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"Well, what exactly is the problem?" A growling voice.
"Apparently, the plant released some material into the environment. It was an accident. Now, several dead animals have been found out in the desert. In the vicinity of the plant." A reasonable, organized voice.
"Who found them?" Growly.
"Couple of nosy environmentalists. They ignored the keep-out signs, snooped around the plant. They've complained to the company and are demanding to inspect the plant."
"Which we can't allow."
"How do we handle this?" said a timid voice.
"I say we minimize the amount of contamination released, and give data that show no untoward consequence is possible." Organized voice.
"Hell, I wouldn't play it that way," said growling voice. "We're better off flatly denying it. Nothing was released. I mean, what's the evidence anything was released?"
"Well, the dead animals. A coyote, some desert rats. Maybe a few birds."
"Hell, animals die in nature all the time. I mean, remember the business about those slashed cows? It was supposed to be aliens from UFOs that were slashing the cows. Finally turned out the cows were dying of natural causes, and it was decomposing gas in the carcasses that split them open. Remember that?"
Timid voice: "I'm not sure we can just deny--"
"Fuck yes, deny."
"Aren't there pictures? I think the environmentalists took pictures."
"Well, who cares? What will the pictures show, a dead coyote? Nobody is going to get worked up about a dead coyote. Trust me. Pilot? Pilot, where the fuck are we?"
I opened my eyes. I was sitting in the front of the helicopter, alongside the pilot. The helicopter was flying east, into the glare of low morning sun. Beneath my feet I saw mostly flat terrain, with low clumps of cactus, juniper, and the occasional scraggly Joshua tree.
The pilot was flying alongside the power-line towers that marched in single file across the desert, a steel army with outstretched arms. The towers cast long shadows in the morning light. A heavyset man leaned forward from the backseat. He was wearing a suit and tie. "Pilot? Are we there yet?"
"We just crossed the Nevada line. Another ten minutes."
The heavyset man grunted and sat back. I'd met him when we took off, but I couldn't remember his name now. I glanced back at the three men, all in suits and ties, who were traveling with me. They were all PR consultants hired by Xymos. I could match their appearance to their voices. A slender, nervous man, twisting his hands. Then a middle-aged man with a briefcase on his lap. And the heavyset man, older and growly, obviously in charge.
"Why the hell did they put it in Nevada, anyway?"
"Fewer regulations, easier inspections. These days California is sticky about new industry. There was going to be a year's delay just for environmental-impact statements. And a far more difficult permitting process. So they came here."
Growly looked out the window at the desert. "What a shithole," he said. "I don't give a fuck what goes on out here, it's not a problem." He turned to me. "What do you do?"
"I'm a computer programmer."
"You covered by an NDA?" He meant, did I have a non-disclosure agreement that would prevent me from discussing what I had just heard.
"Yes," I said.
"You coming out to work at the plant?"
"To consult," I said. "Yes."
"Consulting's the way to go," he said, nodding as if I were an ally. "No responsibility. No liability. Just give your opinion, and watch them not take it."
With a crackle, the pilot's voice broke in over the headsets. "Xymos Molecular Manufacturing is dead ahead," he said. "You can just see it now."
Twenty miles in front of us, I saw an isolated cluster of low buildings silhouetted on the horizon. The PR people in the back all leaned forward.
"Is that it?" said Growly. "That's all it is?"
"It's bigger than it looks from here," the pilot said.
As the helicopter came closer, I could see that the buildings were interlocked, featureless concrete blocks, all whitewashed. The PR people were so pleased they almost burst into applause. "Hey, it's beautiful!"
"Looks like a fucking hospital."
"It'll photograph great."
I said, "Why will it photograph great?"
"Because it has no projections," the man with the briefcase said. "No antennas, no spikes, no things poking up. People are afraid of spikes and antennas. There are studies. But a building that's plain and square like this, and white -- perfect color choice, associations to virginal, hospital, cure, pure -- a building like this, they don't care."
"Those environmentalists are fucked," said Growly, with satisfaction. "They do medical research here, right?"
"Not exactly . . ."
"They will when I get through, trust me. Medical research is the way to go on this." The pilot pointed out the different buildings as he circled them. "That first concrete block, that's power. Walkway to that low building, that's the residences. Next door, fab support, labs, whatever. And then the square windowless three-story one, that's the main fab building. They tell me it's a shell, it's got another building inside it. Then over to the right, that low flat shed, that's external storage and parking. Cars have to be under shade here, or the dashboards buckle. Get a first-degree burn if you touch your steering wheel."
I said, "And they have residences?"
The pilot nodded. "Yeah. Have to. Nearest motel is a hundred and sixty-one miles. Over near Reno."
"So how many people live in this facility?" Growly said.
"They can take twelve," the pilot said. "But they've generally got about five to eight. Doesn't take a lot to run the place. It's all automated, from what I hear."
"What else do you hear?"
"Not very damn much," the pilot said. "They're closed-mouthed about this place. I've never even been inside."
"Good," said Growly. "Let's make sure they keep it that way."
The pilot turned the stick in his hand. The helicopter banked, and started down.
"This is nothing!" the pilot shouted, over the whirr of the blades. "This is almost winter! Can't be more than a hundred and five!"
"Great," I said, inhaling hot air. I reached in the back for my overnight bag and my laptop. I'd stowed them under the seat of the timid man.
"I have to take a piss," said Growly, releasing his seat belt.
"Dave . . ." said the man with the briefcase, in a warning tone.
"Fuck, it's just for a minute."
"Dave--" an embarrassed glance toward me, then lowering his voice: "They said, we don't get out of the helicopter, remember?"
"Aw hell. I can't wait another hour. Anyway, what's the difference?" He gestured toward the surrounding desert. "There's nothing the fuck out here for a million miles."
"You guys give me a pain. I'm going to pee, damn it." He hefted his bulk up, and moved toward the door.
I didn't hear the rest of their conversation because by then I had taken off my earphones. Growly was clambering out. I grabbed my bags, turned and moved away, crouched beneath the blades. They cast a flickering shadow on the pad. I came to the edge of the pad where the concrete ended abruptly in a dirt path that threaded among the clumps of cholla cactus toward the blocky white power building fifty yards away. There was no one to greet me -- in fact, no one in sight at all. Looking back, I saw Growly zip up his trousers and climb back into the helicopter. The pilot pulled the door shut and lifted off, waving to me as he rose into the air. I waved back, then ducked away from the swirl of spitting sand. The helicopter circled once and headed west. The sound faded.
The desert was silent except for the hum of the electrical power lines a few hundred yards away. The wind ruffled my shirt, flapped my trouser legs. I turned in a slow circle, wondering what to do now. And thinking about the words of the PR guy: They said, we don't get out of the helicopter, remember?
"Hey! Hey, you!"
I looked back. A door had cracked open in the white power block. A man's head stuck out. He shouted, "Are you Jack Forman?"
"Yes," I said.
"Well, what the hell you waiting for, an engraved invitation? Get inside, for Chrissake." And he slammed the door shut again.
That was my welcome to the Xymos Fabrication Facility. Lugging my bags, I trudged down the dirt path toward the door.
Things never turn out the way you expect.
Excerpted from Prey by Michael Crichton. Copyright © 2002 by Michael Crichton. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.