Somehow, impossibly, the sound of the blast drowned out the sirens. There was a staccato shearing of metal as shrapnel dug into the back of the police car. Rick and Cathy felt a wave of hot air. Mendel fell to the ground with a scream and and clutched his leg.
Then the sirens continued their howling.
Rick pushed Cathy down, crawled to where the officer was holding his wound. A black patch was already appearing on the grass beneath Mendel.
“Give me your belt!” shouted Rick, reaching for his waist.
Mendel’s face was contorted in agony. “No. Fuck that. They’re on the ridge by the highway, firing down. That’s where you’ve got to bring her.”
Rick nodded. Another shell exploded and both men winced.
“Don’t come at them straight on. They’ll be firing blind at everything near here. Get to the edge, circle around, try to come up on their side. Take this.” He reached out and retrieved his dropped M-16.
Rick shook his head. “You need that.”
Mendel pushed it into his hands. “I don’t need anything anymore. Get the hell out of here. Now!”
A dim figure rose up on the other side of the smashed car. Rick raised the gun and fired, holding the trigger down as the thing bucked and jumped in his hand. Some hit, some had to have hit, but it hardly mattered.
She sprung from her spot as the thing pounced onto the roof of the vehicle. She passed him at a full sprint and he followed. They heard the sound of handgun fire as Mendel shot at it from the ground. An inhumanly long arm reached out and, with two fingers, pinched his torso. There was a crunchy gurgle and, despite the bulletproof vest, the man was effectively split in two. They rounded a corner as another tank shell exploded in the spot they’d been moments before. It blasted the thing onto it’s back and peppered them with rubble. They didn’t stop.
Neither spoke as they bolted for the treeline. Cathy outpaced him quickly. She was light on her feet, scared, and he if he didn’t hustle he’d loose her. Rick dropped the assault rifle. The damn thing was heavy and did no good anyway. It was like shooting clay. Cathy didn’t slow down when she hit the bramble and vanished into the bushes. Rick grit his teeth, increased his speed as best he could, and followed her in.
Here, in the trees, the sound of sirens was muffled somewhat. He looked around and didn’t see her. Damn it! That woman was the only one with answers. If he lost her…
Something that felt like a rock wrapped in a wet towel struck him between the shoulder blades. Rick spiraled onto the ground, rolling in the leaves. His ribs were in agony.
It stood there, shoulders brushing up against the higher tree branches, looking down at him with a flat, vacant face. It trundled forward, hand extended, fingers ready. Rick was done. He was certain.
Her voice came from behind him. He heard her approach, she stepped past him, and placed herself between him and the thing. She held the collar of her lab coat and shook it.
“You see this? I know you know what this is. Go on! Get out of here!”
The monstrous bulk hesitated, pulling back its arm. It considered the woman, debating something in its lump of brain. Cathy didn’t give it the time. She stomped toward it, close enough to touch.
The reaction was instant. The creature pulled back, seemingly terrified of coming into contact with her.
“I said go! Now!”
It made its decision, turning and crashing back toward town. In anger it lashed out an arm and splintered a tree as it went.
Cathy returned to Rick and helped him up.
“How the hell?” he asked.
“Never mind. I’ll explain later. Just tell me where we need to go. They won’t all listen to me.”
Rick pointed into the woods, a trail leading uphill. They went.
It was metal and rivets and magic.
And it was leaving.
The great sloppy thing shuddered and wobbled its way up into the night sky, headed for who-knows-where. Someplace better. Julia didn’t feel sad not to be going with them. She knew she’d get on one eventually. She’d been working hard on her imagination. Her older brother, Trevor, said it was almost there. No, Julia was a little sad because it was Becky rising up there into the speckled darkness. Her good, big sister-style, always there when she needed her, Becky. She’d miss her terribly.
“C’mon, Dinger, she’s gone. Lets go home.” The black cat simply blinked and didn’t move.
Julia gathered up her sketchbooks, filled with pictures of strange creatures, silly poems, and colors she’d mixed, named, and cataloged. Trusting that Dinger would follow at his own pace she headed across the roof to the ladder to the bridge-way. She needed to get back. If she hurried, Trevor might not notice she’d gone out to see Becky’s departure. Trevor never wanted her to leave. He said it was “spirit crushing” to go out. He said it had happened to him.
“I was just like you Julia,” he’d say. “I was my daydreams that were going to guide one of those ships up, to help people, to take them into new amazing places. But I spent too much time looking around here, around Earth. It’s not good for you. Earth is a cage and it’ll trap you. Try to ignore it.”
And Julia did try to ignore it. Even now, she kept her eyes on the ground, only occasionally peeking at the crowds of people in lines, the cracked domino stacks of buildings, the serpentine florescent streets. Dinger watched all of it, of course. When they got home, he’d tell her what they were. Dinger was an expert. Just last week, when she snuck out, she’d smelled something that made her stomach growl and resisted the urge to look. Dinger had told her that it was, in fact, the aroma produced by a fish in a robotic suit. It normally lived on the bottom of of a lake near a strange factory. All the industrial runoff settled to the bottom and, by amazing coincidence, made the fish smell wonderful! It had come out of the water on holiday, so it could sight-see the Vast, and everyone was glad it had. The squealing she’d heard nearby had been excitement.
She always had the most interesting conversations with her cat.
She crowded into an elevator with about forty other people and went up three levels. She had to shove to get off with all the new passengers trying to get on. She tried to imagine they had good reason for pushing a little girl and almost trampling a cat, but couldn’t. Maybe Dinger could explain it to her later. She was only three blocks and a nexus point away from the Insparium when she smelled it. That smell. The fish.
She knew she shouldn’t. She wasn’t supposed to look around. She was only out because she’d wanted to see Becky off. To watch her ship float up on fire and daydreams. And those other times, to visit her. And… well, it couldn’t hurt to peek.
The smell came from a stall, not a fish in a robotic suit. It was equipped with a grill and deep frier and manned by an overweight fellow in a stained apron. The area was piled high with cages containing live rats. Squealing rats. He took one out, held it by the tail, and swung it so its neck snapped on the counter. He quickly removed the head, limbs, and guts, skinned it, and dropped it into the deep frier. Several already cooked rats, impaled on sticks, hung from a clothesline.
Julia gawped. It was nothing like what she’d imagined. It was brutal and horrible and…
“Dinger, why did you lie to me?”
The cat sat there and gazed at her silently.
If this had been a lie, then what about the rest? She turned to look. Before she could make any sense of things a figure burst in front of her, blocking off the spectacle.
“Julia! You shouldn’t be out here. You know this!” Trevor took her by the arm. “Come on. We’ve got to get you inside.”
Caught in the act she immediately dropped her eyes to the ground and let him lead her. “I’m sorry Trevor, I just wanted to say goodbye to Becky.”
Trevor sighed heavily. “I know. I’ve been looking for you for an hour.”
She felt the tension in her sibling and had an idea of what was at stake. It was only dreams, random imagination, and unfiltered creativity that completed the inter-planetary drive calculations. It was only her that could get them on a ship, up, out, and away. He’d failed. Becky hadn’t. She wished more than ever she was still here to tell her what to do.
“You didn’t see much did you?”
“No.” she lied.
“Good.” he said.
Dinger, the no longer trust-worthy, followed them home.
“You knew it was going to be like this.”
Spoken aloud, to himself, the words seemed even more empty and brought little comfort. Tiny things, muffled by plastic, glass, and thousands of pounds of water overhead. He’d forgotten how it was a bad idea to speak. How it was a reminder that nobody would be answering. That they were gone and he was…
Damn it! He cursed himself silently. He was doing it again. Time to get up, to focus on the task at hand and occupy his mind with other things.
He strode through the wide glass hallway, walking on the scintillating patterns the light, strained through the water, left on the ground. He walked on the shadows of fish. He checked the airlocks one at a time, first flooding them, then re-pressurizing with forced air. The pumps were good. The seals were good. The same as yesterday.
He took some readings on the bacterial growth on the bio-filters, ensured they were rotating in and out of the water properly, and that the fans were functional. Air was good. He didn’t need readings on the algae food processors. Simply looking at the thin layers of green being scraped into the processor told him that it was working fine. Same with the plankton tanks. Food was good.
It was time to send Roscoe up to the surface. He released the automated submersible and watched it go. Three hours before it would get back. He busied himself by doing the weekly maintenance on Roxanne, Roscoe’s counterpart. Next time she would go and Roscoe would be serviced.
He would do these things over and over, until the day that one of them came back with low enough radiation. He hoped it would be within his lifetime.
Finished with time to spare, he sat for a while, looking out into the vast blue blur, eyes unfocused. He was having a bad day. Couldn’t shake the feeling.
He decided to check on them.
This was one task he didn’t do often. There was always a risk when opening the chamber and he didn’t like risks. There was far too much at stake. But sometimes he just had to do it. There was no reason for it mechanically. He justified it as maintenance for his mind.
Putting on the winter parka, goggles, and gloves he entered the access code that opened up the pressure core. It was darker in here, among the rows of tubes, no natural light. The tanks, hundreds of them, each glowed faintly. He walked down the hallway, his breath puffing in the cold air, ignoring the glass cylinders until he came to an intersection and turned right.
A metal plate on the wall simply read: Homo Sapiens.
Here he stopped, gazing into the first tank. In the center hung a tiny embryo the size of a marble. He went from tank to tank, visiting them. Looking at the tiny faces, the miniscule nubs that would be arms and legs. The pinprick dots of eyes.
When it was time for Roscoe to return he left, took off the cold gear, and re-sealed the arc. For the thousandth time he hoped the readings were good, knowing the chance was impossible. He rubbed his eyes.
“You knew it was going to be like this.”
When the Hound of a Thousand Faces chose to be born on Callis Four he knew he would not live long. The body was small, female, and he felt colder than the last one. He had his saffron acolytes bring him a sweater and went out onto the balcony.
“Where is it now?”
“It is over a city called Var Hammen, South and West, several thousand miles. It kills everything it passes.”
“I did not ask what it was doing. I asked where it was.”
The bald monk, number 38,705, fell prostrate before the him within her. The Hound ignored the adulation.
“What attempts have been made against the Shayde?”
“Viral, nuclear, cryofission, vortian, and… psychic.”
The Hound laughed, surprised by the musical sound in his throat. “Psychic? Really?”
“We are dying Master. We felt that no avenue of possibility should be neglected.”
“You wasted your time.” Chastised, the monk held his index fingers along his nose.
“All glory to the Eternal Hunter, I bow before the wisdom of your multitude. Truly, you are the Stars Salvation.”
“Lead me to the hangar. I want to finish this quickly.”
His worshipers were prompt and thorough. Their serial numbers were low; they’d been doing this a long time. The vessel was properly outfitted, bristling with antennae, glistening with sensors. He and the monk entered and they flickered into the sky like a tin grasshopper. The ocean blurred beneath them. Mountains sprung from the water. Beyond, the darkness of the Living Storm.
“Timeless One, I beg intrusion upon a few seconds of your limitless existence to speak with you, here in the moments before the end of my finite consciousness.”
“I consider it the highest honor that I might bring you here, knowing I will die with you. The sacrifice is little knowing that you will save my people. I go to my fate gladly, with pride in my heart I can scarcely contain.”
The Hound clicked some switches. Instruments swiveled and they dove toward the burning maelstrom.
“Save your people? Yeah, no. Your planet is going to die. Probably the next few planets as well, until I get enough readings to figure this thing out.”
38,705 blinked. “But, you’re the Immortal Light of Heaven…” Lightening lanced out and licked the ship, rocking everything. “The Stars Salvation…” A panel burst into flames.
“Look, I really am busy here.”
The Monk slumped down into his seat. The windows displayed a swirling mash of fire, stone, and electricity. Something metal ripped off the ship and careened into the gale.
“You will remember me? That I was here with you?” Asked the monk.
The Hounds female form didn’t look up from his readings.
When I saw the man, the man with arms made of flesh and bone, bare to the shoulder, lifting boxes into the bed of the transport, when I saw that his arms weren’t long insect things, bristling with hairs, slender and strong, and when I saw he lacked pinchers, mandibles, and the plastic skin of a roach…
Then I knew the drugs were wearing off.
He paid no attention to me. Why should he? I doubt he could even see me, buried convincingly beneath the trash. I was like the trash. I did not blink. Instead, I stared at his tattoos. Three of them were government issued. They all glided like shadows around on his skin, like ice in a twisting glass. I moved less than they did.
He finished and orange-gray steam from the transport departure filled the alley. He watched it leave. When it was out of sight, he slid one of his hands to his groin. He undid his buckle and exposed a round, swollen insect abdomen hanging from where his manhood should have been. Over his bladder, above his pubic hair, were a half dozen glassy spider eyes. Like me, they didn’t blink. He rubbed the swollen organ as he walked to the wall. It opened up at the end and he began to lay grape sized eggs, wet and covered in cream, onto the brick. They stuck there, at hip height. He produced a trail of these, bending his hips foreword, and then added another row, like lines of text. When he was finished, he closed his pants and smoked a chlorette. Then he went back inside.
I stared at the eggs on the wall, terribly afraid.
I did not want to stay here. It wasn’t safe. I knew this, and my mind raced with the desire to flee, to run screaming, to get as far away as possible. But I didn’t move. Of course, I didn’t move a muscle. It would be worse if I did.
Over the next hour, the eggs grew from the size of walnuts to apples and began to quiver. In the foggy half-light they gleamed like oiled pearls, dark shadows somersaulting in their hearts. One of them popped and a hard slime-coated mass fell to the ground. The newborn insect flailed onto its stomach and spread out, strands of spittle hung from the inverted V’s of its legs. The stinger came up, it circled. With a pattering of wet splashes, its brothers were born.
I made sure to keep breathing evenly. My heart rate was up. I didn’t want it to accelerate any further. Didn’t want to hyperventilate or have a heart attack.
I can survive anything at a steady pace.
They crawled closer, the clicking wave of thirsty babies. They had no trouble finding me. They disappeared into my trash. They ran up and down my skin, coating me in their mucus, looking for my best, tastiest, spots.
At the end of the alley, a pair of Swathes walked by holding hands. I couldn’t see their faces, but from their build, could tell they were boys. One stopped and pulled something from his wrap pocket, tossed it into the nearest dumpster. His partner pulled on his hand, urging him along with a laugh. They were gone. Neither had noticed me, the open egg-casings on the wall, or were even slightly aware of the agony that was going on just out of sight.
I didn’t understand Swathes and for now that’s okay. But I know I should find out more about them. I could see the advantage of becoming one, once I got out of this mess. One of the bugs stopped near my belly. Its stinger, a flexible thing, thick as one of those straws you stir coffee with, pushed into my stomach. I tried not to flex. To let it go in soft. It slid slowly, as long as my finger. I didn’t scream. All of them would do this, eventually.
I remained motionless. What little logic I had left knew that I could not trust my senses. That I must not move. No matter how real the pharmaceutical disaster in my brain begged it. I was as an iron statue, fed upon. As more needles found my gut, I pulled my thoughts elsewhere as best I could.
I go to the Green Room where the tin speaker is talking to me. It is not a good memory, but is the last one I have of myself. Everything changed in the Green Room.
The speaker was one of those high end jobbies. Sounded just like a person was standing there, even though it was a machine. “Your tests are quite unique, Vince. Most people who show ability in Pathis or Neesis do not have both. We’ve never seen it.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means, we think, that you’re quite unique. Unique abilities often require a societal responsibility. ”
I was angry. I remember being angry, even then. “So, what does that mean?”
“We have to determine your coding now. Remain still.” As if the straps gave me a choice. The pendulous device blossomed and a nan-ink injector sprayed me. It tasted like mint. The tiny things latched onto my skin, gathered into a shoulder splotch, and aligned into a crisp pattern the size of a bottle cap. Like all government marks, it looked like a bar code caught in a whirlpool. This micro-robotic tattoo moved down to my elbow, to the underside of my arm, and then to my armpit out of sight. I didn’t feel it cross my back, but it emerged on my other side, below the ribs, and centered itself on my chest. The hanging machine opened again, retracted one arm while extending another. A pink beam scanned me.
“Your coding has been designated: Classified Cerb. Your family will be informed.” The scanner slid back into its housing.
“What the fuck are you talking about? Let me out of this thing!”
There was another spray, this time they didn’t bother with the taste of mint, and I was gone.
Back to now. I feel like my organs are being torn apart. Someone let loose a switchblade tornado in my intestines. If I brushed the trash away I’d see them, all of them, latched to my middle, feeding. They don’t like being grouped in the same place. They jockey for the best positions, retracting and re-inserting. But I don’t brush the trash away. I don’t need to see it, the image is already in my mind. I need to fill it with something else. Someplace other than that damn green room. Was there anything better, even remotely happy, further along?
Not much really, but maybe. Maybe this.
Kerry is holding up her hand catching a sunbeam. Between her fingers, a spindled spider has woven a web, finger to finger. She’s whispering to it, but I can’t hear, she’s too quiet.
If Veinte-Dos caught her doing this, she’d be in the shit. Bugs were beneath her, he’d say. Tell her she was undermining her potential. He’d force her to make it crawl into his palm, and then he’d crush it. Veinte-Dos was always riding her hard. He didn’t like the fact that her Neesis only worked on animals. Maybe she was thinking about the bastard too because she let the spider ride a line to the floor. It made a run for the window. All she’s left with is a handful of gossamers.
“That’s pretty.” I tell her.
“It’s not useless. I like it.” She makes a fist, destroying it, and gives me a punch on the shoulder.
“Vince, you don’t count.”
I was in love with her. I never told her and I don’t think it would have stopped her. I still love her, even though she’s gone.
“Do you want to see something?”
I did. I followed her.
We went out to the courtyard. It was empty except for a pair of men with a hose, washing away the day’s blood. We stayed up on the walkways and nobody stopped us. She brought me to the door where the practice targets came from. It was a huge iron thing you could drive a bus through with a smaller door next to it. During the day the main gate was open and guards brought the practice targets to the training grids. Now it was shut. There was a small keypad.
“Okay, we’ve got to wait a minute.”
I waited and she looked up at the sky. I was nervous. We weren’t supposed to go through that door. A seagull circled in the sky far above. It changed course and soared over to a glass window to land on the ledge. It pecked the glass.
“What are we doing?”
“I just gave Nod a signal, just wait.”
“Nod? Why do you want to talk to that psycho?”
“Shush! You’ll see.”
I did what she wanted, but I wasn’t happy about it. After three minutes I’d just about decided it wasn’t worth it. I was going to leave, but then Kerry went rigid and looked away from the bird, to me. Her eyes were vacant. I knew it wasn’t her anymore.
“Oh, Vince! I really brought you here because I want you. I need you now!” Her hands reached up and cupped her breasts. She closed the distance between us and pressed against me. “You want to do me, don’t you Vince?”
I shoved her away. “Fuck you, Nod! Stop it!”
She stayed back. Her hands slid down from her chest to her waist, pulling up on her shirt. “You don’t want to touch? Maybe you just want a free show. Should I give you a show? You know, his might be the only way you ever get to see her body.”
The sound of Nod’s words seemed broken in Kerry’s mouth. I hated the expression he’d infused in her face. I could see his mannerisms in her eyebrows. Disgusted, I pushed past her and around the corner. Nod was standing there. His eyes were glassed over, his mouth hanging wide open. The body was empty, his mind elsewhere. I aimed for his nose and punched him in the face. Hard. He fell onto his back and didn’t move, unresponsive, bleeding.
“You asshole!” Yelled Kerry. “See if I help you, bone-cracker!”
Kerry’s body sagged, like her strings had been cut. Nod started up off the ground, wiping blood from his lip.
“Don’t call me that.”
“We are what we do, aren’t we?”
“Enough!” Kerry reached out and grabbed Nod’s jacket, dragging him to the panel. “You already groped me! You’re not leaving without opening that door!”
He looked like he might argue, but changed his mind. I watched his hand raise and enter a code. I memorized it.
The door unlocked with a click.
He pulled back away from Kerry and tossed me a shoulder as he headed off.
“Maybe next time we’ll have a little more privacy girl. Leave the bone-cracker at home. You know I make it worth your while.”
She shook her head. “Nothing you can do that I can’t do myself, Nod.”
He shrugged, rounded the corner, and was gone.
“I hate that guy. How do you even know him?” She gave a half shrug and went inside.
“Our Cerb abilities are very similar, just with different species. We worked together a lot last year. He tried teaching me humans. I tried teaching him fauna. It didn’t work. I know he can be rude, but he likes me. He’s shown me things.”
I didn’t say anything. I knew what she meant. I didn’t want to think about it. I looked at what she had to show me.
It was a livestock container yard. All the containers were military green. Through the horizontal slats in the side I could see arms, legs, hair. They were people.
“I told you they were fuckin’ P.O.W.’s. Listen.”
I did, and what I heard made my chest hurt. I couldn’t understand a word, couldn’t even pick out the language, there were too many, but the combined sound was unmistakable; despair.
“I’m gonna be sick. Why are you showing me this? I already believed you, I don’t need to see it.”
“Vince, we can’t do this anymore. It has to end. We can’t be a part of it.”
“They’re making us. They’ll kill us.”
She looked so calm, so sad. I didn’t understand her. I do now, but I didn’t then.
“No. They won’t.”
It happened the next day. I was a few training grids away when she did it. I’d like to say that I noticed when the screaming started, but there had been screaming all morning. No, it was when the lights went red and Veinte-Dos shouted her name. My arm was already broken, hanging useless at my side, from my own exercise. I ignored my Target and pulled onto the catwalk, where I could see. She was in her grid with three big dogs, German Sheppard’s. At her feet; a dead guard, the obvious victim of her rebellion. Her Practice Target was curled up, cowering. Veinte-Dos marched toward her, Neesis energies distorted the air around him. She didn’t wait for him to get close. Two of the dogs sprung to intercept. He swung an arm and telekinetically gathered dust and dirt from the ground. As the swing continued the grit flattened, tightened, and formed a razor thin beam. It easily decapitated the first animal. The second latched onto his forearm, snarling and chewing.
She didn’t have any real chance of killing Veinte-Dos. When she looked at me, I understood. She’d saved the third dog for herself.
I screamed. I reached out and grabbed a hold of her with my mind, tried to stop her, but it was too late. I felt the dogs teeth sink into my neck as I watched them chew into hers. I felt her head hit the concrete as she toppled onto her back but didn’t feel myself hit the ground. I lay on the catwalk, gasping for breath with a severed windpipe, feeling a warm puddle of blood spread around me, even though it wasn’t there. I think I heard someone else screaming. Angry screaming, echoing from her dying body. I hung with her as long as I could, sharing the sensation. Her hands and feet went numb. My chest clenched as her heart stopped. The sirens seemed to be retreating, moving away. The light diminished until everything went black.
The red lights were still blaring. Veinte-Dos had killed the other dogs and the practice target. People were running. Shit was going to fly.
I just lay there and cried.
The next day; I lost my mind and killed them all.
The creatures were gone. When I looked at my stomach I didn’t even see any puncture holes. Mr.Bug-Dick came out, dumped some trash, had another chlorette, and went back in without any incidents. Maybe it was over. Had the hallucinogens finally run their course? I unburied myself. My legs held me up, I could move.
But where to?
I had some idea where I should head, but it wasn’t like I could just walk down the street. I was wanted. My gov-tat would set off alarms if I got too close to a civil scanner, and my jumper was covered in blood. Sure, there was enough of it that the whole thing looked black, but I just had spent three days in the garbage detoxing. I was rancid. I smelled like piss and dead blood. I wasn’t going to get far looking like this.
It wasn’t entirely dark, this city never gets dark enough to hide from its glow, but it was as quiet and shadowed as it gets. I wrapped a garbage bag around my shoulders and headed out.
As luck would have it, I didn’t have to go far. I’d managed to stumble into a part of town that had been rumbled from the wars a few years back. It looked like reconstruction was trying to reclaim it, but wasn’t there yet. There were still mountains of brick and iron where buildings had been. Structures leaned dangerously out over the sidewalks, everything sagging dejectedly into odd angles. My tattoos would move to seek the light, trying to be more visible for scanning, so I covered my exposed skin as best I could. It helped that most of the sensors were vandalized. I stuck to the alleys, only crossing streets when I had to, making sure to put the bag over my head before I did and wrapping my hands in the plastic. It made them feel clammy.
I wasn’t alone, but the type of riffraff I saw paid no attention to me. I had a moment of panic when I saw group of guys with long antenna come swarming out of a manhole, their backs naked but for the cockroach wings that grew from their shoulder blades. I dropped to my knees and fell against the wall. Evidently the drugs weren’t entirely out of my system. I waited until they were gone, stalking down the street, hunched over like cats. Their hissing faded into the night. I waited. When nothing else seemed to occur, I got up and continued.
I spotted a derelict apartment surrounded by bushes and tall grass. I had no idea how tall it had been, the top was sheared off after the third floor. There was a trail in the grass, leading to a boarded up window. I ignored the No Trespassing signs and followed it. Beneath the window was a grate, not attached, just leaning in place. I moved it, went inside, my ears on the alert. I didn’t have to worry though; there was nobody there. It was an old laundry room where, at some point, squatters had taken up residence. There was bedding, bags, and melted candles in a corner. The machines were piled up to one side of the room, blocking access to the rest of the building. They were stuffed with mounds of old moldy clothes. I stripped out of my soiled jumpsuit and went shopping.
I felt good. For the first time in months, I was wearing my own clothes, not something given to me by the training facility. They were disgusting, had dried vomit on one leg, but they were mine. I don’t think I ever loved a pair of pants more. I found some gloves and ripped up a sheet to use for a hood when I needed it.
I’d gone from bloody fugitive to homeless bum. It was a step in the right direction.
Propperly dressed, I headed for the Passer House.
I’m back in the Green Room. They’re measuring my development. Evidently, I’m progressing too slowly.
“Veinte-Dos tells us that you refuse to kill your Practice Targets. Is this true?”
“You understand that it is your responsibility to do this.”
“We want you to explain to us why you refuse.”
“You are concerned about the consequences of sharing the death experience?”
“We have done many studies of Pathis experience and have never found a physical transference. You are perfectly safe.”
“You said I was different, unique.”
The Green Room speaker doesn’t answer.
“Do the drugs help with dulling the shared experience?”
“Then we will have Veinte-Dos increase your dosage.”
I’m halfway to the Passer House when I feel a strong wind against my back. Years ago, when Heirona Engines were created, the government made it a law that they be required to emit an audible hum. With the silent engines, too many people had failed to recognize when the machines were running or not. Pedestrians couldn’t hear cars approaching and accident fatalities went through the roof. Beset upon by lawsuits, Heirona had quickly complied. Gone were the days of hearing airplanes in the sky, lawnmowers in the morning. A localized hum was all they produced.
Of course, the restriction didn’t apply to government vehicles.
I turned and was nearly knocked backwards by a blast of air. The helicopter was less than forty feet away, five feet off the ground. A guard was leaning out of the harness with a double-pronged rifle as long as his leg aimed at me.
As he started to pull the trigger, I let my reflexes take over. My Pathis entered his mind, bonded with it. My Neesis bent all the fingers of both his hands backwards, snapping them. The chopper was quiet enough that I could hear the cracks. We screamed together. The only difference was that his injuries were real, mine perceived. But it didn’t mean I could move my hands; I felt bone splinters in them.
The chopper moved closer, another pair of men readied weapons. I snapped the tendons in the pilot’s right hand so he couldn’t release the stick, then cracked his forearm to a ninety degree angle. My own arm exploded in the same pain, transmitted through our connection, as the chopper careened off to the left.
I made sure not to injure anyone’s legs, because I needed to use mine. Clutching my blasted hands and arm to my chest, I ran. Behind me, there was a sequence of rapid crashes and the shriek of shattering glass. I spared a glance and saw the helicopter half vanish into a storefront. In the sparkle of cascading shards, two armored men hit the concrete running. A blue fire blossomed behind them as the Heirona engine exploded. I connected and sliced them both across the forehead, a crisscross pattern of cuts like a madman with a razor. It stung me, but mine wouldn’t bleed. The two of them would have a hard time seeing to chase me now.
I ran until the sun came up. There were no sirens. I heard no pursuit, but I didn’t stop. I’m not stupid; I was lucky. If it had been a Cerb chopper, I’d be back at the facility already. I got off the roads, followed a railway, then back into the alleys. I only slowed when I crossed a wooded lot where a dozen homeless built huts behind the leafy cover. They called me a cringer (whatever that meant) and told me to piss off. I did.
I could hardly stand by the time I got to the Passer House. I certainly didn’t have the energy to tell them who I was, what I needed. I sat down on the curb across the street, looking at the place while my heart slowed. It didn’t look like an anti-government bastion. It looked like any one of the anonymous vacant factory buildings in the area. I sure hoped Kerry hadn’t been pulling my chain.
I’d woken up to a tickle in my sheets. Kerry was in my room, sitting on the end of my bed, with no less than two-dozen mice crawling around in her lap, on her shoulders, and, incidentally, my legs.
“How did you get here Vince?”
I pulled to my end of the bed, sitting cross-legged. I didn’t really want the mice on my feet.
“I kept getting headaches. Didn’t realizing I was inducing them and syncing up. I went in for a check up. Wound up in the Green Room. That was it.”
She picked up a grey mouse, stroked it. “That fucking Green Room.”
“How about you?”
“Me and my sister, we knew that someday, we could wind up here, so we were looking for a way out.”
“Do this? No. Not like us. Anyway, it was a Cerb sting, set up to catch people trying to avoid service. They brought us both to the Green Room, had us tested. You know how that turned out for me. They let her go since she was no use for them.”
I didn’t respond. There wasn’t anything to say. I watched a trio of brown mice patter around on my blanket. When Kerry spoke, I could hardly hear her.
“She found them though.”
She took her eyes from the rodents and leveled her gaze at me.
“There’s no such thing.”
“There is and she found it.”
“That’s not possible. One person gets caught and all they need to do is call in a Delver and it’s over. Every memory the person ever had, opened up. You can’t run an underground when one mistake compromises everything.”
“Sure you could, if you had your own Pathis. The right kind of Pathis.”
She was frustrating me. It couldn’t be true.
“There’s no way! We’ve been locked in here together for months. How could you learn anything about this?”
The mice all stopped running around and turned to look at me, every one of them.
“My sister and I are twins. We have ways of staying in touch. If you don’t believe me, go see for yourself.”
“We can’t go anywhere.”
“Sure, not now, but someday we’ll be able to. Maybe we’ll escape, whatever. If you get out, go to a place called the Passer House. It’s the last warehouse on Ray-Zebka, East side of town, out by the rumblings. You’ll see.”
“Kerry, we’re stuck. We’re never getting out of here.”
She stood up. The mice jumped from my bed like tiny kamikazes and went with her.
“We’ll see about that.”
I sat there for a long time, thinking about that. About her. I didn’t go back to sleep.
Across the way, a rusted metal lift gate raised at the end of a loading dock. Two men squinted into the sun. One of them waved at me, a “come over here” gesture. It wasn’t what I expected, but I couldn’t think of a reason not to. Hell, it was the first inviting action I’d seen someone make in ages. I crossed the lot.
“You’re Vince.” said the man on the left.
“Well, get the hell in here. I’m Russet. We gotta get those tats off you.”
“I’m Brendan.” He raised a hand in greeting, his pinky finger was missing.
I climbed up the ledge and into the dock bay. It was spacious, filled with wooden crates and a row of rusty forklifts. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dark, and when they did, I saw we weren’t alone.
“How did you know who I was?”
“Brendan poked around in your skull when you were sitting across the way. Saw into your mind. Saw some interesting things there.”
“Surface only. I can’t dig, shuffle, plant, or control. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. Just asking.”
“Come on, let’s get that tat off of you.”
We started across the room, headed for a stairwell. I didn’t make it far. Kerry was standing there, leaning up against a pylon. She looked different in civilian clothes. I’d never actually seen Kerry outside of the training facility in anything other than the green jumpsuit. This woman’s hair was different too, and she was thinner, fierce. There was a red anger around her eyes that looked like a disease. I knew her.
“You’re Kerry’s sister.”
She looked suspicious. Russet and Brendan stopped, surprised.
“I knew her, in the facility. We were friends.”
“I know, I’m so sorry. I was there. I didn’t know what she was going to do. I tried to stop her.”
“Did she kill any of them?” Her eyes were hungry, pleading.
“One guard and another had his arm wounded.”
She shook her head.
“Not them. I’m talking about the prisoners. The ones they practice on.”
“You know about that?”
“Yes, we had a… bond. I could tell her things, get glimpses. Did she kill any?”
I took a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter. They kill them anyway. Even if you just injure them. I tried that. I didn’t want to kill anyone either.”
“I know they die, but did she kill any? I need to know if she died with innocent blood on her hands.” I understood her.
“No. She didn’t.”
The tension in her body sagged with relief. “That’s good. It’s what she wanted. What about you? Did you?”
My mind jumps. I can’t help it. Did I? I didn’t think I had, but at her words I remember screams, laughing. A big red memory oozes out and I can feel it again. Its covering me, washing me in blood. It’s too heavy. I can’t take it and drop to my knees, a flop sweat rising like a wave.
“Jesus Lisa, don’t fuck with him, he just got here!”
“What did I do?”
They’re helping me up, but I can’t feel them. Her question had unlocked the door the drugs had kept shut, the memory they’d hidden. How had I escaped? I hadn’t thought about it, couldn’t think about it. Not when I was on the run, fleeing for my life. But there’s no controlling it anymore. Somehow, my mind thinks its safe here, safe enough to pull the clouds from my burning memories. I try to stop it, but my inner eye has no eyelids. I have no choice. I cannot blink.
It shows me.
“Why is he here?” I asked.
Veinte-Dos smiles, puts his good hand on Nod’s shoulder. His other arm, where the dog chewed on him, is in a glass tube, submerged in liquid. “The Green Room has had enough of your excuses. Today we’re going to find out just how much experience you share with your victims Vince. Nod is here to help determine if you die when you kill.”
“I’m not killing anybody.”
Veinte-Dos went over to the pharm-tray, pulled a syringe. Another cocktail intended to block my receivers, make me unable to feel the other end of my Pathic connection so I could use my Neesis without consequences. They never worked, and the side effects were awful.
“Yes, you are. Nod will see to that.”
Nod just stood there, not smiling, not anything. Veinte-Dos shimmered with heat distortion. The syringe floated from his palm and began to rotate around me. I stood still.
“This is a bad idea. I don’t want to do it.” He didn’t appear to have heard me.
“There’s a complicated formula in this, with time delay, dosing you increasingly over time. It’ll take about an hour for the effects to really sink into your head.”
The needle stopped floating around and shot into my arm. I flinched.
“I’ll be back in an hour, with Practice Targets.”
He left me standing there with Nod. His expression hadn’t changed a bit the whole time. I sat down on the concrete and felt like crying. The smell of cleaning chemicals from yesterdays washing was still strong in the air. I tried not to think about all the blood that flowed into the drains, pressure washed away. How Kerry’s blood had run right down the same pipes. I didn’t even know what happened to her body. There would be no funeral. Nothing. She was gone, just the same way as the anonymous prisoners. It wasn’t fair.
I was just starting to feel the effects of the drugs when Nod spoke.
“I’m sorry, Vince. Really sorry.”
“I bet you are. You just wanted to fuck her.”
“I wanted more than that, but that doesn’t matter now. It’s not what I’m sorry for.”
“Oh, what are you sorry for?”
The sensation of ice-cold water rushed down my spine. I wanted to shiver, but didn’t. I couldn’t. I stood up. I walked to the pharma-cart and picked up another syringe. I injected myself.
Nod was talking, out of my mouth. “I know that these probably won’t help, but maybe. It’s worth a shot.” I injected three more into my arm.
I was a puppet. My body turned to Nod and saw him standing, still as a statue, empty. He was in me now and I was just a passenger. I tried to link up with his mind, to break him in half, but couldn’t. He just wasn’t there. I had as much control over his empty shell as I would any other inanimate object; none.
We walked toward where the prisoners were kept. “I hate this place as much as you do, Vince. Probably more. After yesterday, what happened, I’m finished. I’m sorry to drag you into this.”
A pair of guards were standing on either side of the large door. One of them held up a hand and began to speak to me. I felt Nod access my ability, our minds linked with the soldiers.
Without hesitation, he rotated their heads three hundred and sixty degrees. Their necks exploded in a splash of red.
My felt my spine turn to powder. My neck pulled tight. I couldn’t breath. My vision went dark.
Nod walked us through the gate.
Guards raised their weapons. With a glance, Nod ripped their limbs off. He was safe from every sensation; hidden behind me. Inside, I screamed as the muscles ripped, the bones pulled free. I couldn’t voice my own agony, but it didn’t matter. I could hear the others screaming and it sounded like myself. More voices joined in, my pain increased, the sound grew as the massacre continued. Over and over, the pain layered up, grew thick, built into something that felt like a massive ocean of acid, of fire, of gnashing teeth. I couldn’t see clearly, only flashes, glimpses.
Nod was laughing. I was aware that my body was holding a rifle, firing.
The drugs rose up to mix with the agony, five full doses of something wicked and special. The sky grew purple, rippled like a velvet curtain in the wind. The cowering prisoners in containers writhed like worms, growing into humanoid maggots. They disgusted me. The guards, in thick beetle armor kept coming, swarming from doorways like ants. The hallucination wrapped the misery in dragonfly wings and spider eyes. This was a dream. This was an alien world. Every breath, venom. Every step, stingers. This was Hell. This was my conscious brain taking the meat grinder ride, awake for every second.
But I didn’t die.
When I could not hurt any more, when every nerve ending was abused and burned out, the pain no longer mattered. Only revenge mattered.
Reeling, I surrendered myself to Nod’s will. Added my assent, rose up to join him. We were boys then, together, killing bugs on the playground.
It didn’t matter if they were guards. It didn’t matter if they were prisoners. It didn’t matter if they were friends. It didn’t matter if they were anyone.
If it lived, we tore it apart. We blasted through doors. We started fires. We waded through the twitching slop and climbed the carapace piles. We burst like a bloody dam over the walls into the city. It was more like falling than moving forward. We were lost in the spiraling dream. That single second of death; expanded, stretched, and all consuming.
The memory leaves me revolted.
I suppose, eventually, someone had the good sense to put a bullet into Nod’s skull.
He was gone. No longer there to control my pain wracked limbs, to give direction to the death machine that I’d become. I kept descending, running I suppose, the hum of insects everywhere. Bloody, broken, carrying thousands of deaths in my skull, I collapsed into the trash.
I waited for the world to come eat me.
When I woke up I was on a cot and Lisa was sitting next to me.
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“You freaked out. We sedated you. We’re running a drug filter, to clear your system now.” She put a hand on my forearm.
“I was remembering.”
“You were talking in your sleep.”
“Last week, the facility accident; all those dead civilians, and foreign bodies they found. That wasn’t the war was it? You survived that.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t survive it.”
“Of course you did, you’re here.”
“I don’t mean I died, I mean I wasn’t a survivor.” He looked at her, so much like her sister. “I did it.”
She pulled her hand back like I was poison. She got up to leave.
“So what now?” I asked.
She stood in the doorway, looking at me with some indecision, mostly fear.
“Well, I guess the first thing is to get those tattoos off of you.”
“And then? I don’t know, we’ll see.”
And she was right.
“The air here tastes like chalk.”
“I know. It’s the ventilators. They keep it dry in here.”
“It’s very dry. My fingers feel smooth all the time.”
“Good for them.”
I want to take his hand. To touch something other than concrete, but I don’t. He wouldn’t take it right. It’s already awkward, both of us wearing only smiley-face belly scars and tattoos.
“Have you ever seen anyone else? Any women?”
“No. Only you.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Nothing to count with.”
“Like yours, it grew out long ago. Useless.”
“It’s not useless. It’s good for resting your head. Do you remember when you first came here? Your bald skull on the ground when you slept?”
“Well, then you’ve been here longer than me. I still remember.”
We pass another spotlight. I’ve seen thousands, and never a burnt out bulb. Every bulb I see, I wonder who’s changing them. Every bulb I see, I get angry at myself for thinking the same damn thing. Our beards make our shadows look like goats on the far wall. Long man-goats. It makes me think of meat.
“Have you ever found food in here?”
“Even rats or anything?”
“Me neither. They weren’t lying.”
“They never lie.”
“Everyone lies sometimes.”
I hadn’t believed them. When they cut open my stomach and shoved that black ball inside it. When they sewed me shut and told me I’d never need to eat again. That it was part of my punishment. Now I believe them.
“If they don’t lie, then you think there’s a way out?”
“Yes. And no.”
“What do you mean?”
“There could be a way out. But that doesn’t mean we can use it.”
I’m sick of the chalk taint in the air. I raise my arm to my mouth and start licking, just for the taste. The only other flavor I can get in here; my own. He looks at me and scowls. We haven’t been together very long, and sometimes I think he would prefer to be alone again.
Other times, I’m pretty sure he’s thinking about eating me.