Fear Masters (4)

Rolling right along: After the jump, the next three chapters. I actually have 16, 17, 18, and some of 19 done, too, but may go back and revise some of those, I dunno. But right now, the novel is at 36,659 words, although, with the three chapters below, I've only posted 29,664 of them. So y'all are behind me about 7000 words... which seems like a lot, I guess. But I'll get 'em up when I'm reasonably happy with where they point me, I guess.



XIII.

Looking out from the inside of a space-time quantum vacuole is a lot like trying to see what’s going on in someone’s bathroom by pressing your face against a steamed up window, which is to say, it’s pretty unsatisfying. Add in the fact that I, at least, felt a kind of greasy nausea that seemed to permeate every cell in my body as soon as Eddie goosed the accelerator, which got steadily worse the longer we were in there, and you end up with a ride that seemed a whole lot longer than the few seconds it actually took.

After what seemed like at least several minutes of steadily worsening discomfort, though, the autopilot cut the accelerator. We found ourselves floating in space – presumably at L5, the fifth, most stable, and therefore, most extensively commercially exploited, LaGrange point in the Earth-Moon system.

I’d assumed that a craft with no method of movement besides a fairly standard anti-gravity initiator would have no way of getting around in deep space. Veronica disabused me of that notion; all an anti-grav engine needs to function is a nearby gravity field to refract, and while L5 was a natural balance point between the Earth’s and the Moon’s gravity fields, that simply meant it was a ‘gravity rich’ environment. Our biggest problem wouldn’t be motive power, but, rather, picking Ubdov’s orbital home base out from all the other sky junk cluttering up L5.

To that end, Veronica had researched the known dimensions of the orbital residence-laboratory Ubdov had had built shortly after his parole from the Russian Federation’s one time space gulag. As soon as we came to ‘rest’, Eddie had the radar set warmed up and pinging local space looking for anything that matched the parameters Veronica had given him.

Like any Sky Marine, I’m fully checked out for zero gee combat. Veronica doubted deep space conditions would bother her much, but Eddie is a ground pounder through and through and he wasn’t going to deal with free fall if he didn’t have to. A standard anti-grav initiator can cut a local gravity field up like so much parsley; keeping us in a half gee field oriented to pull down towards the floor of the car, even in free fall, was easy-peasy.

“Got it,” he said, after a minute or so. “Spherical object, 300 meters radius, 17 kilometers and a ball o’ twine… thatta way,” he said, pointing at an oblique angle down through the floor of the flivver. “Um… 12 degrees off true.” He started fiddling with knobs and buttons on the control panel. “I can get us a double refraction up here, and ride in on both the Earth and the Moon’s gravity vectors… maybe six minutes transit time.” He looked up at Veronica. “Do you have any idea if this guy has any defenses? Missiles, vacuum mines… whatever?”

Veronica shook her head. “His residential and commercial permits and purchase orders are matters of public record,” she said. “Missiles or other explosives or defensive arrays… they would be illegal anyway, so they certainly wouldn’t be anything you’d find recorded in any accessible archive.”

“I really hate that answer,” Eddie said. “Okay, let’s just hope the mad scientist doesn’t have any death rays.” He pushed a button and the stars stopped revolving slowly around us. He reached to push another – and something came out of the endless night to sprawl across our windscreen with a horrible thump.

All of us jumped in our seats; Eddie swore comprehensively in Farsi. Lying across the flivver’s front windscreen, arms and limbs splayed out like a starfish, was a corpse. The body was wearing a t-shirt and shorts made of some sort of durable plas-weave; the shirt’s left breast had a stylized K on it. That ‘K’ looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t immediately place it.

The corpse could have been floating out there for fifteen or twenty years; there was no way, short of testing in a lab, to be sure.

What made my stomach draw up into my throat, though, was that the body was moving. The hands opened and closed, batting and clawing at the reinforced ceram-glass of our windscreen. The ruined head rolled back and forth, as if the empty, vacuum exploded eye sockets were trying to see us inside.

Somehow… maybe by vibration through the chassis of the vehicle, although I’d swear it was louder than that; maybe it transferred directly to our minds from… whatever the creature used instead of one… I could clearly hear the hungry moaning growling groan made by every zombie I’d ever met.

“GodDAMN it,” Eddie swore again. “I can’t…” He was staring at the dashboard controls. “I don’t know how to get it off of there. However I invert gravity, that zombie is inside our own local field. It will stick like glue…”

Veronica was staring in fascination at the space suited thing writhing on the other side of a windshield that suddenly seemed far too thin for comfort. “I should have known any bodies in orbit would also reanimate,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me… but this confirms my hypothesis. It is indeed some unearthly source of energy, bathing the entire planet… and our orbital path, apparently…”

“That thing is from the Krupp habitat,” Eddie said, and I realized he was right, that was what the stylized K indicated. 12 years prior, the biggest disaster in space settlement had occurred when a five mile long cylinder being constructed by a German transnational hypercorps named Krupp had blown out five hours into its fourth spin test, sending over 1200 working crew members spilling into hard vacuum. The accident wouldn’t have been so cataclysmic if not for the fact that all three previous tests had gone perfectly, and this last one had shown no flaws or undue stresses for several hours of full 1-G rotation. At the start of each test, everyone had been ready for something to go wrong, with pressure suits or emergency pods close to hand… but four hours into an obviously uneventful test run, they’d all relaxed and gone back to their normal routines. Barely one in three hundred had gotten to pressure gear in time to save themselves. For the rest, it had been mass slaughter.

Krupp’s stock had tumbled on the international market and never recovered; the wrecked cylinder itself had eventually been bought as scrap for pennies on the kilobuck by some other transnat – General Circuitry, maybe – and broken up for spare parts. Nobody had even tried to recover the vast majority of the bodies; it just hadn’t been cost effective, although the peculiarities of the LaGrange gravitonics had kept most of them floating along captive ballistics relatively nearby.

My train of thought was interrupted when the undead former construction worker abruptly spun backwards off our windshield. I figured Eddie must have figured out some way to repel it with our anti-grav, until I saw that there was something behind it… some kind of vehicle, orbiting a few hundred yards in front and to the right of our own. Something with bluish white cones of standard chemical maneuvering thrusters silhouetting its underside, and with long metal tentacles of cable waving around it like cilia. It had snared the zombie with one of those cable-tentacles, and was pulling the corpse back towards itself.

Eddie whipped collapsible binox out of his agent’s vest, popped them open and used them to study the strange thing. “Some kind of ‘bot,” he said, finally. “Fully automated, it has to be… there’s no room for a human operator. But it looks like it’s got at least a dozen corpses in tow already… somebody must have set it to gathering up all the bodies that have piled up out here at the LaGrange point over the last couple of decades.”

“Wonder who?” I asked, my voice very dry.

“Yeah,” Eddie responded with equal acerbity. “Okay, well, that solves that problem… I’m not sure I want to know what Ubdov is doing with space corpses, but I imagine we’re gonna find out. So…” He pushed another button on the dashboard and we began to move forward through space, although you wouldn’t have been able to tell without looking at the instrument panel.

Or so I thought, until Veronica gasped and pointed forward, through our front windscreen. “What… that can’t be what it looks like… can it?”

A spherical object with a radius of 300 meters is actually 600 meters in diameter, of course. At 17 kilometers distance, such an object is about the size of a Global half-buck, or one of those old time Anthony B. Susan dollar coins, held out at arm’s length. Except this particular disc didn’t show either a stylized Earth symbol, or the silhouette of some famous 19th century politician. This looked like… well… like…

“It’s an eye,” Eddie said, his eyes narrowing. “It’s a goddam giant eyeball floating in the void.”

That’s exactly what it looked like; a big ol’ greasy eyeball just hanging there against the black, star sprinkled backdrop of outer space. Fear of disembodied body parts is a fairly common human phobia, which is why we see so many severed heads, chopped off hands, and, yes, popped out eyeballs, in horror viewsees. Looking at it, I felt an atavistic shudder wash over me, and knew that, without a doubt, I was looking at the home base of Vassily Ubdov – the man the commissars had nicknamed “Dr. Fear”.

“He must have spent a fortune on glow-paint,” I said, finally.

“Or the shell is transparent and lit from within,” Veronica added. “How does he get it to STARE right at us, though…? It must respond to any active radar scan that touches it.”

We all looked at each other. We knew what that meant… Dr. Fear would be aware we were out here. And closing fast.

“I guess the ol’ boy ain’t tryin’ to hide from anyone,” Eddie said grimly. “Six minutes, ETA.”

Eddie had assured me several times that the car’s cabin would be rendered effectively vacuum tight by a minor adjustment in the EM field thrown around us by the anti-grav initiator, and he’d also said that even without any kind of atmosphere scrubber or rebreathing apparatus, it would hold enough breathable air to last us several hours. I’m sure he was right; Eddie studies that kind of thing for recreation – back in the 20th Century, he’d have been what they called a ‘survivalist’. So it was no doubt just my imagination that the cabin grew perceptibly stuffier over the next six minutes. Nonetheless, I was uneasily relieved when we nudged gently up against the outer hull of the Great Space Eyeball, as Eddie had dubbed it, and a circular hatch eight meters across immediately irised open, revealing a small landing bay just beyond.

Eddie goosed the flivver inside. The hatch irised closed again behind us; after several seconds, I could hear the heavy armor plating on the flivver’s hull resettling all around us with slight pings and groans. Somebody must have opened an air conditioning vent somewhere to give us some atmosphere. A nice welcoming gesture… or a trap.

“Air outside,” Eddie said, looking at the pressure gauge on the dashboard. He looked at me, and I had a pretty tough decision to make. We’d jumped up here without anything like space suits on us… our agent’s vests contained nose filters as a defense against airborne chemical attacks, but they wouldn’t do a thing to protect us from vacuum. If we piled out of the car and Ubdov decided to open the hatch again behind us, we’d all get sucked out into space and die pretty grisly deaths. On the other hand, if we just stayed in the car, we weren’t going to get anything accomplished…

“All right. Load Glasers, Eddie… no sense ruining our host’s paneling if we don’t have to.” I suited actions to words. Glaser rounds were invented back in the 20th and nobody has improved on them in 50 years. Basically a copper tube full of tiny ball bearings in a jelly suspension; when they hit flesh they expand dramatically and do tremendous damage through sheer hydrostatic shock. But they’ll just splatter if you miss your target and hit something hard.

Eddie nodded, following my lead. He understood what I hadn’t bothered to say out loud – that using explosive ammunition in a sealed, pressurized environment was a spectacularly stupid idea. And heatseeking homer rounds unfortunately do not work on the living dead. Helluva good way to cap the living agent providing you with back up, though.

“One at a time,” I said, after we’d finished. “That way he can’t get us all at once if he pops the seal. I’ll go first…”

Eddie had already opened his driver’s side door, rolled out onto the metal flooring, and kicked the door closed behind him. I glared at him through the window. He stood up, looked around slowly… then waved back to me. “Standing orders,” he said, almost cheerfully. “The ranking officer never goes into a hazardous situation without prior recon.”

Another hatch, leading further into the Eyeball, slid open a few yards behind Eddie. He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to look. “Okay,” he said. “Looks like we’re invited to tea. You ladies coming?”

It appeared Ubdov didn’t want to kill us… at least, not at the moment. Maybe he was curious about us. Veronica and I got out of the car simultaneously, both of us doing our best to see in every direction simultaneously.

XIV.

Eddie edged cautiously through the new opening, gun preceding him in the classic two handed grip you see on all the well researched cop and military viewsees.
I could tell Veronica hadn’t had any weapons training from the tentative way she held her own gun, but she was carefully copying what she could see Eddie doing, which was smart. Real people who have to shoot real guns at other real people really do use that grip, for the profound and simple reason that it’s extremely effective. It gives you excellent control of your weapon, a good aiming point, and the widest cone of perception possible.

I brought up the rear. Beyond the hatch was a hallway running to our right and our left, that curved gently away from our entry point… most likely, it was a perimeter hall that ran all the way around the inner diameter of the habitat.

As soon as I’d taken two steps past the hatch, it snicked closed behind me. “Lead to the right, Eddie, I’m rear guard,” I said, turning to watch over my left shoulder… or, at least, I started to. I got about to the first syllable of Eddie’s name when my voice was abruptly drowned out by a rolling glissado of strange, deep, booming electronically synthesized musical chords, for all the world like the sinister soundtrack music in an old black and white horror viewsee, apparently emanating from hidden speakers in the walls around us.

I felt a thrill of pure raw terror pulse through my nerve endings, and realized instantly what was happening. “He’s got subharmonics to stimulate fear buried in the music,” I said, shouting to be heard over it. “Don’t let it get to you—“

I saw Eddie’s mouth open in surprise and looked in his direction. I could see something… a horde of somethings, actually… scuttling along the floor plates towards us, coming from around the bend forward of Eddie. It looked as if there were dozens of them; with the weird music playing, I couldn’t hear if the horde of… whatever they were… were making any noise as they came towards us. I could hear Eddie, though, as he shouted, a raw edge of fear in his voice:

“SPIDERS!!! GIANT GODDAM SPIDERS!!!” He looked a little spooked; I don’t think I’ve ever seen Eddie so shook up before.

The creatures – whatever they were, they sure weren’t the zombies I’d been more than half expecting – did look vaguely spider-like, but when I think of spiders, I generally imagine them as black, or at least, quite dark. These things were flesh toned – not Veronica’s pale, creamy British-North European flesh tone, but something more like my octoroon, coffee with cream shade, I mean – and didn’t look quite like spiders. But it wasn’t until they were nearly on top of us that I realized what they were.

“Frak frak FRAK they’re HANDS they’re goddam disembodied hands,” I gasped. I could feel some essential fabric inside me starting to seriously unravel. All the shit I’d been through in the past day or so, including being dead and then alive again, and now we were besieged by a horde of living human hands –

Eddie was shooting at them. I took aim and started pegging shots as well. The Glaser rounds worked wonderfully on the hand-things, blowing gaping holes in them, or sometimes simply exploding them like dropped water balloons… but it didn’t matter, there were dozens of the things and however many we shot, the rest just kept scrabbling towards us. Now they were practically all over us. No, scratch that ‘practically’ – as I emptied my first magazine and reached to reload, several of them were clawing their way up my legs, and one had somehow jumped off its finger-legs and grabbed the wrist of my gun hand in a tight, hard grip that was painful even before it suddenly twisted, forcing my hand to open and let my gun drop with a clatter to the floor.

I felt strong grips at both my ankles yanking hard in opposite directions and couldn’t keep my feet. The creatures swarmed over me as soon as I went down, and I had to lock my teeth to keep from completely losing my mind in a long hysterical scream. After a minute or so of utter chaos and confusion, I felt my body somehow lifted and held perpendicular a few inches off the ground. I rolled my head around frantically and saw that Eddie and Veronica had both been grabbed and were being held the same way. I could see the hand-creatures much more clearly, too.

They weren’t actual hands, although the resemblance was so uncanny it had to be deliberate. Their five legs coming off central bodies were configured exactly like human fingers and thumb, and a stump-like protuberance sticking up from their backs looked a great deal like a severed wrist. They had no actual fingernails, though, and up close their color wasn’t quite the standard dark skinned flesh tone I’d thought at first, but instead contained a slight brownish green tint. They didn’t seem to be composed of bone, tendon and muscle sheathed in flesh but were apparently some sort of root-like construct, made out of a tough, fibroid vegetable matter.

Their method for holding us was simple; sets of two hand-creatures had somehow joined themselves together at their wrist stumps, and the upper fingers were grasping our bodies, while the lower ones provided motive power, cooperatively scuttling us along the floor rather quickly. Each of us had about a dozen of the joined two-hand pairs holding and transporting us; we couldn’t have been more helpless if we’d been trussed hand and foot with piano wire. The strange music continued to thunder from the walls the whole time the three of us were being carried by our macabre captors through the habitat. How long that was I couldn’t tell you; I couldn’t see my wrist watch and my sense of duration was pretty much shot to pieces by shock, disgust, anger at myself, and sheer unadulterated fear.

They carried us into another tunnel, up that for several seconds at least, then through another hatch, where abruptly they let us go, dumping us all onto the floor while retreating rapidly away from us. The chamber they’d dropped us in was very dimly lit; the hand creatures quickly vanished into the gloomy darkness all around us, to the accompaniment of a strange, almost cricketlike series of clicking noises. The strange music ceased, leaving a ringing silence in my ears.

I rolled to my feet. I couldn’t see more than five meters in any direction except directly ahead of me. There, maybe twelve meters away, I could see some kind of chair, illuminated by a reddish glow of some sort that seemed to originate behind or above it. The chair was massive enough to seem almost thronelike, and there was someone sitting in it… someone bulky, whose body I couldn’t clearly make out. The head, though…

It had to be Ubdov, and if so, he had to be in his seventies. I couldn’t say he looked his age; his head was completely hairless from the nose up. A heavy grayish white beard covered his lower face, seeming to float strangely around his head, as if he were in zero gee… I realized, with a start, that there was some kind of clear, bowl-like helmet around his head, which must be full of some kind of liquid, causing his beard to swirl around like that.

Lights began to flicker and flash all around us; the walls of the room were apparently paneled floor to ceiling with meter wide viewsee-screens which Ubdov must have activated all at once. Their displays flickered on, strobelike, bombarding us from all directions with horrific images and sounds -- newscasts and broadcast video from all over the world. The zombie apocalypse was in full force; half the viewscreens showed buildings, vehicles, and other human artifacts going up in flames, while the remainder displayed hordes of the walking dead shambling through abandoned streets and parking structures and shopping malls, stalking up and down city streets and suburban roadways, attacking people, dragging them down, devouring them as they screamed for help.

It was sheer chaos, it was hell unleashed, it was mind boggling, terrifying global calamity. It was awful and gruesome, stomach turning, heart breaking.

Ubdov’s beard split inside his weird liquid filled helmet in a grotesque grin.

He spoke, his voice beautifully modulated, his English without a trace of accent. “Fear,” he said. “It is the ultimate weapon. It has destroyed your world. Fear that I have helped to create.”

From thirty feet away, his bright blue eyes met mine. “I am glad to see I have not been entirely forgotten down on the surface.” He laughed, a dry, eerie chuckle nearly as scary as everything else in that room.

Veronica and Eddie had gotten to their feet, too. I tried to think quickly. Ubdov might very well think Eddie and I were helpless, as we had no guns. If so, he was wrong. We still had our agents’ vests, our laser fingers, various other goodies hidden around our persons… we could do some damage, if we needed to. But if Ubdov felt secure, he might just get chatty. It was possible we were the first living people he’d seen in years.

“Not… entirely forgotten, no, doctor,” I said, finally, in response to his question. “So, you admit responsibility for the worldwide reanimations and attacks?”

His head nodded joyfully. “I designed the projector,” he said. “It was my inspiration. Do you have any idea how I managed to make it work?”

Veronica cleared her throat, stepped slightly towards him, looking away diffidently. “Ah,” she said. “There is a form of energy whose nature and origin I do not understand, that is reanimating the bodies of the recently deceased. I hypothesize this energy has an unearthly origin. You were responsible for a much smaller scale attack by reanimated corpses back in the 1980s… but these do not utilize the same technology you used then…”

Ubdov was nodding gleefully, faster and faster, his eyes bright inside his helmet full of fluid. I gestured slightly and Veronica immediately went quiet. “Hold on a second,” I said into the sudden silence. “You said you ‘designed the projector’ – that it was ‘your inspiration’. That makes it sound like it was work you did for someone else. So you’re… what… just hired help? For who?”

That pissed him off no end. “I am UBDOV!” he boomed at me, his face suffused with rage. “For my grand experiments, for my brilliant researches into the nature of terror, I was exiled from the entire planet Earth to this deep space mausoleum… meant to die in obscurity, a washed up, forgotten relic. But none of you ever understood the truth of it.”

He was breathing hard now; oddly, while I couldn’t hear him doing so, I could see clouds of silver bubbles streaming from his mouth and starting to fill the fluid around his head. “I am no lackey,” he nearly screamed. “I am UBDOV – Dr. Fear! Such was my genius, even in childhood, that in my teens I was contacted by those outside, the dwellers in darkness –“

“The masters,” I said… whispered… almost involuntarily.

“They spoke to me, in my mind, in my dreams,” he went on, almost crooning now. “They inspired my devices. Long had they come to Earth, for millions of years, at times when the surface lay in darkness, seeking bodies. The dwellers in the dark are not material, not solid, as we are. Light itself is anathema to them, a toxic radiation that will instantly kill them. Within a human body there is comforting darkness, shelter from the killing light… but living bodies they could not take. A living brain is suffused with electricity, not so much, no, a few volts only, perhaps, but enough to ward them away. But a newly deceased body, still mostly intact, without too much brain damage… this they could take hold of, re-energize, operate to suit themselves. Within such forms, the dark ones could taste solid, material existence… at least briefly, until these bodies rotted away and became completely unusable.”

“Yes,” Veronica said, slowly, thoughtfully. “Since prehistory they have come, under cover of the night, and possessed our dead, attempting to simulate life… this is the basis for most if not all of our legends and myths about the dead rising again to attack the living… ghosts, revenants, vampires… zombies.” She looked fascinated and revolted at the same time. “But inhabiting… controlling a rotting corpse for a few days, or even weeks… that’s a poor imitation of actual life.”

“Yes,” Ubdov agreed with relish. “They hated you for being alive, for having warmth and sensation, for feeling pleasures they could not even imagine, there in the endless cold and dark where they had come into existence and were forced to dwell. So it was that the dead they possessed attacked the living, for they could not live, and begrudged true life to all others… but in me, they saw a brilliant intellect that could be of aid to them. They knew things about energy, and physics, that no human could ever have observed or learned. They helped me conceive my first apparatus for reanimating corpses. I hoped to provide them with better receptacles, richer experiences here… although none of my Soviet sponsors knew of them, of course. Those authoritarian fools merely saw in my mind, my interests, another tool, a bizarre one, granted, with which to bring down the running dog capitalist democracies.”

“But you went too far,” I said, trying to think through what he’d told us. “Too far, even, for those cold, calculating old Russians you worked for. What were you doing, I wonder…? Attacking the West with techno-zombies wouldn’t have offended them…”

Ubdov scowled. “Feh. I could have brought the West to its knees, given enough resources… but in the end, in their hearts, even the hardest, the purest of the Party, those to whom individual human life meant nothing… they were Puritans, clinging to outdated, obsolete, superstitious morality. Narrow minded, judgmental, priggish… they called me perverted… vile… unnatural… they did not know I was merely following the directives of my true sponsors…”

My imagination recoiled from thinking of what Ubdov might have done to offend his Communist masters, that they would have found ‘perverted, vile, or unnatural’. Mass, necrotic orgies of the Undead, attempting to experience the pleasures of the flesh, aping the antics of their still breathing counterparts… living political prisoners, turned over to Ubdov, forced to couple with reanimated corpses, possessed by the greedy, malevolent psyches of bodiless evil from between the stars…? It was stomach churning to even contemplate.

“Even now,” Ubdov went on, his voice rising again, “even as I speak to you, dark ones walk the Earth, inhabiting nearly undamaged bodies… bodies killed only by the invading parasites of the virus I invented and designed for them, a virus whose particles calls out to the dark ones like a beacon. They move in daylight at will, unafraid. Their bodies can experience the entire range of human sensation, and they are all but immortal, in death. It is as close to life as they will ever come… and they will have it for eternity. Thanks to me.”

“So, what,” Eddie spoke up, for the first time. “Couple more days, weeks, months, whatever… it’s just gonna be you and the dark ones, huh? And then, a few years or decades later, it’ll just be them…”

Ubdov laughed, a deep, booming sound that sent chills crawling through me. Within the shadowy bulk of the huge chair he was sitting in, I sensed more than saw movement… and then, he flung himself to his feet, with an odd, mechanical series of creaks and whirrs. As he did, the lights came up fully in the room we were all in, and we saw him plainly for the first time.

His head was fully encased in some kind of fluid filled bubble-helmet, as I’ve already described. But his body… it was gigantic, and asymmetrically bulky, covered with metal plates and writhing cables and blinking lights and swirling gauges. Here and there, between bits of metal and plastic, I could see pallid swatches of milky flesh, but the bulk of him was artificial. He had augmented his human form with machinery, cybernetic accessories far beyond anything even Science Sector had ever dreamed up. He was a 21st Century Frankenstein, stitched together from pieces of his own body and countless advanced machines of clearly inhuman inspiration.

His arms and legs seemed entirely prosthetic, vast, limb shaped engines grafted to what little remained of his original torso, which itself was mostly lost within an artificial barrel of chromed steel and chemical synthetics.

“I was dying, you see,” he said, servomotors humming and whirring as he balanced delicately on his massive metal legs. “Inoperable cancer, diagnosed in my teens… but the dark ones provided me with the knowledge I needed to prolong my life, and, in the end, even as my body died, to reanimate it with machinery no human could ever have conceived. I am, now, as much one of them as I am one of you… perfect intellect, bound to a perfect, all but immortal body. I will live forever, alongside them, sharing their revels and their pleasures, learning all that they know… and we do not plan to wipe out the human race entirely.”

He stopped, and laughed again. “No, we have no such plans. We will destroy your civilization, your technology, your tools and weapons, certainly. But a few humans will be suffered to live… to serve us. After all, we will need something to play with…”

The mechanical thrumming from his body’s internal engines rose to a higher pitch, and he stepped towards us, big hands outstretched, like a child reaching with both hands for a long promised treat. “As I will now play with the three of you,” he intoned, a look of gloating anticipation on his face.

He never should have called those hand things off of us, if he’d wanted to mess with us. I’m sure he thought there was nothing we could do, unarmed, against his armored, no doubt superhumanly powerful bulk. But that was a mistake.

He closed in faster than most humans could have moved, covering the intervening distance between us in three colossal strides. But there’s only so quickly you can move a few thousand pounds of mass in a normal one gee field, and when you have that kind of inertia to overcome, it’s hard to be as precise as you need to be when you’re trying to grab someone. Or so I fervently hoped as I dove forward and rolled under his left hand. His segmented fingers closed with metallic grinding noises just behind my head, gripping nothing but a few hairs that I barely noticed being pulled from my scalp as I completed my forward somersault. I came back to my feet, still rolling, and pivoted on my right foot, turning my own momentum into a fast spin, driving my left heel in a roundhouse axe-kick to the back of his knee, where a small patch of pallid Ubdov-flesh still showed between armor plates and bracing wires.

As humanoid knees will when struck from behind regardless of cybernetic enhancements, Ubdov’s gave way. He’d been bringing most of his considerable weight down on that leg and with it suddenly folding under him like a cheap card table, he hit the deckplates with a crash like a cast iron stove dropped off someone’s balcony onto a concrete patio. Even as I struck on my forearms and rolled forward again, I saw Eddie, in perfect synchronization with my movements, going up and over Ubdov’s falling body, flipping forward in a perfect somersault to come down in a vicious two footed stomp that had all his weight and momentum behind it on Ubdov’s helmet.

Which shattered, spewing oily greenish fluid and shards of plexiglass across the deckplates.

Eddie’s booted feet continued on down into Ubdov’s head, smashing it hard against the metal decking. Ubdov’s skull actually crumpled inward under Eddie’s heels, and I could see yellowish shards of bone and grayish green brain curds bulging through new cracks in Ubdov’s flesh.

He should have been dead… well, deader than he’d already been, anyway; the kind of dead where you stop moving and making a nuisance of yourself. And we both figured he must be.

“What do you think,” I panted, getting back to my feet again and reaching a hand out to haul Eddie up, “gold medal in the Synchronized Cybernetic SuperVillain Stomp?”

Eddie hesitated for a second… not even a second, but it seemed longer… then shook his head and grabbed my hand and let me pull him to his feet. “We got style, we got grace, and we always know our place,” he responded, grinning, “but you know how that goes… the goddam Lithuanian judge always marks us low, especially when we go after the ex-Soviet bad guys…”

Like I said, we’d been sure Ubdov was dead – head all but crushed like that, he’d pretty much had to be. But it turned out he was tough as a metal studded razor strop. Abruptly one huge steel segmented arm swept around at us. I yelled a warning and ducked, trying to shove Eddie out of the way. Eddie, his footing uncertain in the goo from Ubdov’s shattered helmet, couldn’t dodge it fully and it knocked him across the room and into a bank of viewscreens with a jangling crash.

And then Ubdov, hydraulics shrieking, mouth writhing horribly in his battered, broken face, one eye hanging from its socket down onto his grayish-green cheek, rolled up to one knee… tottered back to his feet… and stood there, swaying, servomotors whining and smoking with overstrain.

His left hand came up to his chest, fingers scrabbling spastically, reminding me horribly of his hand-creatures. He was doing something, though… pressing buttons, pulling switches, turning dials… something, to some doubtless sinister purpose.

Somewhere, deep in the habitat, I could hear machinery responding. There were clunks… hisses… thumps.

And, from a distance nowhere near distant enough… a nearly soundless, almost psychic mass growl of hunger and rage.

“You… you won’t… YOU won’t…” Ubdov swayed on his feet, his misshapen, broken head lolling on his metal reinforced neck. “You shan’t… outlive me… long…” he gasped, finally.

And went to his knees, with a big iron thump. Then, slowly, metal rasping on metal, he slid down onto his face, one good eye finding me, transfixing me with a glare of seething hatred.

“Diiiiiiiiiieeeeeeeee…” he gasped, exultantly. His hand spasmed, clutching and opening, clutching and opening, on nothing.

Then the light went out of his eye. One by one, the lights dancing on his machine-body followed suit.

I looked at Eddie; he was getting up again, slowly and stiffly. Two of the walls that had been covered in viewscreens now had hatches gaping open in them. Curved hallways stretched away from both. From beyond where those hallways curved, still out of sight, I could hear the shuffling of dozens… maybe hundreds… of feet.

And the growling.

Coming closer.

And we didn’t have our guns.

XV.

Eddie stared at me in dawning horror. He was a mental step or two behind me; I was already as close to paralyzed with fear as it was possible for me to get. Ubdov must have had a horde of zombies stashed aboard his sanctum sanctorum, doubtless recovered from nearby space. Whatever vile researches he’d been conducting on them, now, in an act of dying retribution, he’d opened a passage between us and them, and however it was they sensed such things, they knew we were here. And they were coming for us, an unstoppable, predatory mob of the living dead.

And we had no guns.

I was, as I said, nearly paralyzed with fear… but, as I have also previously noted, I’m one of those freaks of nature who don’t actually freeze up, no matter how terrified or shocked I am. In fact, at that moment, I was mentally cataloguing the contents of our agents’ vests. Our laser fingers would take out maybe three zombies each, if we were lucky and made every shot count. Gas pellets wouldn’t have any effect on the walking dead. We didn’t have time to set plastic explosives, and, anyway, setting off detonations in a fragile, pressurized environment like Ubdov’s orbital headquarters was almost certain suicide. Which also eliminated from consideration –

“The mini-bombs,” Eddie finally gritted out, pulling his three out of an inner vest pocket to hold in his hand. Grenades the size and shape of metric 5 gram weights. Standard Science Sector issue; we each had three. Lobbed into an oncoming mob at correctly timed intervals, they’d blow dozens of the slow moving bastards into mostly harmless hamburger… but if we ruptured a pressure seal, we were all dead.

But if we just stood there and waited for the horde to arrive, we’d get dragged under by sheer numbers. We had agents’ gloves that would effectively turn our hands into spiked, armored maces, and I had no doubt that between Eddie and I, we could crack a few dozen undead skulls in hand to hand… but eventually we’d get tired and they wouldn’t. They’d pull us down, and then…

I couldn’t stand to think about ‘and then’. “All right,” I said, my mouth gone completely dry. “We’ll throw them one at a time, specifically targeting the leader of the mob…”

“No,” Veronica said sharply. “Don’t be crazy; you can’t start throwing grenades around in here.” She took three long steps over to Ubdov’s former throne, head moving minutely back and forth as she looked it over for something. She nodded as if satisfied, and snapped her portable computer into a socket on the throne’s left arm I hadn’t even noticed. Then she tapped briefly on her keyboard.

Abruptly, the room was filled with that same eerie electronic music we’d heard before, right before Ubdov’s army of hand-creatures had swarmed over us. “Don’t move,” Veronica warned me and Eddie, right before I heard that same series of metallic clicks which had accompanied the hand-swarm’s vanishing into the shadows.

This time, I saw panels lining the base of each wall click open, revealing dark access shafts behind them, for all the world like mechanized cat doors. Out of those shafts came Ubdov’s hand things, swarming again like giant spiders. I wanted to scream; Eddie did give a half hysterical little yip, which he choked off in his throat before it could get out of control.

The hand-creatures ignored us completely this time, scuttling around our feet like a vast, horribly insectile river, pouring through the room we were in and down into the two open access halls. I looked up, and coming around the curve in each hall just at that moment was the first of the oncoming zombie horde, lurching and stumbling along, moaning and groaning, arms outstretched, undead hands clenching and unclenching in anticipation of grabbing and tearing our flesh.

The zombies I could see were all dressed for either deep space, in shredded, broken remnants of what had once been pressure suits, or in the shorts and singlet more typical of controlled orbital environments. Most of them were eyeless – pressure deaths nearly always explode the human eyeball – and several had big irregular swathes of reddish black long since dried on their chins, necks, and chests, where they’d coughed out most of their lungs into vacuum. They were, as a lot, even more hideous than similar zombie hordes on Earth.

The hand-creatures took them neatly – well, ‘in stride’, I guess, is the best way to put it – employing the same swarming technique as they’d used on us, leaping and crawling up the zombies before the zombies even knew they were there, knocking them off their feet, immobilizing them. Within ten seconds, it was all over. The moaning, groaning, psychically slavering undead continued to writhe and ululate helplessly in the grips of the hand-creatures, but they were completely immobilized.

I could see Veronica mutter something to herself with a pleased half smile on her face, but couldn’t hear what she said over the sinister chords of the blaring music. She tapped another sequence into her miniature keyboard. The music changed in pitch and tone, and the hand-things, joined stump to stump once again, scuttled away down the corridors, hauling their immobilized undead prisoners back the way they’d come with shocking speed.

Veronica hit another button and the music seemed to follow the hand-horde away down the corridors. “That will do it,” she said. “The hands will drag the zombies back to the chamber they were originally penned in… according to the internal map I’m accessing from Ubdov’s own databases, that room is his main lab. We should check it out.” She looked up at me, all bright eyed, like a puppy waiting to be patted.

“Veronica, you’re a miracle worker,” I said fervently. I badly wanted to kiss her but that was going to have to wait.

“You got my vote for any office you ever run for,” Eddie added, his voice just as urgently appreciative. He probably wanted to kiss her, too. I tried to repress a sharp, incredibly stupid pang of jealousy I felt at the thought, wondering if Veronica would like him to. That nonsense would get every one of us killed if we weren’t careful.

“We need to backtrack and get our guns,” I said. Eddie flicked a glance at me, then nodded enthusiastic agreement, doubtless feeling the same imperative need to have a loaded weapon in his hand as I did. Veronica frowned, then turned one hand over and opened it in acquiescence. She wasn’t a soldier like we were; to her, weapons were at best an intellectually noted advantage, not a compulsive emotional need. But Veronica’s most effective weapon was always going to be her brain, anyway. Us killer apes, on the other hand, needed our sticks and rocks to be really effective out here at the sharp end.

“Will your Ubdov-lab wait a minute or two?” I asked her. “Are those things secure?”

Veronica tapped on her keyboard again, and several of the monitors currently showing zombie-driven carnage down on Earth switched to what were obviously calmer, more sedate views of the interior of Ubdov’s habitat. On several of them, a horde of involuntarily recumbent zombies writhed, undulated, and ululated in a frustrated frenzy atop a swarm of grasping, disembodied finger critters. It was a frankly revolting spectacle.

Veronica tapped in another code. I didn’t see anything change on the monitors, but she looked satisfied. “The lab is locked down, now,” she said, “and those things shouldn’t be able to damage anything. Let’s get your weapons.”

“Our weapons,” I corrected her.

“I have my weapon,” she said, picking up her portable computer. “But you’re the boss,” she added, hastily, probably seeing a glower starting to congeal on my face. “I’ll carry a gun, too. No problem.”

I’d had a horrible thought that Ubdov might have had his hand critters grab our weapons and bring them along with us; just because we hadn’t seen it happen didn’t mean anything. And if they’d carried those guns off into the bowels of the station, it wasn’t likely we’d ever see them again… but no, they were laying on the floorplates right where we remembered being initially overrun. I sighed in relief, and am pretty sure Eddie did the same, as we snapped our guns back into their holsters. Nothing makes a trained agent feel better than the weight of a loaded gun riding sweet and heavy at his or her hip.

“I need to check out Ubdov’s main lab,” Veronica announced, once we’d all tucked our weapons safely away again.

“The one with all the hand-things and zombies in it?” I asked. I suppose my revulsion was pretty obvious in my voice; I hadn’t tried to hide it very hard.

“My portable has made a complete analysis of the vibrations Ubdov uses to control those hand creatures,” she told me rather waspishly. “There is no danger to us, I am in complete control.”

“Everybody says that, right before the monsters get ‘em,” Eddie observed. I wanted to agree, but it wouldn’t have accomplished much.

“This is not a viewsee, Agent Barrow,” Veronica said dryly. “This is real life… although I can understand how anyone could be confused.”

“Seems a lot like a viewsee to me,” I said. “Which is okay; in most of the classic zombie viewsees, the black character is the one who survives all the way to the end. You cawkays could be in a lot of trouble, though.”

Eddie grinned at that. “Ving Rhames never had nothin’ on you, Chief,” he said, mock saluting me.

“That was the remake,” I said. “Ken Foree was mucho zappier in the original… all right. I guess we need to check out Ubdov’s lab. Eddie, you’re on point. Doc, I assume you can provide directions…?”

She could, and did. Five minutes of echoing footsteps through empty metal corridors took us to the lab, the inside of which was awrithe with perpendicular zombies struggling futilely against the horde of Ubdov’s hand critters holding them immobile.

Eddie and I exchanged glances; we really didn’t want to go in there. On the other hand, neither of us were going to let Veronica go in there alone, and she didn’t seem at all troubled by the notion. So we took a deep breath, and then Eddie went in first, with me coming up behind Veronica. Both of us had our guns out, and I’m pretty sure neither of us was more than a nerve spasm away from shooting the jesus out of anything that moved in our peripheral vision.

Then I wanted to punch her; after all her insistence that we had to go there, she didn’t do anything while she was in there. Well, she walked around. Took some threedees with her portable of the room and the various incomprehensible machines and devices in it. Glanced at the zombies clamped down, ankles, neck and hands, on the metal tables, some of whom had had their heads cut open in precise, surgical sections. That was maybe the worst; two zombies with geometrically precise slices of their brains missing, still struggling against the metal bands that held them down, eyes rolling over towards us, moaning and slobbering, fingers clenching and unclenching, teeth gnashing with hunger.

Then she said “All right, I’ve seen it all, I think” and walked absently back over to the door we’d come in by. Ten minutes in the room, and that was all she needed. I exchanged another look with Eddie, saw the same baffled fury I felt mirrored clearly in his eyes, and we both followed Veronica out of the room.

“What the hell was THAT about?” Eddie exploded in the hallway. I was grateful to him; I’d been about to say much the same in near exactly the same tone, and it wouldn’t have been leaderly.

“Ubdov had no security on his data files,” Veronica said calmly. “I got everything his central processor had when I jacked into his chair… that throne thing… whatever. But some of the notes didn’t make sense to me. I needed to see his machinery, as well.”

“And now you know what he was doing?” I asked, keeping my voice calm. I love Veronica more than life itself, but she can be incredibly exasperating sometimes. “Well, report, dammit!”

She looked surprised. “Oh. Yes. I’m sorry, I thought it was obvious…” She must have seen a look cross both our faces, as she immediately looked down and flushed. “I AM sorry. You too are so overwhelmingly competent in your fields that I simply forgot you don’t have my training or experience.” She looked back up again, looking genuinely chagrined. “If you’d seen the way you took out that monster robot Ubdov… the ease, the simplicity…” She shrugged. “I apologize. I… give me half an hour in a quiet room to format things and I will have a report for you.” She started to punch numbers into her portable, then looked back up at me quickly. “Ah. Chief.”

As it turned out, there were several small rooms off that particular hallway that would do for Veronica’s purposes. She went into one and sat down at what was obviously a heavily modified personal processor that had originally been manufactured maybe fifteen years ago, slotted her portable into its exterior drive, and started playing its keyboard. Eddie and I both glanced around the room – it was more a cubicle than anything else with no entrances or exits besides the one off the hallway we were in – then took up guard positions on either side of the open doorway. Just like old times.

It actually only took her fifteen minutes. Then she called us, and when we looked in, nodded and hit a point on the keyboard. A three dimensional holo field lit up with something I recognized as a molecular diagram… probably something organic. That was about as much as I was going to get out of it without more explanations.

“This is the complete molecular structure of the ‘lord zombie’ virus particle,” Veronica told us. “I had most of this from my own analysis of your tissue, Chief, but this is complete… certain parts of the lattice weren’t lucid without Ubdov’s specialized scanning equipment.” She paused, and looked up. “Oh,” she said, in a tone of sudden realization, “that explains why the q links all went down at the same time!” She tapped quickly on the keyboard for a few seconds. “Okay, that makes sense.”

She looked up into twin glares from me and Eddie. “Sorry again,” she said. “The reanimation energy… Ubdov refers to it as Z energy…”

“Z for zombie?” I asked.

“Z, I think,” Veronica answered, “simply because he didn’t want to call it X or Y… I think he flattered himself that it was some kind of ‘ultimate’ energy. Anyway, it is transmitted on the quantum level. The analogy isn’t exact, but basically, the transmission is so strong it was drowning out our local communications that also went along the quantum band.”

I thought about that. “So, in other words, we find a way to turn off this Z energy transmission, and the Q links all work again?”

“Exactly,” she said, beaming at me like I was her prize pupil.

“You figured out where it’s comin’ from?” Eddie asked laconically. You’d never have known from his tone how important that question was. “If the transmission is so strong, can you triangulate on it somehow?”

“Quantum linkages don’t work that way,” Veronica said, “as I mentioned, the radio wave analogy isn’t exact. In fact, it’s rather misleading when it comes down to details. However, yes, I do know where the transmission is coming from; that’s in Ubdov’s notes. He designed the apparatus that generates and transmits the beacon here, and then sent complete schematics out to…” She paused, as if unsure what words to use. “Out to his clients,” she said, finally. “The masters. The Fear Masters.”

“And they built this thing and pointed it at us and pulled the trigger,” Eddie said, a muscle twitching slightly next to his mouth. “Where?”

“Where?” I repeated. “Out where?”

“The halfway point between them and us,” Veronica said. “The edge of the solar system.”

“You don’t mean…” I couldn’t believe she meant what she seemed to mean.

Veronica nodded. “Pluto,” she said. “The zombie ray is coming from Pluto.”

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