Web Search nikon coolpix digital cameras The Miserable Annals of the Earth: October 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fear Masters (4)

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



XIII.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XIV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the growling.

Coming closer.

And we didn’t have our guns.

XV.

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

And we had no guns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our weapons,” I corrected her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Z for zombie?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?” I repeated. “Out where?”

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

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

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


AUGH where the hell is the rest of the post GIVE IT TO ME NOW!

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.”


AUGH where the hell is the rest of the post GIVE IT TO ME NOW!