years was going to be from the world of the present, as different as the 1980s were from the 1780s. Change was occurring at an incomprehensible rate, and when you got a glimpse of what might be coming—as Walt just had—it was both inspiring and daunting, exhilarating and scary.

  Lem said, “In fact, a dog probably could be genetically altered to be able to speak. Might even be easy, I don’t know. But to give it the necessary vocal apparatus, the right kind of tongue and lips . . . that’d mean drastically altering its appearance, which is no good for the Pentagon’s purposes. So these dogs wouldn’t speak. Communication would no doubt have to be through an elaborate sign language.”

  “You’re not laughing,” Walt said. “This has got to be a fucking joke, so why aren’t you laughing?”

  “Think about it,” Lem said patiently. “In peacetime . . . imagine the president of the United States presenting the Soviet premier with a one-year-old golden retriever as a gift from the American people. Imagine the dog living in the premier’s home and office, privy to the most secret talks of the USSR’s highest Party officials. Once in a while, every few weeks or months, the dog might manage to slip out at night, to meet with a U.S. agent in Moscow and be debriefed.”

  “Debriefed? This is insane!” Walt said, and he laughed. But his laughter had a sharp, hollow, decidedly nervous quality which, to Lem, indicated that the sheriff’s skepticism was slipping away even though he wanted to hold on to it.

  “I’m telling you that it’s possible, that such a dog was in fact conceived by in vitro fertilization of a genetically altered ovum by genetically altered sperm, and carried to term by a surrogate mother. And after a year of confinement at the Banodyne labs, sometime in the early-morning hours of Monday, May 17, that dog escaped by a series of incredibly clever actions that cannily circumvented the facility’s security system.”

  “And the dog’s now loose?”

  “Yes.”

  “And that’s what’s been killing—”

  “No,” Lem said. “The dog is harmless, affectionate, a wonderful animal. I was in Weatherby’s lab while he was working with the retriever. In a limited way, I communicated with it. Honest to God, Walt, when you see that animal in action, see what Weatherby created, it gives you enormous hope for this sorry species of ours.”

  Walt stared at him, uncomprehending.

  Lem searched for the words to convey what he felt. As he found the language to describe what the dog had meant to him, his chest grew tight with emotion. “Well . . . I mean, if we can do these amazing things, if we can bring such a wonder into the world, then there’s something of profound value in us no matter what the pessimists and doomsayers believe. If we can do this, we have the power and, potentially, the wisdom of God. We’re not only makers of weapons, but makers of life. If we could lift members of another species up to our level, create a companion race to share the world . . . our beliefs and philosophies would be changed forever. By the very act of altering the retriever, we’ve altered ourselves. By pulling the dog to a new level of awareness, we are inevitably raising our own awareness as well.”

  “Jesus, Lem, you sound like a preacher.”

  “Do I? That’s because I’ve had more time to think about this than you have. In time, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. You’ll begin to feel it, too, this incredible sense that humankind is on its way to godhood—and that we deserve to get there.”

  Walt Gaines stared at the steamed glass, as if reading something of great interest in the patterns of condensation. Then: “Maybe what you say is right. Maybe we’re on the brink of a new world. But for now we’ve got to live in and deal with the old one. So if it wasn’t the dog that killed my deputy— what was it?”

  “Something else escaped from Banodyne the same night that the dog got out,” Lem said. His euphoria was suddenly tempered by the need to admit that there had been a darker side to the Francis Project. “They called it The Outsider.”

  5

  Nora held up the magazine ad that compared an automobile to a tiger and that showed the car in an iron cage. To Einstein, she said, “All right, let’s see what else you can clarify for us. What about this one? What is it that interested you in this photograph—the car?”

  Einstein barked once: No.

  “Was it the tiger?” Travis asked.

  One bark.

  “The cage?” Nora asked.

  Einstein wagged his tail: Yes.

  “Did you choose this picture because they kept you in a cage?” Nora asked.

  Yes.

  Travis crawled across the floor until he found the photo of a forlorn man in a prison cell. Returning with it, showing it to the retriever, he said, “And did you choose this one because the cell is like a cage?”

  Yes.

  “And because the prisoner in the picture reminded you of how you felt when you were in a cage?”

  Yes.


  “The violin,” Nora said. “Did someone at the laboratory play the violin for you?”

  Yes.

  “Why would they do that, I wonder?” Travis said.

  That was one the dog could not answer with a simple yes or no.

  “Did you like the violin?” Nora asked.

  Yes.

  “You like music in general?”

  Yes.

  “Do you like jazz?”

  The dog neither barked nor wagged his tail.

  Travis said, “He doesn’t know what jazz is. I guess they never let him hear any of that.”

  “Do you like rock and roll?” Nora asked.

  One bark and, simultaneously, a wagging of the tail.

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Nora asked.

  “Probably means ‘yes and no,’ ” Travis said. “He likes some rock and roll but not all of it.”

  Einstein wagged his tail to confirm Travis’s interpretation.

  “Classical?” Nora asked.

  Yes.

  Travis said, “So we’ve got a dog that’s a snob, huh?”

  Yes, yes, yes.

  Nora laughed in delight, and so did Travis, and Einstein nuzzled and licked them happily.

  Travis looked around for another picture, snatched up the one of the man on the exercise treadmill. “They wouldn’t want to let you out of the lab, I guess. Yet they’d want to keep you fit. Is this how they exercised you? On a treadmill?”

  Yes.

  The sense of discovery was exhilarating. Travis would have been no more thrilled, no more excited, no more awestricken if he had been communicating with an extraterrestrial intelligence.

  6

  I’m falling down a rabbit hole, Walt Gaines thought uneasily as he listened to Lem Johnson.

  This new high-tech world of space flight, computers in the home, satellite-relayed telephone calls, factory robots, and now biological engineering seemed utterly unrelated to the world in which he was born and grew up. For God’s sake, he had been a child during World War II, when there had not even been jet aircraft. He hailed from a simpler world of boatlike Chryslers with tail fins, phones with dials instead of push buttons, clocks with hands instead of digital display boards. Television did not exist when he was born, and the possibility of nuclear Armageddon within his own lifetime was something no one then could have predicted. He felt as though he had stepped through an invisible barrier from his world into another reality that was on a faster track. This new kingdom of high technology could be delightful or frightening—and occasionally both at the same time.

  Like now.

  The idea of an intelligent dog appealed to the child in him and made him want to smile.

  But something else—The Outsider—had escaped from those labs, and it scared the bejesus out of him.

  “The dog had no name,” Lem Johnson said. “That’s not so unusual. Most scientists who work with lab animals never name them. If you’ve named an animal, you’ll inevitably begin to attribute a personality to it, and then your relationship to it will change, and you’ll no longer be as objective in your observations as you have to be. So the dog had only a number until it was clear this was the success Weatherby had been working so hard to achieve. Even then, when it was evident that the dog would not have to be destroyed as a failure, no name was given to it. Everyone simply called it ‘the dog,’ which was enough to differentiate it from all of Weatherby’s other pups because they’d been referred to by numbers. Anyway, at the same time, Dr. Yarbeck was working on other, very different research under the Francis Project umbrella, and she, too, finally met with some success.”

  Yarbeck’s objective was to create an animal with dramatically increased intelligence—but one also designed to accompany men into war as police dogs accompanied cops in dangerous urban neighborhoods. Yarbeck sought to engineer a beast that was smart but also deadly, a terror on the battlefield—ferocious, stealthy, cunning, and intelligent enough to be effective in both jungle and urban warfare.

  Not quite as intelligent as human beings, of course, not as smart as the dog that Weatherby was developing. It would be sheer madness to create a killing machine as intelligent as the people who would have to use and control it. Everyone had read Frankenstein or had seen one of the old Karloff movies, and no one underestimated the dangers inherent in Yarbeck’s research.

 
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