Web Search nikon coolpix digital cameras The Miserable Annals of the Earth: Fear Masters (3)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Fear Masters (3)

Well, I've been a douchebag about Mr/Ms X (now commenting as Brand Ecch). So, after the jump, more FEAR MASTERS.

For those who care about such things... which is pretty much just B.E... the novel is at just over 28,000 words now. I'm putting up the next six chapters here, which is to say, Chapters VII through XII. I have XII, XIV, and around 1,300 words of XV written, which is probably enough to park a toe tag on and let me move on to XVI... so if I do that, I may put up another three chapters very soon. However, if I do, I will then be entirely up to date.

I don't know how much more of this there is... I suspect I'm about halfway, which, again, would seem to mean this thing will be around 60,000 words when finished. That's 15,000 less than the edited (superior, to my mind) version of PUPPET MASTERS, and 90,000 less than the (again, in my view) bloated, overstuffed original draft that Heinlein's publishers have put on the shelves now. Of course, FEAR MASTERS certainly doesn't need to hit any particular mark, as I'm hardly worried about publication... but I do think about whether what I write is a short story, a novella, a novel... and if it's a novel, is it a particularly long or brief one, etc. Probably no reason to, as, again, publication seems not to be a relevant issue... but I like to categorize these things in my brain.

Anyway, from where I am now (not the point where these next six chapters will leave off, but about three chapters further on) I'm nearly to the third act... which most likely means, when I actually realize that 'out loud' as it were, that this will end up being something like 40,000 words. Which shouldn't be a thang, either... well, I'm just going to type it all in and see where it ends up, I guess. Or something.

Oh, it doesn't show, but pretty much everything B.E. offered up in previous installments as criticism, I've implemented changes to... for example, I changed Eddie's initial teasing remark about Myrna Loy's sexuality to "Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy, she don't know if she's a girl or a boy", as B.E. suggested. That's in my current draft, but no one out there will see that until I get this thing finished and posted somewhere.

In the meantime, those of you inclined to do so may read onward:



VII.

I woke up on something soft for the second time in a day, and for a moment, I was afraid I’d dreamed everything, and was coming to at the bottom of that drop shaft once more, and was still dead, and had to do it all over again. But no… this time I was lying on my back. My mouth tasted like a wounded possum had gone to ground just behind my front teeth. Both my ankle and my head hurt like billy be switched, but the pain was almost pleasant to me. Feeling anything but hunger was sweet indeed.

I took a deep breath… then let it out in a sigh of sheer bliss. I hadn’t realized before just how good it feels to breathe. I hadn’t been consciously aware that I’d stopped doing it, but I sure was glad I’d started up again.

I opened my eyes, or tried to; they seemed to be gummed shut. I blinked a few times and tears started flowing; after a second or two, that dissolved the crust on my eyelids enough for me to be able to see around me. My surroundings were blurry, but the washed out pastels told me all I needed to know. A hospital… no… the bleep-bleep-bleep from behind my head was a Sector automed. Sick bay, then.

Something moved off to my right and I tried to shy away instinctively, which led to my next discovery -- I couldn’t move. Dr. Hansea bent over me, reaching across my body. “Relax,” she said, smiling warmly at me. “Let me get these restraints off you. Then you can try and sit up.”

I looked up at her dumbly. Abruptly, I remembered how vividly I’d thought of Eddie as food… like one of those cartoon cats, looking at a cartoon mouse and picturing it as a chain of link sausages, or something. It made me want to heave.

“Where’s Eddie?” I asked, my voice as raspy as a buzzsaw. “Is he all right?” I felt fetters at my left wrist fall away, then at my right, and I sat up, using an elbow for a prop. “What did I do to him?”

In silent answer, Doc Hansea moved to one side. Beyond her, in a bed against the far wall no more than eight feet away from the one I was in, I saw Eddie. He was out cold again, with a tube running down from an automed mounted against the wall above him and into his left bicep. There was an ugly looking burn on his right shoulder the size of a half dollar, perfectly round… but it was already the pinkish-white of healing tissue.

“Agent Barrow is recovering nicely,” Doc Hansea said, almost primly. “All he has is a deep laser burn and several broken ribs.”

I knew enough about automeds to understand that with a burn as bad as the one I’d given Eddie, he’d be unconscious for as much as 48 hours in a regenerative trance. When the Ministry of Global Economics gets around to okaying automeds for general release, the entire medical profession as we know it is going to roll over and yell uncle… which is probably why they’re still being kept under wraps. But for us in Science Sector, if we’re lucky enough to survive a wound, all we have to do is crawl into sickbay and hook ourselves up to one. The machine scans our cell structure, diagnoses whatever is wrong, manufacturers whatever medicine we need, and administers it until we get better. For serious wounds, the automed shuts down most of the body’s systems and activates a person’s own natural but mostly latent regenerative abilities.

“How long has he been out?” I more or less croaked.

“You’ve both been here nearly 14 hours,” the doc told me. She paused, then smiled, something that made her pretty face stunningly beautiful. “I am pleased to report that according to my own analysis of the automed’s datastream, all reanimation particles in your bloodstream have been completely neutralized.”

I rolled up on one elbow, being careful while I did it, as I’d discovered there was a line running out of my left bicep and up to somewhere behind my head – no doubt where the automed was mounted. “Reanimation particles?” I asked. Obviously I’d gotten behind the learning curve some. “Okay, doc, let’s have the straight dope… what happened to me?”

Dr. Hansea sighed. “You died,” she said bluntly, “and then reanimated as what I am referring to in my papers as a ‘lord zombie’,” she explained. “The Chief was apparently one, too.” She perched on the edge of my bed and looked at me solemnly. I was shocked to see her eyes were moist. “You died,” she repeated, as if she honestly couldn’t believe it. “You were dead. I… apparently, when I hit you with the taser, the electric shock caused your heart to begin pumping again… it… the ‘lord zombie’ reanimation particles kept your brain perfectly preserved… a one in a million chance…”

Then she shocked the frack out of me, by leaning in and kissing me right on the mouth! Not just a little ‘welcome back to the living’ buss, either; that little lady was kissing me all out. And she knew how, too.

Shocked or not, I did my best to give as good as I got.

Finally, some interval I couldn’t begin to measure later, she pulled back from me and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “You died,” she said again, almost reprovingly. She glared at me. “Don’t you ever do that to me again.”

I didn’t know what to say. I’ve been head over heels for Doc Hansea for nearly a year now; she’d never so much as given me a tender look before. I hadn’t even heard a rumor she might be into girls, and usually the gay grapevine is very reliable. “If you’re gonna kiss me like that every time I come back to life,” I said, finally, “I may have to do it more often.”

She grinned, which was a first; I’d seen her smile before, but a grin is a different animal entirely. “I will be happy to kiss you like that whenever you like and circumstances allow,” she said, her cheeks flushing a little red, “but please don’t die again, Agent Hannigan.”

I chuckled. “Doc, a kiss like that is tantamount to marriage in some cultures. I think you can call me Myrna Loy.”

“And please call me Veronica,” she said back, her smile widening. “Now… whatever you remember would be of the greatest usefulness in a diagnosis of the condition, Myrna Loy.”

I realized I was parched. There was a stainless steel trolley pushed up next to the bed holding a cup with a straw sticking out of it. I drained most of the fluid in the cup – not water, but some salty sports drink, probably loaded with electrolytes – and then lay back on my pillows, suddenly nearly exhausted again.

I started to report everything I remembered; Veronica had a recorder and took it all down.

When I got to the part where I’d jumped and accidentally killed the poor power room watch stander, I felt a burst of sorrow… and nausea. I choked up for a second.

“Ken Udell,” Veronica told me, quietly. “I don’t know anything about him, but we recovered his ID. Please remember, Myrna Loy, he died in the line of duty, and it’s not like you were in your right mind, or even alive, when it happened.”

That was true, although it didn’t make me feel much better. I bucked up some, though, when Doc Hansea mentioned she was going to recommend Agent Udell get an Order of Supreme Sacrifice. I took another sip of the drink in my cup, gagged a little, then finished my report.

When I was done, Veronica sat there for a minute or so, obviously thinking about what I’d said.

“All right,” she said, nodding. “All right. Here’s what I know…”

She proceeded to fill me on what had happened while I was ‘dead’:

I was surprised to learn that I’d apparently been out cold… or dead, whichever… for at least an hour, down at the bottom of that getaway pit. Neither Veronica nor Cal Donner had known about the escape hatch, the Chief had been really, truly dead, and Eddie had been out cold. Nobody knew where I’d managed to spirit myself off to, but without any recordings of what had happened in the office, it was assumed I’d killed the new Chief and somehow beat it out of Dodge. So Veronica had taken Eddie’s sleeping body and the Chief’s corpse back to her lab for analysis, given Eddie a shot of antidote once she figured out what dope was in his bloodstream, and then dissected the Chief.

If I’d left any of the Chief’s brain intact, Veronica would probably have come up with some answers more quickly. As it was, it was probably right around the time I was (as Veronica puts it) ‘reanimating’ in that drop shaft that she finally started to figure out what the Chief must have been… helped along by the digital recording of everything Eddie had seen in the Chief’s office that she pulled off his ocular implants.

It seemed safe to assume that the Chief had planned to convert Eddie and I to ‘lord zombies’… maybe she’d intended to convert as many Sector agents as she could. So she’d turned her office into a trap. Insisting that any agents allowed in be disarmed was just part of that. Getting close enough even to an unarmed agent for a quick bite might have proven problematic… we’re all pretty alert, you’re not paranoid when they really are out to get you… so that was why she had the tranquilizer gun prepared.

It bothered Veronica at first, that the Chief would take the trouble to knock people out, but we figured, if she simply shot to kill, then agents would reanimate as ‘dumb’ zombies… and obviously, thinking zombies that could pass as humans would be more useful as infiltrators. But to accomplish that, the Chief would need to make her intended victims helpless first… yet still keep them alive, so she could bite them.

It was about then that Veronica started to consider the idea that perhaps I hadn’t been alive when I’d left the Chief’s office… and if the Chief had managed to convert me to a ‘lord zombie’, then having me running around loose somewhere in Sector office space was a terrifying prospect. Our ID badges all have mildly radioactive tracking strips in them; Eddie ran a quick search through internal sensors and located me… moving slowly through a ventilation shaft down on the lowermost level.

The Sector had, at that point, still largely been in chaos with the new Chief dead, and neither Eddie nor Veronica had had any real idea who, if anyone, they should report to. So they had taken off after me themselves. Veronica had suggested splitting up when they realized I was already in the fusion room; Eddie would go in the front door, while she crawled down the same ventilation shaft I’d been using, from the opposite direction.

So while Eddie held my full attention, Veronica had dropped into the room behind me and hit me at the base of the skull with an electrostun. The sudden surge of current had dropped me like a rock… and she and Eddie had been amazed to see me shudder on the ground, then start to breathe again.

Here Veronica started to question me again. “You reported that during your time as a zombie, your consciousness felt bifurcated,” she said intently. “You said your own personality was present in a very vestigial form –“

“All there was of me in there was hunger and an urge to kill any living humans I ran across,” I told her. “Drag ‘em down, whack ‘em with a rock, and eat ‘em while they was still quiverin’.”

“But you also said there was another mind present – a ‘higher’ mind, a more dominant one,” she said. “Was this, perhaps, a sub personality, some kind of branching of your own mind, perhaps your subconscious, freed by the death of your conscious mind to take control of your body? Or… something else?”

I shuddered as I remembered that hideous, evil presence in my ‘dead’ mind. “It wasn’t me,” I said, filled with revulsion at the though. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t even remotely human. What was left of me wanted to knock down folks and devour them alive. It’s horrible to say it, but that’s a human urge… primitive, completely uncivilized, but human -- goes back to the caves, I reckon.” I shook my head. “The other mind, the one that was mostly in charge… that one had nothing but contempt and loathing for us as a race. It didn’t even see us as cattle. Just… annoyances. Exasperating obstacles. Something it hated purely for existing. Something that had to be annihilated.”

“Did you… do you have any idea where it came from?” The very idea seemed to disturb Veronica nearly as much as it did me. “It’s nature, it’s origin…?”

Just thinking about it made me want to heave, but I tried to recapture some of the feeling of that vileness inside me. “The darkness,” I choked out, finally. “The darkness outside. I don’t know what that means, but that’s where it came from. The darkness between the stars.”

It was Veronica’s turn to shake her head and look very disturbed. “I dislike data that I cannot explain,” she finally said, very slowly. “But the closest I can come to a working model for what you are describing is…” she hesitated, then went on, her voice heavy with distaste: “…demonic possession.”

The hair stood up on the back of my neck when she said it. Zombie veiwsees weren’t the only things my pop had had in his collection; quite a few had been about people having their minds and bodies taken over by malevolent supernatural entities. But in the stories they were always living people. But those were only stories, anyway.

“Demons possessing corpses?” I said. It sounded crazy… but the whole business was nuts, anyway. My entire epidermis tried to wrinkle up into one big piece of gooseflesh at the thought.

But what had happened to me was, apparently, only the beginning. After KOing me, Veronica had called for help from the power room, and seen to it that Eddie and I were brought to the same room in sick bay where she could keep an eye on us. She had been, she said, especially worried about me, but she felt that if I ever woke up, it might help my mental state a great deal to see Eddie alive and getting healed up himself.

No more than an hour and a half had gone by since we had both been hooked up to automeds when literally all hell had broken loose outside our room. Veronica said she’d looked out the door once after she’d heard gunshots and screams, and she’d seen what were obviously zombies… dumb zombies, the ‘rrrrrr’ ‘rrrrrr’ kind… down the hall, grappling with one of the techs assigned to sick bay. As a non-combat science specialist, Veronica had never gone armed, and of course Eddie and I were both out cold. So she’d done the only sensible thing she could do – slammed and bolted the thick metal door to our room.

Screams, shots, occasional explosions, and other assorted mayhem-related noises had continued for several more hours. Veronica said she immediately networked her portable into the base data-web, but apparently all was bloody chaos outside. Scattered messages indicated that zombies were attacking living agents and resident staff in every section of headquarters. Veronica herself had seen that several of the zombies in the hall outside had been naked except for the temporary ID tattoos used down in our Morgue Section. Science Sector does a peck of medical research, at any given time Morgue Section has custody of more than a hundred relatively fresh bodies in refrigerated drawers. Veronica could only assume that somehow, some, most, or all of those bodies had been reanimated and were running amok. Perhaps as the result of some scheme our new Chief had put in motion before I’d destroyed her… it seemed likely, but there was no way to know.

Our subterranean HQ is built like an old fashioned submarine or a spaceship; every sub-section can be locked off from any other with airtight doors as thick as bank vaults in case of some kind of emergency. How the former morgue inmates had managed to get past all those lockdown points was also unknown… but Veronica figured, and I agreed with her, that they probably had some help from some ‘smart’ zombies… infiltrators.

For the last ten hours, things had been quiet outside… as quiet as a mass grave. Veronica hadn’t opened the door, though… she had decided that, as long as the power stayed on and the automeds in the room continued to work, she should wait until either Eddie or I, or preferably both of us, were functional again. She was pretty sure that if she tried to get back to her lab, or anywhere else, without an escort, she wouldn’t last very long. Better to wait for one or both of us… especially since, in the time she’d been sitting here thinking, she’d actually come up with a theory as to what was going on… and a plan for dealing with it.

One she would need help to put into effect.

I remembered how relieved I had felt when we’d arrived back at base, just… what… yesterday morning? How the base had felt like a sanctuary, a safe haven from the deadly insanity engulfing the world outside.

But now the craziness had made its way in here, too, and the base wasn’t a fortress any more. It was a trap… and a tomb.

My hands started to shake, and Veronica was there, sliding into the bed next to me, taking me in her arms, holding me like a baby.

And then, after a while, not so much like a baby any more.

I’m not going to say it made everything all better. In some ways, it just confused things… I wasn’t even sure exactly what it meant to me, much less to her. Was it love? Lust? Want? Need? All of it, some of it, none?

I don’t know. But I had been dead and now I was alive and a beautiful woman I had been at least half in love with for some damn time was there with me, showing me in the best possible way that even with everything gone straight to hell in a handbasket, life could still be good, and I could be happy to be alive, and someone else could be happy I was alive, too.

For a while, that was plenty.

VIII.

Eddie never stirred, which I guess was just as well.

Eventually, a long time later, Veronica lifted her head from where she’d been resting it on my shoulder. I rolled onto my side facing her and she purred and snuggled into me again.

“This is nice,” she purred sleepily. “While I’m thinking about it, though, there is something else we need to talk about.”

“No whips or chains on the first date,” I mock-warned her, leaning down to nibble her upturned ear. “Well… maybe one. Each.”

She giggled. I’d never heard her giggle before, either; I found I like it a lot. Especially when it was me making her do it. “Please, dear, listen. I need to caution you…”

I braced myself for whatever standard post-coitus speech she was about to give me, while wondering just which one I was about to be treated to… That Was Great And I Care About You A Lot But I’m Really Not A Lesbian, maybe, or You’re The Best Ever And I Love You As A Very Special Friend But… which was why I was stunned to hear:

“Agent Barrow loves you very deeply, dear. And you will have to take care with him, because you have the capacity to hurt him very badly.”

I’d been feeling a little sleepy, but that woke me right up again. “Eddie?” I snorted laughter. “Homely ol’ Myrna Loy? Please, Doc… Veronica. If Eddie wants anybody, it’s you. Not that I can fault his taste in women, obviously…”

Veronica smiled gently at me. “Of course Agent Barrow wants me,” she said, “he’s a man with more or less standard male glandular wiring, and I’m aware I possess a fairly comely form.” She glanced down at herself and arched her back a little, stretching like a cat. “I mean, if I met someone who looked like me, I would most likely want to do her, too.” She blushed, just a tiny bit. “But you are also very beautiful, my darling, and it wouldn’t matter to him, I’m sure, if you weren’t. He may want me, Myrna Loy, but he doesn’t love me. He loves YOU… quite desperately. And it is important to note that the word ‘desperately’ derives from the word ‘despair’, which is exactly how Edward feels regarding his chances with you, since of course he is quite aware of your own orientation.”

“There’s no way,” I insisted. “Eddie can barely stand me. You should hear him slangin’ me, especially for liking girlll…” I ran down. It was occurring to me that all of Eddie’s insults, especially those regarding my sexual orientation, could have an entirely different interpretation than the typical homophobia I’d previously charged them off to. In fact, I’d always assumed that Eddie was old fashioned that way, as homophobia really isn’t all that typical any more.

It also occurred to me that I might have been, on some level, deliberately trying to see Eddie as a much simpler person than he really-truly was. After all, if he was just a bloodthirsty crazy man who made a good partner on a mission, I didn’t exactly have to relate to him on any kind of serious level. Maybe I’d been doing him a huge disservice…

But the thought of being with a man… any man… still made me heave up inside. The gift that kept on giving, courtesy of my daddy un-dearest. I’d settled up with him on a final basis before I started high school, but in the realest way possible that bill could never be fully paid.

God damn him. To hell. Forever.

If I was lucky, he’d come back as a zombie and I could kill him again.

“You don’t need to be afraid of him… Edward would never hurt you,” Veronica said. “But you do need to be gentle with him, because you can hurt him awfully… and in fact, you are going to have to, probably in the near future. You and I both, actually. But you must be especially careful.”

After a second, I just nodded. This was going to be a lot more complicated than I’d figured.

Maybe for the foreseeable future I should just concentrate on killing zombies.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but we must have. Some time later, I woke up again. Somebody had a’holt of my ankle and was shaking my leg. For just a second, I was 9 years old again, pretending to be asleep since I’d heard my daddy come out of his and mama’s room and start creeping down the hall towards mine. That was how he always ‘woke’ me; he’d grab my ankle and shake my leg. His hands seemed so huge to me back then; my ankle was just swallowed up in his fingers.

But I wasn’t 9 any more; I was a grown up, a combat veteran and an experienced Science Sector agent. I reached for my gun and discovered a naked, shapely leg slung over my hip.

Then I remembered everything and sat up, gingerly.

Eddie was at the foot of the cot, looking at me expressionlessly, one hand still on my ankle. When I sat up, he looked away and drew back a pace or two. Not that Eddie and I haven’t seen each other naked a few hundred times; like most people nowadays, we’re not unusually touchy about casual nudity. But I guess he felt the current situation made it feel different, and I felt that, too.

The burn on his shoulder had shrunk down to a dime sized piece of white scar tissue; one of many similar pale spots he had all over his body, I knew. If you peeled Eddie to the bone and tanned his skin for leather, you’d be lucky to get enough unmarked hide to make one oven mitt.

“Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy,” he said. “She don’t know if she’s a girl or boy.” He was wearing one of his typical half smiles and his tone was pert near perfect; there was a just a tiny little jagged bit of something sharp and broken in it, down deep in the undercoating.

I knew then that the doc had been right. He was hurting bad, and it was over me.

“Eddie,” I said, shaking the doc gently to wake her up. “We got ourselves a little situation here…”

Eddie sat down on his cot, took out his gun, started rubbing it with the corner of his thermal blanket. “I kinda figured from the bolt on the door, and how quiet things are,” he said, keeping his eyes on the weapon. “I can’t get anyone on the doc’s portable, and the q-links are all still down. Good thing you an’ me are teamed up again, hey? Whoever the bad guys are, they don’t stand a chance against us two.”

He waved his hand dismissively, and that reminded me of something. I raised my hand – yeah, someone had replaced the plasflesh covering the end of my laser finger. I wondered if that was something automeds were programmed to do, or if Veronica had taken care of it for me while I was out… or if Eddie had.

“Yeah,” he said, as if reading my mind. “I replaced the batteries and put in some fresh chemical pods, too. You slept through that like a baby.” He might have been a zombie himself for all the feeling he let show in his tone. “Wasn’t until I grabbed your ankle and started shakin’ that you even stirred.”

“My daddy used to grab my ankle like that to wake me,” I told him truthfully, before I thought about it. “When I was little.”

Eddie shrugged… then a look passed over his face, like he’d just been kicked hard and unexpectedly in the pit of his stomach.

“Sorry,” he said, finally. “Didn’t know.”

It was my turn to shrug. “How could you? Don’t matter, usually I sleep lighter than that.” And that was true; usually I’d wake up if the AC unit clicked on or off unexpectedly. I wondered, belatedly, if maybe my subconscious mind trusted Eddie a whole lot more than I’d been consciously aware of.

I got up and started to gather my clothes, which had kinda been tossed here and there around the small room. While I was doing it, I picked up Veronica’s, too, and tossed them onto the cot for her. She started re-fastening and re-buttoning and re-velcroing without saying anything.

Eddie kept looking away. “Whenever y’all are ready,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said, finally. I couldn’t help him. Even an automed couldn’t do anything for a busted heart.

Veronica and I got dressed in silence. It was a pretty heavy silence, though.

IX.

After she was dressed, Veronica got up and checked Eddie’s automed readouts. She decided he needed a little more time to get his white blood cells up; a laser burn straight through four inches of meat and bone wasn’t the kind of trauma the human body just shrugged off. She reinserted his IV and he sat back down on his cot without a word.

While we were waiting for Eddie to get back up to optimal again, she gave us a lecture on The History of Zombie Attacks In The Modern Day:

“Back in 1981, something very similar to what’s going on right now happened, on a smaller scale,” Veronica told us both. “A college movie theater in New Haven, Connecticut, was showing some classic zombie viewsee at a special midnight engagement. A crowd of about a hundred or so students and a few others, zombie enthusiasts all, exited the theater after the movie finished, about 3 AM… only to find themselves beset by a horde of several dozen… well, zombies. Reanimated corpses, in superficial appearance, at least, much like those ravaging the outer world at this moment.”

“The moviegoers panicked and most of them wound up being killed and partially consumed by their attackers. A few barricaded themselves back inside the theater and managed to call for assistance… not as simple a matter as you’d think, as this was before q-phones, or even their wireless antecedents. Their reports were initially disregarded by local police, who responded with only two officers, to investigate what they assumed was a practical joke. Eventually, though, a local FBI Special Unit, among whose ranks were numbered a registered pyrokinetic agent, arrived on the scene and made short work of the ‘zombies’.”

Eddie grunted at that. We’d both worked with trained psychics during our military service. Science Sector had some, too, but neither of us had been teamed with any of them since we’d signed up here. The presence of trained psychics in law enforcement, the military, and the intelligence agencies was still classified as secret, though, and as such wasn’t known to the general public.

“Subsequent investigations revealed that while the ‘zombies’ involved in the mall attack were indeed reanimated corpses, their mobility was imparted to them by a sort of technological apparatus that had been hardwired into their nervous systems. This provided motive power and apparently allowed some distant, hidden agency to essentially move these modified human corpses around by ‘remote control’. Further investigation eventually laid responsibility at the door of a Soviet psychologist and scientist working for the KGB… a former child prodigy named Vassily Emil Ubdov.”

I made a noise at that. Veronica looked at me, and I said “I studied V.A. Ubdov in one of my psych courses. They called him Dr. Fear… he specialized in research on how to terrorize people, and how people would respond when terrorized.”

Veronica nodded. “Ubdov was fascinated with the range of human emotions and how humans would respond to certain gross emotional stimuli, especially fear. The incident in New Haven was staged as an experiment, one which Ubdov observed carefully from the other side of the world.”

“But that was over fifty years ago,” Eddie interjected. “This Ubdov owlhoot has gotta be dead by now… did any of his research even survive the fall of the USSR?”

I shook my head at that. “Like the doc said, Eddie, Ubdov was a child prodigy. In 1981 he would only have been in his late twenties. There’s no record of his death… but there were a lotta rumors that he got transported to Greater Russia’s LaGrange point penal colonies in 2009, to avoid execution for unspecified crimes against humanity.”

I thought about that for a second. “If he’s in orbit, he could easily still be alive,” I said. “Greater Russia built those LaGrange colonies pretty damn good, and zero gee can add a lot of years to a person’s life expectancy.” The LaGrange tin cans weren’t prisons any longer, of course; once Greater Russia changed its name to the Republic of Trotskya and signed the Global Union Accords in 2021, using outer space for political exile became illegal. But the independent satellite nations had done pretty well for themselves over the last two decades, which was just human history repeating itself – societies that started out as penal colonies always seemed to thrive, at least, initially. “What, you’re thinkin’ he’s up to his old tricks, but with new, improved technology? Some kind of zombie beams from outer space?”

Veronica tilted her head to one side. “Hmmmm. I confess, Myrna Loy, at times I do not know how to interact with your sense of humor, although I am looking forward to learning… are you mocking me?” Her eyes were twinkling when she said it, though.

“Maybe a little,” I said. “So what are we going to do about it? Report this to the Sky Marines, or…”

I shot a quick look at Eddie. Normally, any reference I make to the Sky Marines will bring an almost Pavlovian sneer from him as an ex-groundpounder. Now it was like he didn’t even notice.

“Once Agent Barrow is fully healed,” Veronica said, “the three of us will go to the labs and pick up an experimental anti-gravity engine accelerator that a few of us have been working on. It should fit fairly easily onto any standard Section flyer… I believe Agent Barrow’s expertise with flyers will be more than equal to the task of installing it. Once we have it in place…” She paused, as if she really couldn’t believe what she was saying. Then she turned one hand palm up. “Then we will jump to a LaGrange point and take a meeting with Dr. Fear.”

Eddie looked interested at that. “And if he happens to have any zombie ray projectors lyin’ around, they might accidentally get broke?”

I shook my head sorrowfully. “I’m damn clumsy in zero gee, myself,” I said.

X.

A few minutes after that, Veronica pronounced Eddie to be officially as healthy as a horse again. We’d both been wearing lightweight body armor under our civvies, but I’d ruined the microcircuit underweave in Eddie’s by laser drilling a hole through it. I’d have offered him mine, but male and female torso armor isn’t readily interchangeable. He could go without armor, of course, but none of us liked that idea… especially given how many walking corpses there probably were waiting outside for us. Some of which might be smart enough to use a gun.

Speaking of guns, mine was still locked up, probably in Cal Donner’s desk. Even if I could find an armed dead agent outside who wasn’t roaming around looking for something alive to eat, Science Sector guns have fingerprint locks meant to keep them from being used by unfriendly sorts. Maybe I – or Eddie -- could short around the lockout, but Science Sector guns also have grips that are custom-made to fit their user’s individual shooting hand and barrels designed specifically to accommodate how each agent sights and aims, too. It may seem like a lot of trouble and expense when you first hear about it, but statistical analysis shows the custom guns significantly improved agent performance… and in the field, any edge at all, any little bonus you can get, is a beautiful thing.

So we added a trip to Donner’s cubicle, which was right outside the Chief’s office, to our itinerary. We’d head there and recover my weapon, then down to the labs for the experimental accelerator, then back up to the garage for a vehicle of some sort. Shouldn’t be that hard… unless, of course, the entire complex was full of ravening zombies slavering for our flesh…

The click of our door opening disturbed something that had been hunched over an unmoving body at a T juncture where Kennedy Hall slanted into Koop Corridor, twenty feet to the right. It looked up, and I recognized a tech specialist named Nancy Olmos… or what she’d become, anyway. Her skin was tinted a devil’s red by the low intensity emergency lighting, which turned the blood smeared around her lips black. Her eyes were blankly ravenous, despite the handfuls of intestines she’d been pulling out of the unmoving corpse underneath her and cramming into her mouth.

She was wearing a cute little sleeveless tunic/skirt outfit in alternating dark and white checks with floral patterned tights underneath. She growled and started to get to her feet. Eddie’s gun barked once right next to me, and most of the Nancy-thing’s head turned into a dark red splatter on the wall behind it. The mostly decapitated body fell atop the one she’d been eviscerating, trembled several times, and went still.

There were bodies lying all around us; you had to pick your way over and between them if you didn’t want to step on someone, which none of us did. All the bodies I could see showed some kind of serious head trauma – usually from gunshot -- by which I deduced that any corpse not so injured would not be lying down and decently holding still, like corpses were supposed to. My fingers itched badly for my gun.

Elevators were all locked down, of course. Stairwells seemed like a good place for a zombie ambush, but zombies apparently don’t like stairs much, as we only found a few of them there and they were easily dealt with. We reached the floor with the Chief’s office on it without much further incident, and were actually only about thirty feet from Donner’s cubicle just outside it when the door to Room 74 clicked open and Cal Donner himself stepped out into the hall ahead of us.

His professional one-piece was bloody and frayed in several places and his formal lapel buttons had both been torn off, but he himself looked none the worse for wear. He had a gun in one hand and his face lit up with obvious relief when he saw us. “You people are a real sight for sore eyes,” he said, and started towards us.

“He’s cold,” Eddie warned me and the doc, but I’d already seen it with my own implants. “Drop the piece, Cal… or whatever the hell you are now,” Eddie added, pointing his own gun unwaveringly at Cal’s head.

Cal – or whatever was behind his eyes now – didn’t cotton to that at all. “You couldn’t possibly know!” he screamed, stomping his foot furiously on the thinly carpeted floor. “That stupid slitch supposedly reprogrammed all the base sensors so they wouldn’t…”

The thing in Cal’s body figured it out then. “Oh, your GODDAM optics,” it snarled. “Nobody thought of… goddam it! GODDAM IT! THAT’S NOT FAIR!!!” It sounded for all the world like a six year old kid throwing a tantrum after being caught stealing cookies.

It tossed the gun aside contemptuously. “This thing doesn’t work anyway,” it said, its tone suddenly low and confiding. “No sweat, no body oils, no fingerprints.” Then it threw its head back and laughed, a horrible gobbling sound unlike anything I’d ever heard produced by a human throat prior to that. “It doesn’t matter! None of your stupid little gun-things matter ONE LITTLE BIT! You’re all dead meat, just like the dead meat I’m wearing! DEAD – MEAT!!!!”

It grinned viciously and dropped into a crouch. I knew it was about to launch itself at us in one of those insanely powerful tiger leaps I’d used myself when I’d been a zombie, and apparently Eddie remembered the tactic, too. He instantly fired twice, the second shot probably just to be on the safe side. Most of Cal’s body above the waist ceased to exist; his legs were blown spinning down the hall, and came to rest underneath his own desk.

“Never did like him,” Eddie said, his voice and his face both as cold as chiseled stone.

“Sounded just like a master,” I said, without realizing I was going to say it.

“A ‘master’?” Veronica immediately shot back. “Why do you say that, Myrna? You never used that word in your previous descriptions.”

I’d realized that myself, and was baffled by it… and mighty troubled, too. “I don’t know,” I said, honestly. “When it was me… well… it was ME. I mean… it wasn’t, the higher part of me wasn’t really ‘me’… but… it didn’t seem like anything outside me, either, looking back on it..” I heard my voice shake and stopped for a second. Veronica patted my arm reassuringly.

After a second, I went on. “It was different, seeing it from outside,” I said. “I guess most zombies are just that… walking dead bodies with tiny fragments of the original subconscious left… just hunger on legs. But the ‘lord zombies’… they’re dead bodies with some kind of outside entity controlling them.”

“A ‘master’,” Veronica mused. “From ‘the darkness between the stars’.”

“Yeah,” I said. I kept myself from shivering through an effort of will.

“Fascinating discourse,” Eddie snarked, “but I don’t think it matters, much. Whatever they are, they die when you shoot ‘em in the head. That’s enough for me.”

Veronica turned on him, her voice suddenly shrill. “Are you going to shoot all of them, Agent Barrow? Every walking corpse in the world, and then, all the walking corpses that will appear tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that? You can’t do it. Even a storm trooper like you can’t kill that fast.”

She shook her head. “If we are going to beat this thing, we must understand it,” she said. “The dead cells of a recently deceased body are now being re-energized by some otherworldly energy source… an energy that seems to be bathing the entire Earth now. So the re-energized corpse rises, to walk again, and kill… but ‘lord’ zombies have certain particles in their bloodstream not present in the sample I took from a ‘normal’ zombie. I believe those ‘lord’ particles perform two functions – first, they preserve the body’s brain from any and all decay, which seems to be necessary for a ‘master’ to inhabit and control the body… and second, they act as a beacon of some sort for a ‘master’ to home in on. These ‘masters’ represent some unearthly intelligence … a malevolent one, that from Myrna Loy’s testimony, and what we have witnessed with our own eyes, wants nothing more or less than the deaths of every living human on Earth.”

I thought about that. “So… hold on. Where did these ‘lord’ particles come from in the first place? I mean, once you have one ‘lord’ zombie, it could infect others, I guess… it would have to make sure it didn’t do excessive amounts of trauma to the brain, but a bite would do it… hell, their bite is deadly, from my own experience, and once it kills you, well, you’re a zombie with a ‘master’ in charge of your zombie body. But where did the first one come from?”

Veronica shrugged. “Insufficient data,” she said. “However, if the ‘masters’ are indeed some sort of creatures that dwell in the darkness between the stars… then I would say, the first particles came to Earth from –“ here she gestured upwards and outwards, vaguely – “out there. And they were almost certainly deliberately created and sent here, too.”

I’d already figured that whatever was going on had to be a deliberate attack of some sort.

Eddie tapped me on the shoulder right then; I turned to look at him and he handed me a gun… my gun, I realized, as my hand curled comfortably around its customized stock. “Got it from Cal’s desk drawer,” he said. “You gals really need to hold the scientific seminar somewhere behind heavily barred doors. All this yak-yak is likely to attract unfriendlies.”

As if to punctuate that, there came a series of predatory groans and growls from the cubicles around us. I heard a crash, and saw two zombies, male and female, that were somehow entangled together in a web of power cords come lurching out of one cubicle ten or so yards away, trailing a keyboard and a graphics projector behind them. I recognized the woman, vaguely, as someone I’d seen around the corridors. The man was a stranger to me.

It’s harder to shoot someone you know… or something that looks like someone you once knew, anyway. And judging from the growls, there were a lot more of them coming our way, too. They moved slowly, but if enough of them pinned us against a wall or trapped us at the end of a corridor… it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘dead end’.

“The Chief’s emergency exit,” I said. “Once we’re in the escape shaft, we should be able to get access to any level.”

Eddie nodded; Veronica hesitated a moment, then did the same. We moved quickly into the Chief’s office. I triggered the escape hatch again and then Eddie and I got into a brief argument over which order we were going down the slide in… he wanted to be last man out, but I thought it would be better if he went first and made sure the shaft was really secure. Veronica finally settled it after a few seconds by sliding feet first into the shaft herself; I rolled my eyes and followed her quickly. Eddie dove in right behind me.

XI.

We weren’t exactly home free once we were in the escape shaft, but it gave us a little breathing space. Eddie found some fresh body armor that fit him. The supplies there also let Eddie and I replenish our ammunition and refill our belts and agents’ vests, as well as find a small, non-customized pistol for Veronica to carry. There were a couple of trunks full of civilian gear for both genders; the fashions were all several years out of season, but I managed to find a pants suit in a dark green with narrow silver pin stripes and flared lapels that complemented my own naturally bronzed skin tone and green eyes, and that wasn’t too out of date, especially when I wore the jacket over a formal white men’s blouse with an intricately patterned Battenberg lace front. There was even a pair of matching shoes, although I reluctantly decided to keep my work boots on instead– they were dark brown and didn’t clash horribly, and more importantly, the very small heels on them didn’t inhibit my ability to move freely, which was why I wore them to work in the first place.

I was annoyed at the outfit’s lack of lace cuffs, as that’s a current fashion I think looks really good on me. And my carefully neutral agent’s vest didn’t do a damn thing for the ensemble, either, although a good deal of the lace underneath showed through the vest’s low V front, which helped. I cheered up a little when I realized that my powder purple scarf had come through my recent travails pretty much unwrinkled, and would go as nicely with my new outfit as it had with the old.

Eddie needed new clothes too, since I’d burned a hole straight through his last tunic back when I’d been one of the evil dead. Veronica and I tried to advise him on what would look good on him, but he ignored us, of course, changing into the plainest black slacks, black bootlets, and grey tunic he could find. Of course, we both kept our segmented torso and groin armor on underneath our new clothes. Eddie buckled his agent’s vest and belt back on again and pronounced himself ready to go… functional, if never fashionable. I don’t know why I expected anything different; Eddie’s always been a substance over style kinda guy… but I’d started seeing him lately with new eyes, and I guess I had a new set of expectations along with them. Weird.

Getting to the lab holding the anti-grav accelerator wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but it wasn’t anything dissimilar to what I’ve already described, either. We used the two person flyer to get up to the right level, accessed a hidden emergency panel to get into Elevator Shaft 9 and through that into George Washington Carver Corridor, which led straight down to the secured engine lab. We picked up the gizmo with minimal stress – Eddie and I took turns shooting the few zombies we encountered, to conserve on ammunition -- and eventually made our way back to the flyer again.

We could have fairly easily taken it all the way up the escape shaft to the surface then, but a two seater was too small for the three of us, and anyway, if we were going to be using this experimental accelerator to make a near-Earth rendezvous, I wanted to do it in something a lot roomier and better armored. So we got out on the garage level and went hunting for the flivver we’d flown in with. Fortunately, it was right down by the maintenance levels; the mechanics in charge had probably been planning to give its engine and chassis a good going-over before all hell broke loose.

Eddie popped the hood and got busy attaching the accelerator to the anti-grav initiator, with Veronica throwing in occasional instructions. In between, I worried out loud about what seemed to me to be obvious problems with this plan.

“Look,” I said, “To start with, an anti-grav flyer, even a big heavily armored one built to look like a 1969 Cadillac Eel Tornado or whatever, isn’t a space craft. I mean, it isn’t, right? This thing doesn’t have an air plant, or any kind of life support; it doesn’t have maneuvering thrusters, and it certainly doesn’t have anything like a deep space rated sensor array or navigation computer.”

Veronica looked over at me and rolled her eyes. “Don’t be such a Negative Nancy,” she scolded me.

The phrase ‘Negative Nancy’ gave my brain such a case of mental whiplash I nearly missed Eddie’s response to my objections, from the other side of the hood:

“First,” I heard him say, “It’s a Cadillac El Dorado. EL Do-RA-do. Second, this baby’s armor plating might as well be rated for space. It’s not only bullet proof, the cabin will seal airtight in case of a gas or chemo attack, and the chassis is reinforced to take a hit up to and including a standard anti-tank round. This thing is fully submersible, with a rated crush depth of 1500 feet. It has internal tanks where it can carry enough compressed oxy to keep six adults alive and functional for a week, although I admit, they’re dry right now and I don’t think we’re gonna have a chance to tank up before we leave. But that don’t matter, the cubic footage of air in this beast when we seal up will be adequate to keep the three of us going for a day or so at least, longer if we conserve energy.”

He paused for a moment, then went on:

“Even if the armor plating wasn’t as strong as it is, the anti-grav unit can be set to throw an EM field around the car. Which you know, because we used a similar field to deflect falling rubble while we were clearing our original escape shaft under Old New York City. Between the two of them, this thing will survive one solid hit from pretty much anything… maybe two.”

Veronica chimed in that it was generally more trouble to get rid of heat in space than it was to keep it, as vacuum is an excellent insulator, and the car’s chem-fusion power plant could easily keep us comfortable. Also, the car did have a basic radar set, which was all we’d need in close Earth orbit. She also advised that her portable had far more calculating power than the warehouse sized room full of computers that NASA’s Apollo program had used, and she was perfectly capable of programming orbital ballistics into the car’s autopilot.

They were both very convincing. Of course, for me it eventually came down to this -- both of them were going no matter what. They saw a chance to end this entire crisis quickly if, indeed, Ubdov was up there in some orbital super villain hideout inundating the earth with evil zombie rays. I was a little more skeptical, but my bottom line was, my partner and my… partner?... I had no idea, but, well, whatever… were going, so there was no way I was staying behind.

I just hoped we weren’t fast tracking ourselves right into a quick, grisly death in outer space.

XII.

Above us, two four foot thick sheets of curved metal opened outward. From beneath us came a grinding sound of running gears and the audible thump of a disengaging safety interlock. The heavy duty antigrav unit underneath the lift platform came on with an alto hum, and the flivver with the three of us inside it began to rise towards the surface, several hundred feet above.

Inside, Eddie and I were a captive audience as Veronica held forth on the subject of the experimental anti-grav accelerator we’d lifted from her lab and Eddie had just installed under the flivver’s hood. I knew from past experience that she tended to drop into lecture mode fairly easily; I don’t think she can help it. Or maybe she likes it. If the last, it’s a grievous character flaw, but what the hell, nobody’s perfect.

“What the accelerator does,” she told us, “or, at least, what it is supposed to do, is intensify the normal electromagnetic ‘bubble’ that the anti-grav initiator creates around a flyer. With a normal bubble, this simply allows gravity to be manipulated… refracted into different vectors at an angle to its normal one. With careful calibration one can even seem to reduce the pull of gravity on anything within the field, or cancel it altogether, although this is an illusion… a ‘hovering’ flyer, for example, while a common enough sight, is actually still in motion, just like everything else caught in Earth’s gravity field… it still spins on Earth’s axis, and revolves around the sun in Earth’s orbital path. Every standard commercial anti-grav initiator has fail-safes programmed into it, to make sure nobody unwittingly cancels out those very fundamental field constants.”

Eddie scrunched up his eyebrows. “So, the accelerator will override those safeties and let you cancel out Earth’s pull entirely?”

I’ve had the basic physics courses that all the high schools have taught since Dr. Levy first came out with anti-grav in 2011; I stopped and tried to imagine what would happen if you did something like that. The image I got was a watermelon seed squirting out of someone’s fist.

“Yes,” she said. “But if the accelerator is adjusted correctly, it will also create a bubble that will effectively isolate, or insulate, whatever is within it from the physical restraints of the surrounding quantum matrix.”

Eddie and I exchanged a glance. That couldn’t possibly mean what it sounded like it meant… could it?

“You mean…” Eddie started, slowly, “that… what… normal physics would no longer function inside a car using this accelerator?”

“That’s crazy,” I said. “Without the normal laws of physics, we couldn’t breathe. Our hearts wouldn’t pump, our blood wouldn’t flow… cellular motion would cease, or work in some entirely unpredictable manner… life as we understand it couldn’t exist.”

Veronica quirked one eyebrow. “Basic quantum inertia obtains within the EM vacuole for the first few minutes,” she said, her terminology growing steadily more arcane as she went. “Beyond that, yes, it becomes increasingly difficult for basic human metabolic processes to function. However, that is very much a side issue in this application; our primary interest lies within the EM field’s outer skin, and how it interacts with the surrounding quantum framework.” She paused, and looked apologetic. “Effectively, it creates a frictionless interface between whatever is inside it and the universe around it, insulating the contents of the EM field from the normal limitations of Einsteinian space/time.”

“So you could go faster than light,” I said.

“You can achieve nearly infinite velocities, theoretically,” Veronica said. “You see, you would accelerate to your local gravity field’s terminal velocity nearly instantaneously, following exactly the vector imparted by whichever gravitational fieldline the EM fields contents were experiencing when the insulating field came into existence.”

“But,” Eddie said, “without any normal physical limitations on velocity derived from acceleration, there wouldn’t be any ‘terminal’ velocity. And without an outside frame of reference, there’d be no G forces, either. You’d just fall forever, on whatever vector you’d programmed prior to putting up the field, continually accelerating on a straight line.”

“Like the inertialess drive in SKYLARK OF SPACE,” I said. I’d watched every single one of the classic 12 part miniseries a couple of years back, when the Sci-Fantasy Channel had run them as part of a ‘galaxy rangers’ marathon.

Veronica seemed to ponder that. “An ‘inertialess drive’,” she said. “Whatever in the world would that mean?”

“I don’t like this bit where you can only keep breathing for a couple of minutes with the drive turned on,” Eddie said. “That’s bad juju.”

Veronica flicked her fingers dismissively. “With the correct gravitational vector calculated and applied, the Earth-Moon LaGrange point holding Ubdov’s last known residence is less than two full seconds transit time away. Of course, we have to be able to plot a straight vector with no significant masses intervening between launch and arrival points.” She glanced down at her portable screen. “We have a window for such a vector open now, for less than four hours. Then we’ll have another one tomorrow at this same time.”

Eddie’s eyes narrowed… then he breathed out, a long, deflating sigh. “Okay,” he said. “It’s a crazy karkin’ plan, but maybe this Ubdov rannie really is behind all this.” He glanced out the driver’s side window at the apparently empty garage level around us. “Besides, for all I can tell, we’re the only Science Sector personnel still alive. I guess that makes one of us the new Chief… and barring orders to the contrary from someone higher up the Globe COC, I guess it’s our duty to do whatever we can to try and get this steamin’ mess cleaned up.”

It hadn’t occurred to me that the three of us might, indeed, represent all of Science Sector that remained alive and functional. “There have got to be other agents still running around out there,” I said. “Maybe not here, not in this complex, but there are always agents out on assignment.” Colonel Logan had been assigned to the Moon, I remembered… but Colonel Logan wasn’t Science Sector anymore, either.

“They ain’t here,” Eddie said bluntly. “And they may very well be Purina zombie chow by now, too. And since I brought it up… I think we need to settle who’s in charge. If we’re headin’ out into the guano--and I bet we are--we can’t be stopping every five minutes to have a debate and hold a vote. We need a Chief.”

Veronica held up both her hands, palms out. “I’m a civilian,” she said. “I have no leadership training. I’ll help as much as I can, but I can’t make command decisions.”

I looked at Eddie and realized he was looking at me even harder. “Well,” I said, defensively, “technically you have seniority on me, Agent Barrow.”

“Cut the crap, Agent Hannigan,” he said, almost savagely. “I signed on with this psycho outfit twelve days before you did, sure… but in Globe-Mil, you were a captain. I barely made Tech Sergeant.”

“Everybody in the Sky Guard is an officer, you know that,” I argued. “Being a captain just means you get to clean a slightly higher grade of toilet than the looies.”

“You’ve had leadership training,” he said. “And you think faster in the field, too. You know you do.”

“You’re a quicker draw and a better shot than I am,” I argued.

“Maybe,” he said, “but you’re better at calling the shots, and you know it. You’re the one for the job, Myrna Loy.”

“Goddamit, Eddie,” I said, finally, “I don’t WANT it. I don’t WANT to give orders. I don’t WANT to… to…” My voice was starting to shake. I stopped, took a deep breath, deliberately went through a few calming mantras in my head. “There, y’see? When the chips are down, I’m just another hysterical frail. You take it.”

Eddie straight up laughed at me. “Myrna Loy, you’re the furthest thing in the world from ‘just another hysterical frail’.” He let his voice grow serious. “I know what you’re afraid of. You think I’m a crazy man with a death wish, and you don’t want to have to feel responsible if a bullet shows up with my name on it… or with the doc’s. But you’re not thinkin’ straight. As Science Sector personnel, every one of us is expendable. Citizens of the Global Union ain’t. And no matter how bad it is out there right now, there’s gotta be a few million folks still alive… holed up behind locked doors this second… waitin’ for help. If we can find whatever’s causing this and turn it off… well, it won’t much matter if all of us die doin’ it. And our best shot of pullin’ it off won’t be with me or the doc in charge. And you know it, Myrna Loy.”

I looked at Veronica for assistance; she met my eyes with hers, and I immediately knew she wasn’t going to be any help.

“Who must do the hard things?” she asked me, softly. “She who can.”

I groaned in aggravation. “It’s not fair, you two ganging up on me,” I said. Then: “All right, all right. But when I get us all blown up in a vacuum, don’t come crying to me.”

“Right, Chief,” Eddie said, giving me a vaguely salute-like gesture. Then, flatly: “What are your orders, ma’am?”

During this entire conversation, we had been steadily rising. For the first hundred feet, there had been nothing around us but the walls of the lift shaft, barely a yard on either side beyond the edges of our flyer. Then we had emerged into the lowest level of a commercial parking garage that provided cover for that particular hidden exit portal from our HQ. There had been a dozen or so zombies wandering aimlessly in the dark of that lowermost level. They’d all turned towards our vehicle hungrily and started growling and groaning as the lift platform continued smoothly up past them, but they couldn’t get anywhere close to us. We passed through several more floors of the garage and most of them were similarly inhabited, but two crackled with flames from burning flyers and ground cars, and we saw nothing at all, living or dead, moving on those levels. I noted for future reference that zombies seemed to be afraid of fire, or at least, they’d avoid it if they could.

Just as Eddie asked me for my orders, there was a heavy thumping sound. The smooth whine of the hydraulic piston ceased. We had come to rest on the top floor of the parking garage, with nothing above us but sky.

All around us, the city of New Washington burned.

I reached over and buckled my safety harness. “Take us up to about a thousand feet,” I said. “Doc, program your ballistic into the ship’s autopilot. Once we’re clear of any obstructions, we’ll go visit us a Russki.”

6 Comments:

At 12:48 PM , Anonymous X said...

...And she's alive.

A few notes I took as I went:

Cpt. VII, Paragraph one (I know; "Oh God! Why not just do a line edit?") Shouldn't “billy be switched” be hyphenated?

"like one of those cartoon cats, looking at a cartoon mouse and picturing it as a chain of link sausages, or something" -the sentence that's embedded in needs simplifying, I think, but a funny way of putting it. One of those jokes that's very, very funny if you can get in and get out fast enough.

The paragraph about automeds needs some untangling, structurally.

"we’re all pretty alert, you’re not paranoid" -needs a semicolon.

You misspelled viewsees the first time you used the term. (It amuses me to no end to sit here correcting you on the spelling of a made-up word.)

---

I stopped spotting proofreader crap much a couple of pages in. I dunno if that's just me, but you might give extra attention to the first two thirds of chapter seven on your next pass.

The end of the chapter and the beginning of the next struck me as rather early Heinleinesque in tone, (late Heinlein would have skipped describing the actual sex, too, but would nonetheless have talked about it for pages) (and pages) as did the stuff at the end of the selection about who should be in charge, though that last needs trimming for pace a little.

It appears to me that around the point in the story where the zombies ate the cinema board may have been one where you resumed writing after time away, and the pacing picked back up after a page or so as you got back into it.

Perhaps likewise where they talk about taking the flying car into space- I assume you're expositing important information about the anti-grav gizmo, and Heinlein loved to write long passages about stuff like this- but I believe this section is multiply problematic.

First, it slows the pace of the story. Second, though you're trying to justify taking a flying car into space, you're also giving the reader time to think about it. It's a flying car, you know; I already swallowed that. If they just wired in the gizmo and went, with abbreviated expositional dialogue in-flight, (I do see that it would create a structural problem with your chapter end that would need solving) it would scan better as a narrative.

Third, there're the details of what you've given the reader too much time to think about:

A laboratory prototype (created by a woman who ought to be spending her time creating Q-type spy toys, doing CSI stuff, and, I dunno, eliminating the static on surveillance tapes- not world-class applied physics. I have a little trouble seeing the science police and the actual scientists in the same organization) that fits under the hood of the car. It must have been designed to, in fact, for Hansea to be confident it will project its super-science field around the car and perform the way it's supposed to. A couple of words from Hansea to the effect that they had been about to hook it into a car for test runs would fix this.

You might want to want move your bad-seed Russian into earth orbit- the trojan points are the exact distance away the moon is, only the habitats are a lot smaller and harder to see than the moon, which makes raising navigation issues dicey.

Your professional killer types, science police or not, do awfully well wrapping their head around the super science implications of the gizmo, especially Eddie. If one of them wasn't up to it at all, it would not only seem more likely, but would better excuse all the expository dialogue.

It seems like you're saying that the gizmo can stop the motion of everything inside the field relative to the motion of the entire universe. How do you steer that thing? Wouldn't it be useless for anything but going, say, southeast-and-a-little-bit-down?

---

(Possible spoilers?)

You're not planning a three-way are you? It becomes clear in this installment that Myrna has serious daddy issues that inform her sexuality. Planning a reverse-Willow (done right) for agent Hannigan, are we? She was maybe really bi all along, and just didn't realize it for pretty obvious reasons?

---

So I like that you're aiming for serious science fiction but in a high adventure story structure. Keep an eye on pacing issues as you work on future drafts- this is good, professional-quality stuff, and it has the potential to be great if it's tight enough. There are places, even in this story, where wordiness provides important color and tone, but you want to look at pairing out all the fat you can, making descriptions more concise and sentence structure simpler everywhere. Early Heinlein was pretty spare.

But remember, too, that you can polish the soul right out of a story, and that my suggestions are focus group thinking. People in focus groups complain, criticize and nit-pick about details that they'd never notice outside the context of the focus group, and their insights are to be taken with a grain of salt.


Good stuff, man.

-X (Decided to be lazy!)

 
At 8:46 PM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...

I take all your critiques seriously. I want to frontload with that, because until I get a finished draft and post the whole thing somewhere, you're not going to see any changes I make to the very rough, very fresh drafts I post here. But every time I go back into a story, I end up polishing, and I suspect by the time I get the whole thing up, you're going to find the first six chapters or so to be very different than they were on the blog.

Or maybe not, but it seems that way to me.

You're dead right on where I came back into the story after a long time away from it.

I don't know if I agree that I'm giving the readers too much time to think about it. I wonder if the 'magic space drive' is one unbelievable plot device too many (obviously, the whole story turns on the idea that someone can build a machine that brings the dead back to life as flesh devouring zombies), but I needed it to get the heroes to their eventual destination, so I said fuck it. We'll see how it all comes out.

Where Al Swearingen is stupidest when he tries to be funny, I write worst when I'm giving out big chunks of expository dialogue. Chapters 17 and 18 are nightmares that way. The problem is, I love reading expository dialogue, so I tend to create stories where I need a lot of it. It's something I need to work on, certainly.

Thanks for the long comments. I deeply appreciate them.

Happy Halloween!

 
At 9:22 PM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...

Oh, I think I'm giving the wrong impression as to Science Sector. They're not so much the Science Police as they are the... well, the Science Patrol, I guess. They're the Globe's pure research section, but when the Globe was set up, quite a lot of military/intelligence rank and file were attached to Science Sector, so they could get access to all the top secret ultratech that the Globe developed but didn't want to put on the market.

Now, they do do some Science Policing... if Simon Bar Sinister puts a shrinking ray in orbit and tries to blackmail the Globe's Chief Minister into giving him a billion dollars with it, Science Sector would get the call. (More likely, the intelligence gathering branch would get wind of Simon Bar Sinister's secret lab before the shrinking ray was operational and then a bunch of guys like Eddie and Myrna Loy would bust in and shoot everyone. Then they'd take all Simon Bar Sinister's cool gizmos back to Science Sector, where someone like Veronica would analyze them.)

So Veronica isn't doing Q stuff or CSI stuff. She's doing pure research, and one of the things she's been developing is this anti-grav accelerator thing, which, as it happens, will come in very handy when they need to go after this guy who is up in orbit.

Eddie is supposed to be a near genius level tech guy, a Scotty type. He just prefers to be out in the field shooting people, and since he's even better at that than fixing flyers, they let him do it. Myrna Loy is supposed to be a geek babe; little formal education in the sciences, but she's seen every geek movie and TV show there is. Probably hasn't read much, though. So she can get the concepts but would be lost when it comes to the actual numbers.

I don't know how 'serious' my science fiction is; I just make shit up and am noway smart enough to really understand any of the scientific doubletalk my characters spout. This story is meant to be pure pulp with rayguns and flying cars and inertialess drive and, uh, zombies. It's an interesting mix of genres, and all I can say is, I hope it's half as much fun for someone else to read as it is for me to write, because I'm having a blast.

 
At 11:12 AM , Anonymous X said...

Well, the super science gravity gizmo certainly seems to have serious science fiction implications.

If it can be made to work like a Doc Smith inertialess drive, there's no problem steering, though I have trouble with a flying car that happens to have thrust that works in a zero-g vacuum. I wonder how credibly the at-rest-relative-to-the-universe aspect could be doubletalked into sorta tacking against the wind, which could solve the steering problem.

And, you know, all that stuff about the nature of Science Section and the science savvy of its operatives/enforcers/bodyguards/security personnel/industrial espionage agents is easily fixed: something early in the narrative like "While we're just muscle for the brains who make up Science Section, sometimes we need to understand a little something about what we're protecting to do our jobs right."

...Though not necessarily all in one long sentence like that.

I’m glad you take my nit-picks in the spirit they’re intended. I usually have this bass ackwards reaction when I’m asked for my opinion of people’s work. If it’s not so good, I don’t tend to say much; if it is good, I suggest improvements precisely because it’s got potential. That can read as me crapping all over it, and for too many people, does. I’m really pleased that you take my “backwards day” complements the way I mean them.

 
At 11:44 AM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...

I didn't see anything wrong with your explicatory sentence. I tend to write long sentences sometimes. I used to worry about it more until I started reading a lot of Barbara Hambly and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Heinlein isn't the only best selling, highly talented, extremely readable, very entertaining, wonderfully detailed author I learn from... although, as far as that goes, a sentence as long as the one you've written wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb in many Heinlein narratives.

As to the drive -- as I understand it (and my understanding is not profound) the anti-grav effectively warps gravity fields, or changes their vectors. When a car using a standard anti-grav is hovering, it's doing so because the normal downward gravitation vector has been offset fully, so that instead of pulling the car down, it is pulling down and pushing up to exactly the same amount of force, effectly canceling both forces out. When a car moves in one direction or another, it is because, to some extent, the local gravity direction has been changed, and the car is 'falling' in that direction. (It's the same gimmick I used for the superteam's flying ship in ZAP FORCE.)

With the anti-grav accelerator, a gravity vector is applied to the object (the car) and THEN the accelerator is turned on, so, basically, whatever is inside the accelerator's field continues to move along that same gravity vector. It's like you throw a baseball at something across the yard, and then cancel all outside influences -- gravity, air friction, etc -- on the baseball. As I understand it, that baseball is going to keep moving until it hits something (at which point, it will lose some velocity in the form of applied kinetic force, and either stop, or keep going straight through whatever it hit, or burst into pieces, depending on how much force the object it hits can absorb relative to the baseball itself).

That's what's happening with the car. Is it a particularly useful propulsion method? Well, given that the people inside the craft can't see out very well and they are going REALLY REALLY FAST and they aren't going to get much reflected radiation back in a discernible fashion so standard navigational arrays are less than useful, no, it really isn't... except to cover very long distances very quickly in mostly empty space.

And, as will be seen in a few chapters, when they're trying to get from near Earth out to Pluto in 2032 on pretty much a straight line, there are other factors to be taken into consideration, such as the asteroid belt, and the fact that during the time period I've set the book (this was accidental, but I like the complication) Jupiter is sitting spang in the way.

Also, of course, the trip to Jupiter even with the accelerator is going to take more than five minutes (I have no idea how to calculate how long it would take, given the technology they're using, but I'm confident no one else could possibly figure it out either, so I just called it fifteen minutes and left it at that) and if they spend more than five minutes inside the accelerator field, their lungs will stop working and their internal organs will cease to function and they'll die.

All of this I've worked out, and at least some of it is crucial to the ending I want, so it's all okay with me. But I certainly don't understand how either the anti-grav works, or the accelerator works. If I did, I'd build them.

Oh, I'm also working on the assumption that gravity permeates space, it simply becomes exponentially weaker as you move further and further away from large masses. But an anti-grav field can change the vectors on even micro-gravity fields, so a vehicle with a working anti-grav would always have SOME propulsion... and if you can start your car in a certain direction and then suddenly remove all normal restraints on acceleration and maximum velocity, you should get moving pretty fast in that one direction. But, yeah, while you're inside the bubble, you can't steer.

For this narrative, however, these are not problems, they're features.

Thanks, again, for the continuing kibitzing. It's very valuable. I myself find it very embarrassing to ask other people for feedback this way, because the way the social contract works, if other people read your work and tell you what they think, then you have to read other people's work and tell them what you think. I know I really hate doing this, for any number of reasons, so I always feel guilty trying to impose on someone else this way.

So, again, thanks.

 
At 12:28 PM , Anonymous X said...

Fortunately for you, though I fancy I've the skill-set, I'm not a fiction writer.

...Which, as an inveterate kibitzer, makes me a born editor. I love nit-picking through something good, sorta like doing a puzzle. And isn't an editor you can just ignore at will the cat's behind?

I'm pretty sure my enjoyment of the text is enhanced by having a chance to interact with it a little. When I'm in the mood for this kind of thing, it really is like doing a puzzle.

And right now, I'm in the mood, so ain't no big thing.

 

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