Monday, July 10, 2017

Primeval Ugly, by Preston Lang

Two men in suits met Dr. Lehrer just outside the lecture hall.

“Please come with us, ma’am.”

She could have protested, called them fascist bastards, and told them she was a free woman even in Reagan’s America, but in truth she was a little intimidated and glad for any excuse to miss a faculty meeting. They drove her out to an airfield where she met a man in military uniform called Colonel Begley, who handed her the lab report. Trim with a truly massive jawline, he walked about as fast as she could run.

“A murder investigation reopened three years after a conviction. A married couple in Ohio. Someone snapped their necks, tore them apart. Tossed the limbs around the room. The man they caught swore he was innocent. Last month his lawyer heard about a technique for getting DNA samples out of the carpet fibers. You know about that?”

“Sure, and I believe there is a lot of promise in the idea of using DNA to solve crimes, but this is not really my field. Not exactly.”

“Just look at it, ma’am.”

She gave the file a quick read. Holy Christ.

“Whose DNA is this?”

“The killer.”

“Where is this—man?”

“We have every reason to believe he is currently housed in St. Olwyn’s Correctional Facility in St. Olwyn, Alabama. Another murder charge. Another set of torn-apart people. He’s called John Panin—probably not his real name. So that’s where we’re going right now.”

“To examine the prisoner?”

“We’re taking him. The warden was supposed to have sent him, but he’d dragged his feet on it—didn’t understand, didn’t want to do it. Captain Redneck running his own little kingdom down there. We’re showing up and taking this John Panin.”

And then what? What did they want her to do exactly? Colonel Begley left her alone with silent men until another scientist joined them just before they boarded the plane. Small, gentle, middle-aged, he was introduced as Dr. Duine. She’d never heard of him, which was odd considering they were in the same relatively narrow field. But he was familiar with her work, paid her insightful compliments, and made one subtle joke about military hospitality. Before she could press into his background, the colonel separated them for the flight—Lehrer in the front, Duine in the back. There was just enough time for a real examination of the DNA report—the numbers on the page conjuring hideous helixes in her mind. They flew over the dense green of Ganayagee State Park and landed at an airfield, where they were met by a huge reinforced Humvee, a small sedan, and four serious-looking men with automatic weapons.

“Kids brought their toys,” Duine said.

The warden was large and red, but not quite the crowing southern rooster that the colonel had described.

“I’ve housed the prisoner for seven months. I’ve treated him with humanity, and I’ve protected the general population from him. We reached out to you people several times, and you had nothing to give us. Now you show up and demand his immediate release into your custody?”

“That is correct,” Colonel Begley said. “This is not a negotiation.”

The warden looked at Duine and Lehrer—two soft academics.

“How many men did y’all bring?”

“We’ve got manpower capable of handling the situation,” the colonel said.

“He’s been in iron since the incident with the chaplain,” the warden said. “But that iron is attached to the wall. You brought equipment to secure him for the transfer?”

“With all due respect, warden, we know what we’re doing. Now—”

“I’m sorry,” Lehrer interrupted. “You’ve had him in iron for how long?”

“Three months. I assure you, ma’am, it was necessary.”

“Warden, if you refuse to release him to us immediately, you’ll be in violation of federal law,” the colonel said.

“You’ll get your prisoner. I just need to be certain that you have manpower capable of the transfer. That’s for the safety of my facility and for your men.”

“Warden. The agents I’ve brought have received the most advanced training available. They’ve protected heads of state, gotten hostages out of terrorist camps. You’ve got a pack of flabby crackers who couldn’t pass the GED.”

“My main concern is—”

“Warden, your main concern had better be doing exactly as you're told.”

The warden tensed. He wasn’t a man to be disobeyed, let alone ridiculed on his own grounds. But the fight in his eyes leaked away—replaced with something like relief.

“It’s your dance now, Washington,” he said. “I wish you the best.”

Lehrer and Duine waited in the CO lounge while the colonel and his men went to get the prisoner into custody. The room was crowded with guards, all wide and short-haired, looking for a little information. Duine was adept at turning it around, getting the guards to give up the inside dope. One young bull was a natural storyteller.

“For the first three days we had him, he was quiet, you know? He don’t talk. Fourth day lunch a man touches his fruit cup—he tears that man’s arm clean out the socket. Then he finishes his fruit cup.”

“Don’t mess with that fucker’s fruit. I don’t care who you are.”

“Hey, what branch are y’all with?” the lone female officer asked.

“We’re not employees of the government,” Lehrer said.

“I’ll tell you the truth, Myra,” Duine said to the female officer. “We don’t know what this is about any more than you do.”

None of the guards believed that.

“And what’s this story with the chaplain?” Duine asked. “Warden mentioned something.”

“Oh. Let’s just say that the non-denominational chaplain is now sort of a non-brain-wave-activity chaplain.”

That got a laugh. Standard rough humor of a corrections officer.

“I’ll tell you something else you might not know about him,” Myra added, eager to share. “He ain’t John Panin. We booked him in as Panin, but a sheriff I know over in Ogochigee says that Panin was a small-timer—running juice and rough-looking girls. Disappeared a few years back. When they picked up this one, he had Panin’s ID. That was good enough for our locals. The sheriff out in Ogochigee—”

“Myra, come on. That’s just loose talk,” a colleague said.

“And he understands Russian better than he understands English,” a tall guard chimed in.

“He’s spoken to you?”

“Never spoken a word in any language. But we tried hollering at him in a whole bunch of languages. Orders, curses, nursery rhymes. Reading from these phrase books. Russian is what the ugly bastard perks up for.”

“I’m beginning to sense that he’s not considered a handsome man,” Duine said.

“I seen ugly in my time. It’s not always a beauty contest in this castle. I seen pocked-up and twisted and gashed. This guy? The pictures don’t hardly do him justice—he is primeval ugly.”

Soon enough Duine and Lehrer were escorted out to the parking lot. The sedan was there, but the colonel and the transport vehicle weren’t. Duine and Lehrer stood out in late-summer Alabama—nasty and sticky. It was the first time they had a chance to talk alone.

“You saw the lab report, right?” Lehrer asked.

Duine nodded.

“So what do you think it is?”

“I think someone in the medical examiner’s office got a little sloppy maybe,” he said. “Why, what do you think?”

“I can’t really say anything until I see him. But the DNA freaked me the hell out.”

“I’ve seen people get worked up over compromised samples before.”

“You have? Where do you work?”

Lehrer realized for the first time that she’d gotten almost nothing from Duine up to this point.

“I’ve been at the Kaiser Institute for the past few years.”

“They flew you in from West Germany? Did they tell you anything before you got on the plane?”

“Just that I had a chance to go to rural Alabama on a hot day.”

“Have you ever seen that kind of abnormality in a human? Let alone a human that survived to adulthood? I mean—have you?”

“My best guess is some overworked lab crew screwed up and wrote down the wrong numbers.”

“So why are you here?”

“Or maybe it’s a new kind of abnormality—like Klinefelter or Turner.”

“It’s nothing like—”

The armored truck pulled around the corner and stopped just in front of them. The colonel got out and popped into the sedan.

“Let’s move,” he said.

“Any trouble?” Duine asked.

“They put way too much into him—they gave him a dose that would knock down a bison.”

“But he’s in the truck now?”

“He’s in the truck. Sleeping like a baby. Like the scariest fucking baby you ever saw.”

They followed the truck out of the lot. As they left the prison grounds, the colonel’s mood seemed to lift. He’d gotten what he came for. That justified his bold, confrontational tactics, and for the first time all day, he smiled.

“Are you going to tell us what this is all about?” Lehrer asked.

“Back in the thirties there was a Soviet zoologist named Grigor Iliev. You guys are scientists and you never heard of him, right? No one has. Anyway he got the okay from Stalin and went to West Africa to impregnate some chimpanzees. But it didn’t work, and all the money for the project ran out. And the locals started to look at the guy like—hey, maybe leave our chimpanzees alone for a while. So he comes back to Russia a big failure. But then he had an epiphany. He’d been doing it backward. It’s not human semen into monkey mom. It’s monkey semen into human mom. It’s been monkey semen from Day One. You understand?”

“A chimpanzee is not a monkey,” Lehrer said automatically.

“Sorry, doctor. I’ll try to be more precise. There’s an ethical dilemma here, right? You guys understand that, don’t you? You ever wished for an authoritarian government and an abundance of poor, expendable peasant women?”

“I have never wished for that, no,” Lehrer said.

“Neither have I, of course. But Iliev managed to break down whatever high-minded scruples may have existed in the old politburo, and he got the thing done.”

“I’m sorry, Colonel. This is very entertaining, but it’s just not serious,” Duine said.

“We’re taking the most dangerous prisoner in the history of Alabama on a trip to Atlanta in an armored truck. Why do you think we’re doing this?”

“I don’t know—I’m new to government work. How did you connect this John Panin with the murder in Ohio?”

“The crime is the same. Victims torn apart, faces ripped off. We also know a few other things that aren’t relevant to a couple of scientists like yourselves. We’ve got our—specimen.”

Duine looked to Lehrer.

“You believe it?”

“I’m not saying anything for sure until we do a complete examination, but I’ve had some success with surprising combinations of rodents. I know it’s easy to mock, but I don’t think a human-chimpanzee hybrid is outside the realm of possibility.”

“So you think the Russians figured it out forty years ago and kept it going ever since?”

“The theory is that they created a small breeding population,” the colonel said. “Whether they intentionally introduced one into America or whether he’s here by accident—well, that remains to be seen. But this guy popped loose. Now we’ve got him. And that’s good news for the USA.”

“What applications would it have?” Lehrer asked.

“Are you kidding me? If you could get a man like this under control, you could put together a pretty terrifying outfit. It’s not for every job, but I’ve been in a few scraps where I could’ve made some subtle changes in history with a small group of loyal ape-men.”

They drove steadily east, past the sorghum and the wooden shacks into the state park.

“You guys hear that?” Duine asked.

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Metal banging on metal.”

“From where? From the truck?”

They were silent and then they all heard it. Like someone rolling a pile of steel pipes over a concrete floor. A voice came over the radio.

“Colonel, he’s part of the way out.”

“How’d he do that?”

“He woke up, sir. He’s still strapped down inside the case, but he’s got one arm loose.”

“You’re watching him on the CC?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Let’s pick up the pace. If we really move, we’ll be in Atlanta in three hours.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So we’re just going to keep pushing?” Lehrer asked.

“He can’t get all the way loose.”

The road was narrow, and on either side lay thick forest. The asphalt gave way to dirt, and when it started to rain, the dirt turned to mud. The thumping continued, and they drove on—steady rain muffling the dull sound of struggle from the truck. The colonel’s radio crackled again. The men in the truck wanted to stop and give John Panin another dose.

“All right, let’s halt this caravan and reevaluate.”

The truck slowed to a stop in front of them. The colonel got out then went in the cab to check on the CC TV. He came out with two soldiers trailing.

“He’s got enough room now to bang his head into the top of the metal case,” the colonel said.

 “So he is getting himself loose?” Lehrer asked.

“A little bit, from the restraints. It’s not like he can get out of the case, though.”

“We don’t want him to hurt himself,” Duine said.

“I agree,” Lehrer added. “Repeated brain trauma can—”

A shout came from inside the Humvee. The colonel hurried back.

Duine smiled at the soldiers standing out in the rain.

“Just another day in the service?” he called.

Nothing from the young men. Duine shrugged. The colonel came out of the truck with two more soldiers.

“No choice but to make this dose nice and fat,” he said. “Davis, you’re trigger.”

“So we’re opening up the case, sir?” Davis asked.

“Unless you can think of another way to get him sedated.”

“If we open up the case, we might have the same issues we had on the way out, sir.”

“Yes, we will. But we can’t let this go on for another three hours.”

Davis prepared the tranquilizer. The rest of the men stood, armed and ready. Duine got out of the car and Lehrer followed. She was eager to see this thing. Could it really be a creature two steps beyond anything she’d been able to achieve?

“Get back in the vehicle, now,” the colonel shouted.

“Sorry, colonel. We’ve got to see this,” Duine said.

“I don’t want either of you getting hurt. Back in now. That’s an order.”

“We’ll keep our distance,” Lehrer said.

The banging rang out again, louder now—a burst of violent crashes. The colonel turned from the scientists back to his men.

“Cruz, you go in with Davis and open the case.”

“Colonel?” Cruz answered. “What is this guy?”

“He’s just a prisoner. That’s all you have to know.”

“Because we were talking. What happened in the transfer, stories the guards were telling us. We appreciate knowing what we’re dealing with.”

“Appreciate my hairy ass. Is that clear?”

“Not completely, sir.”

“You are going to open the case. Davis is going to sedate him. We’ll wait for him to go under, then we re-secure him. Is that clear? Is it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And don’t bring that thing into the van.”

The colonel took Cruz’s rifle. Then the young soldier went inside the truck and unlocked the bars of the hard metal case around the prisoner. The colonel stepped back to Lehrer and Duine.

“You’re not going to see much. In this light, with him strapped down. So I need you to get back in the car now.”

Dr. Lehrer took one step forward as Cruz began to lift open the case and Davis edged into place—huge syringe ready to inject. She could see the hairy torso of the prisoner by the interior lighting of the truck. He was muscular but not enormous. His head popped up groggily and he looked at her. The eyes were weary, resigned, intelligent, human.

“Looks like he’s coming down on his own,” Davis said. “I’m going to set to half dose.”

Then Lehrer heard the sound of gunfire, rapid automatic rounds of an M12. Down went one of the soldiers outside of the truck, then the second.

Dr. Lehrer hit the dirt and scurried behind the car. She heard two screams from inside the truck—the first one terrified and human, the second furious, triumphant, animal.

When she poked her head over the car she saw Dr. Duine, holding a rifle on the colonel.

“Doctor, have you lost your—”

Duine shot Colonel Begley in the head. There was a crash in the truck. Out flew the severed arm of a young man. Then out came the beast itself. Dragging metal clasps and canvas restraints, the creature rocked furiously out in the open now, trying to free itself from this annoyance. Standing on its feet, blood streaming from its hands and face, the eyes were no longer human. Dr. Duine dropped his weapon and walked toward it.

“Easy, now. Ya tvoy droog.”

The creature stopped its tantrum for the moment, but it stood coiled, ready to strike. Duine loosened one of the restraints, then another. Just before he got the last one off, the creature attacked. He raked an open hand along Duine’s gut and then cuffed him in the head, sending Duine sprawling across the dirt road. Then the beast ran, dragging one of the ankle restraints into the woods.

Lehrer carefully made her way around the car. Two soldiers and the colonel lay dead in the road. Inside the truck the other two soldiers were dismembered. Only Dr. Duine was left alive. He lay sprawled on the ground. The side of his face was partially ripped open. Lehrer grabbed a fallen rifle and pointed it at him.

“What is it? Where did it come from?” she asked.

“Never trust these men. They want to rule us. They want to destroy our families.”

“Our families?

” “He didn’t know me. He didn’t remember me. If I had the time to gain his trust—”

“Was Begley’s story true? Dr. Iliev—Soviet hybrids?”

“Iliev? That man was a moron. He was spilling bonobo semen on his shoes, while I was getting it done.”

“Getting what done?”

Duine’s head sunk back into the mud and he struggled to maintain his breathing, but he spoke clearly.

“Any hominid is capable of love. And she must conceive in the act of love. Otherwise you will inevitably fail. And you will have achieved nothing.”

Duine lifted the bottom of his shirt, and Lehrer saw that he’d been torn open. He couldn’t last ten minutes with this kind of blood loss. She wasn’t going to stop it.

“What is it?” she asked. “He is my son. My boy. My humanzee.”

She prodded him with the rifle, but he didn’t speak again. Lightning flashed nearby and the rain continued to pour onto the cars, and the guns, and the corpses. Lehrer was alone on the road, while the beast roamed the jungle.


  1. So damn good... Great writing an story.

  2. Fantastic pacing and dialogue. What a shocking twist--"He was spilling bonobo semen on his shoes, while I was getting it done.”
    Nice offbeat ending.

  3. What a crazy tale! But it's true, "Any hominid is capable of love." Good stuff!