THE FEAR MASTERS
By D.A. Madigan
Nothing to fear but fear itself -- famous words of a famous man, although I admit, I’ve forgotten just which early 20th Century national chieftain said them.
But whoever he was, he was right. Fear itself really is the worst thing we have to fear—which is to say, in the hands of masters, fear is a lethal weapon… a weapon that is well on its way to wiping out every single one of us -- every last living man, woman and child on the Globe -- the entire human race.
For me this all started way too early on 050232. I rolled my skinny black ass out of the rack and straight into the shower at 0600. After mixing myself a quick breakfast and gulping it right out of the blender, I’d logged in at my keyboard and punched for my daily assignment. It had looked like a no-brainer; me and my usual partner Eddie Barrow on bodyguard detail for Dr. Veronica Hansea, who was taking a quick subway ride up the coast to Boston for some covert corporate/Globe symposium.
A flyer would have been faster but much less safe; American Hezbollah had hit four antigravs in the last six days with Cobra-STRIKE gta missiles. One of the targets was a private commercial transport carrying 354 people – most if not all of them dead before the burning fragments spiraled back to Earth, from the nerve-frying electroshock of the EM impeller going wild.
So our little triad rode the covert coast rail instead. Once upon a time the subway was cheap transit for the unwashed masses, an underground spider-web connecting the East Coast, Midwest, Southwest, and West Coast together into one big 90 minute-maximum commute. After the 12 Minute Failure punched deep glassy craters in North America’s urban landscape, the subway lines were unusable and irreparable… until Globe Chief Landeau had much of the track network secretly restored, to be used as emergency transport for those on official, if highly classified, business.
It would have made excellent sense for Science Sector to have easy access to the secret subway, so, naturally, our New Washington HQ was twelve miles away from the closest entry node. Eddie and I hooked up with the doc in Lincoln Corridor inside Sector HQ and rode up two thousand yards of escalators with her. She never took her eyes off her portable calculator’s screen the entire time; we never took our hands off our gun butts.
We came out through a store selling blown glass curios in the James Earl Carter Indoor Mall, after waiting a few minutes behind a hidden blast door for the proprietor to give us the ‘all clear’. Don’t bother trying to get in that way; that door is cobaltanium cored and will hold off a Markov 77 nuclear tank… at least long enough for someone in HQ to trigger that access tunnel’s demolition charges.
Don’t bother trying to get in any way; Science Sector doesn’t exist. Ask anyone from the Globe Chief on down, they’ll tell you. Me? I’m just a high yellow figment of your imagination. Pay grade 17E.
We exchanged countersigns with the cabbie who was waiting for us at the corner of Fisher Boulevard and California Avenue – not one of ours, I think Eddie flashed her the Urban Surveillance Agency sign of the day, but I wasn’t really paying attention, as I was trying to scan 360 degrees of busy street corner and several thousand feet above it simultaneously -- and then all three of us crammed into the back of the ’23 Hanshaw she was driving. She dropped us at Jefferson and Fourth; we went up another escalator and into Kringle’s Fine Furnishings by a third floor ‘revolving door’ that actually dumped us out in a sub basement sixty feet below ground level. Here we found ourselves being glared at through a reinforced titanium grating by a trooper in combat armor toting a 400 megawatt laser on one shoulder, powered by a 60 kilo charging coil resting on the ground at her feet, where it was doubtless hardwired directly into the urban chem-fusion grid. I refrained from sneering with an effort of will – had Science Sector been in charge of security for the secret subway, unwanted intruders could never have seen, heard, nor otherwise perceived what hit them. Not in the first few minutes, anyway. We strive for the subtle.
Of course, it was always possible that Science Sector was in charge of security for the subway, and that mailbox sized laser cannon was a distraction, to keep unauthorized types from noticing the bio-engineered rhinoviruses rendering their lung tissue down into a chunky chowder inside their own ribcages.
The uniformed guard – Global Union Sky Marines, my old outfit – scanned our IDs carefully, matching the inset holos against our bare faces. Then the gate itself took skin scrapings and checked our DNA against its databases. The theory is, a saboteur might fool a human, or maybe the machines, but getting by both would be a pretty good trick… an impossible one, to date. But Anubis alone knows what the big brains who operate on the other side of the law will come up with tomorrow… or later on today. It keeps our boffins nice and nervous.
Which is why we have Science Sector in the first place. You’d be amazed what a few million kilobucks per annum in government sponsored pure research can do for keeping up with, or, better, ahead of, the Joneses. Of course, sometimes the Joneses – which in this analogy, would be the research departments of international hypercorps who care more about short term profit than the long term health of the global biosphere – come up with some pretty way out and potentially hazardous stuff, too. Then the other half of Science Sector goes into action, and people like me and Eddie have to go blast our way into some secret hypercorp lab somewhere and confiscate stuff that can’t be safely left in the hands of greedy plutocrats.
Anyway. I half saluted the Marine as we went through (Eddie, being former GU Ground Forces, ostentatiously refrained) and we went on down.
Generally these subway rides are entirely uneventful, but every rule has exceptions… which you usually find out about when it rears up on its hind legs and kicks you right in the ovaries. I first realized it was going to be an exceptional morning of the kick-in-the-ovaries variety when the subway car came groaning to a halt somewhere under the ruins of Old New York City.
Then the first half rotted corpse came lurching down the stairs from the old 7th and Lex platform at 4:17, twenty two minutes after our unceremonious halt fifty yards southwards.
At that point, I knew the day had officially gone straight in the dumper. Inconvenient power outage, subway train stalled two hundred feet under the world’s most sprawling radioactive ruin, something fresh out of a shallow grave coming towards me with obvious murderous intent – things had definitely gone from ‘all is well, all is well’ to ‘run in circles, scream and shout’ at terminal velocity.
Staring at what was left of the walking dead man’s face, my brain tried to gibber the 'z' word at me, but I told it firmly to shut up, mama was busy.
The dead man was shambling along at a fast walk, lurching like a drunken sailor but still covering ground steadily, every couple of steps letting go with one of those growly 'rrrrrr' sounds that seems to be standard equipment for all walking corpses in the viewsees that concern themselves with that sort of subject matter. It was goddam creepy, if anyone asked me.
My ocular implants were already set to infra-red, so I knew that whatever this thing was, it had no body heat. It was a shock to see somebody who ought to be decently dead laboring up the tunnel towards me, but I don't freeze up when I'm scared, even bad scared like I was right then. My 'fight or flight' reflex was permanently hard-wired to the former option before I hit puberty, and 13 weeks of boot training in Sumac Bay, followed by three years in a Middle Eastern hot zone and four more doing 'dirty' ops for Global Security’s top secret Science Sector had refined my instinctively violent responses to a monofilament edge.
I had my window cranked down, my gun yanked up and an explosive round on the way before anyone else in our subway car had even realized there was anything untoward out there, much less lurching towards us with flesh devouring intent.
If I’d had any doubt regarding the nature of our attacker, it vanished as soon as I took my first breath of outside air. The creep not only looked like a rotting corpse, but he smelled like one, too. The stench was enough to, as they say, knock a buzzard off a turdwagon, and it would probably have pole axed me, too, if I hadn’t been hardened to even worse sensory input by jungle training.
Eddie, who had been scanning behind us in the UV range, turned around just in time to see my first target’s head explode. "Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy," he murmured out of the corner of his mouth, "she don't know if she's a girl or a boy. I hope we find a WEE-pun on that corpse when it comes time to file reports, darlin."
"Stop flapping your jaw, Eddie," I said, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice. "Switch your ocs to IR and your clip to explosive rounds. And take a big whiff while you’re at it; it will put you in the picture faster.”
Eddie's typical whitebread from Alabama, all muscles and reaction time -- a good sort to have around when the gumbo starts to splatter, but lord above, that boy can get on my last nerve when he's a mind to.
I mean, I can't help that my pop was a big fan of classic movies, nor do I really have any choice about the personal lifestyle preferences Eddie so often heckles me regarding. I knew he thought he was just kidding, but after a while, you get tired of repeating "Don't ask, don't tell", and you start itching to make a more direct rebuttal. In my case, it wasn't my knuckles that ached to get into the debate, but the edges of my palms and the soles of my feet... especially the spots where twenty years of kendo-karate training had built up all the calluses.
Eddie has three inches and about eighty pounds on me, and his arms are longer than mine, too. And he is probably stronger. But if he kept pushing my buttons, I had no doubt I could kick his meaty white ass all up and down that tunnel or any other one on the planet. I have a lot of quick, and a whole lot more mean, when I reach down deep to get a handful.
Eddie rolled his eyes at me, but dutifully clicked his contacts through to IR... just in time to catch sight of a well below room temperature mob spilling off the platform and shambling hungrily in our direction, 'rrrrrrrr'ing to beat the band.
He snarled something imaginative in Arabic that managed to be blasphemous, profane, obscene, and anatomically impossible all at the same time, while simultaneously hitting the RELOAD button on the side of his modified Ruger .38, dropping a clip of heatseeker and slapping in one of explosive rounds. By that time I'd dropped two more deaders with direct hits to their faces and three others behind them, presumably from high velocity skull shrapnel. That only left maybe thirty or forty more walking dead lurching and growling their way towards us.
"Zombies, goddam it, ZOMBIES," I finally blew out past my clenched lips, "we're about to be inundated by a genuine horde of mother karkin' ZOMBIES."
"What's the hazard bonus for that?" Eddie asked, actually flicking a tight smile at me as he started shooting. I was keeping my cool through an effort of will, but Eddie is one of those nutjobs – not uncommon in the military -- who is honestly baffled by the concept of fear. The way he's wired, 'bloodlust' is the closest he can get to it.
"Not frackin enough," I snorted back, keeping a tight grip on the little panicky butterflies that were trying to flutter in my lower intestine. I kept firing until I'd emptied another clip. It took about four seconds; by that time, the only slightly diminished mob had covered about half the distance between the platform and our stalled subway car, and I'd come to the conclusion that this wasn't going to work.
"There are too spammin’ many of them," Eddie said, apparently reaching the same conclusion as I had. He didn't sound unhappy about it, just a little irritated at the realization.
Dr. Hansea's voice spoke up from behind us. "There's a security cache about a mile past the platform," she said calmly. "According to the manifest, it contains an armored four seat flyer and a plenitude of heavy weapons. If we can get through that horde and move quickly enough, we should be all right."
Dr. Hansea is one of the very few people in the world who can use a word like 'plenitude' in everyday speech and not sound stupid. For her, it's just the way she talks. Her bulging brain is why the Sector assigns her a couple of gun jockeys like Eddie and me whenever she ventures outside a secured zone; her curvy chassis is why gun jockeys like Eddie -- and me, I ain’t ashamed of my nature -- are happy to have the assignment.
"You've got a map?" I tossed back over my shoulder, while continuing to fire my reloaded weapon.
"On my portable," she affirmed. She moved up behind me and slid her arm around my waist so I could glance down and see the screen.
"What's that round grey thing behind us?" I asked after a quick second's scrutiny of the track diagram she had projected there. "Right there, beside the track."
She edged her head in under my arm -- curly auburn hair that would fall past her shoulders if she unpinned it, wound up on top of her head in a tight bun, smelling vaguely like sun warmed strawberries -- I once again had to tell my brain to stop gibbering and stay professional.
"Underground reservoir," she said. "Probably about a million gallons... something for firefighters to use, back before compact foam-packs. Why?"
"You button this car up," I told her. "Make sure all the windows are tight and the doors are locked. Eddie, step out front and hold off the horde for a minute or so. Be ready to duck back inside quick, though; I’m gonna be seriously haulin ass back this way in a minute or so." I hit the emergency lever to open the folding doors and dropped to the floor of the track before either could argue with me.
I went back down that tunnel at a full sprint, being very careful to keep well clear of the third rail as I ran. The unexpected power failure that had stranded us could end at any time and I’d never taken a single aptitude test that said I hankered to be a pulled pork sandwich.
I reached the area where I'd seen the grey oval on Dr. Hansea's map. There was an old brass nozzle-cap sticking out of the side of the tunnel there, with an equally old brass metal wheel, like the kind you see on doors in submarine viewsees, mounted right next to it.
I thumbed open one of the pockets on my agents’ vest and got a handful of boom buttons -- little things the size of a fingertip, made of a particularly stable form of plastic explosive. I didn't have time to play; I squashed them together into a blob of putty half the size of my fist and pressed it to the end of that brass cap. I jammed a pencil detonator into the mess, snapped the end off it, and ran like hell for the stalled subway car.
Normally the pencils will take about three full seconds to burn down, but the chemicals go bad fairly quickly away from controlled temperatures and you can end up with more performance variation than you'd really want under most field conditions. This time I was still maybe five yards from the subway car when I heard the sharp, flat crack of the explosion behind me.
I yelled for Eddie to get back inside even as I slammed into the car, grabbed the utility ladder mounted on the left side, and swung myself up on to the roof. Behind me I could hear the heavy hiss of high pressure water blowing out through the ruptured pipe -- then a rumbling roar as the sudden release caused the entire side of the buried reservoir, and the subway tunnel next to it, to collapse.
I'd planned to be back inside the subway car by then, but there was no way that was happening now. I reached into my vest again and had just slammed closed my handcuffs around my wrist and the upper end of that ladder when a roaring wall of ice cold water hit me and that subway car like a giant fist. The car trembled and shuddered like a wild bull in a rodeo chute but its wheels stayed in place on that track. For what seemed like several seconds past forever I thought my hand was going to come off at the wrist, or, failing that, my arm was going to pop out of its socket -- but then the water was roaring on past and I could take a breath again.
I was doing that, gratefully, when I heard Dr. Hansea's voice calling me, sounding worried. "Agent Zemyna? Agent Zemyna?"
"Goddamit, Myrna Loy," I heard Eddie curse from below me, "if you got yourself kilt I'm gonna find your body and..."
Exactly what desecrations Eddie was planning to visit on my corpse I never found out, because I pulled myself to the edge and peeked over. "I'm okay," I said, and then had to hack up about half a cupful of water I hadn't actually planned to take into my lungs that morning. "More or less," I added raspily when I was done.
Dr. Hansea still sounded worried. "We should be making our way down the track to that cache," she fretted. "Whatever those things were, if more of them were to appear..."
Eddie and I exchanged a brief, far from untroubled glance. "Yeah," I said, putting my handcuffs away and dropping lightly into the shallow puddle the stalled subway car was now sitting in.
I had been assuming that the power failure was one of those intermittent brownouts typical to the mainland grid around the Old New York crater. The horde of zombies -- I hadn't given any thought to where they'd come from, but in the back of my head, I'd assumed that they were something aimed specifically at Dr. Hansea. I won't say I've foiled weirder assassination attempts in my time, but I've seen some pretty strange ones. But if the zombie horde hadn't been something bizarre aimed just at the group of us, then it might well be just a small part of a much larger problem -- a problem that might have been the direct cause of the power failure itself.
I shook my head at the thought. “No, it’s gotta be something screwy aimed at us,” I said. “Where would you get a bunch of recent stiffs to turn into zombies in Old New York? It’s a radioactive wasteland up there.”
“A radioactive wasteland that Newer New York has been dumping its garbage in for the past fifteen years,” Eddie said. “Which garbage includes a fresh load of a few hundred or so indigent corpses every week. Our recent drop-ins must have been specimens from the latest body dump.”
That had just happened to come lurching down 12 stories worth of stairs and frozen escalators a minute or so after an unscheduled private subway car stalled on the tracks? That kind of coincidence wasn’t working for me… but clearly we all had insufficient information. "We need to get upstairs," I said.
Eddie nodded, and added, "But not on foot, unless I want my ex wife collectin’ my life insurance sometime next week. An’ I most certainly do not."
"Cache it is," I said. I breathed a silent prayer of gratitude to the ghost of General Devon-Hall, the Globe’s first Security Minister. I had no doubt salting the newly reconstructed subways with caches of useful equipment had been his idea; according to what I’d studied in school, he’d always been a suspenders AND belt man.
We set off at a half-run down the tunnel, splish-sploshing our way through new puddles. I expected we'd have to slow down to accommodate Dr. Hansea -- she couldn't be expected to have the kind of physical conditioning necessary to our MOS -- but she kept up without complaint. She did keep scanning around, which wasn't unusual, since my own eyes were peeled back to my ears trying to spot hostile movement in the shadows around us. But she wasn't looking for active threats, as we discovered when she suddenly stopped to kneel over an unmoving body caught where two tracks converged in a Y junction on the floor of the tunnel.
"Dr. Hansea, we have to keep on truckin’, here," I told her, taking the moment nonetheless to inhale a few cubic yards of oxygen.
"Momentarily," she said, kneeling next to the corpse. From what I could see, the temporary tidal wave I'd unleashed had rolled and tumbled this bad boy a few hundred yards until by chance, his head had wedged between two rails, breaking his neck and crushing most of his skull. Being dead, he probably hadn't felt a thing, but I hoped otherwise. Which will tell you how upsetting I found this whole zombie thing, as normally I'm not much on tormenting an enemy. I'll kill someone if they make it necessary, but I normally don't try to make anyone suffer on the way out.
Dr. Hansea murmured something to herself as she pressed a tissue probe against the dead man's clammy looking arm. I didn’t catch it but it sounded admiring. Science Sector necessarily has cutting edge field equipment; our labs and shops invent and fabricate a lot of stuff that stays classified for years, other than our own proprietary uses.
The small light at the back of the probe blinked green and Dr. Hansea got smoothly to her feet, tucking the instrument away again through a sleeve-loop. "I shall have to cancel the Boston meeting," she announced, as if she were sitting in an environment controlled cubie somewhere and I were her exec-assist. "I need to return to a fully equipped analysis laboratory as quickly as feasible."
I looked at Eddie; he shrugged. Dr. Hansea isn't in our COC and can't legally give us orders, but whatever was going on had to take priority over anything scheduled prior to us coming down with a bad case of walking stiffs. "Either way, the cache is our best bet," I said.
The other two voted with their feet; there were no further stops as we slogged at a double time pace the rest of the way up the tracks.
In a section of track that looked pretty much identical to every other one we'd just jogged by, Dr. Hansea stopped, holding up the hand she had her portable in. "We are here," she said, not even breathing hard. I was a little bit winded myself... not incapacitated by any means, but glad for a chance to take a few deep breaths again.
"Don't look like much," Eddie said, huffing a tad to get his lungs pumped back up to maximum capacity.
"It's beyond this wall," Dr. Hansea said, studying her portable's screen, fingers twitching on the minikeys. "The receivers are picking up my signal but the code it's looking for is 12 years obsolete... wait... that's got it."
A line of greenish light appeared on the wall in front of her; with a damp rumble of long unused metal casters, it widened into a standard sized doorway. Beyond was a flight of rusty iron-plated stairs leading upward, lit by greenish chemical emergency glowpods. Tripping the entry switch must have triggered them; they were the kind that shine for an hour or so after being stimulated, and then go dead forever.
Eddie and I bracketed the doc; I went up first, then she followed, then he played caboose. I only hoped he was keeping an eye out behind us instead of on the behind ahead of him. I could have managed it, if I'd had to. Probably.
One flight up we came out into about 200 concrete lined cubic feet of storage space, mostly filled with dusty stacks of cardboard boxes and something vaguely vehicle shaped under an equally dusty canvas drape. More emergency lights started to glow. I knew Eddie would want to check out the flyer, so I went to the closest boxes and started brushing dust off.
Military rations, bottled water, battery powered flashlights – good, we’d want those in an hour or so, if we were still here -- protective gear against bacteriological or chemical weaponry, a stack of crates full of Bouncing Bradley land mines, another stack of Claymore 21s, another stack of various different types of hand grenades... that was as far as I'd gotten when I realized my hands were starting to tremble. I tried to clamp down on my nervous system and my fingers started shaking even worse. Delayed reaction from the morning’s action – in a deep-tank or on a flatscreen, zombie attacks are kind of fun, but in real life, holding off a horde of walking human corpses with just your Science Sector .38 is a pretty horrible experience. I’ve done some bad things in some gruesome spots, and watched other people do worse, but I’d never gone through anything like this morning before in my life. Or imagined I might have to.
The last thing I needed was for Eddie to see me this way – like I said before, Eddie doesn’t have nerves so much as he has stimuli receptors he mostly uses to aim weapons with. It was bad enough I had to listen to his bullshit about my sexual preferences; if he got it into his head that he was partnered up with a ‘weak sister’, he’d be even more insufferable, and I’d probably have to kill him.
I felt a small, soft hand rubbing my neck from behind me, and heard Dr. Hansea’s voice, pitched to carry only to my ear. “Buck up,” she told me in a whisper, her breath warm on my ear. “You weren’t shooting people, just things – like this.” She held her portable where I could see it; she’d captured several pictures of the oncoming zombie horde from that morning. Unlovely specimens, in varying degrees of decay. A few maybe could have passed as still living if they’d had any animation in their expressions; they must have been very recently dead. The others didn’t look anything like breathing human beings.
It helped me get myself under control again. “Thanks, Doc,” I whispered back, shakily.
Then I heard Eddie whoop behind me.
I turned around. I didn't recognize what he'd uncovered, other than that it looked big as a whale and about as ungainly. "What the frack is that?" I asked, honestly baffled.
"It sure ain't what it looks like," Eddie chortled, walking around the unlikely looking thing, actually rubbing his hands together in glee. "No way to get a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado land cruiser down here... this has to be the antigrav flyer. Don't know why it's got the classic chassis, but don't she look sweet!"
I gave it the once-over. The unusual bodylines must have created an optical illusion; from twelve feet away, it looked big enough to stage a Busby Berkely musical in. A trunk the size of a swimming pool between two Paleologic shark fins capped with ruby red signal lights, and a front grill that looked positively carnivorous. This was a flyer...?
"Somebody must have had a sense of humor,” I said. “They couldn’t just give us a standard four seater?”
Eddie shook his head. "Back in the late teens there was a brief fad for vintage vehicle reproductions," he said. Eddie is a vehicle nut, with the same kind of love for old automobiles and aircraft that my not so dear departed daddy had for antique viewsees. “This must be a mock up of a ’59 El Dorado over a standard AG engine.”
Dr. Hansea noted, “The first several generations of anti-grav plants were bigger than the ones we use these days, they would have needed a bigger chassis to house it.”
“Easier to armor a hulk like this, too. But it won’t have a built in cloak,” Eddie said. Then he brightened. “That means it will be faster than the stuff we’re used to today. A cloak sucks maybe 30% of your energy curve.” He paused and glanced upward. “Assumin’ I can get this baby started, you know we’re gonna have a problem with the upper exit.”
Immediately above the car, ten feet up, there was a large metal hatch set in the concrete ceiling, just big enough to accommodate the monster flyer. Beyond that, no doubt, would be the access shaft that Science Sector’s precursor agency – whatever it had been called – would have used to get the sky-whale down here. But that would have been no more than 24 months after the 12 Minute Failure, long before the Globe had started using the New York craters as an all purpose dumping ground for every kind of low grade radioactive and toxic waste. Wherever that shaft had originally led, its exit would be buried under a drift of poisonous garbage now.
Something I thought I’d seen in those stacks of supply crates might solve that problem. “See if you can get it running,” I told Eddie, “I need to look at something over here.”
The old LAW rocket launcher kicked on my shoulder like a Missouri mule, causing the flyer to dip on its gyroscopes slightly towards the side where I was leaning out an open window in the back. A whitish-red streak of fire lanced upward into the darkness above us; the flivver’s built in radar had warned us that fifty yards above, the access shaft was completely blocked. I dropped the one use plastic tube and pulled back into the car’s cabin like a scared cat. Up above, a rose of fire bloomed and a reverberating boom echoed back down the shaft. Then junk started to rain down on us, some of it trailing little licks of flame. Eddie had set the EM antigrav field surrounding the car to its strongest repel mode, so the debris bounced, tumbled, and slid off around us and continued on down towards the cache 75 feet below.
After a minute or so, things calmed down again. Eddie consulted the read outs on the Texas-sized dashboard. “There’s a hole up there,” he said, “but it ain’t gonna pass a fish this size. Hit ‘er again.”
I picked up another rocket launcher from the back seat, leaned out the window, and repeated the previous procedure. One further rain of debris later, Eddie pronounced we had us a usable exit.
He gunned that flyer up out of there like a singed pigeon; the insides of the New York City craters are still pretty hot even without ten years of accumulated industrial poison and none of us were anxious to have our gametes scorched. At four miles up he leveled off. For just a second I could see the entire vista of Newer New York City spread out off to our left and below, the five mile wide octagonal float platforms linked together like faceted costume jewelry, the ramshackle buildings and tawdry lit domes covering them like a crust barely discernible from this altitude. I knew the linked octagons stretched for miles out into the Atlantic off the coast of the original city, but from this vantage you could practically blot out the entire thing with your palm.
Then Eddie rotated the gyros and realigned the EM vectors and we started the long inverted gravity ‘slide’ back towards New Washington, and home base.
It had seemed like there was a lot of smoke coming up from Newer New York, in that fast glance I’d had before Eddie laid us in the groove. But maybe that was just my imagination. “Get a news broadcast,” I said, leaning forward over the back of the seat to punch buttons on the dashboard.
“Get outta there, you’ll overload the injectors,” Eddie growled, slapping my hand away. It didn’t hurt my feelings; Eddie is the hardware guy in our team. His post-grad degrees are in mechanical and chemical engineering and he’s got about thirty different certifications in various tech fields, including communications and cybernetics. I have a couple of Masters degrees myself; mine are in things like exotic psychology and software engineering. They don’t pick Science Sector field agents out of a hat. Sometimes you have to know something about science in our jobs, if only so you don’t blow up the wrong piece of machinery.
“This thing doesn’t have a three-vee,” Eddie told me. “Here’s a radio.” He turned some knobs on what I would have sworn was a mini mwave cooker and after a second, the sounds of chaos filled the cabin:
“…this is Patrolman Roberta Desjardins, Sector Car 12. I am sheltering in my inoperative vehicle; it is overturned but no longer burning at coordinates 17-12… my partner Patrolman Gutierrez has suffered multiple bites by the attackers who overturned our car… I have not been able to stabilize him… requesting a bus forthwith at coordinates 17-12… my partner is losing blood from his wounds… is anyone out there? Please respond, please respond…!”
She sounded breathless and scared; pretty much exactly the way I felt. In the background, the sounds of gunshots and explosions, a crackling that might have been distant flames, intermittent screams. And someone’s labored breathing… in, out… in, out…
“Can we get down there to her?” I asked, already knowing what Eddie would say.
“We gotta report in,” he said, tersely. “And get the doc to a lab. That cop’s gonna have to hope her own squad can get her some back up.” Eddie jerked his head angrily. “Anyway, I got no idea where coordinates 17-12 are and no equipment for trackin’ a radio signal.”
“So it’s happening everywhere,” Dr. Hansea said quietly.
“In NNY, anyway,” I said.
In the twenty minutes it took us to slide to New Washington, broadcasts confirmed it was happening everywhere… everywhere we could pick up, anyway. The dead were walking, attacking the living, and civilization was on the verge of complete collapse from the resultant mass panic.
One of the things each of the three of us had been trying to do all morning was report in to base by secure q-link. But all of our phones had gone silent right about the time the blackout had hit, and they were still dead. It fretted me some; I don’t understand the technology behind a q-link, but I do know there isn’t supposed to be anything that can interfere with or even monitor a quantum communication. Science Sector has perfected a technique for tracing q-link connections, sometimes, when the stars all align and the shooter rolls boxcars, and even that is more than anyone else has ever managed.
So a q-link blackout along with everything else was worrisome. I could understand a sudden zombie apocalypse causing a power blackout; stuff like that happens when there is sudden social chaos caused by mass terror. But I could not for the life of me figure how an onslaught of walking dead could interfere with the quantum linkages that hook together the universe.
It sent a shiver up my spine, but there wasn’t a thing I could do about it, so I tried to put it out of mind.
The flivver’s built in radio didn’t have much range. We were ten miles out of Science Sector’s base when we finally raised someone inside, and kark knows what they thought we were doing, calling on an EM broadcaster… I was just glad someone there had thought of dusting off an old fashioned wireless set when the q-links all went down. Eddie exchanged the passwords of the day with the watch commander and we were directed to a camouflaged entrance just off Tennessee Avenue, holographically disguised as a smelting yard. Eddie floated us onto the cradle as easy as a mama bear putting her cub to bed for the winter, and the lift platform’s built in anti-grav generator lowered us slick as silk to the base, six hundred feet underneath New Washington.
I admit, when those four foot thick blast hatches clanged shut over top of us, I nearly whooped in relief. Being attacked by things that had no business being upright and moving around in a subway tunnel had been bad enough, but watching the whole world wobble on its axis because those same things were crawling out of their graves everywhere was downright goddam nerve wracking. I could have gotten down and kissed Sector’s steel plated floors, I was that glad to get inside out of the crazy.
Techs took charge of the flivver, and a minute later we handed off the doc to the sergeant at arms and then both headed for the Chief of Staff’s office to report. I wasn’t looking forward to it and I doubted Eddie was either. The new Chief was a political appointee and, in my opinion, no replacement for her predecessor. That could have been because the previous Chief had been one of my D.I.’s at Sumac Bay, then I’d served under him in the Ranistan campaigns, and then he’d personally sworn me in when I signed on with the Sector. Or it could have been because the new Chief was a worthless slitch whose only expertise lay in career advancement through the political rats nest that security services are supposed to haughtily ignore, being presumably above all that sort of nonsense.
On the other hand, the current Chief’s predecessor had earned an administrative transfer to a Moon desk counting crater rocks for trying to keep Science Sector out of politics, so maybe I should brush up my office politicking skills. I doubted I had that much willpower long term, though. I wasn’t sure I had enough to get through this debriefing, to be honest.
Then we ran into even more aggravating nonsense – a brand new security checkpoint outside the new Chief’s office. Now, look, you – every Sector agent is ex military, or an ex cop, or worked in some other security service before signing on here. We all know you can’t just let any Tom, Jane or Harriet wander around a secured area. Which is why we keep track of who goes in and out of secured zones slightly more zealously than a mama duck keeps track of her kids.
But once an agent has passed six different body scans and a DNA sampler on the way in to the warrens, it starts to tread on the absurd to post a guard outside somebody’s office – Chief of the Sector or not – and demand that everyone surrender their heaters before entry into the Holy of Holies.
Above and beyond all that, it’s always been standard practice in Science Sector for every field agent to go armed at all times, on premises and off. You never know where, why, or when trouble is going to suddenly jump up and try to take a chunk out of you, but a thirty round clip of heatseeking or explosive tipped ammo and a pistol-shaped machine to project it with will nip a lot of foolishness right in the bud every time. Or, at least, so my one time boss Colonel Logan had believed, and I for one agreed with him. I’ve always felt that giving up your weapon is a real bad habit to get into. For Eddie, it’s a personal trauma.
Nonetheless, after a bit of futile bitching to the Chief’s exec – a good joe named Donner who knew bad policy when he saw it but had to follow orders just like the rest of us – we handed over our gats and were waved into the inner sanctum.
“Report,” the new Chief ordered as soon as we were in her office. All we could see was the back of her desk chair. Colonel Logan had never bothered with b.s. like that, but the new Chief had to play her little dominance games.
Eddie laid it out for her, his tone and word choice much more professional than you’d expect if you only ever ran into him outside HQ, and hadn’t seen his C.V.
When he finished, the new Chief swiveled her chair around and fixed me with what she most likely thought of as a gimlet gaze. “You concur?” she barked, or tried to, anyway, at me. 5’3 in her stocking feet and what her political bosses probably thought of as ‘a living doll’, I didn’t think she carried off a ‘ring of authority’ very well. But I freely admit to bias.
“They looked like walking corpses,” I said. “Smelled like it, too.”
“Corpses don’t walk,” she replied, her tone unpleasant, “therefore, Agent Zemyna, I doubt they were ‘walking corpses’, or ‘zombies’, or whatever you want to call them.”
“So what caused the power failure?” I asked, feeling myself getting hot under the collar and not caring much. “What’s causing all the chaos and mayhem up and down the seaboard?” What, I wanted to say, overturned a cop car in New Brooklyn and bit chunks out of Patrolman Gutierrez? I didn’t, though.
“There has been some sort of outbreak of mass hysteria,” the new Chief admitted, never batting either of her pretty blue eyes. “Violent mass hysteria in many cases… but this notion of the dead rising again and attacking the living…” She grimaced. “You two are supposed to be trained observers – professional agents, two of our best in the field.” She shook her head. “I’ve long suspected my predecessor’s judgment was… spotty, in some areas.”
Then she smiled like a piranha at me. “Although in your case at least, my dear, I can certainly comprehend what spun him so strongly in your favor.” She was practically cooing.
“You –“ I understood in that moment why we hadn’t been allowed in with our weapons. You can insult any single one of us all you want and all we’ll do is smile at you and memorize your vital statistics for some later, off duty, occasion. But an insult like that to Colonel Logan would have gotten her shot by anyone who had ever worked with him, and I had to assume she knew it, too.
“That’s a professional libel in front of a witness,” Eddie observed mildly. I may have been the only living person in North America who knew just how dangerous that mild tone was, coming from him. “C’mon, Myrna Loy, I’ll help you type up the complaint.”
He was trying to get me out of there as quick as he could, before one of us went diving over Colonel Logan’s desk to wipe the smirk off that bitch’s china doll face with our boots. I was so angry I nearly didn’t notice her hand moving on her desk top.
Eddie squinted at her in a way I knew meant he was cycling his optics, then grimaced and started to bring his right hand up. The new Chief beat him to the draw, most likely because she was already bringing a weapon up; there was a PHUT of compressed air and a fat dart was hanging from the front of Eddie’s tunic. He went as limp as a sack of laundry and started to crumple to the ground.
She swung her arm across her body towards me but I wasn’t exactly standing there flatfooted. I was already cycling my own optics through to IR again on a hunch; I hadn’t figured I’d need active scanners inside HQ, but was only mildly shocked to see that she radiated no body heat at all, just like all the deaders we’d shot at that morning.
Science Sector agents are never really unarmed. Our issue pistols are modified for accuracy and to take non-standard ammunition, of course, and we have various goodies salted around our persons at all times, from useful bits of hardware embedded in our boot-soles to the varied contents of our agents’ vests. But even stripped to the buff we can nail you from a distance if we discover a sudden need to do it; one of the first modifications the Sector puts us through is surgically removing the bones of our dominant-hand index finger and replacing them with ceramic chemical reservoirs, knuckle sized power batteries and a refined glassite lens good for two, maybe three nice strong shots of lased energy. The beam won’t take out a carrier or anything, but it’s sufficient to burn through three inches of tungsten steel.
Beam weapons are probably at the very tippy top of the ‘too hot for general release’ list that most of the stuff Science Sector invents gets put on, but they’re too firkin effective not to use. So our laser fingers are a compromise; we get a couple of shots if we really need them, from a weapons platform that even the most forgetful agent isn’t likely to drop in unfriendly territory. If we need to do more damage than that, well, that’s what we have our sidearms for. They’re pretty souped up, but when you get down to brass tacks, they’re solid slug throwers for all their modifications; if a hostile gets his or her hands on a Science Sector special, they’re not going to learn much of anything that would revolutionize the state of world weaponry.
However incompetent she was, the Chief had to know about the finger lasers, and that’s probably why she rushed her shot at me with the trank pistol. The dart meant for me took an inch of lace off my left jacket cuff, and then a blue line of fire vaporized the end of the plastex sheathing my right index finger and drilled a neat hole through Chief Slitch’s left eye and out the back of her skull. Her corpse hit the carpet on her floor barely a second after Eddie’s unconscious body had gone down with a heavier thump.
I went carefully around her desk and looked at her body. It was twitching and shuddering in a way nothing living or dead should have been after having a hole drilled straight through its brain’s left hemisphere. I shook my head, trying to jump start my thinking processes. What the hell was she? No body temperature would indicate a zombie, but she sure wasn’t one of the ‘arrrr arrr eat your brains’ type Eddie and I had been shooting all morning. And why had she tried to take both of us with tranquilizers? It made no sense.
One thing was certain – not only had she changed procedures to disarm agents entering her presence, but she’d also disabled any kind of outside monitoring. Otherwise, a weapons discharge in the Chief’s office would have resulted in a swarm of armed agents piling in from every direction in seconds flat… but a full minute had gone by and it was still just me, her and softly snoring Eddie.
I sat down behind her desk and kicked her over onto her side. She rattled and thumped and drummed her feet against the wall a few times, then finally went still. I used her desk screen to pull up a directory of Sector personnel, then coded a call through the internal comm system.
When Dr. Hansea’s face appeared on the screen, I hit the accept button… or reached to do so, anyway. At that exact moment, the Chief twisted around like a snake and set her teeth into my ankle, clamping down hard, worrying it like a terrier. It hurt enough to get my full attention. I yanked the leg she was clamped onto up, folding my knee next to my chin. Her head came up with my ankle, one good eye glaring sheer blue hate at me as her jaws kept working my anklebone. I brought my other foot down hard, doing my best to punch the narrow heel of my boot as far into that death-maddened eye as possible.
There was a wet crunch, and I swear she squealed like a pig caught in a board fence. The impact knocked her mouth off my leg leaving several teeth embedded in my flesh. She rolled onto her back, writhing, shuddering, and continuing to squeal. I jumped up, went into the air, and landed with both boot-heels on her face. Her head squished like a rotten cantaloupe, bits of skull and expensively coifed hair spreading across splattered brains. Her squeal cut off as if guillotined; with a final spasm, she went still.
“Bitch,” I muttered, leaning on the desk and breathing hard. My ankle was throbbing like I’d been snakebit, and I could see the wound was bleeding freely. It made me uneasily aware of that one cop broadcast we’d heard in the car on the way down… the cop’s partner, bleeding profusely from multiple bite wounds, and her unable to stabilize him. In the old viewsees my daddy had loved so much, a bite from a creature like this never healed; it inevitably festered and killed…
I felt woozy, and sagged back into the Chief’s former chair. The room was swimming around me. Bolts of pain were streaking through my nervous system from the bite now. I bit down on a scream. Not that anyone would hear me in here…
Something was happening to me, something awful. I could feel coldness starting to creep in from the ends of my limbs, spreading steadily towards my heart and brain. I thought about Eddie lying unconscious on the floor… still alive… warm and fresh… helpless. Part of me wanted to throw up, but another part of me felt ravenous hunger.
I had to get out. Colonel Logan had once shown me his escape hatch; every commander’s office in the Sector has one. I hit all four directional arrows on his keyboard with the palm of my hand and leaned back in the chair. It tilted backwards as if on a swivel, dumping me out through a just revealed wall opening behind me and onto a nearly frictionless chute. I slid backwards into blackness…
I came to lying across something soft. I grunted and pushed myself to my knees, then got clumsily to my feet. I felt slow and stiff… strong, though. And very hungry.
I was lying on thick padding at the base of the escape chute. I knew where I was because Colonel Logan had shown me once, when he’d shown me the chute itself… a small emergency cache much like the one Eddie, Dr. Hansea and I had accessed a few hours earlier. It held weapons, useful equipment, a small two seat flyer, this one looking like exactly what it was, a ’25 Forge Zephyr.
I wasn’t interested in any of it. I looked at the shaft I’d just woken up at the bottom of. An emergency ladder made of built in U brackets ran up one side; twelve feet up, the four foot square opening I must have slid out of gaped… but the walls of that were too smooth, at too steep a pitch. That was a pity; the thought of Eddie possibly still lying there in the office, knocked out and helpless, like a great big side of beef on a plate, was all but irresistible to me. On one level, anyway.
On another, I was full of cold, malevolent contempt for every living human being on planet Earth… but I was fully aware of the capacities of the agents scuttling around the Sector offices above me like so many roaches. If the Chief-thing… stupid, worthless failure that she had been… had indeed cut off all outside monitoring, then it was unlikely anyone not in the office would reconstruct what had happened… no, not true. Eddie would wake up eventually and report what he’d seen. I couldn’t get to him… at which point, I remembered the interrupted comm call. I’d been trying to ask Dr. Hansea for advice. By now Eddie had most likely been revived, then, and it was all about to hit the fan. Once he reported that the Chief had apparently been some different kind of zombie than those running amok outside, strategic surprise would be lost. People would start looking for infiltrators with no body heat. Science Sector optics weren’t available to the general public but there were bulky visors that worked nearly as well available at any electronics store.
I turned and went over to the small flyer. There would be a trigger mechanism… there. I hit a sequence of buttons near the AG initiator and a trap door yawned open in the ceiling. Meant as an escape shaft, but it would have hatches off it leading back into the Sector itself.
I was already mentally mapping out Sector’s lowermost levels, which were probably only a few floors above where I was now. I got into the flyer and took it up slowly. Thirty feet up I spotted a ventilation shaft covered with a grill. It only took me a second to rip it free; I had always been strong, but now I was much, much stronger. I slithered out of the flyer’s cabin into the shaft like a snake and started working my way forward on stomach and elbows.
While I crawled I worked a problem in my head – how had the former Chief kept standard security scans from reporting her lack of body heat? The only thing I could figure was that she must have used her clearance to get into the subsystem and jigger the read outs. That wouldn’t fool an agent’s personal optics, but then, who would bother to scan someone inside Sector itself?
What I didn’t know was whether she’d reset the thermal scanners to work on anyone, or just when she herself was being imaged. It wouldn’t much matter. I was pretty sure that HQ’s cold fusion power plant was on this level; if I could get there, a few pulled wires and one laser bolt into a specific mass of chemicals would turn Science Sector, and the square mile or so of New Washington directly above it, into a rapidly expanding plasma cloud.
On one level, I was still very much Myrna Loy Zemyna – but a much more primitive, primal version of myself, one with no ego or superego, one that felt only bloodlust and hunger. On another, I was something entirely different – something cold and vicious, something that regarded living human beings as filth, nearly worthless offal that should be disposed of at the first opportunity.
That ‘I’, whatever it was, did not want to eat people, although it would if it had to. It just wanted every living human being dead… for reasons that, if I ever understood them, I carry no memory of now.
I’d been counting grills in the floor of the shaft as I crawled over them. When I reached ‘seven’, I stopped and lowered my face to the grillwork, squinting down into the room below. Had I been alive, it would have taken my eyes some little time to adjust to the bright illumination there, but, then, if I’d been alive I wouldn’t have been able to see at all in the pitch dark tunnel I’d been crawling through.
Being dead, though, neither too much light nor too little seemed to trouble me at all.
Directly beneath me was the curved ceramalloy dome holding the bulk of the cold fusion plant. I could see the outstretched legs of a watchman, obviously sitting in a chair just out of my sight off to the left. I coldly wished I could torment that bungling Chief-creature; had it not disarmed me, this would have been much easier. Certainly the agent in the room would be armed, and I could not imagine any ruse that would let me drop down out of a ventilation shaft into the central power chamber without getting shot… probably several times. Even if the agent were someone who recognized me, chances are, they’d still shoot me.
While cold, vicious me was still trying to dope it out, hungry bloodthirsty me slammed my hands into the grill, knocking it out of its frame, sending the clips that had held it in place ricocheting around the room like tiny brass bullets. I dropped with a growl through the hole. The agent – some dark skinned man about forty years old with a shaven head, nobody I recognized – was jumping out of his chair, a printout see-sawing to the floor, his hand already blurring towards his shoulder holster.
Stiff and clumsy as I was, there was no way I could reach him at a run. My upper mind was wondering if I had another shot in the finger laser when instead I straightened up from the crouch my fall had driven me down into and sprang on him, the new power in my legs hurling me across the distance between us like a crossbow bolt. I hit him hard, slamming him backwards over his upturned chair. He landed badly, cracking his head loudly against the tiled floor. I ripped desperately at the front of his coverall – Sector agents on duty wear a kind of plaslick body-suit that will shed most bullets and turn most blades – wanting urgently to get at his flesh.
Then I realized he was already cooling – apparently he’d broken his neck, or maybe smashed his skull in going backwards over that chair. I lost interest in him as food; dead flesh had no appeal to me. And the ‘other’ me was aware that even down this deep beneath the ground, reanimation would take place within minutes. As I hadn’t bitten him, he would be a drone, but another pair of hands would make the work go faster.
I got back to my feet and waited for him to get back up again, too. I could have set his chair upright and sat down, but felt no need to; a dead woman can stand – or sit – or crawl through a tight passage that would uncomfortably compress, and quickly exhaust, most living humans – forever and a day, if necessary.
Around five minutes went by, and still he didn’t stir. Lazy scum. My dominant self started ‘feeling’ for the vestigial, id-driven mind that should have been forming within him, but there was nothing there. He must have sustained severe brain damage in his fall, too much to allow the reanimation process to take hold. What a loathsome thing. I found myself kicking the body around the room, lips drawn back in an infuriated snarl.
After a few minutes of this I controlled myself, or, rather, my strange alien upper mind exerted control over itself. No matter, I could do what needed to be done myself, it would just take longer…
Then the door to the room snapped back into its frame, and Eddie was standing there, pointing his gun at me.
“Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy,” he said, and he sounded positively mournful. “I told you, if you got yerself kilt I was gonna have to do your corpse a mischief.”
He should have fired. I felt contempt for the mortal sentiment that had stayed him, even for a moment. Slow as I was, I could almost certainly take him with the finger laser, assuming it had another shot left in it… especially if I could distract him.
“Eddie,” I said, “don’t. It’s me, I’m okay…” I started to raise both hands, palms out. I was slow… but if he would keep hesitating…
He shook his head, his face set like stone. “Sorry, honeychile, no sale. I’m scannin’ you in the IR right now and you’re as cool as a cucumber. Whatever the hell the Chief was, you are too, and that ain’t right.” I saw his knuckle start to go white on the trigger –
By then all I had to do was turn my wrist and point my finger. Another laser bolt snapped out – not through his heart, where I was aiming, but piercing his shoulder like a cobalt blue harpoon. My dead body’s hand-eye coordination left something to be desired, too. Humans were so worthless.
Eddie howled and dropped his gun. The smell of roasting meat from the neat hole drilled through his shoulder perversely churned my stomach; as a zombie I preferred my food raw. But he was still alive and plenty of him was left uncharred; I sprang on him off steel piston leg muscles, hitting him like a battering ram, knocking him off his feet and slamming us both back into the opposite wall clear across the hall.
He was wearing body armor but I ripped it aside like foamboard. My higher mind was telling me to kill him quickly and get about my business but the lower me wasn’t having any of it. I was hungry, and I was going to feast --
Something hit me very hard at the base of my skull. Brain trauma is the one thing that will destroy the effectiveness of one of these undead shells, but I wasn’t exactly worried, any more than you’d be about getting a tear in an old tunic you didn’t much care for, anyway. But I did feel a burst of fury and loathing, that some human creature had snuck up behind me and dared to attack me in some fashion. And contempt, that the primitive human part left in me had made me vulnerable in the first place.
Then I was spinning down into blackness again.
I woke up on something soft for the second time in a day, and for a moment, I was afraid I’d dreamed everything, and was coming to at the bottom of that drop shaft once more, and was still dead, and had to do it all over again. But no… this time I was lying on my back. My mouth tasted like a wounded possum had gone to ground just behind my front teeth. Both my ankle and my head hurt like billy-be-switched, but the pain was almost pleasant to me. Feeling anything but hunger was sweet indeed.
I took a deep breath… then let it out in a sigh of sheer bliss. I hadn’t realized before just how good it feels to breathe. I hadn’t been consciously aware that I’d stopped doing it, but I sure was glad I’d started up again.
I opened my eyes, or tried to; they seemed to be gummed shut. I blinked a few times and tears started flowing; after a second or two, that dissolved the crust on my eyelids enough for me to be able to see around me. My surroundings were blurry, but the washed out pastels told me all I needed to know. A hospital… no… the bleep-bleep-bleep from behind my head was a Sector automed. Sick bay, then.
Something moved off to my right and I tried to shy away instinctively, which led to my next discovery -- I couldn’t move. Dr. Hansea bent over me, reaching across my body. “Relax,” she said, smiling warmly at me. “Let me get these restraints off you. Then you can try and sit up.”
I looked up at her dumbly. A memory popped up in my head… me looking at Eddie like one of those cartoon cats imagining a cartoon mouse as a big ol’ country ham or a chain of link sausages. It made me want to heave.
“Where’s Eddie?” I asked, my voice as raspy as a buzzsaw. “Is he all right?” I felt fetters at my left wrist fall away, then at my right, and I sat up, using an elbow for a prop. “What did I do to him?”
In silent answer, Doc Hansea moved to one side. Beyond her, in a bed against the far wall no more than eight feet away from the one I was in, I saw Eddie. He was out cold again, with a tube running down from an automed mounted against the wall above him and into his left bicep. There was an ugly looking burn on his right shoulder the size of a half dollar, perfectly round… but it was already the pinkish-white of healing tissue.
“Agent Barrow is recovering nicely,” Doc Hansea said, almost primly. “All he has is a deep laser burn and several broken ribs.”
I knew enough about automeds to understand that with a burn as bad as the one I’d given Eddie, he’d be unconscious for as much as 48 hours in a regenerative trance. When the Ministry of Global Economics gets around to okaying automeds for general release, the entire medical profession as we know it is going to roll over and stick its feet up in the air. And I gotta figure that’s why we keep ‘em under wraps, although policy decisions like that are way over my paygrade.
But we have access to ‘em, which means, if we’re lucky enough to survive a hit, all we have to do is crawl into sickbay and hook ourselves up to one of the clever little suckers. The darn thing scans our cell structure, diagnoses whatever is wrong, manufacturers whatever medicine we need, and administers it until we get better. For serious wounds, the automed knocks your ass out cold then activates your natural but mostly latent regenerative abilities.
“How long has he been down?” I more or less croaked.
“You’ve both been here nearly 14 hours,” the doc told me. She paused, then smiled, something that made her pretty face stunningly beautiful. “I am pleased to report that according to my own analysis of the automed’s datastream, all reanimation particles in your bloodstream have been completely neutralized.”
I rolled up on one elbow, being careful while I did it, as I’d discovered there was a line running out of my left bicep and up to somewhere behind my head – no doubt where the automed was mounted. “Reanimation particles?” I asked. Obviously I’d gotten behind the learning curve some. “Okay, doc, let’s have the straight dope… what happened to me?”
Dr. Hansea sighed. “You died,” she said bluntly, “and then reanimated as what I am referring to in my papers as a ‘lord zombie’,” she explained. “The Chief was apparently one, too.” She perched on the edge of my bed and looked at me solemnly. I was shocked to see her eyes were moist. “You died,” she repeated, as if she honestly couldn’t believe it. “You were dead. I… apparently, when I hit you with the taser, the electric shock caused your heart to begin pumping again… it… the ‘lord zombie’ reanimation particles kept your brain perfectly preserved… a one in a million chance…”
Then she shocked the frack out of me, by leaning in and kissing me right on the mouth! Not just a little ‘welcome back to the living’ buss, either; that little lady was kissing me all out. And she knew how, too.
Shocked or not, I did my best to give as good as I got.
Finally, some interval I couldn’t begin to measure later, she pulled back from me and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “You died,” she said again, almost reprovingly. She glared at me. “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’ve been head over heels for Doc Hansea for nearly a year now; she’d never so much as given me a tender look before. I hadn’t even heard a rumor she might be into girls, and usually the gay grapevine is very reliable. “If you’re gonna kiss me like that every time I come back to life,” I said, finally, “I may have to do it more often.”
She grinned, which was a first; I’d seen her smile before, but a grin is a different animal entirely. “I will be happy to kiss you like that whenever you like and circumstances allow,” she said, her cheeks flushing a little red, “but please don’t die again, Agent Zemyna.”
I chuckled. “Doc, a kiss like that is tantamount to marriage in some cultures. I think you can call me Myrna Loy.”
“And please call me Veronica,” she said back, her smile widening. “Now… whatever you remember would be of the greatest usefulness in a diagnosis of the condition, Myrna Loy.”
I realized I was parched. There was a stainless steel trolley pushed up next to the bed holding a cup with a straw sticking out of it. I drained most of the fluid in the cup – not water, but some salty sports drink, probably loaded with electrolytes – and then lay back on my pillows, suddenly nearly exhausted again.
I started to report everything I remembered; Veronica had a recorder and took it all down.
When I got to the part where I’d jumped and accidentally killed the poor power room watch stander, I felt a burst of sorrow… and nausea. I choked up for a second.
“Ken Udell,” Veronica told me, quietly. “I don’t know anything about him, but we recovered his ID. Please remember, Myrna Loy, he died in the line of duty, and it’s not like you were in your right mind, or even alive, when it happened.”
That was true, although it didn’t make me feel much better. I bucked up some, though, when Doc Hansea mentioned she was going to recommend Agent Udell get an Order of Supreme Sacrifice. I took another sip of the drink in my cup, gagged a little, then finished my report.
When I was done, Veronica sat there for a minute or so, obviously thinking about what I’d said.
“All right,” she said, nodding. “All right. Here’s what I know…”
She proceeded to fill me on what had happened while I was ‘dead’:
I was surprised to learn that I’d apparently been out cold… or dead, whichever… for at least an hour, down at the bottom of that getaway pit. Neither Veronica nor Cal Donner had known about the escape hatch, the Chief had been really, truly dead, and Eddie had been out cold. Nobody knew where I’d managed to spirit myself off to, but without any recordings of what had happened in the office, it was assumed I’d killed the new Chief and somehow beat it out of Dodge. So Veronica had taken Eddie’s sleeping body and the Chief’s corpse back to her lab for analysis, given Eddie a shot of antidote once she figured out what dope was in his bloodstream, and then dissected the Chief.
If I’d left any of the Chief’s brain intact, Veronica would probably have come up with some answers more quickly. As it was, it was probably right around the time I was (as Veronica puts it) ‘reanimating’ in that drop shaft that she finally started to figure out what the Chief must have been… helped along by the digital recording of everything Eddie had seen in the Chief’s office that she pulled off his ocular implants.
It seemed safe to assume that the Chief had planned to convert Eddie and I to ‘lord zombies’… maybe she’d intended to convert as many Sector agents as she could. So she’d turned her office into a trap. Insisting that any agents allowed in be disarmed was just part of that. Getting close enough even to an unarmed agent for a quick bite might have proven problematic… we’re all pretty alert; you’re not paranoid when they really are out to get you… so that was why she had the tranquilizer gun prepared.
It bothered Veronica at first, that the Chief would take the trouble to knock people out, but we figured, if she simply shot to kill, then agents would reanimate as ‘dumb’ zombies… and obviously, thinking zombies that could pass as humans would be more useful as infiltrators. But to accomplish that, the Chief would need to make her intended victims helpless first… yet still keep them alive, so she could bite them.
It was about then that Veronica started to consider the idea that perhaps I hadn’t been alive when I’d left the Chief’s office… and if the Chief had managed to convert me to a ‘lord zombie’, then having me running around loose somewhere in Sector office space was a terrifying prospect. Our ID badges all have mildly radioactive tracking strips in them; Eddie ran a quick search through internal sensors and located me… moving slowly through a ventilation shaft down on the lowermost level.
The Sector had, at that point, still largely been in chaos with the new Chief dead, and neither Eddie nor Veronica had had any real idea who, if anyone, they should report to. So they had taken off after me themselves. Veronica had suggested splitting up when they realized I was already in the fusion room; Eddie would go in the front door, while she crawled down the same ventilation shaft I’d been using, from the opposite direction.
So while Eddie held my full attention, Veronica had dropped into the room behind me and hit me at the base of the skull with an electrostun. The sudden surge of current had dropped me like a rock… and she and Eddie had been amazed to see me shudder on the ground, then start to breathe again.
Here Veronica started to question me again. “You reported that during your time as a zombie, your consciousness felt bifurcated,” she said intently. “You said your own personality was present in a very vestigial form –“
“All there was of me in there was hunger and an urge to kill any living humans I ran across,” I told her. “Drag ‘em down, whack ‘em with a rock, and eat ‘em while they was still quiverin’.”
“But you also said there was another mind present – a ‘higher’ mind, a more dominant one,” she said. “Was this, perhaps, a sub personality, some kind of branching of your own mind, perhaps your subconscious, freed by the death of your conscious mind to take control of your body? Or… something else?”
I shuddered as I remembered that hideous, evil presence in my ‘dead’ mind. “It wasn’t me,” I said, filled with revulsion at the though. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t even remotely human. What was left of me wanted to knock down folks and devour them alive. It’s horrible to say it, but that’s a human urge… primitive, completely uncivilized, but human -- goes back to the caves, I reckon.” I shook my head. “The other mind, the one that was mostly in charge… that one had nothing but contempt and loathing for us as a race. It didn’t even see us as cattle. Just… annoyances. Exasperating obstacles. Something it hated purely for existing. Something that had to be annihilated.”
“Did you… do you have any idea where it came from?” The very idea seemed to disturb Veronica nearly as much as it did me. “Its nature, its origin…?”
Just thinking about it made me want to heave, but I tried to recapture some of the feeling of that vileness inside me. “The darkness,” I choked out, finally. “The darkness outside. I don’t know what that means, but that’s where it came from. The darkness between the stars.”
It was Veronica’s turn to shake her head and look very disturbed. “I dislike data that I cannot explain,” she finally said, very slowly. “But the closest I can come to a working model for what you are describing is…” she hesitated, then went on, her voice heavy with distaste: “…demonic possession.”
The hair stood up on the back of my neck when she said it. Zombie viewsees weren’t the only things my pop had had in his collection; quite a few had been about people having their minds and bodies taken over by malevolent supernatural entities. But in the stories they were always living people. But those were only stories, anyway.
“Demons possessing corpses?” I said. It sounded crazy… but the whole business was nuts, anyway. My entire epidermis tried to wrinkle up into one big piece of gooseflesh at the thought.
But what had happened to me was, apparently, only the beginning. After KOing me, Veronica had called for help from the power room, and seen to it that Eddie and I were brought to the same room in sick bay where she could keep an eye on us. She had been, she said, especially worried about me, but she felt that if I ever woke up, it might help my mental state a great deal to see Eddie alive and getting healed up himself.
No more than an hour and a half had gone by since we had both been hooked up to automeds when literally all hell had broken loose outside our room. Veronica said she’d looked out the door once after she’d heard gunshots and screams, and she’d seen what were obviously zombies… dumb zombies, the ‘rrrrrr’ ‘rrrrrr’ kind… down the hall, grappling with one of the techs assigned to sick bay. As a non-combat science specialist, Veronica had never gone armed, and of course Eddie and I were both out cold. So she’d done the only sensible thing she could do – slammed and bolted the thick metal door to our room.
Screams, shots, occasional explosions, and other assorted mayhem-related noises had continued for several more hours. Veronica said she immediately networked her portable into the base data-web, but apparently all was bloody chaos outside. Scattered messages indicated that zombies were attacking living agents and resident staff in every section of headquarters. Veronica herself had seen that several of the zombies in the hall outside had been naked except for the temporary ID tattoos used down in our Morgue Section. Science Sector does a peck of medical research, at any given time Morgue Section has custody of more than a hundred relatively fresh bodies in refrigerated drawers. Veronica could only assume that somehow, some, most, or all of those bodies had been reanimated and were running amok. Perhaps as the result of some scheme our new Chief had put in motion before I’d destroyed her… it seemed likely, but there was no way to know.
Our subterranean HQ is built like an old fashioned submarine or a spaceship; every sub-section can be locked off from any other with airtight doors as thick as bank vaults in case of some kind of emergency. How the former morgue inmates had managed to get past all those lockdown points was also unknown… but Veronica figured, and I agreed with her, that they probably had some help from some ‘smart’ zombies… infiltrators.
For the last ten hours, things had been quiet outside… as quiet as a mass grave. Veronica hadn’t opened the door, though… she had decided that, as long as the power stayed on and the automeds in the room continued to work, she should wait until either Eddie or I, or preferably both of us, were functional again. She was pretty sure that if she tried to get back to her lab, or anywhere else, without an escort, she wouldn’t last very long. Better to wait for one or both of us… especially since, in the time she’d been sitting here thinking, she’d actually come up with a theory as to what was going on… and a plan for dealing with it.
One she would need help to put into effect.
I remembered how relieved I had felt when we’d arrived back at base, just… what… yesterday morning? How the base had felt like a sanctuary, a safe haven from the deadly insanity engulfing the world outside.
But now the craziness had made its way in here, too, and the base wasn’t a fortress any more. It was a trap… and a tomb.
My hands started to shake, and Veronica was there, sliding into the bed next to me, taking me in her arms, holding me like a baby.
And then, after a while, not so much like a baby any more.
I’m not going to say it made everything all better. In some ways, it just confused things… I wasn’t even sure exactly what it meant to me, much less to her. Was it love? Lust? Want? Need? All of it, some of it, none?
I don’t know. But I had been dead and now I was alive and a beautiful woman I had been at least half in love with for some damn time was there with me, showing me in the best possible way that even with everything gone straight to hell in a handbasket, life could still be good, and I could be happy to be alive, and someone else could be happy I was alive, too.
For a while, that was plenty.
Eddie never stirred, which I guess was just as well.
Eventually, a long time later, Veronica lifted her head from where she’d been resting it on my shoulder. I rolled onto my side facing her and she purred and snuggled into me again.
“This is nice,” she purred sleepily. “While I’m thinking about it, though, there is something else we need to talk about.”
“No whips or chains on the first date,” I mock-warned her, leaning down to nibble her upturned ear. “Well… maybe one. Each.”
She giggled. I’d never heard her giggle before, either; I found I like it a lot. Especially when it was me making her do it. “Please, dear, listen. I need to caution you…”
I braced myself for whatever standard post-coitus speech she was about to give me, while wondering just which one I was about to be treated to… That Was Great And I Care About You A Lot But I’m Really Not A Lesbian, maybe, or You’re The Best Ever And I Love You As A Very Special Friend But… which was why I was stunned to hear:
“Agent Barrow loves you very deeply, dear. And you will have to take care with him, because you have the capacity to hurt him very badly.”
I’d been feeling a little sleepy, but that woke me right up again. “Eddie?” I snorted laughter. “Homely ol’ Myrna Loy? Please, Doc… Veronica. If Eddie wants anybody, it’s you. Not that I can fault his taste in women, obviously…”
Veronica smiled gently at me. “Of course Agent Barrow wants me,” she said, “he’s a man with more or less standard male glandular wiring, and I’m aware I possess a fairly comely form.” She glanced down at herself and arched her back a little, stretching like a cat. “I mean, if I met someone who looked like me, I would most likely want to do her, too.” She blushed, just a tiny bit. “But you are also very beautiful, my darling, and it wouldn’t matter to him, I’m sure, if you weren’t. He may want me, Myrna Loy, but he doesn’t love me. He loves YOU… quite desperately. And it is important to note that the word ‘desperately’ derives from the word ‘despair’, which is exactly how Edward feels regarding his chances with you, since of course he is quite aware of your own orientation.”
“There’s no way,” I insisted. “Eddie can barely stand me. You should hear him slangin’ me, especially for liking girlll…” I ran down. It was occurring to me that all of Eddie’s insults, especially those regarding my sexual orientation, could have an entirely different interpretation than the typical homophobia I’d previously charged them off to. In fact, I’d always assumed that Eddie was old fashioned that way, as homophobia really isn’t all that typical any more.
It also occurred to me that I might have been, on some level, deliberately trying to see Eddie as a much simpler person than he really-truly was. After all, if he was just a bloodthirsty crazy man who made a good partner on a mission, I didn’t exactly have to relate to him on any kind of serious level. Maybe I’d been doing him a huge disservice…
But the thought of being with a man… any man… still made me heave up inside. The gift that kept on giving, courtesy of my daddy un-dearest. I’d settled up with him on a final basis before I started high school, but in the realest way possible that bill could never be fully paid.
God damn him. To hell. Forever.
If I was lucky, he’d come back as a zombie and I could kill him again.
“You don’t need to be afraid of him… Edward would never hurt you,” Veronica said. “But you do need to be gentle with him, because you can hurt him awfully… and in fact, you are going to have to, probably in the near future. You and I both, actually. But you must be especially careful.”
After a second, I just nodded. This was going to be a lot more complicated than I’d figured.
Maybe for the foreseeable future I should just concentrate on killing zombies.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but we must have. Some time later, I woke up again. Somebody had a’holt of my ankle and was shaking my leg. For just a second, I was 9 years old again, pretending to be asleep since I’d heard my daddy come out of his and mama’s room and start creeping down the hall towards mine. That was how he always ‘woke’ me; he’d grab my ankle and shake my leg. His hands seemed so huge to me back then; my ankle was just swallowed up in his fingers.
But I wasn’t 9 any more; I was a grown up, a combat veteran and an experienced Science Sector agent. I reached for my gun and discovered a naked, shapely leg slung over my hip.
Then I remembered everything and sat up, gingerly.
Eddie was at the foot of the cot, looking at me expressionlessly, one hand still on my ankle. When I sat up, he looked away and drew back a pace or two. Not that Eddie and I haven’t seen each other naked a few hundred times; like most people nowadays, we’re not unusually touchy about casual nudity. But I guess he felt the current situation made it feel different, and I felt that, too.
The burn on his shoulder had shrunk down to a dime sized piece of white scar tissue; one of many similar pale spots he had all over his body, I knew. If you peeled Eddie to the bone and tanned his skin for leather, you’d be lucky to get enough unmarked hide to make one oven mitt.
“Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy,” he said. “She don’t know if she’s a girl or boy.” He was wearing one of his typical half smiles and his tone was pert near perfect; there was a just a tiny little jagged bit of something sharp and broken in it, down deep in the undercoating.
I knew then that the doc had been right. He was hurting bad, and it was over me.
“Eddie,” I said, shaking the doc gently to wake her up. “We got ourselves a little situation here…”
Eddie sat down on his cot, took out his gun, started rubbing it with the corner of his thermal blanket. “I kinda figured from the bolt on the door, and how quiet things are,” he said, keeping his eyes on the weapon. “I can’t get anyone on the doc’s portable, and the q-links are all still down. Good thing you an’ me are teamed up again, hey? Whoever the bad guys are, they don’t stand a chance against us two.”
He waved his hand dismissively, and that reminded me of something. I raised my hand – yeah, someone had replaced the plasflesh covering the end of my laser finger. I wondered if that was something automeds were programmed to do, or if Veronica had taken care of it for me while I was out… or if Eddie had.
“Yeah,” he said, as if reading my mind. “I replaced the batteries and put in some fresh chemical pods, too. You slept through that like a baby.” He might have been a zombie himself for all the feeling he let show in his tone. “Wasn’t until I grabbed your ankle and started shakin’ that you even stirred.”
“My daddy used to grab my ankle like that to wake me,” I told him truthfully, before I thought about it. “When I was little.”
Eddie shrugged… then a look passed over his face, like he’d just been kicked hard and unexpectedly in the pit of his stomach.
“Sorry,” he said, finally. “Didn’t know.”
It was my turn to shrug. “How could you? Don’t matter, usually I sleep lighter than that.” And that was true; usually I’d wake up if the AC unit clicked on or off unexpectedly. I wondered, belatedly, if maybe my subconscious mind trusted Eddie a whole lot more than I’d been consciously aware of.
I got up and started to gather my clothes, which had kinda been tossed here and there around the small room. While I was doing it, I picked up Veronica’s, too, and tossed them onto the cot for her. She started re-fastening and re-buttoning and re-velcroing without saying anything.
Eddie kept looking away. “Whenever y’all are ready,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, finally. I couldn’t help him. Even an automed couldn’t do anything for a busted heart.
Veronica and I got dressed in silence. It was a pretty heavy silence, though.
After she was dressed, Veronica got up and checked Eddie’s automed readouts. She decided he needed a little more time to get his white blood cells up; a laser burn straight through four inches of meat and bone wasn’t the kind of trauma the human body just shrugged off. She reinserted his IV and he sat back down on his cot without a word.
While we were waiting for Eddie to get back up to optimal again, she gave us a lecture on The History of Zombie Attacks In The Modern Day:
“Back in 1981, something very similar to what’s going on right now happened, on a smaller scale,” Veronica told us both. “A college movie theater in New Haven, Connecticut, was showing some classic zombie viewsee at a special midnight engagement. A crowd of about a hundred or so students and a few others, zombie enthusiasts all, exited the theater after the movie finished, about 3 AM… only to find themselves beset by a horde of several dozen… well, zombies. Reanimated corpses, in superficial appearance, at least, much like those ravaging the outer world at this moment.”
“The moviegoers panicked and most of them wound up being killed and partially consumed by their attackers. A few barricaded themselves back inside the theater and managed to call for assistance… not as simple a matter as you’d think, as this was before q-phones, or even their wireless antecedents. Their reports were initially disregarded by local police, who responded with only two officers, to investigate what they assumed was a practical joke. Eventually, though, a local FBI Special Unit, among whose ranks were numbered a registered pyrokinetic agent, arrived on the scene and made short work of the ‘zombies’.”
Eddie grunted at that. We’d both worked with trained psychics during our military service. Science Sector had some, too, but neither of us had been teamed with any of them since we’d signed up here. The presence of trained psychics in law enforcement, the military, and the intelligence agencies was still classified as secret, though, and as such wasn’t known to the general public.
“Subsequent investigations revealed that while the ‘zombies’ involved in the mall attack were indeed reanimated corpses, their mobility was imparted to them by a sort of technological apparatus that had been hardwired into their nervous systems. This provided motive power and apparently allowed some distant, hidden agency to essentially move these modified human corpses around by ‘remote control’. Further investigation eventually laid responsibility at the door of a Soviet psychologist and scientist working for the KGB… a former child prodigy named Vassily Emil Ubdov.”
I made a noise at that. Veronica looked at me, and I said “I studied V.A. Ubdov in one of my psych courses. They called him Dr. Fear… he specialized in research on how to terrorize people, and how people would respond when terrorized.”
Veronica nodded. “Ubdov was fascinated with the range of human emotions and how humans would respond to certain gross emotional stimuli, especially fear. The incident in New Haven was staged as an experiment, one which Ubdov observed carefully from the other side of the world.”
“But that was over fifty years ago,” Eddie interjected. “This Ubdov owlhoot has gotta be dead by now… did any of his research even survive the fall of the USSR?”
I shook my head at that. “Like the doc said, Eddie, Ubdov was a child prodigy. In 1981 he would only have been in his late twenties. There’s no record of his death… but there were a lotta rumors that he got transported to Greater Russia’s LaGrange point penal colonies in 2009, to avoid execution for unspecified crimes against humanity.”
I thought about that for a second. “If he’s in orbit, he could easily still be alive,” I said. “Greater Russia built those LaGrange colonies pretty damn good, and zero gee can add a lot of years to a person’s life expectancy.” The LaGrange tin cans weren’t prisons any longer, of course; once Greater Russia changed its name to the Republic of Trotskya and signed the Global Union Accords in 2021, using outer space for political exile became illegal. But the independent satellite nations had done pretty well for themselves over the last two decades, which was just human history repeating itself – societies that started out as penal colonies always seemed to thrive, at least, initially. “What, you’re thinkin’ he’s up to his old tricks, but with new, improved technology? Some kind of zombie beams from outer space?”
Veronica tilted her head to one side. “Hmmmm. I confess, Myrna Loy, at times I do not know how to interact with your sense of humor, although I am looking forward to learning… are you mocking me?” Her eyes were twinkling when she said it, though.
“Maybe a little,” I said. “So what are we going to do about it? Report this to the Sky Marines, or…”
I shot a quick look at Eddie. Normally, any reference I make to the Sky Marines will bring an almost Pavlovian sneer from him as an ex-groundpounder. Now it was like he didn’t even notice.
“Once Agent Barrow is fully healed,” Veronica said, “the three of us will go to the labs and pick up an experimental anti-gravity engine accelerator that a few of us have been working on. We have a prototype that we were about to install in a flyer for field testing. It should fit fairly easily onto any standard Section flyer… I believe Agent Barrow’s expertise with flyers will be more than equal to the task of installing it. Once we have it in place…” She paused, as if she really couldn’t believe what she was saying. Then she turned one hand palm up. “Then we will jump to a LaGrange point and take a meeting with Dr. Fear.”
Eddie looked interested at that. “And if he happens to have any zombie ray projectors lyin’ around, they might accidentally get broke?”
I shook my head sorrowfully. “I’m damn clumsy in zero gee, myself,” I said.
A few minutes after that, Veronica pronounced Eddie to be officially as healthy as a horse again. We’d both been wearing lightweight body armor under our civvies, but I’d ruined the microcircuit underweave in Eddie’s by laser drilling a hole through it. I’d have offered him mine, but male and female torso armor isn’t readily interchangeable. He could go without armor, of course, but none of us liked that idea… especially given how many walking corpses there probably were waiting outside for us. Some of which might be smart enough to use a gun.
Speaking of guns, mine was still locked up, probably in Cal Donner’s desk. Even if I could find an armed dead agent outside who wasn’t roaming around looking for something alive to eat, Science Sector guns have fingerprint locks meant to keep them from being used by unfriendly sorts. Maybe I – or Eddie -- could short around the lockout, but Science Sector guns also have grips that are custom-made to fit their user’s individual shooting hand and barrels designed specifically to accommodate how each agent sights and aims, too. It may seem like a lot of trouble and expense when you first hear about it, but statistical analysis shows the custom guns significantly improved agent performance… and in the field, any edge at all, any little bonus you can get, is a beautiful thing.
So we added a trip to Donner’s cubicle, which was right outside the Chief’s office, to our itinerary. We’d head there and recover my weapon, then down to the labs for the experimental accelerator, then back up to the garage for a vehicle of some sort. Shouldn’t be that hard… unless, of course, the entire complex was full of ravening zombies slavering for our flesh…
The click of our door opening disturbed something that had been hunched over an unmoving body at a T juncture where Kennedy Hall slanted into Koop Corridor, twenty feet to the right. It looked up, and I recognized a tech specialist named Nancy Olmos… or what she’d become, anyway. Her skin was tinted a devil’s red by the low intensity emergency lighting, which turned the blood smeared around her lips black. Her eyes were blankly ravenous, despite the handfuls of intestines she’d been pulling out of the unmoving corpse underneath her and cramming into her mouth.
She was wearing a cute little sleeveless tunic/skirt outfit in alternating dark and white checks with floral patterned tights underneath. She growled and started to get to her feet. Eddie’s gun barked once right next to me, and most of the Nancy-thing’s head turned into a dark red splatter on the wall behind it. The mostly decapitated body fell atop the one she’d been eviscerating, trembled several times, and went still.
There were bodies lying all around us; you had to pick your way over and between them if you didn’t want to step on someone, which none of us did. All the bodies I could see showed some kind of serious head trauma – usually from gunshot -- by which I deduced that any corpse not so injured would not be lying down and decently holding still, like corpses were supposed to. My fingers itched badly for my gun.
Elevators were all locked down, of course. Stairwells seemed like a good place for a zombie ambush, but zombies apparently don’t like stairs much, as we only found a few of them there and they were easily dealt with. We reached the floor with the Chief’s office on it without much further incident, and were actually only about thirty feet from Donner’s cubicle just outside it when the door to Room 74 clicked open and Cal Donner himself stepped out into the hall ahead of us.
His professional one-piece was bloody and frayed in several places and his formal lapel buttons had both been torn off, but he himself looked none the worse for wear. He had a gun in one hand and his face lit up with obvious relief when he saw us. “You people are a real sight for sore eyes,” he said, and started towards us.
“He’s cold,” Eddie warned me and the doc, but I’d already seen it with my own implants. “Drop the piece, Cal… or whatever the hell you are now,” Eddie added, pointing his own gun unwaveringly at Cal’s head.
Cal – or whatever was behind his eyes now – didn’t cotton to that at all. “You couldn’t possibly know!” he screamed, stomping his foot furiously on the thinly carpeted floor. “That stupid slitch supposedly reprogrammed all the base sensors so they wouldn’t…”
The thing in Cal’s body figured it out then. “Oh, your GODDAM optics,” it snarled. “Nobody thought of… goddam it! GODDAM IT! THAT’S NOT FAIR!!!” It sounded for all the world like a six year old kid throwing a tantrum after being caught stealing cookies.
It tossed the gun aside contemptuously. “This thing doesn’t work anyway,” it said, its tone suddenly low and confiding. “No sweat, no body oils, no fingerprints.” Then it threw its head back and laughed, a horrible gobbling sound unlike anything I’d ever heard produced by a human throat prior to that. “It doesn’t matter! None of your stupid little gun-things matter ONE LITTLE BIT! You’re all dead meat, just like the dead meat I’m wearing! DEAD – MEAT!!!!”
It grinned viciously and dropped into a crouch. I knew it was about to launch itself at us in one of those insanely powerful tiger leaps I’d used myself when I’d been a zombie, and apparently Eddie remembered the tactic, too. He instantly fired twice, the second shot probably just to be on the safe side. Most of Cal’s body above the waist ceased to exist; his legs were blown spinning down the hall, and came to rest underneath his own desk.
“Never did like him,” Eddie said, his voice and his face both as cold as chiseled stone.
“Sounded just like a master,” I said, without realizing I was going to say it.
“A ‘master’?” Veronica immediately shot back. “Why do you say that, Myrna? You never used that word in your previous descriptions.”
I’d realized that myself, and was baffled by it… and mighty troubled, too. “I don’t know,” I said, honestly. “When it was me… well… it was ME. I mean… it wasn’t, the higher part of me wasn’t really ‘me’… but… it didn’t seem like anything outside me, either, looking back on it..” I heard my voice shake and stopped for a second. Veronica patted my arm reassuringly.
After a second, I went on. “It was different, seeing it from outside,” I said. “I guess most zombies are just that… walking dead bodies with tiny fragments of the original subconscious left… just hunger on legs. But the ‘lord zombies’… they’re dead bodies with some kind of outside entity controlling them.”
“A ‘master’,” Veronica mused. “From ‘the darkness between the stars’.”
“Yeah,” I said. I kept myself from shivering through an effort of will.
“Fascinating discourse,” Eddie snarked, “but I don’t think it matters, much. Whatever they are, they die when you shoot ‘em in the head. That’s enough for me.”
Veronica turned on him, her voice suddenly shrill. “Are you going to shoot all of them, Agent Barrow? Every walking corpse in the world, and then, all the walking corpses that will appear tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that? You can’t do it. Even a storm trooper like you can’t kill that fast.”
She shook her head. “If we are going to beat this thing, we must understand it,” she said. “The dead cells of a recently deceased body are now being re-energized by some otherworldly energy source… an energy that seems to be bathing the entire Earth now. So the re-energized corpse rises, to walk again, and kill… but ‘lord’ zombies have certain particles in their bloodstream not present in the sample I took from a ‘normal’ zombie. I believe those ‘lord’ particles perform two functions – first, they preserve the body’s brain from any and all decay, which seems to be necessary for a ‘master’ to inhabit and control the body… and second, they act as a beacon of some sort for a ‘master’ to home in on. These ‘masters’ represent some unearthly intelligence … a malevolent one, that from Myrna Loy’s testimony, and what we have witnessed with our own eyes, wants nothing more or less than the deaths of every living human on Earth.”
I thought about that. “So… hold on. Where did these ‘lord’ particles come from in the first place? I mean, once you have one ‘lord’ zombie, it could infect others, I guess… it would have to make sure it didn’t do excessive amounts of trauma to the brain, but a bite would do it… hell, their bite is deadly, from my own experience, and once it kills you, well, you’re a zombie with a ‘master’ in charge of your zombie body. But where did the first one come from?”
Veronica shrugged. “Insufficient data,” she said. “However, if the ‘masters’ are indeed some sort of creatures that dwell in the darkness between the stars… then I would say, the first particles came to Earth from –“ here she gestured upwards and outwards, vaguely – “out there. And they were almost certainly deliberately created and sent here, too.”
I’d already figured that whatever was going on had to be a deliberate attack of some sort.
Eddie tapped me on the shoulder right then; I turned to look at him and he handed me a gun… my gun, I realized, as my hand curled comfortably around its customized stock. “Got it from Cal’s desk drawer,” he said. “You gals really need to hold the scientific seminar somewhere behind heavily barred doors. All this yak-yak is likely to attract unfriendlies.”
As if to punctuate that, there came a series of predatory groans and growls from the cubicles around us. I heard a crash, and saw two zombies, male and female, that were somehow entangled together in a web of power cords come lurching out of one cubicle ten or so yards away, trailing a keyboard and a graphics projector behind them. I recognized the woman, vaguely, as someone I’d seen around the corridors. The man was a stranger to me.
It’s harder to shoot someone you know… or something that looks like someone you once knew, anyway. And judging from the growls, there were a lot more of them coming our way, too. They moved slowly, but if enough of them pinned us against a wall or trapped us at the end of a corridor… it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘dead end’.
“The Chief’s emergency exit,” I said. “Once we’re in the escape shaft, we should be able to get access to any level.”
Eddie nodded; Veronica hesitated a moment, then did the same. We moved quickly into the Chief’s office. I triggered the escape hatch again and then Eddie and I got into a brief argument over which order we were going down the slide in… he wanted to be last man out, but I thought it would be better if he went first and made sure the shaft was really secure. Veronica finally settled it after a few seconds by sliding feet first into the shaft herself; I rolled my eyes and followed her quickly. Eddie dove in right behind me.
We weren’t exactly home free once we were in the escape shaft, but it gave us a little breathing space. Eddie found some fresh body armor that fit him. The supplies there also let Eddie and I replenish our ammunition and refill our belts and agents’ vests, as well as find a small, non-customized pistol for Veronica to carry. There were a couple of trunks full of civilian gear for both genders; the fashions were all several years out of season, but I managed to find a pants suit in a dark green with narrow silver pin stripes and flared lapels that complemented my own naturally bronzed skin tone and green eyes, and that wasn’t too out of date, especially when I wore the jacket over a formal white men’s blouse with an intricately patterned Battenberg lace front. There was even a pair of matching shoes, although I reluctantly decided to keep my work boots on instead– they were dark brown and didn’t clash horribly, and more importantly, the very small heels on them didn’t inhibit my ability to move freely, which was why I wore them to work in the first place.
I was annoyed at the outfit’s lack of lace cuffs, as that’s a current fashion I think looks really good on me. And my carefully neutral agent’s vest didn’t do a damn thing for the ensemble, either, although a good deal of the lace underneath showed through the vest’s low V front, which helped. I cheered up a little when I realized that my powder purple scarf had come through my recent travails pretty much unwrinkled, and would go as nicely with my new outfit as it had with the old.
Eddie needed new clothes too, since I’d burned a hole straight through his last tunic back when I’d been one of the evil dead. Veronica and I tried to advise him on what would look good on him, but he ignored us, of course, changing into the plainest black slacks, black bootlets, and grey tunic he could find. Of course, we both kept our segmented torso and groin armor on underneath our new clothes. Eddie buckled his agent’s vest and belt back on again and pronounced himself ready to go… functional, if never fashionable. I don’t know why I expected anything different; Eddie’s always been a substance over style kinda guy… but I’d started seeing him lately with new eyes, and I guess I had a new set of expectations along with them. Weird.
Getting to the lab holding the anti-grav accelerator wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but it wasn’t anything dissimilar to what I’ve already described, either. We used the two person flyer to get up to the right level, accessed a hidden emergency panel to get into Elevator Shaft 9 and through that into George Washington Carver Corridor, which led straight down to the secured engine lab. We picked up the gizmo with minimal stress – Eddie and I took turns shooting the few zombies we encountered, to conserve on ammunition -- and eventually made our way back to the flyer again.
We could have fairly easily taken it all the way up the escape shaft to the surface then, but a two seater was too small for the three of us, and anyway, if we were going to be using this experimental accelerator to make a near-Earth rendezvous, I wanted to do it in something a lot roomier and better armored. So we got out on the garage level and went hunting for the flivver we’d flown in with. Fortunately, it was right down by the maintenance levels; the mechanics in charge had probably been planning to give its engine and chassis a good going-over before all hell broke loose.
Eddie popped the hood and got busy attaching the accelerator to the anti-grav initiator, with Veronica throwing in occasional instructions. In between, I worried out loud about what seemed to me to be obvious problems with this plan.
“Look,” I said, “To start with, an anti-grav flyer, even a big heavily armored one built to look like a 1969 Cadillac Eel Tornado or whatever, isn’t a space craft. I mean, it isn’t, right? This thing doesn’t have an air plant, or any kind of life support; it doesn’t have maneuvering thrusters, and it certainly doesn’t have anything like a deep space rated sensor array or navigation computer.”
Veronica looked over at me and rolled her eyes. “Don’t be such a Negative Nancy,” she scolded me.
The phrase ‘Negative Nancy’ gave my brain such a case of mental whiplash I nearly missed Eddie’s response to my objections, from the other side of the hood:
“First,” I heard him say, “It’s a Cadillac El Dorado. EL Do-RA-do. Second, this baby’s armor plating might as well be rated for space. It’s not only bullet proof, the cabin will seal airtight in case of a gas or chemo attack, and the chassis is reinforced to take a hit up to and including a standard anti-tank round. This thing is fully submersible, with a rated crush depth of 1500 feet. It has internal tanks where it can carry enough compressed oxy to keep six adults alive and functional for a week, although I admit, they’re dry right now and I don’t think we’re gonna have a chance to tank up before we leave. But that don’t matter, the cubic footage of air in this beast when we seal up will be adequate to keep the three of us going for a day or so at least, longer if we conserve energy.”
He paused for a moment, then went on:
“Even if the armor plating wasn’t as strong as it is, the anti-grav unit can be set to throw an EM field around the car. Which you know, because we used a similar field to deflect falling rubble while we were clearing our original escape shaft under Old New York City. Between the two of them, this thing will survive one solid hit from pretty much anything… maybe two.”
Veronica chimed in that it was generally more trouble to get rid of heat in space than it was to keep it, as vacuum is an excellent insulator, and the car’s chem-fusion power plant could easily keep us comfortable. Also, the car did have a basic radar set, which was all we’d need in close Earth orbit. She also advised that her portable had far more calculating power than the warehouse sized room full of computers that NASA’s Apollo program had used, and she was perfectly capable of programming orbital ballistics into the car’s autopilot.
They were both very convincing. Of course, for me it eventually came down to this -- both of them were going no matter what. They saw a chance to end this entire crisis quickly if, indeed, Ubdov was up there in some orbital super villain hideout inundating the earth with evil zombie rays. I was a little more skeptical, but my bottom line was, my partner and my… partner?... I had no idea, but, well, whatever… were going, so there was no way I was staying behind.
I just hoped we weren’t fast tracking ourselves right into a quick, grisly death in outer space.
Above us, two four foot thick sheets of curved metal opened outward. From beneath us came a grinding sound of running gears and the audible thump of a disengaging safety interlock. The heavy duty antigrav unit underneath the lift platform came on with an alto hum, and the flivver with the three of us inside it began to rise towards the surface, several hundred feet above.
Inside, Eddie and I were a captive audience as Veronica held forth on the subject of the experimental anti-grav accelerator we’d lifted from her lab and Eddie had just installed under the flivver’s hood. I knew from past experience that she tended to drop into lecture mode fairly easily; I don’t think she can help it. Or maybe she likes it. If the last, it’s a grievous character flaw, but what the hell, nobody’s perfect.
“What the accelerator does,” she told us, “or, at least, what it is supposed to do, is intensify the normal electromagnetic ‘bubble’ that the anti-grav initiator creates around a flyer. With a normal bubble, this simply allows gravity to be manipulated… refracted into different vectors at an angle to its normal one. With careful calibration one can even seem to reduce the pull of gravity on anything within the field, or cancel it altogether, although this is an illusion… a ‘hovering’ flyer, for example, while a common enough sight, is actually still in motion, just like everything else caught in Earth’s gravity field… it still spins on Earth’s axis, and revolves around the sun in Earth’s orbital path. Every standard commercial anti-grav initiator has fail-safes programmed into it, to make sure nobody unwittingly cancels out those very fundamental field constants.”
Eddie scrunched up his eyebrows. “So, the accelerator will override those safeties and let you cancel out Earth’s pull entirely?”
I’ve had the basic physics courses that all the high schools have taught since Dr. Levy first came out with anti-grav in 2011; I stopped and tried to imagine what would happen if you did something like that. The image I got was a watermelon seed squirting out of someone’s fist.
“Yes,” she said. “But if the accelerator is adjusted correctly, it will also create a bubble that will effectively isolate, or insulate, whatever is within it from the physical restraints of the surrounding quantum matrix.”
Eddie and I exchanged a glance. That couldn’t possibly mean what it sounded like it meant… could it?
“You mean…” Eddie started, slowly, “that… what… normal physics would no longer function inside a car using this accelerator?”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Without the normal laws of physics, we couldn’t breathe. Our hearts wouldn’t pump, our blood wouldn’t flow… cellular motion would cease, or work in some entirely unpredictable manner… life as we understand it couldn’t exist.”
Veronica quirked one eyebrow. “Basic quantum inertia obtains within the EM vacuole for the first few minutes,” she said, her terminology growing steadily more arcane as she went. “Beyond that, yes, it becomes increasingly difficult for basic human metabolic processes to function. However, that is very much a side issue in this application; our primary interest lies within the EM field’s outer skin, and how it interacts with the surrounding quantum framework.” She paused, and looked apologetic. “Effectively, it creates a frictionless interface between whatever is inside it and the universe around it, insulating the contents of the EM field from the normal limitations of Einsteinian space/time.”
“So you could go faster than light,” I said.
“You can achieve nearly infinite velocities, theoretically,” Veronica said. “You see, you would accelerate to your local gravity field’s terminal velocity nearly instantaneously, following exactly the vector imparted by whichever gravitational fieldline the EM field’s contents were experiencing when the insulating field came into existence.”
“But,” Eddie said, “without any normal physical limitations on velocity derived from acceleration, there wouldn’t be any ‘terminal’ velocity. And without an outside frame of reference, there’d be no G forces, either. You’d just fall forever, on whatever vector you’d programmed prior to putting up the field, continually accelerating on a straight line.”
“Like the inertialess drive in SKYLARK OF SPACE,” I said. I’d watched every single one of the classic 12 part miniseries a couple of years back, when the Sci-Fantasy Channel had run them as part of a ‘galaxy rangers’ marathon.
Veronica seemed to ponder that. “An ‘inertialess drive’,” she said. “Whatever in the world would that mean?”
“I don’t like this bit where you can only keep breathing for a couple of minutes with the drive turned on,” Eddie said. “That’s bad juju.”
Veronica flicked her fingers dismissively. “With the correct gravitational vector calculated and applied, the Earth-Moon LaGrange point holding Ubdov’s last known residence is less than two full seconds transit time away. Of course, we have to be able to plot a straight vector with no significant masses intervening between launch and arrival points.” She glanced down at her portable screen. “We have a window for such a vector open now, for less than four hours. Then we’ll have another one tomorrow at this same time.”
Eddie’s eyes narrowed… then he breathed out, a long, deflating sigh. “Okay,” he said. “It’s a crazy karkin’ plan, but maybe this Ubdov rannie really is behind all this.” He glanced out the driver’s side window at the apparently empty garage level around us. “Besides, for all I can tell, we’re the only Science Sector personnel still alive. I guess that makes one of us the new Chief… and barring orders to the contrary from someone higher up the Globe COC, I guess it’s our duty to do whatever we can to try and get this steamin’ mess cleaned up.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that the three of us might, indeed, represent all of Science Sector that remained alive and functional. “There have got to be other agents still running around out there,” I said. “Maybe not here, not in this complex, but there are always agents out on assignment.” Colonel Logan had been assigned to the Moon, I remembered… but Colonel Logan wasn’t Science Sector anymore, either.
“They ain’t here,” Eddie said bluntly. “And they may very well be Purina zombie chow by now, too. And since I brought it up… I think we need to settle who’s in charge. If we’re headin’ out into the guano--and I bet we are--we can’t be stopping every five minutes to have a debate and hold a vote. We need a Chief.”
Veronica held up both her hands, palms out. “I’m a civilian,” she said. “I have no leadership training. I’ll help as much as I can, but I can’t make command decisions.”
I looked at Eddie and realized he was looking at me even harder. “Well,” I said, defensively, “technically you have seniority on me, Agent Barrow.”
“Cut the crap, Agent Zemyna,” he said, almost savagely. “You’ve had leadership training. And you think faster in the field, too. You know you do.”
“You’re a quicker draw and a better shot than I am,” I argued.
“Maybe,” he said, “but you’re better at calling the shots, and you know it. You’re the one for the job, Myrna Loy.”
“Goddamit, Eddie,” I said, finally, “I don’t WANT it. I don’t WANT to give orders to you two. I don’t WANT to… to…” I stopped, took a deep breath, deliberately went through a few calming mantras in my head. “There, y’see? When the chips are down, I’m just another hysterical frail. You take it.”
Eddie straight up laughed at me. “Myrna Loy, you’re the furthest thing in the world from ‘just another hysterical frail’.” He let his voice grow serious. “I know you don’t want the responsibility if me or the doc gets slabbed. But you’re not thinkin’ straight. We’re Science Sector. We’re expendable. Citizens of the Global Union ain’t. They need our help right now and we need a leader right now and you’re the best person for that job. And you know it, Myrna Loy.”
I looked at Veronica for assistance. She was no good.
“He’s right, Myrna Loy,” she said. “We all know it.”
“It’s not fair, you two ganging up on me,” I groused. Then: “All right, all right. But when I get us all blown up in a vacuum, don’t come crying to me.”
“Right, Chief,” Eddie said, giving me a vaguely salute-like gesture. Then, flatly: “What are your orders, ma’am?”
During this entire conversation, we had been steadily rising. For the first hundred feet, there had been nothing around us but the walls of the lift shaft, barely a yard on either side beyond the edges of our flyer. Then we had emerged into the lowest level of a commercial parking garage that provided cover for that particular hidden exit portal from our HQ. There had been a dozen or so zombies wandering aimlessly in the dark of that lowermost level. They’d all turned towards our vehicle hungrily and started growling and groaning as the lift platform continued smoothly up past them, but they couldn’t get anywhere close to us. We passed through several more floors of the garage and most of them were similarly inhabited, but two crackled with flames from burning flyers and ground cars, and we saw nothing at all, living or dead, moving on those levels. I noted for future reference that zombies seemed to be afraid of fire, or at least, they’d avoid it if they could.
Just as Eddie asked me for my orders, there was a heavy thumping sound. The smooth whine of the hydraulic piston ceased. We had come to rest on the top floor of the parking garage, with nothing above us but sky.
All around us, the city of New Washington burned.
I reached over and buckled my safety harness. “Take us up to about a thousand feet,” I said. “Doc, program your ballistic into the ship’s autopilot. Once we’re clear of any obstructions, we’ll go visit us a Russki.”
Looking out from the inside of a space-time quantum vacuole is a lot like trying to see what’s going on in someone’s bathroom by pressing your face against a steamed up window, which is to say, it’s pretty unsatisfying. Add in the fact that I, at least, felt a kind of greasy nausea that seemed to permeate every cell in my body as soon as Eddie goosed the accelerator, which got steadily worse the longer we were in there, and you end up with a ride that seemed a whole lot longer than the few seconds it actually took.
After what seemed like at least several minutes of steadily worsening discomfort, though, the autopilot cut the accelerator. We found ourselves floating in space – presumably at L5, the fifth, most stable, and therefore, most extensively commercially exploited, LaGrange point in the Earth-Moon system.
I’d assumed that a craft with no method of movement besides a fairly standard anti-gravity initiator would have no way of getting around in deep space. Veronica disabused me of that notion; all an anti-grav engine needs to function is a nearby gravity field to refract, and while L5 was a natural balance point between the Earth’s and the Moon’s gravity fields, that simply meant it was a ‘gravity rich’ environment. Our biggest problem wouldn’t be motive power, but, rather, picking Ubdov’s orbital home base out from all the other sky junk cluttering up L5.
To that end, Veronica had researched the known dimensions of the orbital residence-laboratory Ubdov had had built shortly after his parole from the Russian Federation’s one time space gulag. As soon as we came to ‘rest’, Eddie had the radar set warmed up and pinging local space looking for anything that matched the parameters Veronica had given him.
Like any Sky Marine, I’m fully checked out for zero gee combat. Veronica doubted deep space conditions would bother her much, but Eddie is a ground pounder through and through and he wasn’t going to deal with free fall if he didn’t have to. A standard anti-grav initiator can cut a local gravity field up like so much parsley; keeping us in a half gee field oriented to pull down towards the floor of the car, even in free fall, was easy-peasy.
“Got it,” he said, after a minute or so. “Spherical object, 300 meters radius, 17 kilometers and a ball o’ twine… thatta way,” he said, pointing at an oblique angle down through the floor of the flivver. “Um… 12 degrees off true.” He started fiddling with knobs and buttons on the control panel. “I can get us a double refraction up here, and ride in on both the Earth and the Moon’s gravity vectors… maybe six minutes transit time.” He looked up at Veronica. “Do you have any idea if this guy has any defenses? Missiles, vacuum mines… whatever?”
Veronica shook her head. “His residential and commercial permits and purchase orders are matters of public record,” she said. “Missiles or other explosives or defensive arrays… they would be illegal anyway, so they certainly wouldn’t be anything you’d find recorded in any accessible archive.”
“I really hate that answer,” Eddie said. “Okay, let’s just hope the mad scientist doesn’t have any death rays.” He pushed a button and the stars stopped revolving slowly around us. He reached to push another – and something came out of the endless night to sprawl across our windscreen with a horrible thump.
All of us jumped in our seats; Eddie swore comprehensively in Farsi. Lying across the flivver’s front windscreen, arms and limbs splayed out like a starfish, was a corpse. The body was wearing a hooded coverall made of some sort of durable plas-weave; the shirt’s left breast had a stylized K on it. That ‘K’ looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t immediately place it.
The corpse could have been floating out there for fifteen or twenty years; there was no way, short of testing in a lab, to be sure.
What made my stomach draw up into my throat, though, was that the body was moving. The hands opened and closed, batting and clawing at the reinforced ceram-glass of our windscreen. The ruined head rolled back and forth, as if the empty, vacuum exploded eye sockets were trying to see us inside. The skin on the face was shriveled like a raisin; I could clearly see grayish-white skull through multiple cracks in the freeze-dried flesh. It was without a doubt the most gruesome sight I’d ever seen, and that’s no exaggeration.
Somehow… maybe by vibration through the chassis of the vehicle, although I’d swear it was louder than that; maybe it transferred directly to our minds from… whatever the creature used instead of one… I could clearly hear it making the hungry moaning growling groaning sound made by every zombie I’d ever met.
“GodDAMN it,” Eddie swore again. “I can’t…” He was staring at the dashboard controls. “I don’t know how to get it off of there. However I invert gravity, that zombie is inside our own local field. It will stick like glue…”
Veronica was staring in fascination at the coveralled thing writhing on the other side of a windshield that suddenly seemed far too thin for comfort. “I should have known any bodies in orbit would also reanimate,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me… but this confirms my hypothesis. It is indeed some unearthly source of energy, bathing the entire planet… and our orbital path, apparently…”
“That thing is from the Krupp habitat,” Eddie said, and I realized he was right, that was what the stylized K indicated. 12 years prior, the biggest disaster in space settlement had occurred when a five mile long cylinder being constructed by a German transnational hypercorps named Krupp had blown out five hours into its fourth spin test, sending over 1200 working crew members spilling into hard vacuum. The accident wouldn’t have been so cataclysmic if not for the fact that all three previous tests had gone perfectly, and this last one had shown no flaws or undue stresses for several hours of full 1-G rotation. At the start of each test, everyone had been ready for something to go wrong, with full pressure suits or emergency pods close to hand… but four hours into an obviously uneventful test run, they’d all relaxed and gone back to their normal routines. Barely one in three hundred had gotten to pressure gear in time to save themselves. For the rest, it had been mass slaughter.
Krupp’s stock had tumbled on the international market and never recovered; the wrecked cylinder itself had eventually been bought as scrap for pennies on the kilobuck by some other transnat – General Circuitry, maybe – and broken up for spare parts. Nobody had even tried to recover the vast majority of the bodies; it just hadn’t been cost effective, although the peculiarities of the LaGrange gravitonics had kept most of them floating along captive ballistics relatively nearby.
My train of thought was interrupted when the undead former construction worker abruptly spun backwards off our windshield. I figured Eddie must have come up with some way to repel it, until I saw that there was something behind it… some kind of vehicle, orbiting a few hundred yards in front and to the right of our own. Something with bluish white cones of standard chemical maneuvering thrusters silhouetting its underside, and with long metal tentacles of cable waving around it like cilia. It had snared the zombie with one of those cable-tentacles, and was pulling the corpse back towards itself.
Eddie whipped collapsible binox out of his agent’s vest, popped them open and used them to study the strange thing. “Some kind of ‘bot,” he said, finally. “Fully automated, it has to be… there’s no room for a human operator. But it looks like it’s got at least a dozen corpses in tow already… somebody must have set it to gathering up all the bodies that have piled up out here at the LaGrange point over the last couple of decades.”
“Wonder who?” I asked, my voice very dry.
“Yeah,” Eddie responded with equal acerbity. “Okay, well, that solves that problem… I’m not sure I want to know what Ubdov is doing with space corpses, but I imagine we’re gonna find out. So…” He pushed another button on the dashboard and we began to move forward through space, although you wouldn’t have been able to tell without looking at the instrument panel.
Or so I thought, until Veronica gasped and pointed forward, through our front windscreen. “What… that can’t be what it looks like… can it?”
A spherical object with a radius of 300 meters is actually 600 meters in diameter, of course. At 17 kilometers distance, such an object is about the size of a Global half-buck, or one of those old time Anthony B. Susan dollar coins, held out at arm’s length. Except this particular disc didn’t show either a stylized Earth symbol, or the silhouette of some famous 19th century politician. This looked like… well… like…
“It’s an eye,” Eddie said, his eyes narrowing. “It’s a goddam giant eyeball floating in the void.”
That’s exactly what it looked like; a big ol’ greasy eyeball just hanging there against the black, star sprinkled backdrop of outer space. Fear of disembodied body parts is a fairly common human phobia, which is why we see so many severed heads, chopped off hands, and, yes, popped out eyeballs, in horror viewsees. Looking at it, I felt an atavistic shudder wash over me, and knew that, without a doubt, I was looking at the home base of Vassily Ubdov – the man the commissars had nicknamed “Dr. Fear”.
“He must have spent a fortune on glow-paint,” I said, finally.
“Or the shell is transparent and lit from within,” Veronica added. “How does he get it to STARE right at us, though…? It must respond to any active radar scan that touches it.”
We all looked at each other. We knew what that meant… Dr. Fear would be aware we were out here. And closing fast.
“I guess the ol’ boy ain’t tryin’ to hide from anyone,” Eddie said grimly. “Six minutes, ETA.”
Eddie had assured me several times that the car’s cabin would be rendered effectively vacuum tight by a minor adjustment in the EM field thrown around us by the anti-grav initiator, and he’d also said that even without any kind of atmosphere scrubber or rebreathing apparatus, it would hold enough breathable air to last us several hours. I’m sure he was right; Eddie studies that kind of thing for recreation – back in the 20th Century, he’d have been what they called a ‘survivalist’. So it was no doubt just my imagination that the cabin grew perceptibly stuffier over the next six minutes. Nonetheless, I was uneasily relieved when we nudged gently up against the outer hull of the Great Space Eyeball, as Eddie had dubbed it, and a circular hatch eight meters across immediately irised open, revealing a small landing bay just beyond.
Eddie goosed the flivver inside. The hatch irised closed again behind us; after several seconds, I could hear the heavy armor plating on the flivver’s hull resettling all around us with slight pings and groans. Somebody must have opened an air conditioning vent somewhere to give us some atmosphere. A nice welcoming gesture… or a trap.
“Air outside,” Eddie said, looking at the pressure gauge on the dashboard. He looked at me, and I had a pretty tough decision to make. We’d jumped up here without anything like space suits on us… our agent’s vests contained nose filters as a defense against airborne chemical attacks, but they wouldn’t do a thing to protect us from vacuum. If we piled out of the car and Ubdov decided to open the hatch again behind us, we’d all get sucked out into space and die pretty grisly deaths. On the other hand, if we just stayed in the car, we weren’t going to get anything accomplished…
“All right. Load Glasers, Eddie… no sense ruining our host’s paneling if we don’t have to.” I suited actions to words. Glaser rounds were invented back in the 20th and nobody has improved on them in 50 years. Basically a copper tube full of tiny ball bearings in a jelly suspension; when they hit flesh they expand dramatically and do tremendous damage through sheer hydrostatic shock. But they’ll just splatter if you miss your target and hit something hard.
Eddie nodded, following my lead. He understood what I hadn’t bothered to say out loud – that using explosive ammunition in a sealed, pressurized environment was a spectacularly stupid idea. And heatseeking homer rounds unfortunately do not work on the living dead. Helluva good way to cap the living agent providing you with back up, though.
“One at a time,” I said, after we’d finished. “That way he can’t get us all at once if he pops the seal. I’ll go first…”
Eddie had already opened his driver’s side door, rolled out onto the metal flooring, and kicked the door closed behind him. I glared at him through the window. He stood up, looked around slowly… then waved back to me. “Standing orders,” he said, almost cheerfully. “The ranking officer never goes into a hazardous situation without prior recon.”
Another hatch, leading further into the Eyeball, slid open a few yards behind Eddie. He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to look. “Okay,” he said. “Looks like we’re invited to tea. You ladies coming?”
It appeared Ubdov didn’t want to kill us… at least, not at the moment. Maybe he was curious about us. Veronica and I got out of the car simultaneously, both of us doing our best to see in every direction simultaneously.
Eddie edged cautiously through the new opening, gun preceding him in the classic two handed grip you see on all the well researched cop and military viewsees.
I could tell Veronica hadn’t had any weapons training from the tentative way she held her own gun, but she was carefully copying what she could see Eddie doing, which was smart. Real people who have to shoot real guns at other real people really do use that grip, for the profound and simple reason that it’s extremely effective. It gives you excellent control of your weapon, a good aiming point, and the widest cone of perception possible.
I brought up the rear. Beyond the hatch was a hallway running to our right and our left, that curved gently away from our entry point… most likely, it was a perimeter hall that ran all the way around the inner diameter of the habitat.
As soon as I’d taken two steps past the hatch, it snicked closed behind me. “Lead to the right, Eddie, I’m rear guard,” I said, turning to watch over my left shoulder… or, at least, I started to. I got about to the first syllable of Eddie’s name when my voice was abruptly drowned out by a rolling glissado of strange, deep, booming electronically synthesized musical chords, for all the world like the sinister soundtrack music in an old black and white horror viewsee, apparently emanating from hidden speakers in the walls around us.
I felt a thrill of pure raw terror pulse through my nerve endings, and realized instantly what was happening. “He’s got subharmonics to stimulate fear buried in the music,” I said, shouting to be heard over it. “Don’t let it get to you—“
I saw Eddie’s mouth open in surprise and looked in his direction. I could see something… a horde of somethings, actually… scuttling along the floor plates towards us, coming from around the bend forward of Eddie. It looked as if there were dozens of them; with the weird music playing, I couldn’t hear if the horde of… whatever they were… were making any noise as they came towards us. I could hear Eddie, though, as he shouted, a raw edge of fear in his voice:
“SPIDERS!!! GIANT GODDAM SPIDERS!!!” He looked a little spooked; I don’t think I’ve ever seen Eddie so shook up before.
The creatures – whatever they were, they sure weren’t the zombies I’d been more than half expecting – did look vaguely spider-like, but when I think of spiders, I generally imagine them as black, or at least, quite dark. These things were flesh toned – not Veronica’s pale, creamy British-North European flesh tone, but something more like my octoroon, coffee with cream shade, I mean – and didn’t look quite like spiders. But it wasn’t until they were nearly on top of us that I realized what they were.
“Frak frak FRAK they’re HANDS they’re goddam disembodied hands,” I gasped. I could feel some essential fabric inside me starting to seriously unravel. All the shit I’d been through in the past day or so, including being dead and then alive again, and now we were besieged by a horde of living human hands –
Eddie was shooting at them. I took aim and started pegging shots as well. The Glaser rounds worked wonderfully on the hand-things, blowing gaping holes in them, or sometimes simply exploding them like dropped water balloons… but it didn’t matter, there were dozens of the things and however many we shot, the rest just kept scrabbling towards us. Now they were practically all over us. No, scratch that ‘practically’ – as I emptied my first magazine and reached to reload, several of them were clawing their way up my legs, and one had somehow jumped off its finger-legs and grabbed the wrist of my gun hand in a tight, hard grip that was painful even before it suddenly twisted, forcing my hand to open and let my gun drop with a clatter to the floor.
I felt strong grips at both my ankles yanking hard in opposite directions and couldn’t keep my feet. The creatures swarmed over me as soon as I went down, and I had to lock my teeth to keep from completely losing my mind in a long hysterical scream. After a minute or so of utter chaos and confusion, I felt my body somehow lifted and held perpendicular a few inches off the ground. I rolled my head around frantically and saw that Eddie and Veronica had both been grabbed and were being held the same way. I could see the hand-creatures much more clearly, too.
They weren’t actual hands, although the resemblance was so uncanny it had to be deliberate. Their five legs coming off central bodies were configured exactly like human fingers and thumb, and a stump-like protuberance sticking up from their backs looked a great deal like a severed wrist. They had no actual fingernails, though, and up close their color wasn’t quite the standard dark skinned flesh tone I’d thought at first, but instead contained a slight brownish green tint. They didn’t seem to be composed of bone, tendon and muscle sheathed in flesh but were apparently some sort of root-like construct, made out of a tough, fibroid vegetable matter.
Their method for holding us was simple. Sets of two hand-creatures had somehow joined themselves together at their wrist stumps, and the upper fingers were grasping our arms, legs, and torsos, while the lower ones in each pair scuttled along the floor, bearing us with them rather quickly. Each of us had about a dozen of the joined two-hand pairs holding and transporting us; we couldn’t have been more helpless if we’d been prime street trussed up for a branding. The strange music continued to thunder from the walls the whole time the three of us were being carried by our macabre captors through the habitat. How long that was I couldn’t tell you; I couldn’t see my wrist watch and my sense of duration was pretty much shot to pieces by shock, disgust, anger at myself, and sheer unadulterated fear.
They carried us into another tunnel, up that for several seconds at least, then through another hatch, where abruptly they let us go, dumping us all onto the floor while retreating rapidly away from us. The chamber they’d dropped us in was very dimly lit; the hand creatures quickly vanished into the gloomy darkness all around us, to the accompaniment of a strange, almost cricketlike series of clicking noises. The strange music ceased, leaving a ringing silence in my ears.
I rolled to my feet. I couldn’t see more than five meters in any direction except directly ahead of me. There, maybe twelve meters away, I could see some kind of chair, illuminated by a reddish glow of some sort that seemed to originate behind or above it. The chair was massive enough to seem almost thronelike, and there was someone sitting in it… someone bulky, whose body I couldn’t clearly make out. The head, though…
It had to be Ubdov, and if so, he had to be in his seventies. I couldn’t say he looked his age; his head was completely hairless from the nose up. A heavy grayish white beard covered his lower face, seeming to float strangely around his head, as if he were in zero gee… I realized, with a start, that there was some kind of clear, bowl-like helmet around his head, which must be full of some kind of liquid, causing his beard to swirl around like that.
Lights began to flicker and flash all around us; the walls of the room were apparently paneled floor to ceiling with meter wide viewsee-screens which Ubdov must have activated all at once. Their displays flickered on, strobelike, bombarding us from all directions with horrific images and sounds -- newscasts and broadcast video from all over the world. The zombie apocalypse was in full force; half the viewscreens showed buildings, vehicles, and other human artifacts going up in flames, while the remainder displayed hordes of the walking dead shambling through abandoned streets and parking structures and shopping malls, stalking up and down city streets and suburban roadways, attacking people, dragging them down, devouring them as they screamed for help.
It was sheer chaos, it was hell unleashed, it was mind boggling, terrifying global calamity. It was awful and gruesome, stomach turning, heart breaking.
Ubdov’s beard split inside his weird liquid filled helmet in a grotesque grin.
He spoke, his voice beautifully modulated, his English without a trace of accent. “Fear,” he said. “It is the ultimate weapon. It has destroyed your world. Fear that I have helped to create.”
From thirty feet away, his bright blue eyes met mine. “I am glad to see I have not been entirely forgotten down on the surface.” He laughed, a dry, eerie chuckle nearly as scary as everything else in that room.
Veronica and Eddie had gotten to their feet, too. I tried to think quickly. Ubdov might very well think Eddie and I were helpless, as we had no guns. If so, he was wrong. We still had our agents’ vests, our laser fingers, various other goodies hidden around our persons… we could do some damage, if we needed to. But if Ubdov felt secure, he might just get chatty. It was possible we were the first living people he’d seen in years.
“Not… entirely forgotten, no, doctor,” I said, finally, in response to his question. “So, you admit responsibility for the worldwide reanimations and attacks?”
His head nodded joyfully. “I designed the projector,” he said. “It was my inspiration. Do you have any idea how I managed to make it work?”
Veronica cleared her throat, stepped slightly towards him, looking away diffidently. “Ah,” she said. “There is a form of energy whose nature and origin I do not understand, that is reanimating the bodies of the recently deceased. I hypothesize this energy has an unearthly origin. You were responsible for a much smaller scale attack by reanimated corpses back in the 1980s… but these do not utilize the same technology you used then…”
Ubdov was nodding gleefully, faster and faster, his eyes bright inside his helmet full of fluid. I gestured slightly and Veronica immediately went quiet. “Hold on a second,” I said into the sudden silence. “You said you ‘designed the projector’ – that it was ‘your inspiration’. That makes it sound like it was work you did for someone else. So you’re… what… just hired help? For who?”
That pissed him off no end. “I am UBDOV!” he boomed at me, his face suffused with rage. “For my grand experiments, for my brilliant researches into the nature of terror, I was exiled from the entire planet Earth to this deep space mausoleum… meant to die in obscurity, a washed up, forgotten relic. But none of you ever understood the truth of it.”
He was breathing hard now; oddly, while I couldn’t hear him doing so, I could see clouds of silver bubbles streaming from his mouth and starting to fill the fluid around his head. “I am no lackey,” he nearly screamed. “I am UBDOV – Dr. Fear! Such was my genius, even in childhood, that in my teens I was contacted by those outside, the dwellers in darkness –“
“The masters,” I said… whispered… almost involuntarily.
“They spoke to me, in my mind, in my dreams,” he went on, almost crooning now. “They inspired my devices. Long had they come to Earth, for millions of years, at times when the surface lay in darkness, seeking bodies. The dwellers in the dark are not material, not solid, as we are. Light itself is anathema to them, a toxic radiation that will instantly kill them. Within a human body there is comforting darkness, shelter from the killing light… but living bodies they could not take. A living brain is suffused with electricity, not so much, no, a few volts only, perhaps, but enough to ward them away. But a newly deceased body, still mostly intact, without too much brain damage… this they could take hold of, re-energize, operate to suit themselves. Within such forms, the dark ones could taste solid, material existence… at least briefly, until these bodies rotted away and became completely unusable.”
“Yes,” Veronica said, slowly, thoughtfully. “Since prehistory they have come, under cover of the night, and possessed our dead, attempting to simulate life… this is the basis for most if not all of our legends and myths about the dead rising again to attack the living… ghosts, revenants, vampires… zombies.” She looked fascinated and revolted at the same time. “But inhabiting… controlling a rotting corpse for a few days, or even weeks… that’s a poor imitation of actual life.”
“Yes,” Ubdov agreed with relish. “They hated you for being alive, for having warmth and sensation, for feeling pleasures they could not even imagine, there in the endless cold and dark where they had come into existence and were forced to dwell. So it was that the dead they possessed attacked the living, for they could not live, and begrudged true life to all others… but in me, they saw a brilliant intellect that could be of aid to them. They knew things about energy, and physics, that no human could ever have observed or learned. They helped me conceive my first apparatus for reanimating corpses. I hoped to provide them with better receptacles, richer experiences here… although none of my Soviet sponsors knew of them, of course. Those authoritarian fools merely saw in my mind, my interests, another tool, a bizarre one, granted, with which to bring down the running dog capitalist democracies.”
“But you went too far,” I said, trying to think through what he’d told us. “Too far, even, for those cold, calculating old Russians you worked for. What were you doing, I wonder…? Attacking the West with techno-zombies wouldn’t have offended them…”
Ubdov scowled. “Feh. I could have brought the West to its knees, given enough resources… but in the end, in their hearts, even the hardest, the purest of the Party, those to whom individual human life meant nothing… they were Puritans, clinging to outdated, obsolete, superstitious morality. Narrow minded, judgmental, priggish… they called me perverted… vile… unnatural… they did not know I was merely following the directives of my true sponsors…”
My imagination recoiled from thinking of what Ubdov might have done to offend his Communist masters, that they would have found ‘perverted, vile, or unnatural’. Mass, necrotic orgies of the Undead, attempting to experience the pleasures of the flesh, aping the antics of their still breathing counterparts… living political prisoners, turned over to Ubdov, forced to couple with reanimated corpses, possessed by the greedy, malevolent psyches of bodiless evil from between the stars…? It was stomach churning to even contemplate.
“Even now,” Ubdov went on, his voice rising again, “even as I speak to you, dark ones walk the Earth, inhabiting nearly undamaged bodies… bodies killed only by the invading parasites of the virus I invented and designed for them, a virus whose particles calls out to the dark ones like a beacon. They move in daylight at will, unafraid. Their bodies can experience the entire range of human sensation, and they are all but immortal, in death. It is as close to life as they will ever come… and they will have it for eternity. Thanks to me.”
“So, what,” Eddie spoke up, for the first time. “Couple more days, weeks, months, whatever… it’s just gonna be you and the dark ones, huh? And then, a few years or decades later, it’ll just be them…”
Ubdov laughed, a deep, booming sound that sent chills crawling through me. Within the shadowy bulk of the huge chair he was sitting in, I sensed more than saw movement… and then, he flung himself to his feet, with an odd, mechanical series of creaks and whirrs. As he did, the lights came up fully in the room we were all in, and we saw him plainly for the first time.
His head was fully encased in some kind of fluid filled bubble-helmet, as I’ve already described. But his body… it was gigantic, and asymmetrically bulky, covered with metal plates and writhing cables and blinking lights and swirling gauges. Here and there, between bits of metal and plastic, I could see pallid swatches of milky flesh, but the bulk of him was artificial. He had augmented his human form with machinery, cybernetic accessories far beyond anything even Science Sector had ever dreamed up. He was a 21st Century Frankenstein, stitched together from pieces of his own body and countless advanced machines of clearly inhuman inspiration.
His arms and legs seemed entirely prosthetic, vast, limb shaped engines grafted to what little remained of his original torso, which itself was mostly lost within an artificial barrel of chromed steel and chemical synthetics.
“I was dying, you see,” he said, servomotors humming and whirring as he balanced delicately on his massive metal legs. “Inoperable cancer, diagnosed in my teens… but the dark ones provided me with the knowledge I needed to prolong my life, and, in the end, even as my body died, to reanimate it with machinery no human could ever have conceived. I am, now, as much one of them as I am one of you… perfect intellect, bound to a perfect, all but immortal body. I will live forever, alongside them, sharing their revels and their pleasures, learning all that they know… and we do not plan to wipe out the human race entirely.”
He stopped, and laughed again. “No, we have no such plans. We will destroy your civilization, your technology, your tools and weapons, certainly. But a few humans will be suffered to live… to serve us. After all, we will need something to play with…”
The mechanical thrumming from his body’s internal engines rose to a higher pitch, and he stepped towards us, big hands outstretched, like a child reaching with both hands for a long promised treat. “As I will now play with the three of you,” he intoned, a look of gloating anticipation on his face.
He never should have called those hand things off of us, if he’d wanted to mess with us. I’m sure he thought there was nothing we could do, unarmed, against his armored, no doubt superhumanly powerful bulk. But that was a mistake.
He closed in faster than most humans could have moved, covering the intervening distance between us in three colossal strides. But there’s only so quickly you can move a few thousand pounds of mass in a normal one gee field, and when you have that kind of inertia to overcome, it’s hard to be as precise as you need to be when you’re trying to grab someone. Or so I fervently hoped as I dove forward and rolled under his left hand. His segmented fingers closed with metallic grinding noises just behind my head, gripping nothing but a few hairs that I barely noticed being pulled from my scalp as I completed my forward somersault. I came back to my feet, still rolling, and pivoted on my right foot, turning my own momentum into a fast spin, driving my left heel in a roundhouse axe-kick to the back of his knee, where a small patch of pallid Ubdov-flesh still showed between armor plates and bracing wires.
As humanoid knees will when struck from behind regardless of cybernetic enhancements, Ubdov’s gave way. He’d been bringing most of his considerable weight down on that leg and with it suddenly folding under him like a cheap card table, he hit the deckplates with a crash like a cast iron stove dropped off someone’s balcony onto a concrete patio. Even as I struck on my forearms and rolled forward again, I saw Eddie, in perfect synchronization with my movements, going up and over Ubdov’s falling body, flipping forward in a perfect somersault to come down in a vicious two footed stomp that had all his weight and momentum behind it on Ubdov’s helmet.
Which shattered, spewing oily greenish fluid and shards of plexiglass across the deckplates.
Eddie’s booted feet continued on down into Ubdov’s head, smashing it hard against the metal decking. Ubdov’s skull actually crumpled inward under Eddie’s heels, and I could see yellowish shards of bone and grayish green brain curds bulging through new cracks in Ubdov’s flesh.
He should have been dead… well, deader than he’d already been, anyway; the kind of dead where you stop moving and making a nuisance of yourself. And we both figured he must be.
“What do you think,” I panted, getting back to my feet again and reaching a hand out to haul Eddie up, “gold medal in the Synchronized Cybernetic SuperVillain Stomp?”
Eddie hesitated for a second… not even a second, but it seemed longer… then shook his head and grabbed my hand and let me pull him to his feet. “We got style, we got grace, and we always know our place,” he responded, grinning, “but you know how that goes… the goddam Lithuanian judge always marks us low, especially when we go after the ex-Soviet bad guys…”
Like I said, we’d been sure Ubdov was dead – head all but crushed like that, he’d pretty much had to be. But it turned out he was tough as a metal studded razor strop. Abruptly one huge steel segmented arm swept around at us. I yelled a warning and ducked, trying to shove Eddie out of the way. Eddie, his footing uncertain in the goo from Ubdov’s shattered helmet, couldn’t dodge it fully and it knocked him across the room and into a bank of viewscreens with a jangling crash.
And then Ubdov, hydraulics shrieking, mouth writhing horribly in his battered, broken face, one eye hanging from its socket down onto his grayish-green cheek, rolled up to one knee… tottered back to his feet… and stood there, swaying, servomotors whining and smoking with overstrain.
His left hand came up to his chest, fingers scrabbling spastically, reminding me horribly of his hand-creatures. He was doing something, though… pressing buttons, pulling switches, turning dials… something, to some doubtless sinister purpose.
Somewhere, deep in the habitat, I could hear machinery responding. There were clunks… hisses… thumps.
And, from a distance nowhere near distant enough… a nearly soundless, almost psychic mass growl of hunger and rage.
“You… you won’t… YOU won’t…” Ubdov swayed on his feet, his misshapen, broken head lolling on his metal reinforced neck. “You shan’t… outlive me… long…” he gasped, finally.
And went to his knees, with a big iron thump. Then, slowly, metal rasping on metal, he slid down onto his face, one good eye finding me, transfixing me with a glare of seething hatred.
“Diiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeee…” he gasped, exultantly. His hand spasmed, clutching and opening, clutching and opening, on nothing.
Then the light went out of his eye. One by one, the lights dancing on his machine-body followed suit.
I looked at Eddie; he was getting up again, slowly and stiffly. Two of the walls that had been covered in viewscreens now had hatches gaping open in them. Curved hallways stretched away from both. From beyond where those hallways curved, still out of sight, I could hear the shuffling of dozens… maybe hundreds… of feet.
And the growling.
And we didn’t have our guns.
Eddie stared at me in dawning horror. He was a mental step or two behind me; I was already as close to paralyzed with fear as it was possible for me to get. Ubdov must have had a horde of zombies stashed aboard his sanctum sanctorum, doubtless recovered from nearby space. Whatever vile researches he’d been conducting on them, now, in an act of dying retribution, he’d opened a passage between us and them, and however it was they sensed such things, they knew we were here. And they were coming for us, an unstoppable, predatory mob of the living dead.
And we had no guns.
I was, as I said, nearly paralyzed with fear… but, as I have also previously noted, I’m one of those freaks of nature who don’t actually freeze up, no matter how terrified or shocked I am. In fact, at that moment, I was mentally cataloguing the contents of our agents’ vests. Our laser fingers would take out maybe three zombies each, if we were lucky and made every shot count. Gas pellets wouldn’t have any effect on the walking dead. We didn’t have time to set plastic explosives, and, anyway, setting off detonations in a fragile, pressurized environment like Ubdov’s orbital headquarters was almost certain suicide. Which also eliminated from consideration –
“The mini-bombs,” Eddie finally gritted out, pulling his three out of an inner vest pocket to hold in his hand. Grenades the size and shape of metric 5 gram weights. Standard Science Sector issue; we each had three. Lobbed into an oncoming mob at correctly timed intervals, they’d blow dozens of the slow moving bastards into mostly harmless hamburger… but if we ruptured a pressure seal, we were all dead.
But if we just stood there and waited for the horde to arrive, we’d get dragged under by sheer numbers. We had agents’ gloves that would effectively turn our hands into spiked, armored maces, and I had no doubt that between Eddie and I, we could crack a few dozen undead skulls in hand to hand… but eventually we’d get tired and they wouldn’t. They’d pull us down, and then…
I couldn’t stand to think about ‘and then’. “All right,” I said, my mouth gone completely dry. “We’ll throw them one at a time, specifically targeting the leader of the mob…”
“No,” Veronica said sharply. “Don’t be crazy; you can’t start throwing grenades around in here.” She took three long steps over to Ubdov’s former throne, head moving minutely back and forth as she looked it over for something. She nodded as if satisfied, and snapped her portable computer into a socket on the throne’s left arm I hadn’t even noticed. Then she tapped briefly on her keyboard.
Abruptly, the room was filled with that same eerie electronic music we’d heard before, right before Ubdov’s army of hand-creatures had swarmed over us. “Don’t move,” Veronica warned me and Eddie, right before I heard that same series of metallic clicks which had accompanied the hand-swarm’s vanishing into the shadows.
This time, I saw panels lining the base of each wall click open, revealing dark access shafts behind them, for all the world like mechanized cat doors. Out of those shafts came Ubdov’s hand things, swarming again like giant spiders. I wanted to scream; Eddie did give a half hysterical little yip, which he choked off in his throat before it could get out of control.
The hand-creatures ignored us completely this time, scuttling around our feet like a vast, horribly insectile river, pouring through the room we were in and down into the two open access halls. I looked up, and coming around the curve in each hall just at that moment was the first of the oncoming zombie horde, lurching and stumbling along, moaning and groaning, arms outstretched, undead hands clenching and unclenching in anticipation of grabbing and tearing our flesh.
The zombies I could see were all dressed for either deep space, in shredded, broken remnants of what had once been pressure suits, or in the shorts and singlet more typical of controlled orbital environments. Most of them were eyeless – pressure deaths nearly always explode the human eyeball – and several had big irregular swathes of reddish black long since dried on their chins, necks, and chests, where they’d coughed out most of their lungs into vacuum. They were, as a lot, even more hideous than similar zombie hordes on Earth.
The hand-creatures took them neatly – well, ‘in stride’, I guess, is the best way to put it – employing the same swarming technique as they’d used on us, leaping and crawling up the zombies before the zombies even knew they were there, knocking them off their feet, immobilizing them. Within ten seconds, it was all over. The moaning, groaning, psychically slavering undead continued to writhe and ululate helplessly in the grips of the hand-creatures, but they were completely immobilized.
I could see Veronica mutter something to herself with a pleased half smile on her face, but couldn’t hear what she said over the sinister chords of the blaring music. She tapped another sequence into her miniature keyboard. The music changed in pitch and tone, and the hand-things, joined stump to stump once again, scuttled away down the corridors, hauling their immobilized undead prisoners back the way they’d come with shocking speed.
Veronica hit another button and the music seemed to follow the hand-horde away down the corridors. “That will do it,” she said. “The hands will drag the zombies back to the chamber they were originally penned in… according to the internal map I’m accessing from Ubdov’s own databases, that room is his main lab. We should check it out.” She looked up at me, all bright eyed, like a puppy waiting to be patted.
“Veronica, you’re a miracle worker,” I said fervently. I badly wanted to kiss her but that was going to have to wait.
“You got my vote for any office you ever run for,” Eddie added, his voice just as urgently appreciative. He probably wanted to kiss her, too. I tried to repress a sharp, incredibly stupid pang of jealousy I felt at the thought, wondering if Veronica would like him to. That nonsense would get every one of us killed if we weren’t careful.
“We need to backtrack and get our guns,” I said. Eddie flicked a glance at me, then nodded enthusiastic agreement, doubtless feeling the same imperative need to have a loaded weapon in his hand as I did. Veronica frowned, then turned one hand over and opened it in acquiescence. She wasn’t a soldier like we were; to her, weapons were at best an intellectually noted advantage, not a compulsive emotional need. But Veronica’s most effective weapon was always going to be her brain, anyway. Us killer apes, on the other hand, needed our sticks and rocks to be really effective out here at the sharp end.
“Will your Ubdov-lab wait a minute or two?” I asked her. “Are those things secure?”
Veronica tapped on her keyboard again, and several of the monitors currently showing zombie-driven carnage down on Earth switched to what were obviously calmer, more sedate views of the interior of Ubdov’s habitat. On several of them, a horde of involuntarily recumbent zombies writhed, undulated, and ululated in a frustrated frenzy atop a swarm of grasping, disembodied finger critters. It was a frankly revolting spectacle.
Veronica tapped in another code. I didn’t see anything change on the monitors, but she looked satisfied. “The lab is locked down, now,” she said, “and those things shouldn’t be able to damage anything. Let’s get your weapons.”
“Our weapons,” I corrected her.
“I have my weapon,” she said, picking up her portable computer. “But you’re the boss,” she added, hastily, probably seeing a glower starting to congeal on my face. “I’ll carry a gun, too. No problem.”
I’d had a horrible thought that Ubdov might have had his hand critters grab our weapons and bring them along with us; just because we hadn’t seen it happen didn’t mean anything. And if they’d carried those guns off into the bowels of the station, it wasn’t likely we’d ever see them again… but no, they were laying on the floorplates right where we remembered being initially overrun. I sighed in relief, and am pretty sure Eddie did the same, as we snapped our guns back into their holsters. Nothing makes a trained agent feel better than the weight of a loaded gun riding sweet and heavy at his or her hip.
“Ubdov’s main lab now?” Veronica asked, once we’d all tucked our weapons safely away again. “I really need to get a first hand look at his work area.”
“We’re still talking about the one with all the hand-things and zombies in it?” I asked. I suppose my revulsion was pretty obvious in my voice; I hadn’t tried to hide it very hard. “Just how important is this?”
“My portable has made a complete analysis of the vibrations Ubdov uses to control those hand creatures,” she told me rather waspishly. “There is no danger to us, I am in complete control.”
“Everybody says that, right before the monsters get ‘em,” Eddie observed. I wanted to agree, but it wouldn’t have accomplished much.
“This is not a viewsee, Agent Barrow,” Veronica said dryly. “This is real life… although I can understand how anyone could be confused.”
“Seems a lot like a viewsee to me,” I said. “Which is okay; in most of the classic zombie viewsees, the black character is the one who survives all the way to the end. You cawkays could be in a lot of trouble, though.”
Eddie grinned at that. “Ving Rhames never had nothin’ on you, Chief,” he said, mock saluting me.
“That was the remake,” I said. “Ken Foree was mucho zappier in the original… all right. I guess we need to check out Ubdov’s lab. Eddie, you’re on point. Doc, I assume you can provide directions…?”
She could, and did. Five minutes of echoing footsteps through empty metal corridors took us to the lab, the inside of which was awrithe with perpendicular zombies struggling futilely against the horde of Ubdov’s hand critters holding them immobile.
Eddie and I exchanged glances; we really didn’t want to go in there. On the other hand, neither of us were going to let Veronica go in there alone, and she didn’t seem at all troubled by the notion. So we took a deep breath, and then Eddie went in first, with me coming up behind Veronica. Both of us had our guns out, and I’m pretty sure neither of us was more than a nerve spasm away from shooting the jesus out of anything that moved in our peripheral vision.
Then I wanted to punch her; after all her insistence that we had to go there, she didn’t do anything while she was in there. Well, she walked around. Took some threedees with her portable of the room and the various incomprehensible machines and devices in it. Glanced at the zombies clamped down, ankles, neck and hands, on the metal tables, some of which had had their heads cut open in precise, surgical sections. That was maybe the worst; two zombies with geometrically precise slices of their brains missing, still struggling against the metal bands that held them down, eyes rolling over towards us, moaning and slobbering, fingers clenching and unclenching, teeth gnashing with hunger.
Then she said “All right, I’ve seen it all, I think” and walked absently back over to the door we’d come in by. Ten minutes in the room, and that was all she needed. I exchanged another look with Eddie, saw the same baffled fury I felt mirrored clearly in his eyes, and we both followed Veronica out of the room.
“What the hell was THAT about?” Eddie exploded in the hallway. I was grateful to him; I’d been about to say much the same in near exactly the same tone, and it wouldn’t have been leaderly.
“Ubdov had no security on his data files,” Veronica said calmly. “I got everything his central processor had when I jacked into his chair… that throne thing… whatever. But some of the notes didn’t make sense to me. I needed to see his machinery, as well.”
“And now you know what he was doing?” I asked, keeping my voice calm. I love Veronica more than life itself, but she can be incredibly exasperating sometimes. “Well, report, dammit!”
She looked surprised. “Oh. Yes. I’m sorry, I thought it was obvious…” She must have seen a look cross both our faces, as she immediately looked down and flushed. “I AM sorry. You too are so overwhelmingly competent in your fields that I simply forgot you don’t have my training or experience.” She looked back up again, looking genuinely chagrined. “If you’d seen the way you took out that monster robot Ubdov… the ease, the simplicity…” She shrugged. “I apologize. I… give me half an hour in a quiet room to format things and I will have a report for you.” She started to punch numbers into her portable, then looked back up at me quickly. “Ah. Chief.”
As it turned out, there were several small rooms off that particular hallway that would do for Veronica’s purposes. She went into one and sat down at what was obviously a heavily modified personal processor that had originally been manufactured maybe fifteen years ago, slotted her portable into its exterior drive, and started playing its keyboard. Eddie and I both glanced around the room – it was more a cubicle than anything else with no entrances or exits besides the one off the hallway we were in – then took up guard positions on either side of the open doorway. Just like old times.
It actually only took her fifteen minutes. Then she called us, and when we looked in, nodded and hit a point on the keyboard. A three dimensional holo field lit up with something I recognized as a molecular diagram… probably something organic. That was about as much as I was going to get out of it without more explanations.
“This is the complete molecular structure of the ‘lord zombie’ virus particle,” Veronica told us. “I had most of this from my own analysis of your tissue, Chief, but this is complete… certain parts of the lattice weren’t lucid without Ubdov’s specialized scanning equipment.” She paused, and looked up. “Oh,” she said, in a tone of sudden realization, “that explains why the q links all went down at the same time!” She tapped quickly on the keyboard for a few seconds. “Okay, that makes sense.”
She looked up into twin glares from me and Eddie. “Sorry again,” she said. “The reanimation energy… It’s really quite extraordinary. Ubdov’s notes say he found it by accident… a by product of an entirely different line of research. It’s a form of energy that essentially revitalizes any dead or decaying matter that possesses a complex organic cellular template… DNA, basically. It will regenerate even the most decayed tissue, from the innermost cells outward. However, once the muscular structure is regrown to the point where the body can move around, and the brain regenerates enough for those basic nerve impulses to be routed through it, the regeneration process ceases. As it works from the inside out, the zombies we see still often retain surface indications of decay and decomposition, but their underlying muscles and nerves are largely intact… intact enough for them to lurch along, anyway. With the brain regenerated to only its most basic, primitive levels, they essentially feel only xenophobic rage and hunger, both directed against the creatures that look like them but which don’t smell like them… living humans, in other words.” She shook her head again. “It’s truly amazing. Ubdov refers to it as Z energy…”
“Z for zombie?” I asked.
“Z, I think,” Veronica answered, “simply because he didn’t want to call it X or Y… I think he flattered himself that it was some kind of ‘ultimate’ energy. Anyway, it is transmitted on the quantum level. The analogy isn’t exact, but basically, the transmission is so strong it was drowning out our local communications that also went along the quantum band.”
I thought about that. “So, in other words, we find a way to turn off this Z energy transmission, and the Q links all work again?”
“Exactly,” she said, beaming at me like I was her prize pupil.
“You figured out where it’s comin’ from?” Eddie asked laconically. You’d never have known from his tone how important that question was. “If the transmission is so strong, can you triangulate on it somehow?”
“Quantum linkages don’t work that way,” Veronica said, “as I mentioned, the radio wave analogy isn’t exact. In fact, it’s rather misleading when it comes down to details. However, yes, I do know where the transmission is coming from; that’s in Ubdov’s notes. He designed the apparatus that generates and transmits the beacon here, and then sent complete schematics out to…” She paused, as if unsure what words to use. “Out to his clients,” she said, finally. “The masters. The Fear Masters.”
“And they built this thing and pointed it at us and pulled the trigger,” Eddie said, a muscle twitching slightly next to his mouth. “Where?”
“Where?” I repeated. “Out where?”
“The halfway point between them and us,” Veronica said. “The edge of the solar system.”
“You don’t mean…” I couldn’t believe she meant what she seemed to mean.
Veronica nodded. “Pluto,” she said. “The zombie ray is coming from Pluto.”
Pluto. Wasn’t that a kick in the teeth.
Eddie looked like someone had turned a valve and let about 12 foot pounds of air out of him. “Pluto,” he said out loud. “Karkin’ fark. We can’t…” He shook his head. “We haven’t even got past Mars yet. Pluto?”
“What,” I said, “your magic inertialess drive thingie won’t get us out that far?”
“It’s not magic,” Veronica said tartly. “And yes, it will get us that far… hypothetically. However…” She touched a key and a 3 dimensional image of the Solar System appeared above the processor she was sitting behind. “Right now, Pluto is 34.7 AUs away… three billion miles, and change. We’re lucky that there’s a reasonably straight vector out there… but unfortunately, Jupiter lies right across that straight line vector, at very nearly the same angle below the sun as Pluto. And even if it didn’t, the accelerator would be very dangerous to use crossing the asteroid field… but factoring in Jupiter, a straight jump from Earth to Pluto, at this moment, is to all intents and purposes unworkable.”
“That’s something I don’t understand,” I said. “Well, I don’t understand most of it, but… if the accelerator creates a field around us that insulates us from the outside universe, why do we care about solid objects between us and our destination? Wouldn’t we just pass through them?”
“Again,” Veronica said, “it isn’t magic. It doesn’t make us intangible. It insulates us from the constraints of normal Euclidean physics, but not from the ramifications of an actual collision between us and another physical object. The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is bad enough… the odds of any particular straight line vector going from one side of the Belt to another without intersecting a sizable mass of some form or other are… well, they aren’t betting odds, by any means. But the presence of Jupiter right between us and Pluto… I wouldn’t dare try it. We’d have to make a parabolic, out away from the solar ecliptic… probably at least ten jumps… each of which would have to be calculated with almost no statistical margin of error at all, as the slightest deviation in any of them would probably end up with us shooting on past Pluto at speeds well in excess of unity.”
“Uh,” I said. “Well… ten jumps is better, in a way, since we don’t dare spend more than five minutes or so inside that space-time vacuole thingie, anyway, lest our cells all come unglued or something. But you don’t think the car’s autopilot can handle the math?”
Veronica shrugged. “It’s not built for it,” she said. “A single straight line vector would be much easier… but even at the acceleration we’d get, jumping straight out of a LaGrange point like this, we’d still be inside the car for… fifteen minutes? Maybe a little less. And odds are very good we’d hit a sizable asteroid… or a sizable gas giant. Either way, it would be the end of us.”
“So, our basic cellular structure would turn into goo, and then we’d hit something big at hyperspeed and blow all to hell,” I recapped. “Or, we can try the ten-jump ballistic thing, but odds are we end up missing Pluto completely and shooting off into interstellar space.”
“There it is, pretty much in an eggshell,” Veronica said. “We need to get to Pluto, and I can’t think of any way that we can, even with the anti-grav accelerator. And even if we could, the car has no weaponry and the Z ray projector is the size of an apartment complex. It has vulnerable points, but we would need to be able to get out of the car and move around inside it to get to them… and there is no way we could do that. Not 35 astronomical units from the sun. We don’t even have space suits that would work in close Earth orbit, much less on Pluto.”
“Nutshell,” I said. “It’s nutshell, not eggshell.” Something she’d said had nudged a little pebble of thought in my head… but there was too much going on for me to chase it down the hill right then. “So… we’re stuck? I mean… what are all those machines in Ubdov’s lab? Does he have, like, some kind of experimental warp gate, or something, that we could use to get to Pluto?”
Veronica gave me a very exasperated expression. “Don’t be ridiculous, Myrna Loy. Ubdov was a brilliant scientist and he had access to unearthly technology, but the very idea of a… a… ‘warpgate’… it’s simply ludicrous.”
“No frak?” Eddie asked. “Hully gee. But a zombie ray that turns corpses into ravening ghouls… that’s not crazy, or anything.”
Veronica scowled at him, then at me. “Be that as it may,” she finally said, rather huffily, “there is no ‘warpgate’. However,” she went on, “there is a… well, a sort of freight cannon, which Ubdov has been using to send the zombies that he has gathered and modified slightly to Pluto.”
I must have goggled. I know Eddie did. After a second, I stammered, “He has… wait. What? He’s got a… a zombie cannon? And he’s shooting zombies out to Pluto?” My mind was frankly croggled at the concept.
“Why the kark would you send zombies out to karkin PLUTO?” Eddie demanded.
“The Z ray projector is very complex,” Veronica explained. “And the… the dark creatures themselves, the fear masters… they aren’t solid. And there aren’t any physical beings out there that they can possess, as they do dead human bodies on Earth. So Ubdov had to send them some, that they could use to build the projector. And he had to modify the zombies he sent out, so they could withstand conditions that far from the sun.”
“So Ubdov starts to reanimate a bunch of corpses out here at the LaGrange point a full year or so ago,” I said. “He… what? Tops ‘em up with anti-freeze and loads them into some giant clown cannon and fires them off to the edge of the solar system?”
“It isn’t quite that –“ Veronica started.
“Wow,” Eddie interjected. “Well, thank Allah and Bast he doesn’t have a warpgate or anything. Because that would be ridiculous.”
“All right,” I said. “This cannon thing he uses to send zombies to Pluto… can we use it to get out there ourselves?”
Veronica pursed her lips. “We could,” she said. “Assuming we could withstand 13 gravities of initial boost, which we can’t, and we could then somehow survive 120 or so days in parabolic orbit through deep space, which we can’t, and then we could tolerate the stresses from the magnetically shaped plasma net that Ubdov designed that would catch us when we passed near Pluto, which we couldn’t… yes, then, the freight cannon Ubdov designed would be very useful to us.”
“120 days?” I shook my head. “Okay, leaving aside all the other frak, I don’t think civilization can stand 120 days of zombie apocalypse. The whole surface of the Earth will be one big ruin if we have to take that long.”
“True that,” Eddie said. “But I’m thinkin’, if these fear masters expect regular shipments of zombie slave labor, we could rig up some kind of good sized warhead and use this freight cannon to drop it in their laps. Maybe it takes four months to get out there, but at least we’d know that we were gonna get to the end of the tunnel eventually…”
“It’s something,” I agreed. “And if we can’t come up with anything else, then…”
And that was when the little thought pebble that Veronica had kicked down the hill a few minutes before turned into a roaring idea avalanche.
“Hey,” I said. “Hey, hey… why can’t we…”
My idea was simple. I outlined it in a few economical phrases. Like this:
We use Ubdov’s labs to duplicate the experimental anti-grav accelerator, two or three times. We fix these duplicate accelerators to… anything, really, a big chunk of metal that massed about as much as our car would be fine… we attach an autopilot programmed to the exact vector connecting our current location with the planet Pluto. We fire the first two off at two second intervals to clear the vector of any kind of junk that might get in the way – asteroids, Jupiter, whatever. We fire off the third… or maybe the fourth… and it hits Pluto at translight speed and turns the entire planet into an expanding plasma cloud, which wrecks the zombie ray projector, which saves the world.
It was a brute force approach – one that would end up being a little rough on various geographical features of the Solar System, like a swatch of the Asteroid Belt, a chunk of Jupiter, and pretty much all of Pluto – but I was pretty happy to trade all that in, if it stopped the zombie apocalypse down on Earth.
“It won’t work,” Eddie said stubbornly.
“Why not?” I asked him. I’d thought it was a brilliant idea, myself. “You said you could rig up some kind of warhead. I don’t even think we’d need a warhead if we can hit Pluto at translight speed with something as big as a car… You don’t think you can duplicate the anti-grav accelerator?”
“I need to duplicate it at least twice, maybe three times,” Eddie said. “That’s if we’re lucky. With Veronica’s help… and the contents of Ubdov’s labs… yeah, I can probably make two or three working accelerator prototypes. Maybe even more. But even if we clear a path through the asteroid belt, and through some chunk of Jupiter, and we get a missile all the way through to the edge of the Solar System… you’re still talking about hitting something a tenth the size of Earth with an object the size of a car moving at translight speed. It isn’t the same thing as us jumping out there in the car, because we’d stop at some set of coordinates we pre-calculated to be nearby Pluto, find it with our radar, and come in on a normal gravity vector. Instead of that, we’d be trying to hit the planet… which is really a small, rogue moon, anyway… from 2 billion miles away with the equivalent of a thrown football. And that’s after we vaporize a few stray asteroids and a good sized chunk of Jupiter’s atmosphere first.” He shook his head. “And here’s the other thing. We can’t wait to find out what happens with our first couple of shots, because any path we clear through the asteroid belt isn’t going to stay clear very long. We have to fire these things off, BAM BAM BAM, and then hope the last one gets through. And we won’t know if that one does anything for… I dunno… weeks.”
“If all the zombies on Earth fall down dead and stay that way,” I said, “I’m gonna figure we hit our target.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Eddie grumbled. Then he looked really exasperated. “Plus, we’re talking about, like, vaporizing Pluto. I mean, I don’t WANT to vaporize Pluto. Pluto is kinda zappy.”
I threw open my arms in disgust. “I like Pluto too, but I kinda like the Globe better! I mean, seriously, what’s Pluto done for us lately… except have a great big ray gun on it that’s making the dead walk and attack the living?”
Eddie shrugged. “Okay, I hear you, but still. It’s ridiculous. The odds are better if we turn the doc loose in Ubdov’s lab and wait for her to invent a warpgate.”
“I have to agree with Agent Barrow,” Veronica said. “Well, not that warpgate thing, that’s insane, but your idea, Myrna Loy, is inspired, but not very feasible. Now, if we were to fire a few missiles ahead of us to clear the vector of any interference, and then immediately follow in the car… but of course, transit time, even with the accelerator, is still just under fifteen minutes for a straight line trip. Our metabolisms will not continue to function that long, insulated from the quantum matrix they evolved in. And, obviously, it will accomplish nothing for an armored, extensively modified flying car full of corpses to arrive at the edge of the Solar System, ready to do battle…”
She stopped, and stared at me. “I know that look,” she said. “What crazy idea have you come up with this time, Myrna Loy?”
“Not me,” I said, quietly. “You. ‘A car full of corpses at the edge of the Solar System, ready to do battle’. That’s it. That’s how we get out there…”
Neither of them liked my latest idea. Unlike the previous one, though, neither of them could find any essential flaws in it. It was desperate, and, in my daddy’s memorable words, crazier than a moose with a set of goose neck lamps instead of antlers… but we all thought it would probably work, and it was, in fact, the only thing any of us could think of that might.
Veronica advised she’d need a couple of hours to get the supplies she needed and to throw together the devices my plan required. Eddie figured he’d need at least that long to rig up a couple of working anti-grav accelerator prototypes, even ones that would only have to work once, for maybe fifteen minutes max.
That left me, odd girl out. The more things change, etc, etc.
So while the two of them worked down in Ubdov’s lab, I sat down in Ubdov’s former throne and downloaded everything my ocular implants had recorded over the last 48 hours. Then I put it all up on the TV screens covering the walls, and started editing it all down into something around two hours long. I left all the raw data as a subtrack, but condensed everything into something an analyst could look at first to get the gist, while at the same time dictating an oral report, like a director’s commentary track on your favorite three-vee disc.
Which nicely killed, what… three and a half hours or so, I see from checking Ubdov’s chronometers.
Now that I’ve gotten this far, I can say that the idea is, before we head off to Pluto sometime later tonight, I’ll drop a disc containing this whole thing into a messenger rocket and shoot it off towards New Washington with a Science Sector address code on it. That’s a back up; I’ll also have every communications array Ubdov has, especially the old fashioned stuff that still uses radio and microwaves, pointed back at Earth broadcasting this thing on a continuous loop. My hope is, eventually someone will have a chance to watch this, and thus, history will know what we did… or tried to do.
Although, if we don’t succeed, I wouldn’t bet a broke neck buzzard on the odds anyone’s ever gonna teach a human history class again.
Reviewing the data all at once like that, though, hi-speeding forward through a lot of stuff, slowing down some other things, or going back again to review events that had buzzed by me really quickly in real time, I found myself wondering about a few things.
Wondering about may not be the phrase I’m looking for.
Suspicious of, might come closer.
I sat there and tried to sort it out in my brain. I make no claims to any kind of brilliance; there’s only one genius in this whole narrative, and it sure ain’t me. Eddie is actually a lot smarter than I am, although his intelligence is focused on a narrower band than mine is… although, come to think of it, Veronica’s focus is kind of narrow, too. Maybe that’s why they dumped the whole boss deal on me, I have a wider cone of mental vision than either of them.
I was very aware, the whole time I was sitting there, of Ubdov’s cooling cyborg-corpse, lying ten feet away from me, not least of which because the crunched remains of his head smelled faintly of rotten eggs. Compared to the absolutely horrific stench of any single zombie, much less a ravening horde of them, it wasn’t much, but it was a persistent sour undertang that the atmospheric conditioners couldn’t seem to clear. It may have made me more paranoid than I would have been otherwise… although lemme say for the record, paranoia for a Science Sector agent is less a psychosis than it is a beneficial survival adaptation… and you can put that in 200 point bold face during a zombie apocalypse.
So I turned a few things over in my brain, and turned them over, and turned them over, and no matter what angle I held them up to the light at, I couldn’t seem to make it work.
So, finally, I went looking for Veronica and Eddie.
They were down in the lab, of course. Eddie had prevailed on Veronica to get rid of Ubdov’s zombies and his creepy hand minions; exactly what she did to get them out of sight, I to this day have no earthly idea. If anyone had asked me, I’d have suggested sending the whole kit and caboodle straight out the nearest airlock, with an added proviso that she get another horde of those nasty hand monsters to drag Ubdov’s body out into space, too. But nobody asked me, and I was so intent on my new line of speculation that I didn’t think about it much, either.
I just walked straight up to where Veronica was bent over some kind of microcircuitry board, using her portable to control a set of wire-thin waldos, and planted myself three feet to the side of her.
She looked over at me… then slowly straightened up. I must have had some kind of look on my face. She blinked at me a couple of times, and then said, “Myrna Loy. I… this is the third shock collar, and I’m nearly done with it…”
“The dark ones don’t really want dead human bodies,” I said. “Ain’t that right? They hate us ‘cuz we’re alive, and solid, and we live in the sun, and we can experience a whole range of sensory input that they can’t, hanging out there in the dark between the stars without any kind of actual physical bodies. That’s why they keep coming to Earth and taking over any kind of physical form they can get access to. But dead bodies can’t really feel much, right? Ideally, if they could, they’d want to take over a live human body, right?”
She blinked at me again. Then, very cautiously: “Yes, Myrna Loy… Chief. That would certainly be their preference, from what we’ve learned. But as I have already reported, the live human brain is electrically active, and even a small amount of electricity… a few volts, or less… is essentially toxic to a master.” She gestured to the mechanism she was working on. “That’s why you have me building these, remember?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But the electrical activity in the human brain is reflective of a mind being present, ain’t that right? A human in a vegetative state has practically no brain activity at all as we measure it… virtually no voltage. Ain’t that correct?”
“I…” Veronica hesitated. “You think… a master could possess someone in a vegetative state? I suppose it’s possible. But remember, any light at all is also lethal to a master in a disembodied form. They would have to gain access to such a living, vegetative person in conditions of nearly total darkness, during one of the few periods… new moon nights, generally, or total eclipses… when there is for all intents and purposes complete darkness on the Earth. The odds are prohibitively against such a coincidence occurring…”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I told her. I caught Eddie moving out of the corner of my eye now; he’d put down his own soldering iron and slid around so he was about six feet to my left, and just behind me. Backing my play, without having any idea what my play was. Good old Eddie. “I think, yeah, it doesn’t happen very often; in fact, it may be the dark one’s equivalent of winning a sweepstakes. But I think, over the course of human history, it’s probably happened over and over again. I think we’ve had at least a couple of dozen dark ones taking possession of living humans, and I’ll bet they love it best of all when they can get hold of a living human who is in a position of authority over other humans… or who they can put in a position of authority after they grab the body.”
“You’re saying…” Veronica scowled at me. “What are you saying, Myrna Loy? Are you saying that all of humanity’s most depraved historical actors were actually being controlled by fear masters?”
“Why not?” I asked. She was trying to get me mad, but I wasn’t gonna go there. I had a much bigger fish on the hook, I figured. “Caligula. Nero. Attila. Robespierre. Vlad the Impaler. Khomeini. Cheney. Idi Amin. Leopold the Second. Hitler. Pol Pot. Stalin. Belle Gunness. Ilse Koch. You don’t think some of those creeps… maybe most of ‘em… were masters, havin’ themselves a big ol’ party inside a human skin?”
“A convenient theory,” Veronica said, flushing. “One that quite lets the human race off the hook for all of its moral excesses over the millennia, yes? What are you saying, then, Myrna Loy? Humanity can rape, humanity can murder, humanity can torture and abuse and prey on its own weakest members in the cruelest and most depraved fashion imaginable, for profit or simply out of boredom… but the worst of the worst, the most despicable of them all, the greatest monsters of history… why, those must be inhuman devils from the outer dark, demons from outside the race. Is that correct? Exactly where do you draw the line, Myrna Loy? Is a man who beats his wife to death in a fit of drunken rage, or a woman who drowns her children because her new lover finds them inconvenient, still human? How many atrocities do they have to commit, before your theory assumes they must actually be possessed by a master?”
“Humanity has got plenty of darkness of its own,” I agreed. “We’re sure capable of doin’ some deep nasty kark to each other, without needin’ assistance from any devil or demon outside our own human heads. I can’t argue with that; hell, Veronica, after fourteen years in my daddy’s house, I’m practically an expert on that subject. My daddy wasn’t no dark one. He was just a horny piece of shit who shouldn’t never have been let within a hundred feet of any little girl.” I took a breath, then let it trickle out past my teeth. “And plenty of our worst killers and such had obvious motives for what they did. Belle Gunness killed her family members to collect their insurance, just for one easily understandable example.” I paused a second to collect my thoughts. “But the worst of it, the worst so called humans we know about, the ones that we just can’t understand, the ones who rape and torture and kill and torment for no real reason at all… you know, when they’re nobody special, then they just end up with six, or eight, or twenty, thirty, maybe fifty or even a hundred scalps on their belts… people like Ted Bundy, or Beverly Allitt, or most of those other serial killers. But if they’re important people… people of authority… why, then they can get their scores up into the tens or hundreds of thousands. Or millions.”
Veronica shook her head. “I’m sorry, Myrna Loy, but it seems unlikely to me. Humanity is an entity with enormous moral range, capable of tremendous heights of virtue, or sickening depths of depravity. It is simply the nature of the beast. It is an attractive idea, that the worst debaucheries and most appalling evils committed by a race should actually not be that race’s responsibility at all… but it simply strikes me as much too convenient an excuse. You may call those people ‘inhuman’ and ‘creatures’, but you know the truth. They are human, just like you.”
“Just like me,” I said, softly. “Just like me. Just like Eddie. But what about you, doc?”
Veronica closed her eyes… and sighed. Then opened them again and stared at me.
After a long minute or so, I heard Eddie say, behind me: “What do you mean by that, Myrna Loy?”
“When it happened it happened real fast,” I said. “And things kept happening fast, and I never really had a chance to wonder about it. But you guys are down here workin’ and I’m upstairs lookin’ at images off my ocular implants and dictatin’ a report to… whoever might watch it, someday, maybe… and it occurs to me: we were in a secret subway two hundred feet underneath an abandoned city, on a covert mission, Eddie. How in the name of farkin’ jeebus did we end up gettin’ attacked by a boatload o’ zombies?”
Eddie got real quiet. Then: “I never even thought about it. How the hell did those zombies get into that tunnel… and why just at that minute, when the train had stalled dead?”
“It’s in Ubdov’s database,” I said. “You must have missed it, doc. It’s right in there where anyone can pull it up. He had a standing order from the dark ones to keep track of Dr. Hansea, here. They were real interested in her… so interested that, when it came time to kick off Z Day, Ubdov made sure we got a special delivery package. Those zombies that attacked us? That wasn’t random. He made sure that a couple dozen of the corpses dumped closest to where our subway ran got special instructions… I don’t know how he did it, but we know he’d figured out how to control zombies from a distance forty years ago, so it couldn’t have been too hard for him. He was keepin’ track of the doc, here. When it all hit the fan and the power went down across the Eastern seaboard and our train went dead on the tracks… he made sure a bunch of zombies found the old stairs leading down to the platform closest to us.”
“It was a hit?” Eddie’s voice hardened. “Ubdov put out a hit on the doc? But… why…?”
Veronica spoke, then, in a voice so quiet I could barely hear her. “You left one off your list,” she said, almost completely tonelessly. “Well, you left many off, but this one really should have been included: Elizabeth Bathory.”
Eddie and I stared at her. She went on: “I don’t know what Elizabeth Bathory died of. My guess would be infectious encephalitis, but I don’t know for sure. It didn’t kill her body, although most likely that would also have died within a few days. But it killed her brain. I mean, her brain was still completely functional, but her mind was gone.” Veronica… or whatever she was… looked at us blankly. “You are correct, Myrna Loy. It is like winning a sweepstakes… it is simply the greatest thing that can happen to one of us. It is… there are no words. It is always accidental, a stroke of great good luck. We come to Earth during a time of darkness and, until the sun next rises, we search for a body we can shelter in… one still intact enough that we can make use of it, for a time. And, sometimes… not often, once or twice in a hundred years, perhaps… we find someone like Elizabeth Bathory.”
My head was whirling, but my reflexes were still good; I had my gun in my hand without even being consciously aware of having drawn it. I could feel my hackles standing up on the back of my neck; something I’d never felt before. “Bathory killed… they estimated hundreds of young girls,” I said, my lips very dry. “Tortured ‘em to death. You did that?”
“Yes,” Veronica admitted, simply. “That was me, how did you put it… havin’ a party in my new human skin. Yes.” She shrugged. “You can’t understand it, how it feels, having a physical body after an eternity of cold, dark nothingness. And having a living body… one that can actually feel things, that can taste things, see real colors, experience orgasm, eat, digest food…” She closed her eyes. “Do you know how pleasurable it is, not just consuming tasty food, but to digest it, and then eliminate waste?” She opened them again. “We revel in it… whatever the limits of whatever body we manage to get, we always revel in it. And you are correct, we do as much as we can, to whatever limitations our body’s powers, and social stature, allow. And, yes, some of the people you named were almost certainly under our influence. I can’t know for sure, I always tried to avoid my own folk at all cost… but I’m sure you are correct. Hitler… whichever of us was inside Hitler… may well have found a way to create more living human hosts for us. Perhaps that’s what all the strange Nazi medical experiments were about. I’ve often thought that many of the Nazis… not just the higher ups, but many of the SS, and the concentration camp officers… might be possessed by my folk. But I never got close enough to them to find out. I did not want them to know I was here, of course.”
That surprised me. “Aren’t you… what… a spy, or something, for them?”
Veronica laughed, if you want to call it that… a short, chopped off monosyllable, almost more a snort than anything else. “Dear Myrna Loy, no. No, not at all. I am a rogue of my people… a renegade. I would presume they regard me as having, in human terms, ‘gone soft’… or, simply, gone human.”
“Okay, wait, hold the q-link a sec,” Eddie said. He had his own gun out and pointing at Veronica as he said it, though. “I feel like I came in after somebody turned the disc over in the viewer. Who the hell is Elizabeth Battery?”
“Bathory,” I corrected, keeping my eyes on Veronica… the doc… the dark one… whatever she was. “Elizabeth Bathory. Born in the 1600s, a minor noblewoman in Central Europe. Married early to a higher ranking nobleman who went off to fight the Ottoman Turks soon after. She spent 25 years inviting young peasant girls and even some minor noblewomen to work in her castle; when they showed up for the job, she’d lock them up and torture them to death. Historians estimate her body count ran up past 600. The local power structure finally got wind of it and locked her up, as they didn’t want the embarrassment of a trial. She died after four years of solitary confinement.” I looked at the doc. “Or maybe not.”
“No kark?” Eddie asked, sounding impressed. “Huh. Myrna Loy, you sure study some weird shit in those exotic psychology courses.”
“Yes,” I agreed, my voice maybe a little tight. “So, doc… you were telling us how noble, decent, and kind hearted you’ve become, some time after you tortured more than six hundred young girls to death.”
Veronica looked at me. Quite softly, she said, “Is there no room, Myrna Loy, for remorse in your worldview? Do you have no place in your mind for the concept of redemption?” Her voice dropped a notch. “Or in your heart?”
Eddie looked skeptical at that. “I always been more inclined to punish than rehabilitate, myself,” he said. “Mebbe I’d make an exception for a good buddy… But doc, you just admitted to a couple hundred torture murders… and you expect us to swallow that your own people want you dead ‘cuz you’ve ‘gone human’?”
Veronica gave that near snort of derision again, apparently over her brief burst of sentimentality. “Eddie, darling, don’t be simple. I didn’t come here planning to… how would you put it… homestead? Defect? I anticipated finding a useful corpse, possessing it, and having a few days, or perhaps, if I was lucky, weeks, of fun terrorizing the local community with it before it lost its utility and I had to return to the outer dark. And when I found Bathory’s mindless, but still living husk, well… as any of us would in similar circumstances, I indulged myself. For twenty five years or so. And then your people caught me and locked me away in a cell to die. Had Bathory not been considered noble, I’m sure they’d have put me to death, and I’d have returned to my folk, no more enlightened than I’d come.”
She smiled at me. Not a pleasant smile at all. “I will say this as to your theory regarding extreme human behavior, Myrna Loy… I had three accomplices who helped me do everything I did. Three serving women of mine. Two of them were quite enthusiastic; I admit, the third we bullied into helping us. But none of them were possessed. Just humans; one weak, two with a genuine taste for blood and pain… as long as it was the blood and pain of others, of course. They wept and begged for their lives quite piteously at their trials.”
“But all that was… what… five hundred years ago? How are you still alive?” I asked. “I mean, if you are…”
“You would have seen if I had no body temperature,” Veronica said. “No, I am alive… one very significant reason my folk would like to see this body broken and my essence returned to them. Beyond jealousy of my long life here, I mean, which would in and of itself be reason enough for them to hate me and want this body killed. No, they want whatever secret it is I’ve learned, that has allowed me to live so long in this one body.”
“Wouldn’t mind knowin’ that myself,” Eddie said.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Veronica said. “The legends say I bathed in the blood of virgins to retain my youth…”
“Historians pretty much figure that was myth,” I interjected. “Although you did a lot of other horrible stuff, they could never verify that one.”
“I did do that,” Veronica said. “After ten years or so, when I saw my wonderful, beautiful mortal body was visibly growing more decrepit with each passing month, I tried many things. I consulted with so called necromancers and occultists and laboriously worked every spell, every cantrip, every ritual they prescribed. None of them was any good. I continued to age. Over the course of those years, as I searched for more and more methods to rejuvenate my body’s youth, I came across various teachings… meditation techniques, dietary formulas… things so obviously foolish I disregarded them entirely.”
She sighed. “But then, they caught me… that prig Magyari kept after it, and after it, until Matthias had to send out his dog, and then they locked me up. For four years, waiting for me to die, because they didn’t want the public embarrassment of putting a noblewoman on trial… especially one who had so successfully defended her husband’s castle from those thuggish Turks. And I had time to explore some of those meditations I’d despised before, and…” She shrugged. “Eventually I found a technique that worked for me. I doubt it ever worked for anyone truly human, though. As a higher mind possessing a living human body, I have greater conscious control over my metabolic functions than you do. Once I learned how to channel my will in certain ways, I found I could, indeed, rejuvenate myself. I spent most of two months doing it. Then, looking as I had when I was 17… well, my hair was much longer and I was much more unkempt, of course… I tore my clothes to rags and began to scream hysterically. When my jailers came to investigate, they found a young, disheveled girl where a middle aged noblewoman should have been. None of them there had seen me when I was younger. They couldn’t believe the truth, or even conceive of it… it was easier for them to believe I’d somehow traded places with some innocent peasant wench, through diabolical powers.” She smiled. “So they let the innocent peasant wench go. And I have wandered the Earth ever since, becoming more and more human with each passing decade.”
She looked at us both, coolly. “So what do you think, both of you? I am planning to betray you? When we reach Pluto, I will somehow get the drop on the two of you and… what? What are you afraid I am going to do to you, that I could not have done to you at any time prior to this?”
I looked at Eddie, uneasily. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “But… look, you’re a dark one, by your own admission. You talk about how you’ve gone human, but there’s no human I ever heard of that’s five hundred years old and has a creature of the outer dark living in its brain. You aren’t human. Maybe you aren’t a dark one, either, exactly, but… I don’t know what you are, or what you want. But you sure as hell ain’t been honest with us, so I sure as hell don’t want to trust you any further.”
Eddie had obviously been thinking about all of this, too. He said, suddenly, “You didn’t just guess Ubdov had somethin’ to do with this, I reckon. You musta known somethin’ for sure.”
Veronica nodded. “Well, yes. But I simply thought Ubdov was possessed, not a willing accomplice of my folk. I had no advance knowledge these things were going to occur, but when they did, I knew Ubdov must be central to the entire scheme. I couldn’t tell you why I was so sure, though.” She looked tired. “I do truly like and admire you, Agent Barrow… and I do truly feel something much stronger than that for you, Myrna Loy. To whatever extent a creature such as I can have them, you are my friends… or were. But… how could I tell you the truth? I am one of human history’s greatest mass murderers? Nearly five hundred years old? A demon from beyond the rim of your Solar System?” Her voice went flat again. “I have, for the last two hundred years of my life, worked to help humans however I can. Perhaps out of guilt, I do not really know. Or perhaps I just want to make this world as livable as possible, for my own selfish reasons. But I have not murdered. I have not tortured. I have worked as a teacher, as a missionary, as a nurse, as a philanthropist, and, when allowed, as a scientist. I genuinely care for the two of you, and for the Globe. Human civilization delights me; I very much wish for it to continue.”
She fixed both of us with an intent stare. “You have no idea what is at stake for me. You are both risking your lives and I certainly understand that. It is very likely that none of us will return from Pluto, even assuming we manage to arrive there in one piece. But in all the years I have lived, and after all the human death I have seen, I see no real evidence that there is anything for any of you afterwards. Perhaps there is a human afterlife, perhaps you do go to heaven… or hell. I see no evidence of it, but it could be.”
She paused, then went on: “But there is an afterlife for me. When my essence becomes detached from this body, I will return to the outer dark. I will be reabsorbed into the body of my folk. And once that happens, I will never again be allowed to depart. I will remain in the infinite cold and the eternal darkness forever… with my fellows doing everything within their considerable psychic powers to torture and torment me.” She took a deep breath. “And still, Myrna Loy, still, I would accompany you on your mission to Pluto, to try and stop this evil plot of my folk, and to save your world and civilization. Knowing failure is all but inevitable. Knowing that you and Agent Barrow will most likely go down to a final and peaceful death, but that perpetual hell awaits me. Still, I have done everything I can to help you, and still, I plan to continue doing so.”
I wasn’t convinced. I don’t think Eddie was, either. Veronica just lifted her hands. “Here are your choices, Agents. You cannot perform Ubdov’s procedures, either of you. To implement your brilliant plan, Myrna Loy, you need me. You need me to administer the virus, me to hook up the shock collars, me to operate Ubdov’s machinery to modify you so that you can function on the fringes of the Solar System. If you do not trust me, then you cannot allow me to perform these procedures. If you do not trust me, your only choice is a simple one – return to Earth. Find a fortified hole and barricade yourself inside it with as much food and water as you can manage to procure. Watch your world die.”
Well… when she put it THAT way…
“You’re planning to come with us?” I said. “Not get everything set up, then shove us into the car and wave goodbye as we blast out to Pluto faster than light?”
“I would not do that to either of you, Myrna Loy,” Veronica said, steadily. “Especially to you. I do not know if I can feel what humans call ‘love’, Myrna Loy, but whatever it is I feel for you, it is as close as I can come to it. And I may only be a foster member of the human race… if that… but humanity is important to me. I wish it to flourish. In fact…” She paused, and her brows furrowed. “Yes. Record this in whatever report it is you send off to the Globe. Hopefully someone will see it… with these new anti-gravity accelerators of my own design, and your race’s hydrogen bombs, I think there is a good chance you could destroy my folk completely. It would be very expensive. But I think, if you could manufacture, say, a hundred thousand fusion warheads, rig them to accelerators, and fire them into the darkness beyond Pluto… fuse them, say, to go off after ten or fifteen light-days of travel into the outer dark… any sort of light is lethal to my folk. And my folk cluster on the very edges of the Solar System, waiting for a shadowpath to form, that will let them fall to Earth. Yes… a hundred thousand fusion warheads, attached to accelerators… I think that would do it. Rid humanity of the scourge of the dark ones, forever.”
My head was spinning… but, yeah, that sounded like it just might work. “We sure can’t do that while all that living dead b.s. is going on down there,” I growled.
“No, we’ll have to sort that out first,” Veronica agreed. “So… are we going to proceed, or…?”
Or what? Have Eddie and I stand as a rump court for our entire race, to try and convict the only dark one ever knowingly captured for, literally, crimes against humanity? We could kill her easy enough… she’d never shown any kind of superhuman capacities… well, other than her intellect, which sure wouldn’t slow down a Glaser round much.
But she was right. If we killed her, we might as well turn around and go back to Earth… and to do even that much, we’d have to use the accelerator she herself had invented. Which would have seemed downright ungrateful, among other things.
Eddie was looking at me. He had an expression on his face I had no trouble reading – he couldn’t decide what we should do. It was easy to interpret because I was feeling exactly the same thing.
After a second, I said, “Okay. We’ll go forward, then.”
Veronica nodded to me. “Thank you, Myrna Loy,” she said, quietly.
I shook my head. “This ain’t about us, Doc. You may be a Fear Master, but you’re also the best shot we got. So I’m takin’ it… but I promise, you let us down, and it’s the last thing you ever do in that body.”
She nodded again.
Then we got to work.
This is the last bit I’m going to put on disc for transmission to Earth before we leave. All you’re getting is my audio track, because Doc had us take out our ocular insets before she gave us the first treatment. Out on Pluto, even in the somewhat less harsh environment of the z ray station, our insets would freeze solid and probably do permanent damage to our optic tissues and our brains. The first wouldn’t be much of a problem, but the second might be fatal. So we took ‘em out, and all you’re getting now is my voice.
Doc injected us as close to simultaneously as she could – first Eddie, then me, then herself. She did it right after she finished getting our shock collars hooked up. I remembered how fast the stuff took hold. I’d tried to warn her and Eddie about it. Still, I think all of us were surprised how quickly we passed out… and then, when we woke up again, that we’d been out more than an hour. The stuff causes a pretty basic metabolic transformation, though, so that’s understandable.
I’d also warned them about the appetite they’d feel, and how normal social restraints on behavior seemed largely inoperative. Out at the sharp end like we were, I didn’t imagine that would be too much of a problem… unless, of course, the shock collars didn’t work, and the ‘lord zombie’ virus not only turned us into ‘smart’ zombies, but attracted a master to take control of our minds, too.
The doc came through, though, as always. Every couple of seconds I’d feel a mild tingle go through my head and my hair would stand up a little bit – Eddie and the doc looked pretty funny when it happened. That was the recurring pulse from the collars. Apparently it worked, as none of us got possessed… or, in my case, re-possessed. I don’t know what you’d call it in the doc’s case. But it didn’t happen. My own mind felt sharp… on top of things. Focused. I hadn’t known what to expect, with no guiding ‘master mind’. But with our brains still fully intact and functioning, our intellects and personalities seemed to be, too.
It was strange, not breathing again. Simpler, though, somehow.
The worst part of the change is the stronge urge I feel… I assume Eddie and the Doc feel it, too… to just head back to Earth and find something to eat. But I know we don’t need to eat, we’re dead. And we all also know that the fear masters are never going to stop trying to take us over, and the batteries in the collars won’t last forever.
I keep reminding myself that there are a lot of people down on Earth counting on us. It’s hard to feel that as intensely as I know I should, but I still feel something. And that’s going to have to be enough to get me into that car and out to Pluto.
That, and I don’t want to let Eddie or the doc down.
Before she injected herself, the doc told the both of us something I should note down here.
“Watch me very carefully, agents,” she said, her voice very calm. “The virus will still every functional organ you have, while keeping your brain intact and fully functional. That is what it is designed for. The human personality and consciousness seems to derive entirely from the brain, so yours should remain largely intact. I, however, am an energy being, connected by largely my own will to this physical body. When this body ceases to live, I will have no problem continuing to possess it… we learned to possess the dead before your people evolved from lemurs. However, the virus calls out to my folk, and they will continually attempt to take over these dead bodies we are bringing to them. If our collars fail, they will have no difficulty doing so… and should that happen to me, I will be torn loose from this body and return to the outer dark… where I am certain an unpleasant reception awaits me from my kindred.”
She paused, then went on. “I tell you this because it may be easier for one of my folk to knock me out of this body than it would be for them to take over one of yours. So, again, watch me carefully.”
Eddie just called me and told me they’re ready to fire the first two missiles off. We’ll follow only a few seconds behind the second one. Hopefully they’ll clear our vector outward long enough for us to get through. If they don’t, I doubt we’ll ever know what hit us.
So that’s it. I’d ask you to wish us luck but whatever we do is going to be long over before anyone down there ever sees or hears any of this. I’ll wish you all luck, though. And life. And love.
In the warmth of the sun.
* * * *
All right. Maybe someone back on Earth will hear this someday, maybe not. Veronica says she built a recorder and a transmitter into my collar so I could dictate reports even way out here. There’s no atmosphere inside this place, but she says I should be able to subvocalize and the recorder will pick up my larynx vibrations, or something. So here goes. Not that anyone will hear this for weeks, anyway.
Obviously we got here. Eighteen minutes inside the accelerator field probably didn’t do us any good – Eddie’s left eye melted and ran down the side of his face, and I’ve got some pretty good bone spurs sticking out of both my forearms. But if we hadn’t been dead, we’d never have made it out here alive… or something.
Pluto is beautiful. I doubt I’d know that if I were alive, but you don’t see things the same way when you’re dead. The little planet gives off colors I really can’t describe to you, and the prismatic butterfly aura of the shaped magnetic catcher field that Ubdov designed, that surrounds Pluto like an atmospheric blanket… really, there aren’t words. But it’s lovely.
Even dead we never could have withstood the cold out here. Fortunately, we could stay in the car until we got inside the beam installation. Ubdov designed the beam installation to be built and maintained by modified zombies under the control of the dark ones, and we went through all his anti-cold mods before we got in the car. So we can take the -20 degree mean temperatures in the hallways. If we went out on the surface even our dead bodies would freeze solid and shatter in about three seconds, but inside the installation we’re fine.
The fear masters know we’re here, though, and they seem to have figured out what’s keeping them from controlling us. At least, every zombie worker they’ve sent at us has come after the collars with both hands and all their teeth. Fortunately our weapons still function at minus 20 and in hard vacuum. We haven’t had any real problems holding off the hordes so far, and they’re probably running a little short of bodies now. Which is good, as I know we’re running short of ammo.
Okay, my last report was premature. About a hundred worker zees just swarmed out of a side corridor at us. We clipped a lot of them but then we had to turn and run. How in the world did Ubdov ever get so many zombies out there in a year? The man was enthusiastic about his work, that’s for sure.
We are definitely out of ammunition now.
Veronica and Eddie both analyzed Ubdov’s plans for this. They came up with several different stress points in the construction. Places to put a bomb. Plant three bombs in three of those stress spots, detonate them simultaneously, and this place collapses… implodes inward on itself, actually. And most likely, the subterranean – er… subPlutonean… power plant gets destroyed, too. Without Ubdov to ship more workers out here, the dark ones would never be able to rebuild.
That was the plan. We’ve placed two bombs. Wouldn’t you know it? We need to get past that zombie horde out in the main hallway to plant the third. And Veronica doesn’t think the two we’ve planted will be enough to bring this whole place down, by themselves.
We need to communicate through our portables here, since there is no atmosphere. It keeps conversation to the necessary minimum.
Veronica is going to go out and try to draw them off. She says the dark ones know who she is and want her so bad they’ll chase her no matter what. And we’re pretty fast in this gravity. If she can pull enough of them away, Eddie and I can get down that hallway and plant the third bomb.
The plan isn’t totally suicidal. It was never meant to be that way. I don’t want anyone to think we went into this figuring it was a kamikaze mission. I am not that kind of hero and I don’t want you making that mistake. Although probably Eddie and Veronica… well… anyway. I always held on to hope we could get back. And I still do. If Veronica can get back to the car, she can take it up to the surface near the point where we’ll be down below. We can probably blast our way to the surface with some of the other equipment we have. Set off the bombs from the car. Take a more leisurely pace back home… five minute bursts on the accelerator, maybe. Plotting a parabolic around any obstacles is easier when you’re just aiming for the sun. Once we get close to Earth, finding the planet should be no problem.
Bringing us back to life is more complicated, maybe. But hey, Veronica already managed it once with me, she can do it again.
If anyone gets this message, and I don’t make it back, please tell Eddie that I’m sorry I misjudged him. He’s about the farthest thing from my father that anyone could be, and I’m sorry I stupidly wasted so much time and so many opportunities.
I’m sorry I won’t ever get to tell him this.
I’m sorry I won’t ever get to make him happy.
I don’t regret much I’ve done in this life. Tell Veronica I don’t regret anything that happened with her, either. That whole Elizabeth Bathory-dark one thing has kind of thrown me for a loop, but she’s been right there for us. A real hero.
I do regret all the things that never happened with Eddie and me, but I’m hoping we still have a chance to make up for that. If not, though, please apologize to him for me. He is the best. The best person I’ve ever known. The best man. The best friend I ever had. The best thing that ever happened to me.
Veronica just sent us a radio text. She’s got a mob of dark one-controlled zombies chasing her back out towards where we left the car. We need to get a move on.
Okay, there were a few zombies left behind to watch out for us – seven or eight, maybe. They didn’t have much in the way of hand to hand training. I think I may have broken a finger, but it’s on my off hand. No problem. It doesn’t hurt at all. Just looks funny, bent off at an angle like that.
We’ve planted the last bomb. Waiting to hear from Veronica. If we don’t hear anything in another ten minutes, we’ll try to make our way out.
Zombies ahead. Lots of them.
Veronica in the lead. No collar on her. No portable, either… must have broken in the fight. She… it… can’t talk to us. But the horrible grin on her face is making me sick.
We’ll never get through them. They’re coming pretty fast, too. Once they get our collars off of us, we…
Eddie is holding out the detonator to me. He’s got his thumb resting real light on the button. He’s looking at me. Waiting for me to give the order.
No time to even…
No time. No time for us. No more time.
I’m putting my hand on his, my thumb on his thumb. Pressing dow
BLAST OF STATIC
* * * *
In the center of what was once Manhattan Island there is a five sided plaza. It has no official name, but it is large, almost a mile along each exterior segment. Once two very busy city streets named 7th Avenue and Lexington Boulevard met here, until a direct hit from a North Korean cobalt-tuned ground to ground warhead fired from an offshore tramp freighter turned it into a radioactive crater. Then, for many years, it became a dumping ground for toxic waste, indigent bodies, and other unwanted refuse from the closest living human city, Newer New York. Now it is filled to a depth of eighty feet by the cleanest water on Earth.
In the center of the plaza, jutting up starkly from the crystal clear water surrounding it, is a concrete island. You cannot walk out to it as there is no walkway and no air traffic is allowed and the guards there – Sky Marines alternating with Ground Forces, all in full dress uniforms with fully loaded weaponry ready to hand – take their jobs very seriously and will not let you swim. So you have to wait for the ceremonial boat to take you out there, if you want to go out and see what’s there.
And you do. Because on that concrete island is the most famous statue on Earth. You’ve seen it on the ‘net and you studied it in your civics classes and chances are at some time or another you’ve written a paper or given a speech or made a viewsee documentary featuring it for a class project. Every sizable human community on the globe has a replica of this statue on display somewhere, and most of them competed strongly to host the original, but this is where we decided to put it in the end. Forty feet from base to tip, solid marble, so beautifully proportioned and exquisitely detailed that even a non-expert eye can clearly discern the make and caliber of the guns two of the sculptured figures are holding, the make and model of the portable computer the other figure seems to be punching some problem into. At their feet is the famous inscription -- murieron así que podríamos vivir – that has brought so many who looked upon it to tears since it was first inscribed.
Seven years to the day after the walking dead fell to the ground all over the Earth and did not rise again, seven years to that day, the Global Chief Minister stood at the base of this monument and with the whole human race watching her do so, pressed the button on the q-link launching ten million fusion missiles powered by ten million Hansea accelerators from the dark side of Earth’s moon. Ten million points of light shot down the cone of shadow from Earth to the edge of the Solar System. Ten million miniature suns bloomed on the edge of interstellar space. Three billion Earthly eyes closed in grief, and in respect, and in pride, for the six eyes that would never open again, and that could never see those missiles fly.
In the base of that great statue, ten feet from where Global Chief Martinez stood to press the button, there is a door. Pass through it and you will find a flight of simple stone stairs bracketed with powered escalators on either side, leading you down to a once abandoned, then secretly refurbished, then publicly refurbished again at great expense, section of subway tunnel. A space that is now dedicated to relics of the lives of those who are depicted above and whose pictures are everywhere below, along with pictures and models and descriptions detailing the events leading to the greatest, noblest sacrifice humanity has ever known. Holograms, flatpics, and viewsee projections are everywhere in the air around you as you wander this vast, air conditioned space, staring at replicas of their weapons and equipment, dioramic displays of the living dead that nearly destroyed civilization, the carefully preserved body of the crazed Russian cyborg who betrayed his race to the darkness, a hanging model of that madman’s orbital lair, a full sized recreation of the modified aircar that took the three of them to the edge of the Solar System, an artist’s three dimensional hologram showing the zombie ray installation on distant Pluto.
The actual subway car they were riding in, when it all began for them.
People come and go all day and all night; there has never been a time when there were fewer than a hundred visitors in the great subterranean hall, yet even when it is filled to capacity in the summer tourist season, the only sounds that are ever audible above the quiet murmur of the ventilation ducts are the occasional cough… an intermittent sneeze… or a muted sob.
The Globe endures. And we remember them… the Three… two great warriors and an enemy turned friend… who bravely gave their lives that the rest of us might continue to live, and love, in the warmth of the sun.