Fear Masters (2)All you lurkers send big thanks over to Mr./Ms. X, whose lengthy comment on the first three chapters of this puppy has motivated me to continue publication. That doesn't let any of y'all off the hook, mind you...
Anyway, Chapters IV through VI after the jump.
The old LAW rocket launcher kicked on my shoulder like a Missouri mule, causing the flyer to dip on its gyroscopes slightly on 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 too, 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. “This thing doesn’t have a three-vee… 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 a hydraulic piston-arm 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 weapon 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.
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 Hannigan, 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 one, maybe two hard shots of lased energy 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 one, maybe two 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 disable 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 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 up 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 behind, 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 bootheels 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 dad had loved, 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, moving slowly 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 had 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 three 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.
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 sequencer 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 Hannigan – 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.