© by Gary L Morton, (15,000 words)
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It began with a heavy rumble and nightmarish quake-shaking. The men threw their hands up and pounded the cell walls. This was something big, bigger than anything that'd hit before. End-of-the-world big. It had the underground of the planet on a crazy seesaw. Paul hung in his cell, riding it like a wild horse, knowing that somewhere out there cowards were on their bellies, praying for a quick end to it.
But there would be no quick end here, there would be a blood-red end, because the walls and force fields were coming down and it might as well have been the heavens tumbling and opening the pit of Hades. The black soot of forgotten doom rode in through new windy cracks in the earth. Doom and terror because if these men broke free they'd pick up the pieces of a shattered Earth and build a new world so ugly there'd be no one left human enough to disown it.
Three hundred men, human monsters, put away forever -- some of the lowest men who'd ever lived. Swine kept in isolation because they couldn't be put even two together without murder happening. Every one of them a killer and every one of them a mad cannibal. Paul knew how dangerous they were because he was one of them, and he knew it was party time because he saw the lights in the lock mechanism die and his cell door swing automatically open. It meant that somewhere the walls had crumbled enough for some men to escape. And if some were out they would all be out soon.
A guard laser camera flashed as he stepped out. He saw it fall from the niche, knocked right out of the wall. Dodging the beam, he jumped to the side and picked it up, swept the prism along the wall and watched a black strip sizzle where it hit. Silver flashed from a guardbot at the corner, but it was immobile - frozen. “Hum, the lockup computer is totally down,” he thought, and then he hit the robot with the beam and watched its head burst. Silicon and yellow liquid burned. Circuits hissed like straw. “Just the thing I need,” he muttered. Sliding the protector across the slot, he disarmed it. More rumbling hit, throwing him to the floor, but he got up moments later, feeling the vibrations weaken. The place was still rocking, and now rolling with the joyous shouts of escaping cons. The labyrinth settling like maybe it had found a new bottom and the heavens weren't really going to sink all the way down.
Paul shivered in the heat, the damp and mist had come in when the air conditioning went out. It meant that winds from the surface had penetrated, cooling the steaming hot tunnels above the prison. A hell of stone corridors and steel chambers ran in front of him. And in the ghosting dust, he could see a flare, and then fire flashing as doors were welded free. Walking into the echoing chorus of freedom, he made his way to the action. Three green-tinted faces emerged from the eerie gloom created by the backup camera placements. The first man was Big Marvin, his chiseled face as mean as his reputation. A man who'd devoured his children, a man who had never smiled, and a man who wasn't smiling now. What he would want in this situation, Paul couldn't begin to guess. No one could read Marvin's warped mind.
The second face was Freddy Lake, the university boy, known as the prom killer twenty-five years ago when he'd come in, and the third was Jacklac Martin, the hungry highwayman - a guy with eyes set too far apart like the two halves of his brain weren't quite in touch.
Freddy was the first to act, stepping hurriedly ahead of the others, and saying, “Wow, you got a laser, Paul, old buddy! A laser and you're dead because I want it.” He lunged and Paul ducked back, got in with a hard boot that stopped him, then Big Marvin stepped up, grabbed Freddy and slammed him into the wall. Freddy came reeling back only to be slammed again, and Marvin didn't stop. He grimaced and huffed, but he didn't stop -- he slammed Freddy until his skull was mush and blood vomit and his body broken bones and pulp. When he'd finished he threw the bleeding corpse to the floor. “Anybody hungry! It's dinner time!” he hollered.
“Reckon I'll take my piece of him,” Jacklac said as the laughter and shouting grew deafening; only Marvin grabbed Jacklac by the throat, lifted him and held him while the crowd of men ran up. Hungry blackened faces and dangerous eyes loomed out of the dark, but no one dared to try passing Marvin. Shouts were still echoing far down the corridors, but here all fell silent. “Freddy tried to fuck around,” he said, Jacklac's right eye popping wide as he shook him for emphasis. “So don't you boys forget that, unless you want to end up the same. Now -- and I mean right now, I'm taking Jacklac and Paul and we're going up to pay Uncle Henry a visit. If you boys got your heads on straight, you'll remember that Uncle Henry is the only man who survived the big block-fifteen break twenty years back. He knows how to get out of this crap hole, so I'm going to find out. You boys can hoot it up, have a party, settle some scores -- but remember, I'll be back soon and there will be order. I expect to see table manners and obedience, 'cause I need order to make this escape work. I'm damn well getting us outa here. So let's hear it - are you with me or not?”
The shouts rang out, a deafening roar as Marvin turned and signaled Jacklac and Paul to follow him. Shouts like a howl from some grander hell above as some of the men fell like animals on Freddy's corpse.
Paul knew the way to the back of the compound, so he stepped into the lead, feeling very uncomfortable with Marvin at his back. Bleak corridors twisted and turned and the new emergency settings caused doors to hiss open automatically as they approached. Muddy water and slime trickled in spots where the walls had crumbled completely. It was an environment about as friendly as a muddy moon base, and Paul knew it had its own kind of aliens, somewhere lurking, waiting to feed on escaping cons.
The tunnels brightened as they got higher, and they were nearly there when they heard someone shuffling behind them. Paul stopped, looked to Marvin and lifted the laser, prepared to confront an enemy. White showed in the light, a man walked up … a thin man with a clown like baby face and big blue eyes. He stopped, grinning foolishly at Marvin.
“What's up, Doctor?” Marvin said. “Didn't you like the party?”
“Thought you might need some help with Uncle Henry.” He patted his black bag. “If he doesn't want to talk. Tell us the way out. I could help persuade him. A little operation, something like that.”
“Forget it. Uncle Henry is the most dangerous man alive. That's why his cell is in the most stable rock. I'll just have to trick him, talk the dope out of him. Can't risk going in to torture him.”
“Say, Doc,” Jacklac said, putting on a slimy smile. “A lot of the cells we opened had only skeletons in them. You're the only person who ever got around the place, having that special medical emergency pass. If they're dead that means you ate them. Know what else. I think you're here 'cause you want protection. You don't want to help with Uncle Henry. You're just scared of what's gonna happen if the men decide to punish you.”
“Those men died of natural causes. I'm only a general practitioner. I couldn't save everybody that got sick. It's a miracle that I didn't get ate myself. Half the time the guardbots couldn't get me in on emergencies -- guys kept holding me in their cells, using me as a fuck buddy.”
“Whoa!” Marvin said, and then his mood turned so foul Paul saw black rings form around his eyes. “So you're the fuck doctor. Just an asshole piece of meat. Well that's good, because we need a doctor. You're to attend to me, taking care of my wounds. Otherwise you'll be like rare steak.”
The Doctor nodded, Paul frowned, Marvin calmed down and they turned and walked on. Walls went from stone to metal, the final door was open a crack, frozen in that position. It was just enough for them to squeeze through.
They found themselves on a dim observation platform facing a well-lit brightly painted cell and Uncle Henry. Both the cell and Henry were spotless, highlighting the fact that Henry had been a school janitor before his arrest. All the schools Henry had transferred through had been kept spotless. Police even found the silver Henry used to eat his victims to be spotless. His status as the most dangerous man alive came from the fact that he also ate cops. “Always liked the clean look of a man in uniform,” Henry had said. Thirty-seven cops were skewered by Henry. Their badges placed on plaques in his boiler room, where he often showed them to students and others. None of them ever figuring out the story behind the badges.
If Marvin's problem was that he frowned all the time, Uncle Henry's was that he grinned too much. He heard the men enter, but ignored them. Instead, he got up and went to his food machine. A coke popped out, and he grinned then took a swig. The coke brought an old argument to Paul's mind -- some of the prisoners said the food machines proved they weren't buried too far down, while others said the fact that humans didn’t service them proved they were at the centre of the Earth.
Henry savored the coke, his gray eyes distant like a vulture's, like he might be considering the argument too -- and while considering it, he was also like a vulture in patience. He knew the meat had come to the desert, so he was in no hurry to feast.
Paul heard a faint whir then saw a flash on metal. It was a guardbot coming to life at the far end of the observation platform. Moving out of the gloom it raised its weapons arm. Uncapping the laser, Paul swept the beam over and up, quickly hitting the bot. It reflected off the body then began to burn when it made contact with the faceplate. Green heat flashed on the wall as the bot fired and missed, then its head short-circuited, licked out fire, blackened and froze.
The light and the darkness shifted on Marvin's face as he studied Uncle Henry -- he had the look of a grim predator. One staring out of his pit at a smiling animal he feared but couldn't quite comprehend. “We're leaving,” Marvin said, his voice echoing in the chamber. “Thought we'd come over to say goodbye.”
“Yep, you're leaving, but you won't be visiting that great beyond up yonder. Not unless I show you the way.”
“He's right,” Paul said. “I might as well cut the door with my laser.”
“There's no need to free him,” Marvin said. “Henry can either talk, or else I can bring up some boys to subdue him and let the doctor operate on him till he talks.”
“That right, Doc?” Henry said. “After all these years, all the fresh meat you brought me, you're going to stick me?”
Doc's face reddened, Marvin slowly turned to face him. “You son of a bitch,” he said as he slugged him hard in the jaw.
Doc staggered back, falling in the darkness. “We ain't got time to torture Henry,” Jacklac said. “The men will get restless.”
“Torture wouldn't work anyway,” Paul said. “We need Henry with us, we don't know which tunnels are open, and no one else can figure a way.”
Marvin nodded. “So long as you know you're not number one, Henry. I'm in charge of this expedition.”
Henry walked up to the heavy Plexiglas door. “So long as you know that your number and everybody's number is going to be up if we don't find the surface fast.”
Paul removed the laser's cap and began to cut. The beam locked into a straight line, showering sparks as he traced a rectangle. Rainbow rivulets of melt flowed out as he deepened the groove. He saw Marvin's hunted face in the reflection and Henry waiting patiently -- the inches-thick plastic giving him the look of being encased in amber.
Finished the cutting, Paul capped the laser and Henry heaved from inside. The block snapped and slid out. Paul pushed it aside, and entered with Marvin and Jacklac following. Henry made no hostile moves as they joined him in the light; he merely waved them over to his table, where they pulled up chairs. As they settled, Paul unfolded a large sheet of paper that was to be their map.
Henry spoke first. “The big bustout twenty years ago failed for a number of reasons. The number one reason was infighting. It's hot and ugly in them tunnels. Men with scores to settle can't be contained. What have we got - 300 men, and who knows how many of them got beefs?”
“That's why I left them partying,” Marvin said. “By the time we get back there will be a lot less men. And those left will have blown out some of the steam.”
“Excellent,” Henry said. He turned his head slightly as the Doctor walked in. “How about the doc? You feel you got to settle something with him?”
Marvin gave the doctor a nasty glance. “He's scum, but anybody else probably would've done worse than he did.”
“Maybe, Paul said. “Keep in mind that I don't touch human flesh. I was framed, and I don't carry the cannibal gene, just like I’ve been saying all these years.”
Marvin's frown deepened to a point where it looked like his skin would crack. “You was framed. Why don't you save that shit for the boys at the drugstore back home? Save it because there isn't anybody here that'll believe it. We know you worked as a detective. And we also know that you're Mr. Dick with a big appetite.”
Paul threw his chair back as he jumped up. Marvin was on his feet nearly as fast. “All right, cut the crap,” Henry said. “Sit down before I kill you both . . . 'cause I don't want to work with guys that crack before the pressure's even on.”
Paul grabbed his chair and sat first.
“You can forget making a map.” Henry said. “Those tunnels wind too much for me to remember it that way.”
“There must be something we can list?” Paul said.
“Yeah, there is,” Henry said. “It's more like environment. Down here in the lower portions, the stone is hard, dark and there isn't any water. We have to take enough to get most of the way. You can survive by drinking blood, but I recommend water. There are certain passages we have to find and take or else we just go in circles. These passages are marked by a symbol. It is embossed in the stone near the turnoffs and nearly invisible in most cases. Half of the men died last time before we even figured that out. Next level has water and rock of various textures and shades. It is also softer rock. Some tunnels are natural and run up to an underground river. It's when you reach the river that life gets easy and hard. There are supposed to be guards there somewhere, although we never encountered them. What we encountered was far worse. Something ugly enough that it killed everyone but me. Now that particular problem is one I won't be talking about until we're there. There is a secret you have to know there or you don't make it. I think the biggest hazard may be the surface itself, because no one knows where we will emerge, or who or what will be there. We need at least a few men alive and healthy when we reach it. Maybe more. We could be up against an army for all I know. Anyone have any ideas as to what happened up there?”
“I've been thinking,” Jacklac said. “An explosion as big as what we heard looks to be an earthquake, nuclear stuff or a meteor smashing the Earth. But I don't think that's what it was. I think we were executed.” He put up his hand to silence Marvin. “That's right, executed. They think they blasted and buried us, only it didn't work. If you think about it, it's the most likely thing. A new government came in and decided to finish us. And that means we got a chance. They slipped up for a moment when they brought me down and I saw big earth-moving machinery at that underground river. If there's no natural passage out we could dig out. And if we come out in a secluded spot they won't even know it 'cause they think we're dead.”
Henry nodded, Paul nodded, Marvin nodded and the Doctor looked skeptical.
“I'm inclined to believe Jacklac,” Paul said. “They wouldn't build an underground prison in an earthquake zone and a nuclear explosion wouldn't even shake us up. But that means something else. And that something else is that they may be sending a team down to make sure we're dead. Think about it, they need an official record.”
“You're probably right,” Henry said. “And we're going to get up there and wait for that team. Then we're going to kill them and ride out of here.”
“Yeah, and you're gonna ride on the back of the bus, black boy,” said a voice from the darkness. “In the body rack.”
Paul lifted his laser. Marvin, Jacklac and the doctor threw their chairs back and got ready to fight. Henry remained sitting, not appearing to be upset at all. Several faces showed in the dim light near the door, all of them pale prison white. Gunmetal gleamed.
“Well, if it isn't Bobby Jenson,” Marvin said. “I thought I told the boys to kill you.”
“You did, but your boys failed,” Bobby said, his eyes flashing red behind a huge forehead that hung out like another piece of the rock wall. “Failed and got cooked, so to speak. And you're gonna get cooked, 'cause I like to get strong on the blood of my enemies.”
Paul spoke. “Where'd you get the rifles?”
“A stash,” Bobby said. “I'm no stupid nigger. I'm in here on a special deal. The guards set it up with us before we came down. A way of saving us from the niggers. The deal was that if a disaster happened we get the rifles and lead the men up to the guardhouse, where we'll get amnesty. Freedom road, and we don't have to worry about fighting the army. Course the rest of the men will get iced, but they don't know that.”
Uncle Henry stood, slapped his thigh, and then he laughed in a creepy way. “And you think the guards won't kill you? Well, you're right about not being a nigger. But when it comes to the stupid part, you're brainless and more than that.”
“Shut up, 'cause you dead,” said one of Bobby’s men.
“Right,” said Bobby, then he looked to Paul. “You can join us if you want, Paul. We need a good man. But Jacklac and the doctor are dead meat and good food. They sucked too much nigger dick.”
Paul looked to Marvin, and Henry.
“Get out of here, white boy,” Henry said. “We never wanted you anyway.”
“Sure,” Paul said, and then he stepped to the side quickly with fingers on the cap of the laser, ready to release the beam if Marvin or Jacklac made a move for him. Marvin grimaced, took half a step then froze, hatred painted on his face as he watched Paul move to the rectangle he'd cut in the cell wall. Reaching the hole, Paul stepped out, pulled the cap off the beam, sent the laser flying, and threw himself back into the cell.
Fire flew from the barrel of Bobby's rifle. But he had expected Paul to just step out and get slaughtered, and his shot was too late. Now the laser was sliding across the floor and spinning, the deadly beam revolving. It had been designed to kill escaping cons, designed to cut flesh and bone. And it got them quick, cutting their ankles, sending them screaming to the floor.
Rifles hit the stone, some wild shots went off, blood splashed … there was a lot of screaming as the crippled men crawled on the floor. Bobby was groaning as he bled, but clear-headed enough to head for the laser, which was stationary now, burning a hole in the stone.
Marvin beat Paul to the door, and Henry was second. It was only seconds and all five of them were on the observation platform, using rifles and the laser to put Bobby and his racist backstabbers out of their misery.
Paul capped the laser, watching as Marvin went down with the knife. Bobby choked with pain and fear. “Time for the dog's dinner,” Marvin said, and started hacking at Bobby's neck.
“Damn laser is dangerous,” Henry said, and he laughed like a crazy man, listening to Bobby let out a scream and a gurgle. “You know what, Paul? You're smarter than I thought.”
“I knew Bobby wanted me out so he could get the laser. As long as I had it, they didn't have us. The way it is, I guess we saved the guards the trouble of killing them.”
“Jeeze, Marvin. What are you doin'?” Jacklac said. “I don't want Bobby's head.”
“Yeah, well, you're getting it,” Marvin said. “And you're goin' ahead with it. You're to show it to the men and tell them we're still in charge and how Bobby and his boys planned to sell them out.”
“If you say so,” Jacklac said. Taking the dripping head, he disappeared in the dark corridor.
Henry turned to the doctor. “Use your knives and take some quick prime cuts from those boys. Use the vent plastic to wrap them. Then you run ahead to Jacklac and hand them out to the men. Say it's a present from Henry.”
The tunnels were warming, air currents settling. Odors of decay touched Paul's nostrils. Corpses littered chambers already buried in the falling dust, revealing the devil as a hungry beast feeding on his children. Paul had a vision of sunshine in his mind and when he looked at Henry and Marvin, he imagined they saw it too. Genetic cannibals hunted more than raw flesh. It had to do with the dark side. Media, the police, the common people all believed these prisoners to be inhuman monsters. But that wasn't the case in full. Killers that argued they were still human had a point in that it was partially true. But the dark animus remained a trickster, a coyote … it convinced a man to live with his family, love his children and friends -- have all the good things of life and still go on killing. Like an alien growing in the background, keeping him under control. Henry probably wasn’t the worst man alive, Paul knew better than that -- he just cast a longer shadow than the others cast, and was also the first victim of the shadow, the first man swallowed by its darkness.
Sunshine was always like a dream for these men … as they would never really walk in it. They couldn’t walk out of the darkness, Paul knew that. Or if they did, they'd bring the fog along. They owned the darkness and the soot and decay of the tunnels. They'd blacken the world and the hearts everyone they touched. He wanted to live, get a new start, since there was no one left, nowhere to return. The way he saw it he was as disconnected as any man, but he wasn't a wolf, who wanted to run hungry on the town. He believed he had the right to a new life, but Henry, Marvin and the others were owed no rights. They were like dogs that’d tasted human flesh and could only be put to sleep. Ravenous dogs with eyes so red even the wan light of the new moon would make them drool, snarl and snap. Anger existing as a memory of their lost humanity. They had memories of the sunshine inside, he was sure of it. Sure that the shadow never took over completely. There was light for it too. Sunshine that was a haunting recollection of humanity and all that had been buried by the darkness. The torment of the damned is a lingering memory of kinder days that burns like fire. And kinder days are often like childhood in that you can never go back.
Marvin's soot-blackened face was starting to look like a mask - a theatre mask of disgust mostly. But it wasn't the corpses or the smell. It was the fact that so many men were dead already. “Damn,” he said. “Wasn't there anybody that didn't have a beef?”
“Better that way,” Henry said. “More men come up with more ways to slow things down. The way it is we have to move fast to get out of the hot tunnels and to the water. Just a touch too slow and we'll be dead.”
“Why do you keep worrying about water?” Marvin said. “We got plenty.”
“Not water, the heat. The tunnels are narrow and hot. They widen near the river and get cooler. Fatigue then delirium and stroke will get us. Eventually it would even get us here. With the air conditioning out we couldn't stay even if we wanted to.”
Paul walked ahead and was the first to spot the main body of men ... or what remained of them. They were in an area where cell walls had collapsed, creating a small cavern. Most were sitting now, looking tired. Corpses were stacked like sandbags against the rubble and one man was on his knees there, chewing on the raw flesh of a half-crushed body.
Spotting the men, Henry hurried ahead. He looked around, shook his head with disgust. Walking up to the bodies, he put his rifle to the back of the feeding man's neck and killed him with one shot. The head imploded with a sickening crunch. “You boys look like a dirty lot,” he said. “But you'll show some table manners around me or end up like him.”
“Where are the rest of the men?” Marvin said to Jacklac.
Jacklac nodded to Alfred Greering, the red chef, and he stepped forward. “Some took off during the fight with Bobby, and the rest left while he went to get you. Then things got out of hand and more was killed during our little party. Some guardbots caught our scent but we managed to blow up a tunnel and block them. Unfortunately, some of the men are trapped with them. You can hear them now if you listen. I think the bots are torturing them.”
Henry listened, and did hear some faint howling. “You people make me sick,” he said, looking at the moping men. “We got a rough climb ahead of us and you're already exhausted. Ah, never mind. Stick with me and you at least got a chance. The others that ran off don't. Getting out of here is a tight squeeze and they won't find the hole.” He kicked the lid off a broken toilet. “I want you boys to line up here and clean the filth off your faces. I don't travel with dirt bags.”
The march began two abreast and single file. Since Paul was the fittest, Marvin put him in the lead. A short but wide corridor and a massive steel door marked the exit, and the name Jonathan Breaker's Maximum Security Prison was riveted into the arch. The men looked up at it in awe, most of them silent, a few muttering. Many of them hadn't realized what they were up against until now -- and they could feel weight of the name bearing down on them like giant shackles, reminding them that Breaker’s mark of Cain was on them. There would be no escaping the scars of a lifetime.
Things kept on the level for some distance then the tunnel began to narrow and wind uphill. Walls closed in and the dust and heat rose with them, locking each man in his own feverish prison of mind. Some muttered, others cursed - all of them off in their own gloomy thoughts, but still seeing a common light of hope that kept them together. At such close quarters, Paul couldn't help thinking of the others, their vile crimes and his own past. His mind drifted across cannibal history like a ghost floating back across hated yesterdays. Marvin was probably the most ridiculous cannibal to consider, even though he never laughed. Some warped people in his old Boston neighborhood thought of him as a hero. Marvin had the cannibal flaw all right, but he’d decided to use it to clean up the neighborhood and ate the trash -- junkies, wire heads. When his children went bad he ate them too. On conviction, the judge called him a despicable man and definitely not a hero. Paul agreed with the ruling, thinking of Marvin’s diseased mind.
Jacklac had killed by fires, and his bushy brows and intense stare made it seem like he was always seeing the flames. He was another somewhat ridiculous killer. After casing a joint and setting a fire, he would rush back and affect a rescue; only instead of being saved, the victim was driven to his lair and eaten. A couple times the cops arrived when he was emerging from the flames with a victim, and he got in the papers as a hero. There were many fires before a smart detective caught on to his action.
Henry's profile was that of a classic eccentric man turned psycho. As a boy with a cleanliness fixation, he'd wanted to grow up to be a janitor so he could polish the world, but something went wrong and he ended up eating clean people with polished utensils. Henry had been studied by more shrinks and computer rhythms than any other prisoner, but studied from a distance because he killed people instantly, without warning. Henry always used the fastest, most effective method, and he smiled while doing the job like he was happy about getting a hen ready for the oven. His aging face had the creases of a kind old man, and that meant he was still the most dangerous man alive. He could walk back into the world, smiling pleasantly; killing everywhere he went without being suspected.
Paul's own sheltered boyhood in a tiny Canadian village was nothing like the city backgrounds of the others. They were surrounded by violence while he had experienced none. He remembered his first date -- Jenny Wentworth, an average blond girl, and they took potato chips and Coke along to a reinvented drive in movie theatre in the countryside. No dope, no guns, and some hot kisses during the flick. Back then, he could not have imagined a character like Marvin. People like him were on the big city news, but always as something distant and not quite believable.
Faint moans echoed down tunnel, pulling Paul back from memories to the situation at hand. Marvin tapped him on the shoulder. “Soon as you see them kill them,” he said.
A few more steps and he saw two men in the shadows ahead. Collapsed, with blood and dirt on their faces, they posed no threat. Paul stopped, turned. “Maybe we better ask them what happened.”
Marvin's face screwed tight with hate. “I told you to kill them, now do it.”
“Bullshit,” Paul said. “I don't just kill someone without thinking about it.”
“Why don't you look me in the eye when you say that, you shifty bastard?”
“Maybe I don't like the sick hunger I see in your eyes.”
“Yeah, or maybe it's because you're gutless and you don't want me to see that.”
“I'm glad you brought this up, because when I was in the army I had a sergeant who said the same thing. Could be that I am gutless, or it could be that I think you got something rotten inside and I don't want it to see me and crawl out. Can't say that I know what it is, but most days I think it's that I've seen so much pain and misery on this planet I'm trying to hide it from others. Just so their souls won't get blackened, too. When I worked as a detective too many people touched me. They put their third-world pain in me and I couldn't do anything to help them. The world you want to get back to is a graveyard full of babies and children screaming and dying while the rest of the inhuman creeps kick their corpses aside to get the dollars and land underneath. People and corporations that can put on kinder smiles than Henry can, and do it while they're killing. And with you, Marvin, it's not just that - I don't want you to look in me because there's a mirror inside. One that will show you who you are and make you face the ugly truth -- guys like you make this world an even bigger place of pain and misery.”
Marvin's face reddened, he got so angry he nearly choked, then his eyes popped and he drew his fist back slowly like Paul's words had shocked his brain so bad he could only move in slow motion. But at that moment, Henry whipped him hard with the rifle barrel, sending him into the wall. Paul was also caught off guard as Henry knocked him aside and walked up to the two moaning men. They turned pleading eyes to him but it didn't stop him from pulling the trigger quick. A point blank execution that darkened the damp walls with running blood. Wisps of acrid smoke drifted from the barrel of Henry's gun, “I've seen too much misery, too,” he said. “It's better that those boys got put out of pain.” He watched Marvin get up. “Paul's right, you got a miserable look 'cause you're a misery bringer like a rabid dog's a misery bringer. From now on you walk in lead and keep your thoughts on the light at the end of the tunnel. The men don't need bossing from you.”
Marvin shambled into the lead, and then Henry rubbed part of the wall above the two corpses. The faint image of a grinning skull was embossed there. “We're at the turnoff, it's just ahead. Some of the men must've made it. That's lucky for us. We'll just leave 'em ahead and let the forces of ugliness up there swallow them.” Turning to Jacklac, he spoke low, “In a few minutes I want you to go back a ways and kill any laggers hanging back to feed on the corpses. Sharks we don't need, so this is a way of weeding them out before they backstab the rest of us.”
“No problem,” Jacklac said. “I'll make short of them.”
“And the doctor will make short ribs of them,” Henry said. “You got that, Doc? In case we need food I want you to have some freshly wrapped.”
The doctor lifted his black bag and patted it. “Yep, I got that, and I just happen to specialize in that sort of meat cutting.”
The tunnels wound on like the belly of a hot snake, graduated colors of calcium and flowstone making up the scales of the beast. Stalagmite grotesqueries blocked their path and mocked them with the memory of the water that had once flowed there. Crushed volcanic earth and pumice poured through splits, bringing odors of a long dead world that had once existed above. Images of the planet surface appeared like multifaceted mirages in their minds. Deserts, desolation - polished bones in the sands of nuclear destruction - the broken rockets of science fiction worlds that had blossomed and died. Lush greenery grew on earths of yesteryear, rolling and unfolding through earthquakes to new nature continents of today. Scenery and humans nearly too beautiful to imagine appeared in the light of tinted suns. Beings of flesh and blood -- red wine to quench their cannibal thirst, and bodies that were the bread of life. Humans to stalk in a new hunting ground. Carcasses to feast on in a new lawless world.
In the thirst and hunger, heat and dryness, their hearts beat like drums of ancient times while the wind moaned down the tunnels like the haunting voice of some witchdoctor king of cannibals. Soon the air was moistened by this witch doctor's breath and he brought up sweat on their backs. In the lonely lamentations, Paul heard a faint roar, stopped and turned to Henry. He pointed to the eerie light in the widening gap ahead. “It's the river, we've made it,” he said.
Sweat dripped from Henry's brows like they were dams in the river. “We're out of the heat,” he said, “but we've a long ways to go.”
Marvin was ahead, standing in the gap, and he groaned with awe then hurried back. “Amazing,” he said, “the cavern and river are so big I can't believe it. But there's too much space for men to wander off. I'm going to have to warn them.”
“Okay,” Henry said. “You lead the men out, gather them by the river, warn them and make them all wash. Paul, the doctor and I are remaining here in the gap.”
“Why?” Marvin said.
“A little barbecue. It gets dangerous ahead. I don't want to die without having at least a good last meal.”
“Sure,” Marvin said, and then he turned to Jacklac. “Call back - we're at the river and I want everyone to follow me out.”
Paul sat on a boulder watching the men march by - their faces excited but also somewhat haggard and blackened. Fact was they were out of shape and the long march had taken its toll. The river would rejuvenate them like a river of blood. And like a river of blood, it would drown some of them in red nightmares. The doctor was last, coming up with his package of flesh, and he grinned and patted it as he sat. Henry went to work, building a fire with a palm-sized portable burner, and in a minute had a solid blaze going in a small pit of stones. As well as medical supplies, the doctor's bag contained his favorite seasoning. Seasoning he handed over to Henry, who had the skillet heating up.
Taking a chocolate bar from his pack, Paul munched slowly, watching the smoke rise and rush out of the tunnel with the air currents. Human flesh was the last thing on his mind, and the seasoned stuff Henry was cooking smelled more like steak than something ugly. Out of the smoke came a vision of a bar, and Paul remembered his last day with Janine. That was a few days before his arrest - a Dear John meeting. He could hear her voice all over again - “You're weird, Paul. A man should want to build a home, make money, gain prestige, happiness, and a place in the sun of the good life. But you spend all your time crying over the disadvantaged, doing work for free. Those people can't be helped because there are too many of them, and I, for one, am not going to waste time trying to get a life raft to the half of the world that is already dead. I intend to live and live well. And to live with a man who cares about me instead of every grubby peasant in the world.”
Rather than hurt, the pain was as distant as glaciers. He'd done too much time to feel pain and now he was one of the people who couldn't be helped. In the beginning, a male prisoner longs for a woman, for love or the love he lost. Then he starts to freeze over, become an alien - one who has to be alone. A person who can no longer live life as a partnership. Years of loneliness made him a loner who could only be alone. Love passed before his eyes like a distant movie. He could never love again, though he could love the better elements of the human race as something from a distance. And the others were like him to a degree, if they had any love or care for humanity when they came in it was gone now. They were frozen over - cannibals without feelings and there wasn't a person in the world that would be safe from them. Not a single person they wouldn't kill and eat.
Henry had brought stale Kaisers and was eating someone now, and it would've turned Paul's stomach if it looked that way. Instead, it looked and smelled like he was eating steak on a bun. Henry bit sweetly into the meat, his lips curling with satisfaction. Although he killed viciously, he ate with the habit of an eccentric chef who just happened to prefer human meat. The doctor's table manners were also immaculate, likely because Henry would've killed him long ago if they weren't. Paul wondered what the doctor saw when he looked at him - meat on the slab, a corpse he wanted to have sex with - probably not much more than that. It became obvious that Henry could not possibly care about the rest of the men - filthy swine that ate half-rotted corpses. The fact that most of them would die like swine was probably the fact that made him grin all the time.
Footsteps squished as Jacklac returned carrying a jug. “I took a bath and brought some fresh water, so how about sharing some of them good eats.”
“Sure, we got plenty,” Henry said. “Paul's not hungry today.”
“Good,” Jacklac said. “Keep it up, Paul, and I just might believe you been framed. But so far I believe you just aren't happy 'cause you can't get toast and butter with yours.”
Henry laughed and the doctor snickered, then a scream echoed in from the outside. Shouts, the sound of splashing water and more screaming followed. Paul and Jacklac took off, leaving Henry and the doctor behind as they ran out. Green walls lit by yellow sulfur and the placid blue waters of the river flowing smoothly by - the scene nearly hypnotized Paul. Then he spotted men struggling a ways down the bank. Most of the men were running toward him, fleeing something by the water. Lifting his laser, he waited while the men passed.
The rest of the men broke free and ran and he noted that their attacker was Joe Diggle, known as the green cannibal, because of his habit of stashing bodies in pits full of greens and herbs. Diggle was one of the men who had gotten ahead of them, and though he was recognizable, he wasn't quite the same. A horrible growth was attached to his head and his face had contorted into a ghastly expression. He faced off with Marvin who had his rifle ready.
Diggle charged and Marvin fired and kept firing, stopping him in his tracks, ripping his chest open - more bullets knocked his heart right out through his back. But they didn't stop him for more than a moment. He continued moving up on Marvin, a gruesome hole you could shoot the moon through in his chest - managing to growl hideously even though his lungs were gone. Marvin threw the rifle at him, turned and ran as it bounced uselessly away. Leaving Paul and his laser as the stopper.
Henry suddenly poked his head out into the light; he took a small bite of his sandwich, sipped water and watched Marvin flee past him into the tunnel. “Paul, the guy's become a spore head, you got to cut his head off or he won't die.”
“Gotcha,” Paul said, watching Diggle drip gore as he approached. Spore head, Henry wasn't kidding - It looked like seeded cow dung attached to his head. Whatever it was, it had rooted itself in his brain. He uncapped the laser and aimed it slowly and carefully, letting the beam hit Diggle's neck. Boiling blood spurted, Diggle's tongue shot out of his mouth into the air, and then he fell, his body twitching as his face shifted through hideous expressions as his head broke loose and rolled away.
Henry stepped out, walked up to the smoking head and booted it like a football into the river. “Same as last time,” He said, as Marvin walked up to him.
“You mean you knew this shit could happen and you didn't tell us?” Marvin said.
“Believing is in the seeing not the telling,” Henry said.
“What I see isn't easy to believe either,” Paul said. “I hope this doesn't mean that all the men ahead of us are turned into those things?”
“No,” Henry said. “Most of them are plain dead, but a few probably got bit.” He took a final bite of his sandwich and grinned. “This is the last of the good eats; from now on the men will have the poison in their blood. Eat any flesh and you become a zombie and die horribly.”
Jacklac ambled up and kicked Diggle's mangled corpse. “Gee, thanks for warning us, Henry. How many more surprises didn't you cue us in on?”
“Can't say I know just what surprises will come. For now we let the men rest briefly then move on.”
Paul gazed at the calm water and listened to the distant roar. Two of the men took Diggle's corpse by the arms, carefully avoiding the growth as they dragged it over and dumped it in the water. It sank, the growth going down last. Henry walked along the water's edge, passing the stain left by Diggle's corpse while the men rested against the wall. He didn't grin, appearing to have something dark on his mind. His face had paled, like maybe he was weakening. Maybe, but Paul guessed it as the mark of something else - fear.
He glanced at Marvin, who sat silent and glassy eyed. Perhaps considering the weird environment they had entered. Either that or it had hypnotized him like it had most of the other men. Without a doubt, Marvin and most of the men were weak. The edge had been taken off their senses, and they would be slow in a crisis. Paul felt he was still on top, sharper than the rest and about on par with Henry.
This was a place of shadows and most of them looked cast by real beings. They weren't of course, but if anything was hiding out there, it would be nearly impossible to spot before you were on it . . . or it was on you. Paul decided to walk in the lead, got up, and passed Henry at the water's edge. He turned, “I'll go on ahead,” he said to Henry.
He walked towards the roar, staying a step away from the water, harboring some childhood fear of a hand shooting out of the blue and seizing his foot. Red and yellow sulfur stained the walls, glowing like some monster's running blood. Especially thick in areas where the river canyon angled up to higher shelves of rock.
Freakish toadstools grew in the rock; huge brown-green things that released musty odors. Paul squinted, seeing a bizarre mass of these toadstools blocking the path. A couple steps closer and he noticed they were growing on a corpse. He raised his rifle then lowered it, realizing that shooting a corpse would be a waste.
“So this is how Diggle would've ended up,” he thought as he turned and waited for the men to catch up.
They approached him slowly, Henry in the lead. They paused, some of them looking fearfully up at the outcropping, and then they moved on, passing through some huge boulders that blocked most of the slope. Henry was about fifty feet away when Paul saw something they couldn't see - a mass of the toadstools, growing on the rock over the boulders. Only these ones were bluish and emitting a miasma of spores. Part of it appeared to be moving and as he watched, it broke off and fell - not a toadstool, but what looked like a spiked-shaped piece of rock.
Paul yelled but not in time, the spike hit, nailing one of the men. The man was Alex Sanders, a cannibal who'd made his name in the navy, striking in many foreign docks before the crimes were traced to him. He was a big man with a thick neck - big enough that he barely moved as the spike hit. It was fast. The thing penetrated his head and went straight into his brain.
Most the others didn't notice, but Marvin and Henry did and they jumped then began to run up the slope toward Paul. The rest of the men followed, leaving Sanders standing there with bulging eyes and the spike poking out of the top of his head.
“Damn son of a bitch!” Jacklac said as he pushed the cringing doctor away from him.
“What is this shit?” Marvin said.
“Freaksville,” Henry said, “they put an environmental stopper down here. I can't believe that happens naturally.”
Paul ignored them and the complaints of the rest of the men. He kept his eyes on Alex Sanders. Sanders tottered, his face swelling, turning bruise blue. His eyes expanding to fantastic proportions, then his skull spit - an ugly crack that made the men grind their teeth with fear and revulsion.
The growth oozed out, bubbling with blood and brain matter as it formed a gross cap on Sanders' head, then Sanders howled, spraying out saliva and blood. It was an inhuman howl - the birth cry of a monster and it shook the men with terror. They broke and ran as Sanders leapt - a leap you might expect from a mountain lion, but not from a man. His body arced and flipped and he went right over Paul and Henry and landed among the fleeing men. In a second, he had his hands on one of the black men … Jason Smith, mauling him with great strength.
Marvin swung his rifle, hammering Sanders in the back. But Sanders didn't notice the blow. He bashed Smith’s head on a rock and moved ahead, managing to seize the doctor.
Growling, he mauled the screaming doctor then Paul jumped him from behind and used the standard army tactic for breaking a man's neck. It worked - Sanders let go of the doctor and staggered. But his neck muscles were so thick and ropy his head remained stable on his broken neck. Unable to turn his head, he turned his whole body, and found himself facing Henry and a hatchet. Henry swung, catching him in the throat, chopping his head partway off. Then Marvin moved up as Sanders stumbled back a step. Thrusting the rifle up to the gouge in Sanders' throat, Marvin pulled the trigger - blasting his head off, sending the growth and most of his brain high up in the rocks.
Sanders’s body fell and rolled down to the water's edge, next to the doctor, who had also fallen. Blood and a blue miasma poured from his neck, enveloping the doctor as he tried to crawl away.
Eyes wild with fright, spittle flying from his lips as he blubbered, “God, oh god!” the doctor crawled back up from the water's edge … and as he was rising, Henry stepped out and kicked him in the face, hard enough to send him rolling back down.
“I'm afraid it's too late, Doctor,” Henry said, lifting his ax. “You've been infected.”
“No,” the Doctor choked. “I can heal myself.” Wiping blood from his nose, he started to rise again.
But Henry remained unconvinced and began to step down to him. Face whitening with fright, the doctor stared at Henry with disbelief for a moment, then he turned, splashed into the water and began to swim away. Going overhand he got to a black rock that broke the surface a ways out and held on, breathing hard. At about his fifth breath the water began the churn around him and he suddenly screamed. The glow reflecting from the water turned the whites of his eyes and his tongue bright silver, and then he went down, completely vanishing for several seconds.
Blood stained the water, a small column came up in a geyser and a severed foot shot from the spume at the top of it. “What in the hell is that?” Marvin said, taking a step back with the rest of the men.
“It's gone, whatever it is,” Paul said, watching the water spatter down and settle.
A pink stain drifted. “Guess the doctor's gone, too,” Jacklac said.
“I forgot to warn him about them,” Henry said. “The rule here is swim at your own risk.”
“What's in there, sharks?” Marvin said, shooting Henry a hostile glance.
“Things that look like eels or octopus tentacles. I saw them before they got me. That was years ago, on the first break. Bodies explode when they attach, then they feed on the remains.”
“Interesting,” Paul said. “But not surprising.” He looked Henry in the eye, then a growl echoed down from the path ahead and they turned to look. Some of the men had run off and got ahead during the scene with the doctor. Now they were uphill on the path and near a bend. But backing off, because three more of the fungus face zombies were coming around on the path.
These new zombies looked more like vegetables than human beings -- green-black with bloated, tentacled hands, lumps of mutated flesh for feet and torsos that were gashed with hair like fungus growing in the splits. Their faces were distorted like melted wax, and one of them had a single, large staring eye in the centre of its forehead. Expressions of hunger and hate still formed on the warped features. These were so ghastly and frightening that the men were unable to take their eyes off them and retreated by taking steps backwards.
Paul, Henry and Marvin, being the leaders, waited as the men retreated. Paul raised his laser and nodded to Henry, who also raised his weapon, and then they noticed that Marvin had a problem. He'd gone stiff, standing and trembling, not even raising his gun as they approached.
Looking to Henry, Paul raised his eyebrows. Henry shook his shoulders - a sign of mild wonderment in his eyes, then the shooting started . . . both Henry and Jacklac firing opening rounds at the one-eyed zombie. His head broke like a jar, dry rot and not blood oozed at the neck stump as he kept walking.
Paul knew they couldn't stop unfeeling creatures easily and he didn't have time to use the laser, so he went lower with his aim, taking out the knees. It worked and the zombie went down, now crawling slowly forward. Following suit, Henry took the other two down, and then watched as Paul seized Marvin and started dragging him back.
They moved away, going down the path toward the men - Henry's grin foul as he studied Marvin's trembling lips. Marvin had lost it and that was clear. His face was ashen, his eyes swollen. He wanted to say something but his lips shook and his tongue refused to work.
Suddenly angered by Marvin's cowardice, Paul slapped his cheek hard. “Speak up man!”
“He's lost his nerve,” Henry said. “I've seen it before. You're good as dead when that happens.”
“Hear that,” Paul said, slapping Marvin again. “You're yellow, so what you got to say about it.”
Marvin did speak this time, but his mood sure wasn't the murderous rage he would've been roused to only a few minutes back. “It's those things,” he said as he steadied himself. “They're made out of other bodies, bodies of people I ate. I ate bad guys, remember - some real scum of the earth creeps. We can't get caught by those things. They'll do worse things than eat us.”
Henry was binding a torch of sorts, using paper, wood and string. He turned to Marvin. “We can't get caught? Well, I hate to tell you this Marvin, but if we just freeze and wait for 'em to get us like you did, we will be killed.”
“I know,” Marvin said. “But it has to do with power. When I ate people, I always took their power into me. It makes me strong. Now I know that this river is sucking the power from me and throwing out those corpses.”
“Why do you say the river and not just the earth?” Jacklac said.
“Because water is power.”
“Not water, fire is power,” Henry said, soaking the torch with fluid from a can. Damping it just enough to burn, he lit it and ran forward up the rocks. Then he leapt right over the first corpse, which still moved, and swept the swath of flame into the second two bodies. They ignited like straw-soaked gasoline, Henry barely getting back past the first one before it went up. The flames were incredible. Paul couldn't believe what he saw in them. Not just bones popping like firecrackers, but faces melting, screaming, shifting in hideous contortions of blood-red fire -- the sounds unreal and in the back of his mind and not his ears.
Marvin was taking steps back, his eyes wide with horror, and the other men had retreated. Some screaming came from the rear and looking back, he saw some of the men dismembering a newly spiked corpse.
“Can't run and you can't hide,” Henry said to Marvin, a false look of sympathy showing in his lined features. “So you can either come up this rise with us or lag back and get hit from behind.” Using a damp cloth, he snuffed the torch and handed it to Marvin. “You can do the burning, if there are more of them.”
Jacklac had run back to behead the corpse, now he caught up, breathing hard. “We're losing control of the boys. If the ambushes get worse they might disperse and get picked off.”
“That's their problem,” Henry said. “We're going straight up the rise. Tell them to catch up or die.”
Paul moved into the lead again and some of the flash fires of hell fear caught on his heels, speeding him up. Henry was right about keeping on the move. If the dread got worse, it would be like panic city. Forcing the trek onward would at least get them moving and organized. Looking up he saw smoke in the false fractal sky, like they were walking to netherworld clouds. The surface had to be a world away. It was possible that a force that was neither bombs nor quakes had freed them. For a huge underground winding river/cavern system like this to exist in the first place, it would have to be tremendously stable. And that meant it wouldn’t be near a quake or possible war zone. Maybe they were at a rare geological moment and a big shift was happening. He glanced back at Henry, wondering how much he knew. He'd been put down to make sure guys like Henry never got a chance to escape. That had all changed a few years back when the messages stopped coming through. He couldn't even get out himself. What had happened and what was out there he didn't know; it was a world that had simply forgotten him. Now he was buried with dinosaurs wondering if the world had gone off on a completely new tilt. It didn't really matter; his personal world had ended on a day long ago. Janine didn't care about him. Stoned and in a fight, he'd killed a man and readily agreed to do his time on a false genetic cannibal charge, with the promise of a lot of cash and a new identity on his release. Perhaps it had all been a lie and the sentence was doom. Other cons would believe that now, but Paul didn't - in his bones, he could feel it - the world had changed in a big way.
Rivulets of sweat ran on Paul's back as he reached the top of the rise. Patterns swirled in the haze and for a moment he thought he was hallucinating. A huge fortress blocked the narrowing river in the distance, its windows shimmering like magic. He covered his eyes to block the glare then he heard moaning below. Glancing down he saw something else surprising, a small army of the zombies. The things created from images of Marvin's victims. “Damn,” how many people did you kill, Marvin?”
“Guess you never know till they all come back,” Henry said.
“Fuckin' shit!” Marvin hollered, shaking his fists at the stone heavens. “You can't do this to me, you can't!”
They ain't doin' nothing to us,” Henry said. “These ones are ripe enough to burn, and we're above them. Just descend with the torch and burn them.”
Jacklac moved up. “Shit, some of the men are down there. I better warn them”
“What?” Henry said. “I said everyone was to follow me.”
“Some of the boys thought the riverbank was safer. I gave them the go-ahead. They're supposed to meet up with us ahead.”
“Fuck 'em. They aren't worth saving,” Henry said. “I want Marvin to see what those things do when they get you.”
Paul said nothing, Jacklac shrugged his shoulders and Marvin gaped as they watched the men appear below. They rounded the bend and found themselves face to face with the monsters. George Delane was in the lead, and he fired a shot, tried to retreat and fell over the man behind him. Some confusion followed and during it a clutch of the creatures moved in and got Delane and his lieutenant. Howls echoed up as the rest of the men retreated.
Marvin looked at the torch in his hand, but cowardice prevented him from acting. The creatures piled on top of Delane, and Paul thought about going down, but what Henry had said was true - the men weren't worth saving. But worth saving or not it was hard to watch a man die that way and finally it became too much for Jacklac. “I used to kill by fire. Loved the flames. Give me that torch, Marvin.”
Marvin saw no reason to refuse, and Henry gave Jacklac the okay with a nod.
With the torch in hand, Jacklac swung around, moved down on the jagged face and began to climb. He was agile for a big man, looking a lot like a gorilla, swinging out a long arm to grasp new handholds. The creatures below spotted him right away, some of them rising from Delane to scratch at the wall.
Looking over his shoulder, Jacklac caught a glimpse of Delane's corpse under the rising creatures - nothing but grue and the white of bones like a pack of wild dogs had been feasting on him. It sickened him; it aroused him and lit the fire in his eyes. Getting his balance, he used his lighter to ignite the torch, and then he leapt down, landing next to the body. One zombie was behind him so he swung around and booted it hard, knocking it down on the stone. It scratched desperately as it slid into the water. Another creature was nearly on him - a hard left knocked it back. Jacklac noted that its flesh was cold, like hard rubber, then he hollered, “Die motherfuckers!” and ran swinging the torch.
The first clutch of the creatures caught fire, flames exploded and Jacklac ran into them, hammering at the bodies with his knees and elbows. Howling as torsos burst and heads flew. Hellish faces were mirrored in the flames, his skin was getting scorched so he retreated and wiped the soot from his face. A carpet of burning body parts lay in front of him, and just beyond the flames a crowd of unburned zombies waited.
He was ready to go for them, but he heard something above. Sounded like a rockslide. Looking up he saw dirt, rocks and Marvin sliding down. Marvin's face was torn by fright, the avalanche headed right for the largest body of zombies, and it hit, knocking a bunch of them down and sending Marvin rolling forward into the rest of them.
Jacklac ran with the fire, Marvin's screams ringing in his ears. Burning bones cracked underfoot, he threw the torch right into the mob, and they went up in a hellish inferno. Marvin was still inside, his screams buried by the roar and hiss of flames. Jacklac retreated from the heat, and a moment later he saw Marvin emerge from the soot and distortion - hair singed, his blackened face wild with fright. He ran toward the water, a dismembered arm, still burning, was locked to his leg, and a smoking head had attached itself to his shoulder, broken teeth locked into his flesh.
Marvin stumbled, his screams getting louder as he batted at the head, trying to knock it off. At the water, he fell on his butt and started to weep, but that only lasted a moment then he rose and jumped in.
Jacklac walked over and saw bubbles rising, but Marvin never came back up. He was just gone, like he'd been sucked right down into hell.
High up on the rock, Henry licked his lips and Paul aimed the laser. Only a few of the zombies were left so he'd decided to pick them off one by one. The beam flashed, flame licked up in the distance. “Got him,” Paul said, and then he swept the beam and fried two more.
“Guess you won't have to worry about settling that beef with Marvin now,” Henry said.
“He looked hypnotized when he went over, like those things had a pull on him.”
“Naw, the pull was all in his head. It was fear, like when a man falls 'cause he's scared of heights. This is the first time I saw a man so scared he drowned himself.”
“Think that's what it was?”
“There was no blood to speak of on the water. He must've went under and held a rock or something so he'd die.”
“It proves that no matter who it is there is still something out there that can bring the ultimate fear. Puts an end to heroes, and Marvin wanted to be some kind of hero, eating the bad guys.”
“I think he ate so many the bad blood got in him.”
Paul wondered what might bring him the ultimate fear. As they climbed higher on the path, he studied images in the mist. Images from his mind of things he feared - wolves, ghouls, monsters and childhood bogie men, twisted bodies and auto wrecks, the warped faces of mockers, all the ghosts of insecurity and masks of painful death. Electric chairs, the noose, Nazi's with dental tools, the impaler's spikes, dungeon tools and drooling madmen. In the end, he decided the most terrifying people were the men who'd built Jonathan Breaker's Maximum Security Prison, because they were men who could look into a mind and know what it would fear most.
At the highest point, the roar of water grew deafening and they came out from behind the rock and got a breathtaking view. Golden mist swirled over the foam from a distant waterfall. An immense fortress was cut into the rock beside the falls, the structure composed of practical cubes, cylinders and blocks and not at all castle like. The road over the water to it looked shaky but solid enough to cross single file. There were no signs of life, the place looked deserted. Its higher floors stretched beyond the waterfall, so they really had to get inside and up to see what was on the other side.
“Looks like a big change,” Henry said, his voice fighting the thunder of the falls. This is about as far as we got last time. Then there were robot guns and birds that killed most of the remaining men. The actual human guards are supposed to be up above somewhere. Only I don't think they're there now. No guns, no robots - the place has been abandoned. It means we can get farther this time.”
“Yeah, and it means there must be a war on the surface,” Jacklac said. His reddened eyes shone in his blackened face. “Maybe nothin's left up there but scavengers, and we'll just be more scavengers.”
“Suits me fine,” Henry said. “So long as we get out of here.”
They'd formed a human chain on the path, several yards between each man. In the false sunlight, it was hard for Paul to discern flesh from shadow. He turned when he saw Henry catching up, pausing for a moment to look at a beam of gold light spotlighting the water below. Some ugly flotsam drifted in . . . a mass of swollen flesh, oozing blood and pus - a small gross island. It vanished in black water and mist, and Paul found himself hoping it was Marvin's remains. If there were people and death in the fortress, their chances weren't good. They'd be picked off like nothing if someone started shooting now. No wonder the last breakout had failed here.
A monstrous wall loomed before him, stained by mist and lichens. Eyelets in the stone sucked at the mist - the spinning white constantly threatening to transform into human or robot faces of death. Echoes in the roaring of the waterfall sounded like voices calling, he thought of his past calling for his return. An idyllic yesterday, perhaps, but not the real one. He certainly didn't want to go back there. His life had ended a long time before it was over, but even as the dead, he remembered good things on the other side of the crashed bridges. His soul was the good life he could've lived if he hadn't got the black luck and death poison in his coffee. It had to be that a man was more than a feeling of need crying out for something better during a brief flash in the well of infinity. Silver doors shone and the chasm yawned, jaws to swallow men who dared to enter forbidden realms . . . for Henry and the other men - guys who'd locked themselves out of their own hearts - the forbidden realm was as much spiritual as it was stone and metal. With nothing to lose, you've almost everything to gain - and lose again. Up the hill with the stone again, and each time a little older until your numb hands can give no more love than a cannibal's hands. It ends with the numbness, feelings lost - death is a heart of stone, and some men just kill because they have it inside from the beginning. They never lived or really loved.
Fourteen feet of steel door blocked their passage, and there was no visible way of opening it. Henry and Jacklac walked up quickly now that they were on a wide ledge.
“Leave the rest of the men to try and blow it open when they get desperate,” Henry said.
“Get desperate, I'm about as desperate as any man will ever be,” Jacklac said, his eyes hooded by shadows, the pupils a glitter down at the end of thirty-seven years of solitary confinement.
Henry pointed up at an eyelet in the stone and a crack in the wall. “This is where the strong survive. Those who make the climb make it, those who don't miss the boat out of hell.”
Paul didn’t reply, instead he threw the laser and strap over his back, ran and jumped. Black water flashed below him, he reached for the crack, reached as hard as a man could because he knew men don't jump far. Olympic heroes glory in fractions of an inch. Less a fraction here and he'd be gone. “Too bad for heroes because it's only genius that carries a man up to skies,” he thought, and he landed in the crack finding it larger and deeper than he'd thought. “It's deep and easier to catch into than it looks,” he yelled back. “You just got to make the jump.” The rest of the men were crowding the door now, and he saw their tired looks. Most of them wouldn't make it and Henry and Jacklac were getting ready to jump because they knew it and wanted to move before panic and shooting started. The angle was 40 degrees and Paul moved up swiftly. He reached the window then Henry jumped, and he saw him below, moving up like a crooked human fly.
At the ledge, he peeked in and ducked back. Nothing happened and he saw nothing so he looked again. Not much was visible in the gloom, he noted that the window had a force field lining and the field had been off so long it was rusted. His eyes adjusted and he saw enormous objects take shape in the dark. Like the river door, the room appeared to have been built for people twelve feet tall. Swinging over he dropped and caught the tiles.
Landing near the door, he glanced up and saw Henry's face framed in the window. Light shining in from other eyelets was the only other illumination. Sand had blown in and piled on the stone floor. Milky cobwebs and mist hung so thick at some of the eyelets it looked like the clouds were inside. Feeling like he was in a midnight dream, he walked up to the door, getting three steps before a spotlight came on.
He ducked aside and looked around, seeing Henry thump down beside him. A wide strip like a carpet was spotlighted, and it led up to the door, which was now red as fire.
They heard shouting outside. “Looks like hell has broken loose,” Henry said.
“I just triggered something,” Paul said. “Jeeze, I think the door is going to melt.”
“Not melt - vanish,” Henry said, raising his eyebrows as the door grew transparent. The fire licked into invisibility, they could see outside. The forms of the men moved behind hot waves of distortion. Gunshots rang out. Some of them screamed as they went into the water, then the walkway began to glow and they turned to fire and transparency just like the door.
Paul saw Jacklac leaping inside from the eyelet, and then he turned and saw the forms of the men reappearing on the inside on the spotlighted strip. As they gained definition, it was clear they were no longer flesh and blood. Glowing gold and silver, they reappeared in metallic form. Statues locked in bizarre poses. Some with desperation on their faces, some in the middle of blows, others halfway through an attempt to jump. Their forms locked in fully for a moment, then there was a flash and the bodies became crystalline, darkened and collapsed. Black sparkling sand slid out and hit the floor. Their guns clattered, their clothes wilted then the door solidified and it was over.
Henry turned to Jacklac. “Anyone else on the wall?”
“Couple guys is all. If they haven't turned to sand, they should be in shortly.”
“We're lucky,” Paul said. “This place really was escape proof. If the force fields at the windows weren't out we couldn't have made it.”
“So it was a trap,” Jacklac said.
“Not a trap,” Paul said. “It's a transporter. They set it up so only robots can transport in through that door. That's why the men turned to metal first. The transporter we triggered assumed they were metal, and then when it couldn't complete its task it left them as sand. Look at their clothes and their guns - they're still intact.”
“I see,” Henry said. “Our jailers are smart bastards aren't they?”
“You mean we're smart bastards. This place still looks deserted. I think they're all dead.”
Something thumped behind them. Turning they saw a blackened corpse. A second one fell from the eyelet, hit the floor and smoked.
“They got everyone - the fuckers,” Jacklac said. “If they're not dead they will be.” He shook his fist and as he did, the lights came on.
They staggered back, overwhelmed by the enormity of the vaulted room. Paul scanned the area for guns and enemies but saw none. There was a lot of empty space, like the place had been cleaned out. Silver runways were on the floor and they led to other rooms. Rows of huge cylinders like organ pipes lined the north side and there was a mural of an angry crowd painted on the sixteen-foot stone blocks composing the far wall.
“Shit, I wave a fist and the lights come on,” Jacklac said.
“Place is designed for robots,” Paul said. “Certain movements are signals. Guess we had just better walk like stiffs. Don't want to signal for a recharge and turn on the energy cannons or something.”
Henry looked to the left. “That arch seems to be the main exit. Guess we go that way.”
Walking slowly they reached the arch and found themselves facing darkness. Jacklac walked in, shook a fist and again the lights came on. A much smaller room was revealed and this one had a number of screens framed on the walls.
Henry studied a large screen inside the door while Paul and Jacklac looked around warily. “Hey, I can see the surface,” Jacklac said, checking a screen. “People walking in a city. Man have things changed. Half of them look barely human.”
“I don't see a city,” Henry said. “I see nude people in a forest. Beautiful people.”
Paul glanced at the screen, seeing the sun and a field but no people. Then something else caught his eye and he walked across the room. He'd found a weapon of some kind. It was loose on the floor and looked like a ray gun. Picking it up he studied it then he walked back.
“Everyone sees something different in those view screens,” Paul said. “And if I know our jailers. Everyone human sees what they want to see and only robots see what's actually there.”
“No,” Jacklac said. “There's a beautiful world up there. Paradise. No cops, soldiers or war anymore. You can't see it because they don't want you to.”
“Yeah,” Henry said. “I guess they must want to get ate if they want you.”
“We can find out what's there when we get up there. Look at this gun I found. Some kind of robot gun, I think.”
“Don't test it here,” Henry said. “Let's take no chances before we get to the surface.”
Another arch took them into a room lined with transparent vats of bubbling orange liquid. A statue of a man stood beside one of the vats. They walked up and Henry touched the statue. “He's made of crystal.”
“I can see that,” Paul said. “That's a new version of the old guards' uniform he's wearing. Maybe a transporter beam turned him into crystal.”
“Yeah,” Henry said, “and maybe that gun you got there turns people into diamonds or something.”
“I think those vats are generators,” Jacklac said.
“Jump in and see,” Henry said then he followed Paul across the room to an elevator.
Paul heard wind and sand rattling in the shaft. The door wheezed open, suddenly revealing a silver floor. “If it's a transporter we'll get zapped,” he said.
“Might be,” Henry said, and then he was cut off as Jacklac pushed him from behind.
Paul was also shoved and he stumbled into the elevator with Henry. The door closed, lightning fast … and then they were going up. The door opened again and they were facing a storage room lined with shelves of robot parts. Hands, faceplates, and breastplates gleamed, but there was no movement. Paul faced Henry. “Guess Jacklac wants us dead.”
“Unfortunately for him this really is an elevator,” Henry said.
“What do you suppose his motive is?”
“Don't know. Looks like he just went nuts. I was expecting you to make the move.”
“Because I know you were put down to make sure no one escapes. But you would've made a move by now, so what's your game?”
“It’s simple - I don't know what's up there or whether they're human. You're human and have spent all these years in the prison. I'd rather let you get up and see the light. Decide for yourself whether you want to live in the new world. I have to make a choice, too … decide for myself - because maybe it's something I won't want to live in. I think the world exploded with change due to some new technology. Jacklac already made his decision - he tried to kill us so he's dead. We finish him then we go up, and let's make damn sure we make it because someone's got to make all this shit worthwhile.”
Henry turned to the panel. “I think these depressions are the controls.” He hit the bottom one and the elevator shot back down, then the door opened and they raised their weapons.
Black sand blew on the floor, a shadow moved over by the vats. Silver flashed as Jacklac appeared. He had put on a silver breastplate and attached a device to his head.
Henry fired, the shots echoing as the bullets bounced off Jacklac's armor. Jacklac grinned as he stepped forward. “The view screen told me, Henry. This armor makes me a god. But there can only be one god that goes up.”
Jacklac raised a laser.
Paul thought of firing his own. Thinking furiously he decided to try something different. He raised the ray gun he'd found and squeezed the palm pad. Blue light, bright as shards of mirror and metal rained on Jacklac, freezing him and his weapon. Nuclear brilliance enveloped him, waves of cold air and sand swept the room. Paul and Henry had to cover their eyes.
His equilibrium lost, Paul had the feeling of tumbling in the cold void of outer space. Blinding stars shot out of the black, and through curtains of violet distortion, the room reappeared.
Jacklac was frozen like a statue, and he was all metal now - a complete robot. Paul looked to Henry; saw him shaking his head, rubbing his eyes. Then Jacklac moved - he lifted an arm and stared at it with copper eyes. His gaze turned to Paul. “Master,” he said in a metallic voice.
Paul stepped forward. “Robot, tell us how to get to the surface?”
“There are many ways for a robot.”
“I mean for a human. A way to get up without being destroyed.”
“The air train in the old crew quarters is the only way.”
Henry spoke. “Search your memory. Tell us what is up there.”
“Above is the sky and the reborn humans who left for the sky.”
“There are no men like us?”
“No, look in the screens and you will see what is up there for you.”
“Don't,” Paul said. “Unless you want to go mad like he did.”
“Can you lead us to the air train?” Henry said.
“Yes, follow,” the Jacklac robot said. He turned stiffly, feet heavy on the stone as he took a few steps. Then he stopped, and glowed - a yellow hue matching the liquid in the vats.
Paul and Henry backed away, the robot's right hand burst, showering sparks, fluid, plasma and metal. It fell forward, its head exploding, diamond-blue chips spilling and sparkling. Yellow liquid poured on the stone, parts of the body decayed to black sand and the rest of it vibrated.
“Not much meat for the appetite. Jeez, Jacklac sure never knew he'd die like that,” Henry said.
“Let's find the crew train and get out of here,” Paul said.
Passing through the arch Jacklac's metal incarnation had been trying to reach they found areas fitting the description of crew quarters. A long metallic hallway led to another elevator, and this time they got in without being pushed. It whooshed up at dizzying speed, a wind howling, unseen demons beating at the doors, and then it stopped quickly and opened on a platform.
It was dark but enough light emanated from the walls for them to see. Broken bodies were spilled on platform, half metal and sand, some had been human, others robots. The train was parked in the tunnel entrance - a sleek silver two-car vehicle. Paul stepped out cautiously then stopped as Henry suddenly started to run; he jumped bodies and trash - headlights came on as he reached the train, and he didn't stop, but ran in the open door.
There were no traps. Henry was inside and waving, so Paul ran to the train. His skepticism kept his emotions in check, but he could feel his mood rising. They just might make it, and then they might not - the train could fail or the tunnel could be blocked.
He stepped in quickly and Henry clapped him on the back. “We've made it,” he said. “This is it - it has to be. There are no more traps . . . I know it . . . they never dreamed it possible that we could make it this far.”
“Hope you're right,” Paul said as they walked to the controls and sat in the driver's shell.
Lights ignited in the silver panel. “It works,” Henry whispered, like it was the most awesome magic he'd ever witnessed.
Then Paul felt emotion well up and he shouted. “It's going to run! The god damn thing is going to take us up!” He grabbed Henry; put him in a joker's headlock. And when Henry broke free, he laughed. Laugher that was real and he laughed so hard tears came to his eyes.
Paul brought up a map console. A 3D picture of the route up and the control functions. He studied it for about five seconds. “It's the easiest thing I've used,” he said. “Hang on, because we're taking off.”
Air rushed like an ocean and engines whirred up like rockets as the car moved slowly into the tunnel. Paul hit the accelerator and they were squeezed back as the train raced upward at incredible speed. Sand whipped the shields, loose rocks swept the side, metal clanged and the train knocked bent reinforcement beams aside.
Gong sounds whammed their ears as the train ripped into falling debris. “Come on, baby. Don't let us down now,” Paul said. He ground his teeth, looked to Henry and saw him grinning, crossed fingers held up. Then the train started to auto-decelerate.
It skated into a parking bay, the engines already winding down. Twenty seconds later, it touched down on the silver runway and the doors opened.
Spotlights lit the bay, revealing a huge empty area. Polished floors, shining metal walls, a huge arched ceiling. And nothing else - no equipment, benches, guard posts.
“I see no guards, no weapons,” Henry said.
“Looks like they polished this place … cleaned everything out and abandoned it long ago. I wonder why?”
“Whatever is out that door is why,” Henry said. “Let's go.”
Getting up they ran out as the train engine shut off. Keeping on the run, they crossed the bay to the door. It didn't open automatically and they could see no way of opening it from the inside.
“I feel like I'm being watched,” Paul said, wincing at the bright lights shining down.
“Use the laser, cut us out.”
They both stepped back as Paul uncapped the laser. Sparks flew as the beam hit the door. “Damn thick stuff,” Paul said as acrid fumes from the cooling train engine pinched his face.
“Just keep working,” Henry said. “It's starting to cut.”
“Be ready. We have to hit the deck if anybody is outside that door.”
“If it looks clear we move out fast,” Henry said. “If anyone's in the way we shoot them.”
Blue flames skated on the steel as the beam moved up, then they heard a whoosh and the huge bay started to move.
Paul shut off the beam. “I think I triggered it open,” he said.
Henry raised his rifle. “Could be somebody opening it from the outside.”
Squealing, throwing dust and caked rust from the crack, the huge metal door slid sideways. Sunlight shone in as the world was revealed. A fresh breeze blew in and they saw maple trees, wild flowers, blue sky and an open forest field. Henry stuttered … a few words of awe. Paul couldn't speak. The door picked up speed, opening all the way.
“Paradise. No people yet, but paradise,” Henry said, almost whispering as they both threw down their weapons and ran.
Paul beat Henry to the door. Leaping from the apron, he rolled in the long grass, got up and kept running. A glittering pond was ahead, he glanced up at the sky, and it was there that he saw the people . . . beautiful faces, shimmering forms, whirling and vanishing in charged sunlight. They were more than human. He heard their ghostly voices, their songs, and they touched his soul with warmth that melted the isolation, loneliness and long bitter years of imprisonment.
He tumbled, rolled and got to his knees in the clover. Joy overwhelmed him as the voices spoke to him. A tear rolled from his eye . . . falling lightly as it faded with the rest of his body. Then he rose as mist to join the sky and humanity.
Henry saw Paul vanishing -- rising, and finally the faces … the shock of it breaking his run, causing him to trip and fall in the long grass by the pond. He stood up, then the faces overwhelmed him and he fell on his back. He stared at the sky, watching Paul's form spin into golden mist. He heard the voices and he began to laugh. He choked then he laughed like a mad man. The knowledge came to him and he began to weep. Biting his tongue, he let a last taste of blood fill his mouth. He felt himself sinking, and saw his body melting, becoming blood and sand. Henry knew he belonged to the grave and to the past … and not to the sky.
---- the end -----