Fear Masters (1)

Working on Chapter 9, just under 15,000 words in. I have a vague idea where things are going and kinda sorta suspect I'm about a third done, which, if correct, would bring this in somewhere around 40-45,000 words.

Different people have different definitions, of course, but I've always used Stephen King's, from the afterword to the mostly brilliant DIFFERENT SEASONS, where he says:

"There is no hard-and-fast definition of what either a novel or a short story is - at least, not in terms of word count - nor should there be. But when a writer approaches the 20,000-word mark, he knows he is edging out of the country of the short story. Likewise, when he passes the 40,000-word mark, he is edging into the country of the novel."

So, this will most likely end up as a short novel, or, I suppose, if you're of a different school of thought, a long novella. What it most likely will not end up as is published in any way other than on one of my myriad web pages, so it hardly matters, but, still, barring me suddenly getting an inspiration for some sort of lengthy interlude on planet Aldegoric or some goddam thing, THE FEAR MASTERS is probably going to end up as one of my briefest 'novels'... about half the length of THE PUPPET MASTERS, which is kinda-sorta my inspiration for this thing.

After the jump you should find the first three chapters of the current draft. If I get any cogent comments on it indicating any interest at all on anyone's part, I'll keep publishing chapters as time and typing speed allow. If I don't get any comments... well, no feedback is still feedback of a sort, I suppose.


Fear itself -- One of the early 20th Century's greatest national chieftains once remarked that it was the only thing anyone really had to be afraid of. And maybe that's why fear was the weapon they ultimately chose to try and wipe us all out with. All of us -- every last living man, woman and child on The Globe -- the entire human race.

For me it started too early on 050232. The day had kicked off with an 0630 reveille. After mixing myself a quick breakfast and gulping it right out of the shower, 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, one of them 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 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 Homeland Security’s infamous 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 covert, business.

It would have made 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 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; the 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.

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 at the head of yet another escalator heading even further down – this one with an armored grill at the top guarded by someone in combat armor standing next to a security droid which was essentially a 400 megawatt laser projector with a built in subprocessor and a pair of heavy duty all terrain treads. I refrained from sneering with an effort of will – had Science Sector been in charge of security for the secret subway, unauthorized intruders would never have seen what hit them.

Or maybe we were, and that insanely overpowered battledroid was a distraction, to keep unauthorized types from noticing the bio-engineered rhinoviruses rendering their lung tissue down into a chunky soup 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 good trick… so far, an impossible one.

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 there is always an exception to every rule… 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 was 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 lurching along at a pretty good clip, 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 every couple of steps. 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 shambling 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 the Globe’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 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 shitwagon, 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, "don't know if she's a girl or 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 all muscles and reaction time -- a good sort to have around when it hits the fan, 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 break his jaw, his nose, and six of his ribs in one fast cobra-hand strike/cobra-hand strike/leopard kick flurry, most likely before he even got his big gorilla mitts all the way up to guard position. 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 smile at me as he started shooting. I was keeping my cool through an effort of will, but Eddie is one of those psychotics 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 basting 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 like a dope. 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 admit it -- are happy to have the assignment.

Well, usually.

"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." 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 hotfooted it back, being very careful to hop well over the third rail as I crossed the tunnel. The unexpected power failure that had stranded us could end at any time; when it did, I had no hankering to take up a career as human barbecue.

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 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 Hannigan? Agent Hannigan?"

"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 power 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.

"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 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.”

Popular Posts