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Sunday, November 02, 2008

Fear Masters (5)

And here's the rest of it.

Right now, it's at 39,475 words, which is shorter than even my shortest estimate had it. But, whatever. The first draft, at least, is over.

I need to thank Mr X/Brand Ecch, and SuperWife. The latter because I always need to thank her for everything good in my life and anything positive I accomplish. The former because if I hadn't made an ass of myself in regard to him earlier this week, I wouldn't have come back to this story and poured another 11,000+ words into it over the course of a week or so, and finished it up.

Assuming it is finished, of course.

I'll see what any of you may have to say about it, and then look at posting the whole thing over on my Angelfire page sometime... er... soon. Yeah. Soon. That's the ticket...

Just under 40,000 words isn't really a novel by most of the definitions I've read, so I can't really call this my eighth novel. But it's something.



XVI.

Pluto. Wasn’t that a kick in the teeth.

Eddie looked like someone had turned a valve and let about 12 foot pounds of air out of him. “Pluto,” he said out loud. “Karkin’ fark. We can’t…” He shook his head. “We haven’t even got out to Mars yet. Pluto?”

“What,” I said, “your magic inertialess drive thingie won’t get us out that far?”

“It’s not magic,” Veronica said tartly. “And yes, it will get us that far… hypothetically. However…” She touched a key and a 3 dimensional image of the Solar System appeared above the processor she was sitting behind. “Right now, Pluto is 34.7 AUs away… three billion miles, and change. We’re lucky that there’s a reasonably straight vector out there… but unfortunately, Jupiter lies right across that straight line vector, at very nearly the same angle below the sun as Pluto. And even if it didn’t, the accelerator would be very dangerous to use crossing the asteroid field… but factoring in Jupiter, a straight jump from Earth to Pluto, at this moment, is to all intents and purposes unworkable.”

“That’s something I don’t understand,” I said. “Well, I don’t understand most of it, but… if the accelerator creates a field around us that insulates us from the outside universe, why do we care about solid objects between us and our destination? Wouldn’t we just pass through them?”

“Again,” Veronica said, “it isn’t magic. It doesn’t make us intangible. It insulates us from the constraints of normal Euclidean physics, but not from the ramifications of an actual collision between us and another physical object. The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is bad enough… the odds of any particular straight line vector going from one side of the Belt to another without intersecting a sizable mass of some form or other are… well, they aren’t betting odds, by any means. But the presence of Jupiter right between us and Pluto… I wouldn’t dare try it. We’d have to make a parabolic, out away from the solar ecliptic… probably at least ten jumps… each of which would have to be calculated with almost no statistical margin of error at all, as the slightest deviation in any of them would probably end up with us shooting on past Pluto at speeds well in excess of unity.”

“Uh,” I said. “Well… ten jumps is better, in a way, since we don’t dare spend more than five minutes or so inside that space-time vacuole thingie, anyway, lest our cells all come unglued or something. But you don’t think the car’s autopilot can handle the math?”

Veronica shrugged. “It’s not built for it,” she said. “A single straight line vector would be much easier… but even at the acceleration we’d get, jumping straight out of a LaGrange point like this, we’d still be inside the car for… fifteen minutes? Maybe a little less. And odds are very good we’d hit a sizable asteroid… or a sizable gas giant. Either way, it would be the end of us.”

“So, our basic cellular structure would turn into goo, and then we’d hit something big at hyperspeed and blow all to hell,” I recapped. “Or, we can try the ten-jump ballistic thing, but odds are we end up missing Pluto completely and shooting off into interstellar space.”

“There it is, pretty much in an eggshell,” Veronica said. “We need to get to Pluto, and I can’t think of any way that we can, even with the anti-grav accelerator. And even if we could, the car has no weaponry and the Z ray projector is the size of an apartment complex. It has vulnerable points, but we would need to be able to get out of the car and move around inside it to get to them… and there is no way we could do that. Not 35 astronomical units from the sun. We don’t even have space suits that would work in close Earth orbit, much less on Pluto.”

“Nutshell,” I said. “It’s nutshell, not eggshell.” Something she’d said had nudged a little pebble of thought in my head… but there was too much going on for me to chase it down the hill right then. “So… we’re stuck? I mean… what are all those machines in Ubdov’s lab? Does he have, like, some kind of experimental warp gate, or something, that we could use to get to Pluto?”

Veronica gave me a very exasperated expression. “Don’t be ridiculous, Myrna Loy. Ubdov was a brilliant scientist and he had access to unearthly technology, but the very idea of a… a… ‘warpgate’… it’s simply ludicrous.”

“No frak?” Eddie asked. “Hully gee. But a zombie ray that turns corpses into ravening ghouls… that’s not crazy, or anything.”

Veronica scowled at him, then at me. “Be that as it may,” she finally said, rather huffily, “there is no ‘warpgate’. However,” she went on, “there is a… well, a sort of freight cannon, which Ubdov has been using to send the zombies that he has gathered and modified slightly to Pluto.”

I must have goggled. I know Eddie did. “He has… wait. What? He’s got a… a zombie cannon? And he’s shooting zombies out to Pluto?” My mind was frankly croggled at the concept.

“Why the kark would you send zombies out to karkin PLUTO?” Eddie demanded.

“The Z ray projector is very complex,” Veronica explained. “And the… the dark creatures themselves, the fear masters… they aren’t solid. And there aren’t any physical beings out there that they can possess, as they do dead human bodies on Earth. So Ubdov had to send them some, that they could use to build the projector. And he had to modify the zombies he sent out, so they could withstand conditions that far from the sun.”

“So Ubdov starts to reanimate a bunch of corpses out here at the LaGrange point a full year or so ago,” I said. “He… what? Tops ‘em up with anti-freeze and loads them into some giant clown cannon and fires them off to the edge of the solar system?”

“It isn’t quite that –“ Veronica started.

“Wow,” Eddie interjected. “Well, thank Allah and Bast he doesn’t have a warpgate or anything. Because that would be ridiculous.”

“All right,” I said. “This cannon thing he uses to send zombies to Pluto… can we use it to get out there ourselves?”

Veronica pursed her lips. “We could,” she said. “Assuming we could withstand 13 gravities of initial boost, which we can’t, and we could then somehow survive 120 or so days in parabolic orbit through deep space, which we can’t, and then we could tolerate the stresses from the magnetically shaped plasma net that Ubdov designed that would catch us when we passed near Pluto, which we couldn’t… yes, then, the freight cannon Ubdov designed would be very useful to us.”

“120 days?” I shook my head. “Okay, leaving aside all the other frak, I don’t think civilization can stand 120 days of zombie apocalypse. The whole surface of the Earth will be one big ruin if we have to take that long.”

“True that,” Eddie said. “But I’m thinkin’, if these fear masters expect regular shipments of zombie slave labor, we could rig up some kind of good sized warhead and use this freight cannon to drop it in their laps. Maybe it takes four months to get out there, but at least we’d know that we were gonna get to the end of the tunnel eventually…”

“It’s something,” I agreed. “And if we can’t come up with anything else, then…”

And that was when the little thought pebble that Veronica had kicked down the hill a few minutes before turned into a roaring idea avalanche.

“Hey,” I said. “Hey, hey… why can’t we…”

My idea was simple. I outlined it in a few economical phrases. Like this:

We use Ubdov’s labs to duplicate the experimental anti-grav accelerator, two or three times. We fix these duplicate accelerators to… anything, really, a big chunk of metal that massed about as much as our car would be fine… we attach an autopilot programmed to the exact vector connecting our current location with the planet Pluto. We fire the first two off at two second intervals to clear the vector of any kind of junk that might get in the way – asteroids, Jupiter, whatever. We fire off the third… or maybe the fourth… and it hits Pluto at translight speed and turns the entire planet into an expanding plasma cloud, which wrecks the zombie ray projector, which saves the world.

It was a brute force approach – one that would end up being a little rough on various geographical features of the Solar System, like a swatch of the Asteroid Belt, a chunk of Jupiter, and pretty much all of Pluto – but I was pretty happy to trade all that in, if it stopped the zombie apocalypse down on Earth.

“It won’t work,” Eddie said stubbornly.

“Why not?” I asked him. I’d thought it was a brilliant idea, myself. “You said you could rig up some kind of warhead. I don’t even think we’d need a warhead if we can hit Pluto at translight speed with something as big as a car… You don’t think you can duplicate the anti-grav accelerator?”

“I need to duplicate it at least twice, maybe three times,” Eddie said. “That’s if we’re lucky. With Veronica’s help… and the contents of Ubdov’s labs… yeah, I can probably make two or three working accelerator prototypes. Maybe even more. But even if we clear a path through the asteroid belt, and through some chunk of Jupiter, and we get a missile all the way through to the edge of the Solar System… you’re still talking about hitting something a tenth the size of Earth with an object the size of a car moving at translight speed. It isn’t the same thing as us jumping out there in the car, because we’d stop at some set of coordinates we pre-calculated to be nearby Pluto, find it with our radar, and come in on a normal gravity vector. Instead of that, we’d be trying to hit the planet… which is really a small, rogue moon, anyway… from 2 billion miles away with the equivalent of a thrown football. And that’s after we vaporize a few stray asteroids and a good sized chunk of Jupiter’s atmosphere first.” He shook his head. “And here’s the other thing. We can’t wait to find out what happens with our first couple of shots, because any path we clear through the asteroid belt isn’t going to stay clear very long. We have to fire these things off, BAM BAM BAM, and then hope the last one gets through. And we won’t know if that one does anything for… I dunno… weeks.”

“If all the zombies on Earth fall down dead and stay that way,” I said, “I’m gonna figure we hit our target.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Eddie grumbled. Then he looked really exasperated. “Plus, we’re talking about, like, vaporizing Pluto. I mean, I don’t WANT to vaporize Pluto. Pluto is kinda zappy.”

I threw open my arms in disgust. “I like Pluto too, but I kinda like the Globe better! I mean, seriously, what’s Pluto done for us lately… except have a great big ray gun on it that’s making the dead walk and attack the living?”

Eddie shrugged. “Okay, I hear you, but still. It’s ridiculous. The odds are better if we turn the doc loose in Ubdov’s lab and wait for her to invent a warpgate.”

“I have to agree with Agent Barrow,” Veronica said. “Well, not that warpgate thing, that’s insane, but your idea, Myrna Loy, is inspired, but not very feasible. Now, if we were to fire a few missiles ahead of us to clear the vector of any interference, and then immediately follow in the car… but of course, transit time, even with the accelerator, is still just under fifteen minutes for a straight line trip. Our metabolisms will not continue to function that long, insulated from the quantum matrix they evolved in. And, obviously, it will accomplish nothing for an armored, extensively modified flying car full of corpses to arrive at the edge of the Solar System, ready to do battle…”

She stopped, and stared at me. “I know that look,” she said. “What crazy idea have you come up with this time, Myrna Loy?”

“Not me,” I said, quietly. “You. ‘A car full of corpses at the edge of the Solar System, ready to do battle’. That’s it. That’s how we get out there…”

XVII.

Neither of them liked my latest idea. Unlike the previous one, though, neither of them could find any essential flaws in it. It was desperate, and, in my daddy’s memorable words, crazier than a moose with a set of goose neck lamps instead of antlers… but we all thought it would probably work, and it was, in fact, the only thing any of us could think of that might.

Veronica advised she’d need a couple of hours to get the supplies she needed and to throw together the devices my plan required. Eddie figured he’d need at least that long to rig up a couple of working anti-grav accelerator prototypes, even ones that would only have to work once, for maybe fifteen minutes max.

That left me, odd girl out. The more things change, etc, etc.

So while the two of them worked down in Ubdov’s lab, I sat down in Ubdov’s former throne and downloaded everything my ocular implants had recorded over the last 48 hours. Then I put it all up on the TV screens covering the walls, and started editing it all down into something around two hours long. I left all the raw data as a subtrack, but condensed everything into something an analyst could look at first to get the gist, while at the same time dictating an oral report, like a director’s commentary track on your favorite three-vee disc.

Which nicely killed, what… three and a half hours or so, I see from checking Ubdov’s chronometers.

Now that I’ve gotten this far, I can say that the idea is, before we head off to Pluto sometime later tonight, I’ll drop a disc containing this whole thing into a messenger rocket and shoot it off towards New Washington with a Science Sector address code on it. That’s a back up; I’ll also have every communications array Ubdov has, especially the old fashioned stuff that still uses radio and microwaves, pointed back at Earth broadcasting this thing on a continuous loop. My hope is, eventually someone will have a chance to watch this, and thus, history will know what we did… or tried to do.

Although, if we don’t succeed, I wouldn’t bet a broke neck buzzard on the odds anyone’s ever gonna teach a human history class again.

Reviewing the data all at once like that, though, hi-speeding forward through a lot of stuff, slowing down some other things, or going back again to review events that had buzzed by me really quickly in real time, I found myself wondering about a few things.

Wondering about may not be the phrase I’m looking for.

Suspicious of, might come closer.

I sat there and tried to sort it out in my brain. I make no claims to any kind of brilliance; there’s only one genius in this whole narrative, and it sure ain’t me. Eddie is actually a lot smarter than I am, although his intelligence is focused on a narrower band than mine is… although, come to think of it, Veronica’s focus is kind of narrow, too. Maybe that’s why they dumped the whole boss deal on me, I have a wider cone of mental vision than either of them.

I was very aware, the whole time I was sitting there, of Ubdov’s cooling cyborg-corpse, lying ten feet away from me, not least of which because the crunched remains of his head smelled faintly of rotten eggs. Compared to the absolutely horrific stench of any single zombie, much less a ravening horde of them, it wasn’t much, but it was a persistent sour undertang that the atmospheric conditioners couldn’t seem to clear. It may have made me more paranoid than I would have been otherwise… although lemme say for the record, paranoia for a Science Sector agent is less a psychosis than it is a beneficial survival adaptation… and you can put that in 200 point bold face during a zombie apocalypse.

So I turned a few things over in my brain, and turned them over, and turned them over, and no matter what angle I held them up to the light at, I couldn’t seem to make it work.

So, finally, I went looking for Veronica and Eddie.

They were down in the lab, of course. Eddie had prevailed on Veronica to get rid of Ubdov’s zombies and his creepy hand minions; exactly what she did to get them out of sight, I to this day have no earthly idea. If anyone had asked me, I’d have suggested sending the whole kit and caboodle straight out the nearest airlock, with an added proviso that she get another horde of those nasty hand monsters to drag Ubdov’s body out into space, too. But nobody asked me, and I was so intent on my new line of speculation that I didn’t think about it much, either.

I just walked straight up to where Veronica was bent over some kind of microcircuitry board, using her portable to control a set of wire-thin waldos, and planted myself three feet to the side of her.

She looked over at me… then slowly straightened up. I must have had some kind of look on my face. She blinked at me a couple of times, and then said, “Myrna Loy. I… this is the third shock collar, and I’m nearly done with it…”

“The dark ones don’t really want dead human bodies,” I said. “Ain’t that right? They hate us ‘cuz we’re alive, and solid, and we live in the sun, and we can experience a whole range of sensory input that they can’t, hanging out there in the dark between the stars without any kind of actual physical bodies. That’s why they keep coming to Earth and taking over any kind of physical form they can get access to. But dead bodies can’t really feel much, right? Ideally, if they could, they’d want to take over a live human body, right?”

She blinked at me again. Then, very cautiously: “Yes, Myrna Loy… Chief. That would certainly be their preference, from what we’ve learned. But as I have already reported, the live human brain is electrically active, and even a small amount of electricity… a few volts, or less… is essentially toxic to a master.” She gestured to the mechanism she was working on. “That’s why you have me building these, remember?”

“Yeah,” I said. “But the electrical activity in the human brain is reflective of a mind being present, ain’t that right? A human in a vegetative state has practically no brain activity at all as we measure it… virtually no voltage. Ain’t that correct?”

“I…” Veronica hesitated. “You think… a master could possess someone in a vegetative state? I suppose it’s possible. But remember, any light at all is also lethal to a master in a disembodied form. They would have to gain access to such a living, vegetative person in conditions of nearly total darkness, during one of the few periods… new moon nights, generally, or total eclipses… when there is for all intents and purposes complete darkness on the Earth. The odds are prohibitively against such a coincidence occurring…”

“I don’t think that’s true,” I told her. I caught Eddie moving out of the corner of my eye now; he’d put down his own soldering iron and slid around so he was about six feet to my left, and just behind me. Backing my play, without having any idea what my play was. Good old Eddie. “I think, yeah, it doesn’t happen very often; in fact, it may be the dark one’s equivalent of winning a sweepstakes. But I think, over the course of human history, it’s probably happened over and over again. I think we’ve had at least a couple of dozen dark ones taking possession of living humans, and I’ll bet they love it best of all when they can get hold of a living human who is in a position of authority over other humans… or who they can put in a position of authority after they grab the body.”

“You’re saying…” Veronica scowled at me. “What are you saying, Myrna Loy? Are you saying that all of humanity’s most depraved historical actors were actually being controlled by fear masters?”

“Why not?” I asked. She was trying to get me mad, but I wasn’t gonna go there. I had a much bigger fish on the hook, I figured. “Caligula. Nero. Attila. Robespierre. Vlad the Impaler. Khomeini. Cheney. Idi Amin. Leopold the Second. Hitler. Pol Pot. Stalin. Belle Gunness. Ilse Koch. You don’t think some of those creeps… maybe most of ‘em… were masters, havin’ themselves a big ol’ party inside a human skin?”

“A convenient theory,” Veronica said, flushing. “One that quite lets the human race off the hook for all of its moral excesses over the millennia, yes? What are you saying, then, Myrna Loy? Humanity can rape, humanity can murder, humanity can torture and abuse and prey on its own weakest members in the cruelest and most depraved fashion imaginable, for profit or simply out of boredom… but the worst of the worst, the most despicable of them all, the greatest monsters of history… why, those must be inhuman devils from the outer dark, demons from outside the race. Is that correct? Exactly where do you draw the line, Myrna Loy? Is a man who beats his wife to death in a fit of drunken rage, or a woman who drowns her children because her new lover finds them inconvenient, still human? How many atrocities do they have to commit, before your theory assumes they must actually be possessed by a master?”

“Humanity has got plenty of darkness of its own,” I agreed. “We’re sure capable of doin’ some deep nasty kark to each other, without needin’ assistance from any devil or demon outside our own human heads. I can’t argue with that; hell, Veronica, after fourteen years in my daddy’s house, I’m practically an expert on that subject. My daddy wasn’t no dark one. He was just a horny piece of shit who shouldn’t never have been let within a hundred feet of any little girl.” I took a breath, then let it trickle out past my teeth. “And plenty of our worst killers and such had obvious motives for what they did. Belle Gunness killed her family members to collect their insurance, just for one easily understandable example.” I paused a second to collect my thoughts. “But the worst of it, the worst so called humans we know about, the ones that we just can’t understand, the ones who rape and torture and kill and torment for no real reason at all… you know, when they’re nobody special, then they just end up with six, or eight, or twenty, thirty, maybe fifty or even a hundred scalps on their belts… people like Ted Bundy, or Beverly Allitt, or most of those other serial killers. But if they’re important people… people of authority… why, then they can get their scores up into the tens or hundreds of thousands. Or millions.”

Veronica shook her head. “I’m sorry, Myrna Loy, but it seems unlikely to me. Humanity is an entity with enormous moral range, capable of tremendous heights of virtue, or sickening depths of depravity. It is simply the nature of the beast. It is an attractive idea, that the worst debaucheries and most appalling evils committed by a race should actually not be that race’s responsibility at all… but it simply strikes me as much too convenient an excuse. You may call those people ‘inhuman’ and ‘creatures’, but you know the truth. They are human, just like you.”

“Just like me,” I said, softly. “Just like me. Just like Eddie. But what about you, doc?”

XVIII.

Veronica closed her eyes… and sighed. Then opened them again and stared at me.

After a long minute or so, I heard Eddie say, behind me: “What do you mean by that, Myrna Loy?”

“When it happened it happened real fast,” I said. “And things kept happening fast, and I never really had a chance to wonder about it. But you guys are down here workin’ and I’m upstairs lookin’ at images off my ocular implants and dictatin’ a report to… whoever might watch it, someday, maybe… and it occurs to me: we were in a secret subway two hundred feet underneath an abandoned city, on a covert mission, Eddie. How in the name of farkin’ jeebus did we end up gettin’ attacked by a boatload o’ zombies?”

Eddie got real quiet. Then: “I never even thought about it. How the hell did those zombies get into that tunnel… and why just at that minute, when the train had stalled dead?”

“It’s in Ubdov’s database,” I said. “You must have missed it, doc. It’s right in there where anyone can pull it up. He had a standing order from the dark ones to keep track of Dr. Hansea, here. They were real interested in her… so interested that, when it came time to kick off Z Day, Ubdov made sure we got a special delivery package. Those zombies that attacked us? That wasn’t random. He made sure that a couple dozen of the corpses dumped closest to where our subway ran got special instructions… I don’t know how he did it, but we know he’d figured out how to control zombies from a distance forty years ago, so it couldn’t have been too hard for him. He was keepin’ track of the doc, here. When it all hit the fan and the power went down across the Eastern seaboard and our train went dead on the tracks… he made sure a bunch of zombies found the old stairs leading down to the platform closest to us.”

“It was a hit?” Eddie’s voice hardened. “Ubdov put out a hit on the doc? But… why…?”

Veronica spoke, then, in a voice so quiet I could barely hear her. “You left one off your list,” she said, almost completely tonelessly. “Well, you left many off, but this one really should have been included: Elizabeth Bathory.”

Eddie and I stared at her. She went on: “I don’t know what Elizabeth Bathory died of. My guess would be infectious encephalitis, but I don’t know for sure. It didn’t kill her body, although most likely that would also have died within a few days. But it killed her brain. I mean, her brain was still completely functional, but her mind was gone.” Veronica… or whatever she was… looked at us blankly. “You are correct, Myrna Loy. It is like winning a sweepstakes… it is simply the greatest thing that can happen to one of us. It is… there are no words. It is always accidental, a stroke of great good luck. We come to Earth during a time of darkness and, until the sun next rises, we search for a body we can shelter in… one still intact enough that we can make use of it, for a time. And, sometimes… not often, once or twice in a hundred years, perhaps… we find someone like Elizabeth Bathory.”

My head was whirling, but my reflexes were still good; I had my gun in my hand without even being consciously aware of having drawn it. I could feel my hackles standing up on the back of my neck; something I’d never felt before. “Bathory killed… they estimated hundreds of young girls,” I said, my lips very dry. “Tortured ‘em to death. You did that?”

“Yes,” Veronica admitted, simply. “That was me, how did you put it… havin’ a party in my new human skin. Yes.” She shrugged. “You can’t understand it, how it feels, having a physical body after an eternity of cold, dark nothingness. And having a living body… one that can actually feel things, that can taste things, see real colors, experience orgasm, eat, digest food…” She closed her eyes. “Do you know how pleasurable it is, not just consuming tasty food, but to digest it, and then eliminate waste?” She opened them again. “We revel in it… whatever the limits of whatever body we manage to get, we always revel in it. And you are correct, we do as much as we can, to whatever limitations our body’s powers, and social stature, allow. And, yes, some of the people you named were almost certainly under our influence. I can’t know for sure, I always tried to avoid my own folk at all cost… but I’m sure you are correct. Hitler… whichever of us was inside Hitler… may well have found a way to create more living human hosts for us. Perhaps that’s what all the strange Nazi medical experiments were about. I’ve often thought that many of the Nazis… not just the higher ups, but many of the SS, and the concentration camp officers… might be possessed by my folk. But I never got close enough to them to find out. I did not want them to know I was here, of course.”

That surprised me. “Aren’t you… what… a spy, or something, for them?”

Veronica laughed, if you want to call it that… a short, chopped off monosyllable, almost more a snort than anything else. “Dear Myrna Loy, no. No, not at all. I am a rogue of my people… a renegade. I would presume they regard me as having, in human terms, ‘gone soft’… or, simply, gone human.”

“That’s why they want you dead?” Eddie asked, sounding almost hopeful. He had his own gun out and pointing at Veronica as he said it, though. “But you just admitted to a couple hundred torture murders…”

Veronica gave that near snort of derision again. “Eddie, darling, don’t be simple. I didn’t come here planning to… how would you put it… homestead? Defect? I anticipated finding a useful corpse, possessing it, and having a few days, or perhaps, if I was lucky, weeks, of fun terrorizing the local community with it before it lost its utility and I had to return to the outer dark. And when I found Bathory’s mindless, but still living husk, well… as any of us would in similar circumstances, I indulged myself. For twenty five years or so. And then your people caught me and locked me away in a cell to die. Had Bathory not been considered noble, I’m sure they’d have put me to death, and I’d have returned to my folk, no more enlightened than I’d come.”

She smiled at me. “I will say this as to your theory regarding extreme human behavior, Myrna Loy… I had three accomplices who helped me do everything I did. Three serving women of mine. Two of them were quite enthusiastic; I admit, the third we bullied into helping us. But none of them were possessed. Just humans; one weak, two with a genuine taste for blood and pain… as long as it was the blood and pain of others, of course.”

“But all that was… what… five hundred years ago? How are you still alive?” I asked. “I mean, if you are…”

“You would have seen if I had no body temperature,” Veronica said. “No, I am alive… one very significant reason my folk would like to see this body broken and my essence returned to them. Beyond jealousy of my long life here, I mean, which would in and of itself be reason enough for them to hate me and want this body killed. No, they want whatever secret it is I’ve learned, that has allowed me to live so long in this one body.”

“Wouldn’t mind knowin’ that myself,” Eddie said.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Veronica said. “The legends say I bathed in the blood of virgins to retain my youth…”

“Historians pretty much figure that was myth,” I interjected. “Although you did a lot of other horrible stuff, they could never verify that one.”

“I did do that,” Veronica said. “After ten years or so, when I saw my wonderful, beautiful mortal body was visibly growing more decrepit with each passing month, I tried many things. I consulted with so called necromancers and occultists and laboriously worked every spell, every cantrip, every ritual they prescribed. None of them was any good. I continued to age. Over the course of those years, as I searched for more and more methods to rejuvenate my body’s youth, I came across various teachings… meditation techniques, dietary formulas… things so obviously foolish I disregarded them entirely.”

She sighed. “But then, they caught me… that prig Magyari kept after it, and after it, until Matthias had to send out his dog, and then they locked me up. For four years, waiting for me to die, because they didn’t want the public embarrassment of putting a noblewoman on trial… especially one who had so successfully defended her husband’s castle from those thuggish Turks. And I had time to explore some of those meditations I’d despised before, and…” She shrugged. “Eventually I found a technique that worked for me. I doubt it ever worked for anyone truly human, though. As a higher mind possessing a living human body, I have greater conscious control over my metabolic functions than you do. Once I learned how to channel my will in certain ways, I found I could, indeed, rejuvenate myself. I spent most of two months doing it. Then, looking as I had when I was 17… well, my hair was much longer and I was much more unkempt, of course… I tore my clothes to rags and began to scream hysterically. When my jailers came to investigate, they found a young, disheveled girl where a middle aged noblewoman should have been. None of them there had seen me when I was younger. They couldn’t believe the truth, or even conceive of it… it was easier for them to believe I’d somehow traded places with some innocent peasant wench, through diabolical powers.” She smiled. “So they let the innocent peasant wench go. And I have wandered the Earth ever since, becoming more and more human with each passing decade.”

She looked at us both, coolly. “So what do you think, both of you? I am planning to betray you? When we reach Pluto, I will somehow get the drop on the two of you and… what? What are you afraid I am going to do to you, that I could not have done to you at any time prior to this?”

I looked at Eddie, uneasily. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “But… look, you’re a dark one, by your own admission. You talk about how you’ve gone human, but there’s no human I ever heard of that’s four hundred years old and has a creature of the outer dark living in its brain. You aren’t human. Maybe you aren’t a dark one, either, exactly, but… I don’t know what you are, or what you want. But you sure as hell ain’t been honest with us, so I sure as hell don’t want to trust you any further.”

Eddie had obviously been thinking about all of this, too. He said, suddenly, “You didn’t just guess Ubdov had somethin’ to do with this, I reckon. You musta known somethin’.”

Veronica nodded. “Well, yes. Although I simply thought Ubdov was possessed, not a willing accomplice of my folk. I had no advance knowledge these things were going to occur, but when they did, I knew Ubdov must be central to the entire scheme. I couldn’t tell you why I was so sure, though.” She looked tired. “I do truly like and admire you, Agent Barrow… and I do truly feel something much stronger than that for you, Myrna Loy. To whatever extent a creature such as I can have them, you are my friends… or were. But… how could I tell you the truth? I am one of human history’s greatest mass murderers? Nearly five hundred years old? A demon from beyond the rim of your Solar System?” Her voice went flat again. “I have, for the last two hundred years of my life, worked to help humans however I can. Perhaps out of guilt, I do not really know. Or perhaps I just want to make this world as livable as possible, for my own selfish reasons. But I have not murdered. I have not tortured. I have worked as a teacher, as a missionary, as a nurse, as a philanthropist, and, when allowed, as a scientist. I genuinely care for the two of you, and for the Globe. Human civilization delights me; I very much wish for it to continue.”

She fixed both of us with an intent stare. “You have no idea what is at stake for me. You are both risking your lives and I certainly understand that. It is very likely that none of us will return from Pluto, even assuming we manage to arrive there in one piece. But in all the years I have lived, and after all the human death I have seen, I see no real evidence that there is anything for any of you afterwards. Perhaps there is a human afterlife, perhaps you do go to heaven… or hell. I see no evidence of it, but it could be.”

She paused, then went on: “But there is an afterlife for me. When my essence becomes detached from this body, I will return to the outer dark. I will be reabsorbed into the body of my folk. And once that happens, I will never again be allowed to depart. I will remain in the infinite cold and the eternal darkness forever… with my fellows doing everything within their considerable psychic powers to torture and torment me.” She took a deep breath. “And still, Myrna Loy, still, I would accompany you on your mission to Pluto, to try and stop this evil plot of my folk, and to save your world and civilization. Knowing failure is all but inevitable. Knowing that you and Agent Barrow will most likely go down to a final and peaceful death, but that perpetual hell awaits me. Still, I have done everything I can to help you, and still, I plan to continue doing so.”

I wasn’t convinced. I don’t think Eddie was, either. Veronica just lifted her hands. “Here are your choices, Agents. You cannot perform Ubdov’s procedures, either of you. To implement your brilliant plan, Myrna Loy, you need me. You need me to administer the virus, me to hook up the shock collars, me to operate Ubdov’s machinery to modify you so that you can function on the fringes of the Solar System. If you do not trust me, then you cannot allow me to perform these procedures. If you do not trust me, your only choice is a simple one – return to Earth. Find a fortified hole and barricade yourself inside it with as much food and water as you can manage to procure. Watch your world die.”

Well… when she put it THAT way…

“You’re planning to come with us?” I said. “Not get everything set up, then shove us into the car and wave goodbye as we blast out to Pluto faster than light?”

“I would not do that to either of you, Myrna Loy,” Veronica said, steadily. “Especially to you. I do not know if I can feel what humans call ‘love’, Myrna Loy, but whatever it is I feel for you, it is as close as I can come to it. And I may only be a foster member of the human race… if that… but humanity is important to me. I wish it to flourish. In fact…” She paused, and her brows furrowed. “Yes. Record this in whatever report it is you send off to the Globe. Hopefully someone will see it… with these new anti-gravity accelerators of my own design, and your race’s hydrogen bombs, I think there is a good chance you could destroy my folk completely. It would be very expensive. But I think, if you could manufacture, say, a hundred thousand fusion warheads, rig them to accelerators, and fire them into the darkness beyond Pluto… fuse them, say, to go off after ten or fifteen light-days of travel into the outer dark… any sort of light is lethal to my folk. And my folk cluster on the very edges of the Solar System, waiting for a shadowpath to form, that will let them fall to Earth. Yes… a hundred thousand fusion warheads, attached to accelerators… I think that would do it. Rid humanity of the scourge of the dark ones, forever.”

My head was spinning… but, yeah, that sounded like it just might work. “We sure can’t do that while all that living dead b.s. is going on down there,” I growled.

“No, we’ll have to sort that out first,” Veronica agreed. “So… are we going to proceed, or…?”

Or what? Have Eddie and I stand as a rump court for our entire race, to try and convict the only dark one ever knowingly captured for, literally, crimes against humanity? We could kill her easy enough… she’d never shown any kind of superhuman capacities… well, other than her intellect, which sure wouldn’t slow down a Glaser round much.

But she was right. If we killed her, we might as well turn around and go back to Earth… and to do even that much, we’d have to use the accelerator she herself had invented. Which would have seemed downright ungrateful, among other things.

Eddie was looking at me. He had an expression on his face I had no trouble reading – he couldn’t decide what we should do. It was easy to interpret because I was feeling exactly the same thing.

After a second, I said, “Okay. We’ll go forward, then.”

Veronica nodded to me. “Thank you, Myrna Loy,” she said, quietly.

I shook my head. “This ain’t about us, Doc. You may be a Fear Master, but you’re also the best shot we got. So I’m takin’ it… but I promise, you let us down, and it’s the last thing you ever do in that body.”

She nodded again.

Then we got to work.

XIX.

This is the last bit I’m going to put on disc for transmission to Earth before we leave. All you’re getting is my audio track, because Doc had us take out our ocular insets before she gave us the first treatment. Out on Pluto, even in the somewhat less harsh environment of the z ray station, our insets would freeze solid and probably do permanent damage to our optic tissues and our brains. The first wouldn’t be much of a problem, but the second might be fatal. So we took ‘em out, and all you’re getting now is my voice.

Doc injected us as close to simultaneously as she could – first Eddie, then me, then herself. She did it right after she finished getting our shock collars hooked up. I remembered how fast the stuff took hold. I’d tried to warn her and Eddie about it. Still, I think all of us were surprised how quickly we passed out… and then, when we woke up again, that we’d been out more than an hour. The stuff causes a pretty basic metabolic transformation, though, so that’s understandable.

I’d also warned them about the appetite they’d feel, and how normal social restraints on behavior seemed largely inoperative. Out at the sharp end like we were, I didn’t imagine that would be too much of a problem… unless, of course, the shock collars didn’t work, and the ‘lord zombie’ virus not only turned us into ‘smart’ zombies, but attracted a master to take control of our minds, too.

The doc came through, though, as always. Every couple of seconds I’d feel a mild tingle go through my head and my hair would stand up a little bit – Eddie and the doc looked pretty funny when it happened. That was the recurring pulse from the collars. Apparently it worked, as none of us got possessed… or, in my case, re-possessed. I don’t know what you’d call it in the doc’s case. But it didn’t happen. My own mind felt sharp… on top of things. Focused. I hadn’t known what to expect, with no guiding ‘master mind’. But with our brains still fully intact and functioning, our intellects and personalities seemed to be, too.

It was strange, not breathing again. Simpler, though, somehow.

The worst part of the change is the stronge urge I feel… I assume Eddie and the Doc feel it, too… to just head back to Earth and find something to eat. But I know we don’t need to eat, we’re dead. And we all also know that the fear masters are never going to stop trying to take us over, and the batteries in the collars won’t last forever.

I keep reminding myself that there are a lot of people down on Earth counting on us. It’s hard to feel that as intensely as I know I should, but I still feel something. And that’s going to have to be enough to get me into that car and out to Pluto.

That, and I don’t want to let Eddie or the doc down.

Eddie just called me and told me they’re ready to fire the first two missiles off. We’ll follow only a few seconds behind the second one. Hopefully they’ll clear our vector outward long enough for us to get through. If they don’t, I doubt we’ll ever know what hit us.

So that’s it. I’d ask you to wish us luck but whatever we do is going to be long over before anyone down there ever sees or hears any of this. I’ll wish you all luck, though. And life. And love.

In the warmth of the sun.

* * * *

All right. Maybe someone back on Earth will hear this someday, maybe not. Veronica says she built a recorder and a transmitter into my collar so I could dictate reports even way out here. There’s no atmosphere inside this place, but she says I should be able to subvocalize and the recorder will pick up my larynx vibrations, or something. So here goes. Not that anyone will hear this for weeks, anyway.

Obviously we got here. Eighteen minutes inside the accelerator field probably didn’t do us any good – Eddie’s left eye melted and ran down the side of his face, and I’ve got some pretty good bone spurs sticking out of both my forearms. But if we hadn’t been dead, we’d never have made it out here alive… or something.

Pluto is beautiful. I doubt I’d know that if I were alive, but you don’t see things the same way when you’re dead. The little planet gives off colors I really can’t describe to you, and the prismatic butterfly aura of the shaped magnetic catcher field that Ubdov designed, that surrounds Pluto like an atmospheric blanket… really, there aren’t words. But it’s lovely.

Even dead we never could have withstood the cold out here. Fortunately, we could stay in the car until we got inside the beam installation. Ubdov designed the beam installation to be built and maintained by modified zombies under the control of the dark ones, and we went through all his anti-cold mods before we got in the car. So we can take the -20 degree mean temperatures in the hallways. If we went out on the surface even our dead bodies would freeze solid and shatter in about three seconds, but inside the installation we’re fine.

The fear masters know we’re here, though, and they seem to have figured out what’s keeping them from controlling us. At least, every zombie worker they’ve sent at us has come after the collars with both hands and all their teeth. Fortunately our weapons still function at minus 20 and in hard vacuum. We haven’t had any real problems holding off the hordes so far, and they’re probably running a little short of bodies now. Which is good, as I know we’re running short of ammo.

Okay, my last report was premature. About a hundred worker zees just swarmed out of a side corridor at us. We clipped a lot of them but then we had to turn and run. How in the world did Ubdov ever get so many zombies out there in a year? The man was enthusiastic about his work, that’s for sure.

We are definitely out of ammunition now.

Veronica and Eddie both analyzed Ubdov’s plans for this. They came up with several different stress points in the construction. Places to put a bomb. Plant three bombs in three of those stress spots, detonate them simultaneously, and this place collapses… implodes inward on itself, actually. And most likely, the subterranean – er… subPlutonean… power plant gets destroyed, too. Without Ubdov to ship more workers out here, the dark ones would never be able to rebuild.

That was the plan. We’ve placed two bombs. Wouldn’t you know it? We need to get past that zombie horde out in the main hallway to plant the third. And Veronica doesn’t think the two we’ve planted will be enough to bring this whole place down, by themselves.

We need to communicate through our portables here, since there is no atmosphere. It keeps conversation to the necessary minimum.

Veronica is going to go out and try to draw them off. She says the dark ones know who she is and want her so bad they’ll chase her no matter what. And we’re pretty fast in this gravity. If she can pull enough of them away, Eddie and I can get down that hallway and plant the third bomb.

The plan isn’t totally suicidal. It was never meant to be that way. I don’t want anyone to think we went into this figuring it was a kamikaze mission. I am not that kind of hero and I don’t want you making that mistake. Although probably Eddie and Veronica… well… anyway. I always held on to hope we could get back. And I still do. If Veronica can get back to the car, she can take it up to the surface near the point where we’ll be down below. We can probably blast our way to the surface with some of the other equipment we have. Set off the bombs from the car. Take a more leisurely pace back home… five minute bursts on the accelerator, maybe. Plotting a parabolic around any obstacles is easier when you’re just aiming for the sun. Once we get close to Earth, finding the planet should be no problem.

Bringing us back to life is more complicated, maybe. But hey, Veronica already managed it once with me, she can do it again.

If anyone gets this message, and I don’t make it back, please tell Eddie that I’m sorry I misjudged him. He’s about the farthest thing from my father that anyone could be, and I’m sorry I stupidly wasted so much time and so many opportunities.

I’m sorry I won’t ever get to tell him this.

I’m sorry I won’t ever get to make him happy.

I don’t regret much I’ve done in this life. Tell Veronica I don’t regret anything that happened with her, either. That whole Elizabeth Bathory-dark one thing has kind of thrown me for a loop, but she’s been right there for us. A real hero.

I do regret all the things that never happened with Eddie and me, but I’m hoping we still have a chance to make up for that. If not, though, please apologize to him for me. He is the best. The best person I’ve ever known. The best man. The best friend I ever had. The best thing that ever happened to me.

Veronica just sent us a radio text. She’s got a mob of dark one-controlled zombies chasing her back out towards where we left the car. We need to get a move on.

Okay, there were a few zombies left behind to watch out for us – seven or eight, maybe. They didn’t have much in the way of hand to hand training. I think I may have broken a finger, but it’s on my off hand. No problem. It doesn’t hurt at all. Just looks funny, bent off at an angle like that.

We’ve planted the last bomb. Waiting to hear from Veronica. If we don’t hear anything in another ten minutes, we’ll try to make our way out.

Zombies ahead. Lots of them.

Veronica in the lead. No collar on her. No portable, either… must have broken in the fight. She… it… can’t talk to us. But the horrible grin on her face is making me sick.

We’ll never get through them. They’re coming pretty fast, too. Once they get our collars off of us, we…

Eddie is holding out the detonator to me. He’s got his thumb resting real light on the button. He’s looking at me. Waiting for me to give the order.

No time to even…

No time. No time for us. No more time.

I’m putting my hand on his, my thumb on his thumb. Pressing dow

BLAST OF STATIC

* * * *

In the center of New Washington there is a five sided plaza. It has no official name, but it is large, almost a mile to each exterior segment. Bisecting the northwest segment is the Replica Lincoln Memorial, on the southwest and northeast, the Replica Washington and Jefferson Memorials. The southeast segment is bisected by Reagan’s Tomb. The far southern segment is still empty, although a resolution has been pending in the American Congress for several sessions now to put up a memorial to President Obama.

In the center of the plaza is the most famous statue on Earth. You’ve seen it on the ‘net and you studied it in your civics classes and chances are at some time or another you’ve written a paper or given a speech or made a viewsee documentary featuring it for a class project. Every sizable human community on the globe has a replica of this statue on display somewhere, and most of them competed strongly to host the original, but this is where we decided to put it in the end. Forty feet from base to tip, solid marble, so beautifully proportioned and exquisitely detailed that even a non-expert eye can clearly discern the make and caliber of the guns two of the sculptured figures are holding, the make and model of the portable computer the other figure seems to be punching a problem into. At their feet, the famous inscription -- murieron así que podríamos vivir – that has brought so many who looked upon it to tears since it was first inscribed.

Seven years to the day after the walking dead fell to the ground all over the Earth, fell to the ground and did not rise again, seven years to that day, the Global Chief Minister stood at the base of this monument and with the whole human race watching her do so, pressed the button on the q-link launching ten million fusion missiles powered by ten million Hansea accelerators from the dark side of Earth’s moon. Ten million points of light shot down the cone of shadow from Earth to the edge of the Solar System. Ten million miniature suns bloomed on the edge of interstellar space. Three billion Earthly eyes closed in grief, and in respect, and in pride, for the six eyes that would never open again, and that would never see those missiles fly.

In the base of the great statue, ten feet from where Global Chief Martinez stood to press the button, there is a door. Pass through it and you will find a flight of simple stone stairs bracketed with powered escalators on either side, leading you down to a once abandoned, then secretly refurbished, then publicly refurbished again at great expense, section of subway tunnel. A space that is now dedicated to relics of the lives of those who are depicted above and whose pictures are everywhere below, along with pictures and models and descriptions detailing the events leading to the greatest, noblest sacrifice humanity has ever known. Holograms, flatpics, and viewsee projections are everywhere in the air around you as you wander this vast, air conditioned space, staring at replicas of their weapons and equipment, dioramic displays of the living dead that nearly destroyed civilization, the carefully preserved body of the crazed Russian cyborg who betrayed his race to the darkness, a hanging model of that madman’s orbital lair, a full sized recreation of the modified aircar that took the three of them to the edge of the Solar System, an artist’s three dimensional hologram showing the zombie ray installation on distant Pluto.

People come and go all day and all night; there has never been a time when there were fewer than a hundred visitors in the great subterranean hall, yet even when it is filled to capacity in the summer tourist season, the only sounds that are ever audible above the quiet murmur of the ventilation ducts are the occasional cough… an intermittent sneeze… or a muted sob.

The Globe endures.

The human race still lives, and loves, in the warmth of the sun.

4 Comments:

At 6:53 PM , Anonymous X said...

“He has… wait. What? He’s got a… a zombie cannon? And he’s shooting zombies out to Pluto?”
-Beautiful. But I’m not completely sure whether Myrna or Eddie said it.

I think you mean hits Pluto at near-light speed, not translight. Or are you talking about FTL after all? ‘Cause Pluto, far from being 15 minutes at light speed is light hours away. That’s how the Lensman inertialess drive worked, though. (I leave this in after you later made FTL explicit to illustrate my confusion. Needs to be clearer, earlier.)

Likewise, I thought I was going to have to withdraw my remarks about navigation to the L5 point when it was clear they were going to end up making it to Pluto- until I saw how they got around it. (I’ll buy that Jupiter is dangerously crowding the straight line to Pluto- but exactly lined up? Really? Did you even check the almanac for years they’re in conjunction? I’m mostly not serious, but only mostly.)

Interesting that Myrna and Eddie recognized the name Elizabeth Bathory- as in really unlikely, I think. I had to google it, and was surprised to find she was a real person. Certainly an unexpected plot twist…

I wonder if making the body so old is piling it as deep as having the same entity luck out twice a few hundred years apart. Maybe the others would figure she had a secret to doing that… Maybe she did…

Though well justified in-story, and as a structural device setting up the epilogue, the tying up of the plot is… Hard to articulate, but it’s vaguely unsatisfying. As a structural issue, I see that a high-resolution recounting would be long, probably unpleasant, and likely more unsatisfying. No possible fat to cut here, certainly. …It’s just that it wraps up mighty abruptly after all we’ve been through.

Reagan’s Tomb? Gakk.

Have you moved the subway attack at the beginning from New New York to New Washington?

Your epilogue is the most Heinlein passage yet. He loved those glorious memorials. Very REQUIEM, and very much succeeding in hitting that note pitch perfect.

---

I never thought to mention, but the first time the narrator was addressed by name in the first chapter, I had a cognitive dissonance, I guess because of the movie star name. If you worked up a pretext for Eddie to call her, exasperated-like, Myrna Loy Hannigan before he got to the Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy line— I dunno. It still begs the ‘daddy liked antique viewsees’ stuff on the spot, which still begs some foreshadowing of the daddy issues the first time he’s mentioned- and all that’s tough to do briefly in one spot in a tight story flow…

I also didn’t mention that whole Dr. Fear thing was great. From the first mention to when the lights came up and we got our first look at him, and I thought, not in so many words, “Oooh goody, a full-on super villain!” it was all top-drawer stuff.

---

p.s. YOU KILLED THEM OFF!? Hey! I didn’t want them to die! Where’s the three way? Ack; you made me care, you mean, mean man.

p.p.s. Great stuff. It's definitely something.

 
At 9:39 PM , Blogger Doc Nebula said...

I’ll buy that Jupiter is dangerously crowding the straight line to Pluto- but exactly lined up? Really? Did you even check the almanac for years they’re in conjunction? I’m mostly not serious, but only mostly.)

I went to this page -- http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/pluto/statistics.html -- which led me to this page -- http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/our_solar_system/planets_orbits_table.html -- which led to this page -- http://www.fourmilab.ch/cgi-bin/Solar. That was what the doctor ordered and why the preacher danced. I set the date for May 2032 and looked at the diagram, and checked the stats down at the bottom. Jupiter is EXACTLY in the way, and at -19 degrees declination, while Pluto is at -22 degrees declination. I'm not completely sure what all that means, but it seemed as if it meant that Jupiter, which is something like a billion times as large as Pluto, was pretty much right spang in the way.

Now, I picked the date of this story pretty much at random, but when I saw that, I kinda HAD to plug it into the story.

Interesting that Myrna and Eddie recognized the name Elizabeth Bathory- as in really unlikely, I think. I had to google it, and was surprised to find she was a real person. Certainly an unexpected plot twist…

Er... yeah. I dunno. Bathory figures largely in much of the reading I've done; she's a big historical figure in occult fiction, vampire fantasy, and true crime/horror stuff. I guess you just have to have low tastes. Many many many vampire fantasy writers have made Bathory into a vampire; Colin Wilson gives her a pretty good write up in most of his crime history stuff.

I guess it's a blind spot for me to assume my characters all know the same things as I do. Probably Eddie shouldn't. That's lazy of me. I should fix that. I just hate to make him seem like a hick.

I wonder if making the body so old is piling it as deep as having the same entity luck out twice a few hundred years apart. Maybe the others would figure she had a secret to doing that… Maybe she did…

A demon from the outer dark possessing a human being and somehow making that human body unaging and immortal seems fitting to me, somehow.

Though well justified in-story, and as a structural device setting up the epilogue, the tying up of the plot is… Hard to articulate, but it’s vaguely unsatisfying.

It's ironic that you find it hard to articulate, as what you're missing is dialogue. It's one of the things I enjoy writing most, and one of the things I think people enjoy reading most (not just in my stuff, but anywhere).

It was a deliberate choice on my part. I wanted the end to be very stark and very grim. I wanted it to be shot in black and white, and mostly silent. I didn't want Myrna Loy and Eddie cracking jokes and making wisecracks, I didn't want protestations of undying love or "you really are a human after all, doc" or any of that other Jerry Bruckheimer horseshit. I mean, it's not that I didn't trowel on the sentimental slop by the barrelful, but I wanted to try to be understated with it if possible. I don't know if that makes sense, but that's the approach I wanted to take.

I had originally thought that the section on Pluto would be the third act, and take about as long as either of the other two 'thirds' -- which is to say, maybe 15,000 words or so. But when it came to it, I realized all they were going to do was get out there, get inside the place, plant some bombs, get stuck in some way that wouldn't let them leave, and decide to blow the place up with themselves in it to save the world. And that wasn't going to take 15,000 words... and shouldn't have. So I did it that way.

It's a risky decision, but I'm going to hope that I made the characterizations strong enough beforehand that the final denouement hits with the impact I was looking for.

As a structural issue, I see that a high-resolution recounting would be long, probably unpleasant, and likely more unsatisfying. No possible fat to cut here, certainly. …It’s just that it wraps up mighty abruptly after all we’ve been through.

No argument. To an extent, the ending is very similar to one in another Heinlein novella -- GULF. So much so that I may have to rewrite it to make it vary more. (On the other hand, I thought the end of TIME WATCH was pretty much a direct swipe of the end of MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS -- although I didn't realize it until after I'd written it -- yet not one of the maybe 15 people who have read that book have ever called me on it.)

Reagan’s Tomb? Gakk.

I agree, but I try to make my fictional worlds credible, and one way I do that is to stick in things I myself find objectionable.

Have you moved the subway attack at the beginning from New New York to New Washington?

No, but I know where you're coming from. It just felt clumsy to me to put the memorial in the radioactive ruins of Old New York. But, y'know, maybe they'd do that. I'll think about it. It would be neater.

Your epilogue is the most Heinlein passage yet. He loved those glorious memorials. Very REQUIEM, and very much succeeding in hitting that note pitch perfect.

Glad you liked it. I think REQUIEM is the story I know as THE LONG WATCH, and it's probably my favorite Heinlein story ever, and has had an enormous amount of influence on my writing... my heroes are forever sacrificing themselves nobly (often in great big explosions, at that, which is a relic of Goodwin and Simonson's last MANHUNTER story, which had a huge impact on me as a kid). I'm a sucker for that shit, and yes, that final passage is directly patterned on the final passage in THE LONG WATCH.

I never thought to mention, but the first time the narrator was addressed by name in the first chapter, I had a cognitive dissonance, I guess because of the movie star name. If you worked up a pretext for Eddie to call her, exasperated-like, Myrna Loy Hannigan before he got to the Myrna Loy, Myrna Loy line— I dunno. It still begs the ‘daddy liked antique viewsees’ stuff on the spot, which still begs some foreshadowing of the daddy issues the first time he’s mentioned- and all that’s tough to do briefly in one spot in a tight story flow…

Yeah. I've changed Myrna Loy's name from Hannigan to Zemyna, to make the story less whitebread. That will probably be a little jarring the first time you hear it, too.

I also didn’t mention that whole Dr. Fear thing was great. From the first mention to when the lights came up and we got our first look at him, and I thought, not in so many words, “Oooh goody, a full-on super villain!” it was all top-drawer stuff.

I love Vassily Emil Ubdov. He's been a supervillain creation of mine since high school. I really enjoyed working him in. He didn't used to have the Rob Liefeld killer cyborg body, but I figured what the hell, if you're going cheesy, you might as well go real cheesy. My only worry was that the confrontation with him was much too brief -- he grabbed at Myrna Loy, she dodged, tagged his knee, he fell over, and Eddie stomped on his head. It seemed rather anti climactic, and would have definitely come off that way in a comic book -- but in a textual narrative, I think it worked. But he really does seem like exactly what he is -- a blatant plot device.


p.s. YOU KILLED THEM OFF!? Hey! I didn’t want them to die! Where’s the three way? Ack; you made me care, you mean, mean man.


The secret to giving even the most spurious hackwork emotional gravitas is simple -- make the reader care about a character, and then kill the fucker. I think the most blatantly I've ever used this formula was in EARTHQUEST, where I deliberately introduced a fairly cool secondary character, deliberately made him into someone that a fanboy would have to love, and then had one of the bad guys casually and brutally kill him towards the end. But I did it in self defense; if I hadn't gone back and created him to be bodybag fodder, I'd have had to kill Pixie, and I COULDN'T kill Pixie.

One of the reasons that only the first chapter of THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy really works as drama is, it's the only one where anyone we care about dies... and in that particular installment, we get TWO more or less heroic deaths... Gandalf's, which isn't a real death but damn Jackson and crew made it FEEL real, and it was certainly heroic, and Boromir's, which was also extremely heroic, and made even more poignant by Boromir's previously weak, flawed behavior. I'm a real sucker for heroic sacrifice, but throw in some 'he died seeking redemption' and I'm reaching for the kleenex.

(Another reason the next two installments don't work is that they undo the great heroic sacrifice they gave us in the first with Gandalf. I know, Tolkien did it first and they couldn't change that, but it still sucked all the emotional wind out of the succeeding chapters.)

p.p.s. Great stuff. It's definitely something.

I'm not sure what those last three words mean, but thanks. I enjoyed writing it. And like you, I was especially delighted with "The zombie ray is coming from Pluto." Getting to write a line like that was WAY cool.

 
At 11:35 PM , Anonymous X said...

I neglected to mention that it's not as clear as it should be that Veronica's body was taken over at the end. My first impression was, in fact, that she'd be okay without the collar because her body was already inhabited. I had to look at it twice to catch the significance of the grin.


"It's something" was the last line of your post before the story resumed.

...I've more to say, but it's late and it'll have to wait til tomorrow...

 
At 6:08 AM , Anonymous X said...

I'm responding to a lot of stuff all together here to get it done this decade- had a lot of distractions today.


There's no place I can easily wedge in another sentence. --- In this case, I just don't think it gets me enough.

Ok. There's something to be said for meticulous attention to detail and the vermisilitude of the milieu, even in a rip-roaring zombie adventure. But I'm the one who's raised pacing issues again and again, and if you think that's the case here, I am entirely satisfied. This sucker needs to MOVE.


I really want the space zombies to have gaping, empty eye sockets and big dried blood streaks down their fronts. --- I need space zombies to be grisly and monstrous. So I'm walking a fine line, here.

I covered that days ago. Most of them sealed up way too late, in hard vacuum- that way you get all the disgusting effects of explosive decompression, with the benefit that they were sealed in with their own juices and didn't turn into pork rinds. Ubdov opened the hoods so they could bite (though there's a plastic panel on over the face in the hood to let people using it in an emergency see, so the zombie on the windshield's face can be seen) and so all the disgusting stuff showed. It instills more fear that way.

I think that most of that detail could be worked in in passing without slowing the story flow, but my (assumed) job's to throw it out there for you to decide on. I admit that it's focus group thinking, but great fiction covers all those kind of bases without it necessarily showing that it has. Really.

...And I still believe that the ride has to be a fast one, and realistic details that get in the way of that should be shown the door. You'll do what you can and turn away what doesn't fit- I understand that.


Are you crazy?

No.

No, seriously, are you CRAZY?

"CRAZY! What's your excuse?"
-Larry Hama

I do inside joke pop culture references ALL THE TIME. Everywhere. I think that perhaps you just hate certain types of them (old movies, apparently) and don't notice other types, because you find them funny.

I wonder if we're talking past each other.

It's like in WARREN'S WORLD, he'd built an elaborate reconstruction of his college days, avec a number of selfish "improvements". Whatever year it really was, he'd lived back then, reconstructed the time, and eighties references (and even anancronisms from later) made sense. If Ubdov made a joke about Madonna (and Eddie sez "What?") it would fit for the same reason- whether it was funny or even a good idea may or may not be part of that.

However if Mr. Spock, as knowledgeable as he is in some things, referenced a murderer of, say, 250 years previously, famous at the time, who had only killed two people who weren't famous alive- I dunno. You've heard of Elizabeth Bathory (who lived longer ago, but who earned seriously greater murder cred,) and I hadn't until you mentioned her and I googled her. And I'm very widely read.

To use a few more Trek examples:

Spock's better off referencing made-up Star Trek murderers, and not jarring me out of the story. And largely did so in that lame Robert Bloch Jack the Ripper episode- no somewhat recent at-the-time-of-shooting-the-episode (I think) Boston Strangler need apply.

And there may be something to your speculation, though not in regard to old movies. (Tom Paris on STAR TREK: VOYAGER, however, was an old movie buff, excusing those semi-nifty FLASH GORDON-inspired holodeck fantasies, for which all is forgiven, and a lot of tiresome stuff like the time they found a pickup truck that'd been floating in space for three hundred plus years in space, and he knew how to fuel it and drive it- and the damn thing cranked, with no parts hopelessly vacuum-wielded in all that time. Nothing forgivable there.)

ENTERPRIZE was buried by a season that was an obvious metaphor for 9/11. No one wants 9/11, of all things, in their escapist fantasy and it barely limped along another season before cancellation.

You are pretty good at sweeping me up in your narrative, but the first time your protagonist's name is introduced, I'm reminded of a movie star who's already been dead 15 years here-and-now, and hasn't made a movie in 27. (Younger readers probably won't have that problem.) You've explained why you're attached to the name, I've explained how it broke the illusion, -though I have no big trouble with the likelihood, I just think it's a bad idea-

-and we probably ought to drop this. It's your story and I'm just raising the issue, not that I'm all that passionate about it.



I have nothing to add to your characterization of your fantasy life except to pretty much just nod.


I've changed Myrna Loy's last name, so that should help you.

"Hannigan" wasn't much of an issue, though the inspiration would be obvious to any BUFFY fans, given the givens- so good. The implications I noticed were close to where it went and you didn't want to give that much away yet.


and your stuff is good journeyman entertainment.

I have no idea what that means. Okay, I have some idea, but it sounds like you're saying I write like an amateur, which I suppose is fair.

A journeyman has finished his apprenticeship and has left his master to hone his craft through work/practice as an independent pro. It describes your level of fluency as a writer well enough, and besides, is about as much of a complement as I can see you accepting.


the same thing happened to me 2/3s of the way through CAT WHO WALKS THROUGH WALLS, and frankly, the way Heinlein shoehorns in "oh, by the way, the narrator is blacker than the ace of spades" bit at that point in the narrative is fargin' ridiculous. Especially since, you know, he's the grandson of Lazarus Long... I mean, um, wtf, dude? I don't mind Heinlein giving us a black viewpoint character, but he needed to let us know that that character, and that character's family, whom we meet a bit later, are all black. It's important. As it is, it's pretty obvious that Heinlein never gave it any thought until very late in the writing process, which feels like a cheat.

Yes. The movie in my head had assumed some default appearances for characters for most of the book, and I had the same disconnect during CAT.


Gives away too much up front, yes. Stupid sounding, hell to the no. I love shit that sounds like that. THE ZOMBIE RAY FROM OUTER SPACE works better for me, though.

You've a point, sir.


Oddly, while everyone instinctively thinks that (I did myself) STRANGER was written in the late 50s and originally published in 1961. It accurately presages nearly the entire emotional/cultural/social/economic gestalt that has come to be thought of in our culture as 'the 60s'

I'd have sworn I got the idea from something Heiny said about the book- perhaps something to do with the expanded edition? Sounds like he had group sex on the brain further back than I assumed.


I really do wonder where all that incest stuff came from, but in all probability, I suspect it was just Heinlein trying to honestly posit what kind of taboos might continue to wither and fall away in the future, as developing technology allows humanity more and more control over their own reproductive cycle.

I think he was a disgusting pervert, but your notion has merit, too. Both, maybe?


It wouldn't be any fun to write. I don't have time to write anything that isn't fun right now, unless someone wants to pay me to do it. And no one does.

Too bad. Just wonderin'.

...Earlier super villainy on the part of Dr. Fear sounds fun...


I guess it's a blind spot for me to assume my characters all know the same things as I do. Probably Eddie shouldn't. That's lazy of me. I should fix that. I just hate to make him seem like a hick.

I don't see how not being familiar with a figure from bumping 500 years before makes him ignorant. She was hardly Vlad Dracula.


A demon from the outer dark possessing a human being and somehow making that human body unaging and immortal seems fitting to me, somehow.

"Somehow through meditation I must have been tapping into the formidable psychic powers I'd given up in taking this form," she said.

It was a deliberate choice on my part. I wanted the end to be very stark and very grim. I wanted it to be shot in black and white, and mostly silent.

And that's pretty much how it scanned for me.

So I did it that way.

It's a risky decision, but I'm going to hope that I made the characterizations strong enough beforehand that the final denouement hits with the impact I was looking for.


The impact was there-- I just wanted more, somehow.


I try to make my fictional worlds credible, and one way I do that is to stick in things I myself find objectionable.

But- but- but- you didn't make it a urinal...

Well, he's in hell now, and not my problem.

-You did stick Cheney into the list of evil butchers, and that was suwEET!


I know where you're coming from. It just felt clumsy to me to put the memorial in the radioactive ruins of Old New York. But, y'know, maybe they'd do that. I'll think about it. It would be neater.

And somehow more Heinleinesque.


Glad you liked it. I think REQUIEM is the story I know as THE LONG WATCH, and it's probably my favorite Heinlein story ever, and has had an enormous amount of influence on my writing... my heroes are forever sacrificing themselves nobly (often in great big explosions, at that, which is a relic of Goodwin and Simonson's last MANHUNTER story, which had a huge impact on me as a kid). I'm a sucker for that shit, and yes, that final passage is directly patterned on the final passage in THE LONG WATCH.

Good catch. I dug out my copy of THE PAST THOUGH TOMORROW last night, and REQUIEM, the story coincidentally right before THE LONG WATCH, was Harriman finally getting to go to the moon and not getting a grand monument. How you knew what the hell I meant is a mystery to me.


I love Vassily Emil Ubdov. He's been a supervillain creation of mine since high school. I really enjoyed working him in. He didn't used to have the Rob Liefeld killer cyborg body, but I figured what the hell, if you're going cheesy, you might as well go real cheesy.

Hell yeah.

My only worry was that the confrontation with him was much too brief

Nah. A rotten body in a home-made exoskeleton run by a nerd who'd probably never been in an actual fight in his life versus two deadly trained professional killers? Besides, it met the needs of the story pace.


p.s. YOU KILLED THEM OFF!? Hey! I didn’t want them to die! Where’s the three-way? Ack; you made me care, you mean, mean man.

I regret that I wasn't clear enough that this was a joke and a compliment.

 

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